The

Fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@gmail.com

IN the dat­ing game you no longer have to bring roses and choco­lates. You don’t have to go to din­ner, know each other, have mu­tual friends, live in the same coun­try, ad­mit to your age or even use your real name. But a body would be good. The movie Her op­er­ates on the premise that a body isn’t nec­es­sary to an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship. The di­rec­tor wants us to be­lieve a nerdy guy (Joaquin Phoenix) can fall in love with a sexy com­puter voice. That the voice be­longs to a woman with a fa­mous body (Scar­lett Jo­hans­son) adds to the al­lure of bod­ily ab­sti­nence.

The movie is set in the fu­ture when Siri-like voices have per­fected Google-like in­tu­ition, but it’s close enough to to­day’s ex­pe­ri­ence for most of us to go along with the con­ceit. If you’ve ever ar­gued with the woman in that GPS de­vice or yelled at a recorded voice in a tele­phone queue, you’ll feel com­fort­able with a vir­tual Scar­lett whis­per­ing in your ear.

The idea that we don’t just have a re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy but can be in­ti­mate with it is both a re­flec­tion of the dat­ing cul­ture and an in­di­ca­tion of where tech­nol­ogy is tak­ing us. They are each head­ing to­wards a big bang.

The dat­ing scene has been trans­formed by tech­nol­ogy. It’s gone online with dat­ing sites and it’s been put on the map with GPS apps. Those sites and apps are the medium for dat­ing, if you like, but they’re also be­com­ing match­mak­ers. You can now let sites do match­mak­ing for you and the al­go­rithms are so good that half the users of sites like Match.com now click the match­maker op­tion rather than trawl through pro­files them­selves.

That’s one small step for tech­nol­ogy but a great leap for in­ti­macy. More than half of us will trust a com­puter al­go­rithm to pick a date more than we trust our own search ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Are we lazy or just out of pick-up lines?

At least dig­i­tal dat­ing re­sults in a re­la­tion­ship be­tween two hu­mans — bod­ies and all. The idea that you can have a re­la­tion­ship be­tween a hu­man and a com­puter voice pushes the bound­aries. But then, we al­ready have re­la­tion­ships with our de­vices even if th­ese don’t re­quire roses and choco­lates.

Think of your re­la­tion­ship with your phone. On av­er­age you look at your phone screen 100 times a day, you carry it around with you all day and into the night; you dress it in a pro­tec­tive out­fit, feed it money, gaze into its screen, talk to it, play games with it and stroke it. And doesn’t that sound like groom­ing?

Groom­ing, for those who haven’t watched David At­ten­bor­ough in a while, is the touch­ing, pet­ting and coo­ing mon­keys do to other mon­keys. It’s also the sort of thing moth­ers do to ba­bies and lovers to each other.

Un­know­ingly, we are us­ing the an­cient bi­o­log­i­cal act of groom­ing on our phones, so it’s not sur­pris­ing we de­velop re­la­tion­ships with them, give them names and mourn their ab­sence. Love in the time of cir­cuits.

The phone may be our most in­ti­mate de­vice but we have re­la­tion­ships with other de­vices. In sci­en­tific cir­cles, they call it hu­man com­puter cog­ni­tion but we just know it as talk­ing to the screen.

Many of us have a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with a com­puter that re­sem­bles the bossem­ployer set-up. We have a cosy re­la­tion­ship with a tablet that of­ten feels like a writer­reader one. We have long-term re­la­tion­ships with cars, es­pe­cially if both par­ties have a lot of horse­power; we have dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ships with voice recog­ni­tion ladies and some have a frac­tious re­la­tion­ship with the oven (maybe that’s just me).

And all the time de­vices are get­ting smarter and the voice in the de­vice is sound­ing more like us. The dig­i­tal lady is an­tic­i­pat­ing our needs, she’s sound­ing more re­laxed, she’s end­lessly pa­tient and she may well sound like a Hol­ly­wood ac­tor who is des­per­ate enough to voice mes­sages for com­puter de­vices.

The voice in the com­puter is not that far off Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and many of us are be­com­ing as lonely as Joaquin Phoenix. The op­er­at­ing sys­tems may not be hu­man, but we’re not great at be­ing dig­i­tal ei­ther and even though it’s a bit of a stretch to imag­ine a mar­riage be­tween al­go­rithms and Homo sapi­ens, it’s a match made in cy­berspace.

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