Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Love in the age of terabytes

My generation believed true love could be found. Our children think it is easier. Turns out, we misinterpreted the data.

To say the least, it was an interesting evening. I thought I was best off if I sat on the sidelines and watched how it all played out—given that my alcohol-driven binges are now a thing of the past.

It was one of those rare “boys" day out and bunch of us old friends thought it only appropriate we relive our early twenties, go back to being single and carefree, and sing aloud to classic rock and metal like good old Led Zeppelin at a much-frequented karaoke bar in our earlier avatars. Once there, how could we not sing those lines in our hoarse voices until patrons sighed in exasperation?

It’s been a long time, been a long timeBeen a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely timeSeems so long since we walked in the moonlightMaking vows that just can’t work rightOpen your arms, opens your armsOpen your arms, baby, let my love come running inIt’s been a long time, been a long timeBeen a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time

Be that as it may, through the din, it was tough not to miss my friend glance at her. She was as old as any one of us I suspect—and attractive. Much like us, it looked like an all-girls night out for her. I thought her demeanor suggested she had thrown a few coy looks at him and wouldn’t mind exchanging a few words. I knew him well and could hear the devil in his head scream, “Make your move dude, you only live once."

Then there was this voice in his head that had got him as far as he had in his career, and one he turned to when tough calls had to be made—the Rule of 10-10-10. It told him in no uncertain terms, "The devil be damned." The tenets fo this principle are simple:

1. Assuming you cave in now, all goes well and you hook up, how will you feel 10 minutes from now?

2. What will you feel like 10 months down the line?

3. And how about 10 years from now? What emotions will this call evoke?" 

The answers were staring him in the face. But from where I was on the bar stool sipping my tonic water, I could hear the conflict in his head. Would he let reason surface or give in to the dopamine rush that accompanied the night? For his sake, I hoped he wouldn’t cave in. I don’t know anything about the lady. But I suspect, she may have felt the same way as well. But emotions can be strange creatures. 

Eventually, he told us it’s time to call it a night and I, the designated driver, had to ferry everyone back home. Another matter altogether he woke up the next morning and abused me in the foulest of language for not having egged him on to take a chance. The both of us laughed it off and the issue was buried.

But that didn’t bury the question: Why did the conflict raise its head in his mind in the first instance? Or for that matter, in the mind of the lady at the bar? These aren’t the kind of conflicts reasonable people sign up for. What gives? It could happen to anyone of us and it needed to be investigated.

If it can happen to us, supposedly mature people in the prime of our working lives, what about the younger generation? What goes on in their minds? How does it tick?

As always, times like these, the first ports of call are people who understand how our minds work. And a practising psychologist it had to be. “The problem with our generation," he started to explain, “is that we live between two worlds that is very difficult to navigate." 

I asked him to put that into perspective. To do that, he said, he’d have to begin at the roots of it all. And that it isn’t lust, but something more endemic. He then dived into this thesis on the back of cases he has dealt with in an urban Indian context. 

On the one hand, most folks like my friend and me are in our early forties; we cottoned on to technology at much the same time it was beginning to explode in the West; and our world views are shaped by the West. But we live our lives in systems where our values, what is expected of us and our role models are at loggerheads with our realities. We live in two worlds. When these worlds meet—or rather, collide—the pressure it places on an individual at the subconscious level is enormous. Conflict and anguish is inevitable.

To cite but a few instances, he suggested, it is entirely possible my role model may be somebody like Jeff Bezos, building out that animal called Amazon, or Elon Musk with Tesla. But the context and ecosystem they grew up and live in and what they aspire to build is different from the world we grew up in. Our attempting to emulate them is stupid.

Some Indian statesmen I thought of as role models, across various domains, came to mind—some of whom I have had the privilege of interacting with. I put their names before him and asked him for a take.  

After having heard my list out, he suggested there is a pattern to all of my role models: all of them are older than I am; grew up in a different era; got into the workforce around the time the likes of me were born; started to thrive and achieved recognition around the time I came of age; and now that it is time to concede the baton, they look like statesmen to my generation. 

But there were no role models for the likes of me that are as old as I am to look up to. For that matter, how come there are no younger role models we try to emulate? "Ours is a nation of first-generation entrepreneurs," he said. Damned right he was.

How many people like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi do we know who had the gumption to launch a political party at age 25 to take on the British Empire? For that matter, how many men like Martin Luther King Jr do you know of was awarded the Nobel Prize at age 35 because he gumption to take on the mightiest office in the world and fight for equal rights?

Isn't it inevitable then that we look to those from other parts of the world or older statesmen for answers on how to navigate what lies ahead? This raises yet another question. Are they the best placed to answer what lies ahead of us? 

His hypothesis is no, they aren’t. Not because they are incompetent. But because their contexts are different. The statesmen we look up to are rooted in a world that was, in a way, less complex than the one my friends and I live in. They don’t have answers to the kind of the questions you and I are seeking answers to. 

To put that into an urgent perspective, he asked, “Why else do you think people are crumbling, relationships are fragile and marriages don’t last?" For better or worse, he told me, it is then incumbent on the likes of me to create our own role models. And that is an incredibly tough ask. But that is how it is. 

As thoughts go, it was provocative. It was beginning to throw some light on the many conversations I’ve had with people of my generation on their personal lives. A constant refrain is how exasperating lives with their spouses are. This, everyone agrees, is in stark contrast, to how our parents lived. Why? What is going on? 

The nuances was driven home harder still in a recent essay on our times, love lives and why our search for “true love" is a futile and petulant one by one of the finest contemporary philosophers of our times, Alain de Botton, in The New York Times. Excerpts:

“We marry to make a nice feeling permanent. We imagine that marriage will help us to bottle the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us: Perhaps we were in Venice, on the lagoon, in a motorboat, with the evening sun throwing glitter across the sea, chatting about aspects of our souls no one ever seemed to have grasped before, with the prospect of dinner in a risotto place a little later. We married to make such sensations permanent but failed to see that there was no solid connection between these feelings and the institution of marriage.

“Indeed, marriage tends decisively to move us onto another, very different and more administrative plane, which perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children who kill the passion from which they emerged. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle."

I had certainly not thought along these lines or imagined how much damage the contemporary idea of romance has done to relationships until Botton put it this way. If that be the case, then to put it mildly, and at the risk of offending many people, it boils down to this: There is no such thing as a “soul mate" of the kind eluded to in bestsellers like The Bridge Across Forever. May I go so far as to suggest literature that eludes to such notions in contemporary literature be pulped?

Even as all of this was sinking in, I couldn’t help but notice my older daughter. A young girl at whom I lose my head often for inexplicable reasons. She isn’t a teen yet. But she speaks in a strange tongue and acts, walks and talks like one. I thought the generation gap between the both of us was a lot less than that between my folks and me. How very wrong I was! This is borne out by evidence.

Consider this data set, for instance. While it originates from Stanford University and is set in a North American context, the insights it contains are applicable in any contemporary, urban setting—India included. It sets out to ask a question. How do couples meet and stay together?

The chart given on heterosexual couples forms part of a study on the “Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary" by Michael J, Rosenfield and Reuben J. Thomas. The implications of this are stunning. Because when looked at closely, couples now meet, fall in love and choose to marry each other based on what they know of each other’s online persona. 

This data found its way into a book, Modern Romance: An Investigation, by Aziz Ansari, an American actor, comedian and writer of Indian origin. He delves into the implications on Generation X as the likes of me so blithely use the word. My daughter fits the bill. She was born in 2005.

I hadn’t heard of this book until an American gentleman pointed it out to me. Ironically, someone I don’t know anything about, but have interacted with only once on an online platform for access to his notes. This is a place where people converge to exchange ideas on themes of interest to them. He was generous and asked for nothing in exchange—but just my views. 

Between Ansari’s book and the data in the Stanford study, I see the kind of pressures my little girl feels. How am I going to teach her or tell her how to deal with it all? What am I fretting and fuming about? What kind of a world is my daughter growing up into? I don’t have the answers. But what I know now based on Ansari’s book and the kind gentleman’s notes is this:

• The location of our potential romantic partners has changed dramatically. Historically, on average, it used to be within a radius that was 25% away from what was originally home. Now, it can be from any place in the world. Once upon a time, there were only five potential suitors for a boy or girl from a neighbourhood (or school/work/whatever else, as the case may be). Now you can swipe right for days because the world is a big place, you have access to all of them, and there are so many potential partners out there. 

• Not just that, the reason people get married now is very different. Once upon a time, for women it was to make their home and rear their own brood. For men, it was to assert their independence and mark another milestone. Between the set radius and priorities society placed, the choices were defined. There was no complexity. All you needed was a “life partner"—and if it met your parameters of what is attractive, you lucked out.

• But now, because there is such a large pool to choose from, a “life partner" won’t do. It’s got to be a “soul mate". This creature must be perfect and fulfil every deep desire. If they can’t, there is no point in expending energy on them. There are others who can do it. So at the slightest provocation of a hurt, perceived or otherwise, might as well part ways. But move on and make it quick. 

• In a digitally connected world, complex people have been reduced into two dimensional creatures—a profile picture and a sentence or two to describe them. Their personalities, quirks and experiences are subtracted from what is presented. 

So, when people are faced with very little data, they overemphasize what information they have on hand, based on which all decisions are made. What school did they go to? What job do they hold? What do they look like? All else is discounted. 

But can a human be reduced to just a handful of facts? 

Not just that, documented psychological variables come into play without our being aware of it. For instance, scarcity of information bestows an element of mystery and uncertainty. Whether people may admit to it, they enjoy it. This is how we are wired. There is no taking away that this mysteriousness increases an individual’s perceived value dramatically. 

But as people being to get closer and the veil of mysteriousness begins to fall, boredom creeps in faster than ever. Tinder, anybody? But do you wear glasses? Apparently, the makers of this app that cater to the generation my little girl is growing up in claim to have data that proves wearing glasses reduces the chances of finding true love by 12%

What am I up against? Terabytes and terabytes of data. Analysed and pored over by algorithms of all kinds to find just the right person. All this said and done, there is no taking away from that the core principles haven’t changed. As Botton writes in his essay, “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition."

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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