Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Love Inc.

As I was riding the London tube last weekend, a sign caught my eye. The caption said, “From everyday essentials to future spouse potentials,” and there were pictures of a bag of groceries and a young couple in love. It was an advertisement for a website that combines all your favorite shopping sites into one place, anything from a grocery shopping site to Match.com.

 

It shouldn’t be too surprising that a dating site be grouped into online shopping, but isn’t a bit weird, and fascinating, that love in the 21st century is a commodified process that works much the same way as picking up some new clothes or browsing through hotels? In all these scenarios, we’re consumers browsing through a catalogue of options, selecting what we like.

But just for a minute, back to this idea of online dating, which I find so intriguing. Because along with giving us an aisle of options, it also declaws relationship hunting of the potential for rejection which has been, up until now, par for the course when it comes to love. If someone isn’t interested in us, we simply don’t hear back. But more likely, we won’t even have to experience a despondent paramour; dating sites are already engineered to align people who are mathematically likely to be attracted to each other. Potential unrequited lovers simply fall by the wayside.

As idyllic as it sounds, the more I consider this paradigm, the more I wonder: As we become more conditioned to being handed what we like, what will happen to us when life gives us a bad deck? If the latest wave of me-centric technology primes us to think of ourselves as consumers and all of life’s offerings, even love itself, as commodities we can accrue with enough cash for an eHarmony subscription, are we not like the mortals, skewered by many a Greek tragedy, who foolishly believe they’re in control of all the elements?

The 20-something sitting at the helm of his iPhone (ordering take-out, summoning cabs, making plans, all without a moving a muscle) exerts his power with effortless ease; how could you not, when the world rushes to your feet, think of yourself as master of the universe?

Will we experience a similar fate as our unfortunate Greek and Shakespearian forerunners? Will the gods (no doubt having a laugh at our hubris) swoop in to remind us who’s really in control? For whether if you believe in gods or a universe governed solely by chance and evolution, the conclusion they lead us to is the same, though we will always go to great lengths to deny it: The workings of the universe are out of our hands, unintelligible and, for all we know, indifferent to us.

The more we think of ourselves as consumers, the more blinded we become to the truth: that we are “merely players” upon the world’s stage who do a jig and then take our exit so others can have their 15 minutes to dance in the limelight. Alas, we’re no more in control of the desires of those we secretly pine for than we are of the weather but is it really “alas?”

If you had access to Cupid’s bow or a love potion, would you use it on the one you wish would love you back? As kids we may have said yes, but, now that we’ve lived a bit, I think we might hesitate. For wouldn’t that take out the friction, the back and forth that makes its reward all the more intensely intoxicating?

What would romantic comedies be without misunderstandings, foiled plans and missed signals? Who would want to watch a film in which Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant decide to become a couple in the first five minutes? That isn’t a story, we would say. Love, in its raw form, is a story. It is two uncertain souls tepidly dancing around each other, given to moments of courage and lapses into fear, until one’s bravery to act aligns with the other’s bravery to fall in love, and the rest is history. The road is rocky, but in the end it is rechristened as beautiful, and isn’t that life too?

As I see it, there are two ways we can live: with a false illusion of power or with deep humility. Though our sense of power may be bolstered by the ease with we can call up a taxi or have a half-baked question answered in a heartbeat by Yahoo! Answers, life at some point or another will throw us a monkey wrench and momentarily make us feel as small and as powerless as Napoleon must have felt when he was exiled from the kingdom that once seemed so unquestionably, eternally his.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of technology, but as many a dethroned king has learned the hard way, it’s in our best interest to keep our power in perspective. Not just because we may someday lose it, but because, as with matters like love, there is something to be said about leaving it to the mysterious whims of the gods. And just imagine: If we replace a desire to have everything go as we want it to with deep and simple gratitude, the lows will look beautiful even in real time.

 

Contact Alex Bayer at abayer@stanford.edu.