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Rebels against the marriage ‘market’

October 12, 2020 - 11:39am

Does algorithmic matchmaking actually reduce your chance of getting married? Outbreaks of human-powered relationship broking among the Very Online suggest that some have their suspicions.

Over the weekend, renegade academic Justin Murphy posted a long tweet thread in praise of marriage that garnered so much attention he’s offered to act as marriage broker for any of his friends who’d like his help. Murphy reports that he’s been overwhelmed with requests. And over the same weekend Tyler Alterman, a theorist of the ‘metatribe’, offered to do the same thing: matchmaking, a proposal that has also apparently been wildly popular.

Murphy argues that the way to access the ‘other dimension’ of limitless mutual support available via marriage is by taking transactional thinking entirely off the table. This can only be done by rejecting the idea of marriage as a contract, which can be ended if either party breaches the ‘terms’. That is to say, you have to be “all in,” meaning “you will die before you even consider initiating a divorce,” as he puts it.

Murphy subsequently acknowledged not having an answer for how to address the problem of profoundly abusive marriages within that rubric of lifetime commitment. But even setting aside that question, the challenge for anyone pursuing a marriage understood as both voluntary and absolutely permanent today is that most matchmaking today now happens mechanically, via online dating.

This online shopping-like experience implicitly frames the entire process as a ‘marketplace’, which means a transactional environment dominated by competition for the best ‘product’ (ie most attractive potential partners) at the best ‘price’. But this, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to shake the transactional logic used to acquire a partner once you have one — something many have claimed is fuelling ‘hookup culture’ over long-term relationships.

There’s a still subtler commodification at work too, in the algorithm’s bottomless hunger for data that can be used to map and monetise the intricacies of human desire. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe the inner effort needed by, for example, a shop worker to remain polite and pleasant even when faced with an obnoxious customer. The AI-enabled tracking and mediation of our deepest longings is more like a kind of emotional mining, whose aim is to privatise and then sell back to us desires we didn’t even realise we had.

Using this ‘marketplace’ to pursue something so quintessentially resistant to market logic as the lifetime solidarity of marriage is paradoxical, if not perverse. After all, if you keep scrolling endlessly through possible future dates, there’s little point in committing to just one person. So this twin rebellion against both the algorithmic mediation of desire, and also the ‘dating economy’ it facilitates, represents a curious glimmer of hope. What starts among the Very Online often percolates out over time, and if arranged marriages are becoming a serious topic of discussion at the bleeding edge of the post-conservative internet, the future of human relationships may yet surprise us.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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