To say the least, I was shocked when a friend told me about finding true love on the internet. I shouldn’t have been. For years now I have heard rumours about digital matchmaking. I knew second-hand of friends/acquaintances/relatives who were digitally searching for love. “Pssit-don’t say anything about digital love the couple we are hiking with just met on the internet.” One relative brought a digitally met, seemingly well matched partner of almost a half a year by to meet us. We spent an enjoyable weekend getting to know each other.
I see it; I hear it; I know of it all around, and yet there is something about not just the digitalizing of love but about the meta message (message conveyed by the form of the message rather than the abject content)of these vast indexes of love sought. It kind of sticks in my craw—or at least tickles it uncomfortably. (Can I express my inner doubt about the process without judging those who use this medium to find someone to share their love and life with?) When I think of these vast hordes of people clicking their way to love every minute of every day, it reminds me of what we have done with egg production—something that was once such an integral and organic part of farm life has become entirely divorced from farming or any kind of organic process with vast batteries of hens confined to cubicles they can barely turn around in and kept laying with lights and food supplements whose sole reason to be is to short circuit any kind of seasonal/circadian/organic limits to this mechanized egg production machine.
Recognizing the benefit that digital love has brought to many—many I know—I feel guilty to say this but these vast digital/highly profitable batteries of the love seeking reminds me of—at least the principles behind—mechanized egg production where all the organic content is stripped away and only the market/the mechanization of living process –eggs or love—remain as an outcome or product. No matter how much I hear about the benefits of internet dating, the images I see in my mind are like the final commoditization of everything; the Amazonization of the last uncommoditized frontier—at last a digital shopping cart for love.
I’ve heard the arguments for digital love finding and they make sense on a level; Why should one limit one’s search for love to one’s neighbours or a ten mile radius?; why take a chance on a date that you know very little about when you can get the full story online? Why leave love to a chance encounter with some poor bloke when one can shop whole carts full of would be suitors whose income can be preselected for as a fundamental basis of the search? Isn’t partner seeking inherently a shopping experience—no matter how or where you do the shopping?
The thing is I have raised chickens—sometimes forty at a time. I’ve watched as a hen “goes broody” and can’t be pried off the nest because an inner rhythm says, it’s spring time—time to nurture a clutch of eggs until the little ones pop out from between their mother’s feathers to ask their mother if it is time to go outside yet. I’ve felt so moved seeing a mother hen running around the hawk proof pen scratching in the dust, calling cooingly buck, buck, buck and pointing with her beak to some morsel as the downy little peeping chicks scurry around trying inquisitively to understand what mama hen is telling them. There is something so exquisitely beautiful about life and its rhythms that change with the seasons. I wish I could have a couple of hens on my city lot. I worry about a lot more than the quality of eggs that are produced by the vast operations of industrial egg machines. I worry that in cutting off agricultural production from every value other than profit, we are cutting ourselves off from our own inner knowledge of what it is to be inherently and necessarily interconnected to other living beings and a living planet. I worry that in stripping off all value other than profit from our understanding of value, we will forget to leave our senses open to what is inherently valuable –like or connection to and inextricable dependence on a living planet that has life giving, necessary, inextricable values that are not accounted for on a profit and loss statement.
I wonder about these, for profit, dating services. I wonder about the value of the advertising that makes them free—might we pay a high price for many of the things we are told are free? What does it mean to have our dating services sponsored by Wal Mart? The meta message (see above) is clearly that the market can/will supply everything—everything—even love. Is there really anything wrong with making our subtle/often unconscious choices made explicit? Does it change anything to sort our preferences into the “Shopping Cart” instead of into the maybe or I hope so regions of our inner thoughts? What will happen to “our own inner thoughts” when the market owns all of them?
One dating website disparages the “old fashioned way” by suggesting: “Think about where you grew up as a kid, your apartment building or your neighbourhood, could you imagine being married to one of those clowns? Why limit your search to ‘in house?’”
Despite the vast increase in available partner selection made possible by the mega business of digital dating, the increased choice has not brought greater satisfaction with the partner chosen. Twenty percent of couples married in 1968 were divorced within fifteen years of marriage. For those married in 1998 the divorce rate after fifteen years was thirty-two percent—over 50% increase!
Another study found that couples who selected the seemingly perfect match valued the marriage highly for the first year and then the description of the quality of the relationship fell off precipitously with each succeeding year. Those couples who described their relationship as a slow growing match rated their relationship much lower than the perfect matches for the first 7 years. After that relationship quality in the “slowly growing” rapidly overtook the “perfect matches” and at twenty years of marriage the satisfaction with a partner of “slow growing love” group out distanced the “perfect couple” group by almost twice and the divide rapidly spread in succeeding years.
A long, long, LONG time ago I had a friend that—for reasons I have never understood—just, rather rapidly, became the kind of friend that one shares the inner musings of one’s soul with. We were never “more than friends” and for that reason we could speak with ease about our inner most musings. One day she came to me with a most distressing story. Some two months earlier her boyfriend had proposed marriage to her. She liked the idea but felt the relationship need a bit more time and depth before making such a long time commitment. She didn’t say no; she said “let’s wait and grow the relationship a bit more before saying forever. Made sense to me. Then she came to me in confusion and despair. I had just heard that her, apparently former, boyfriend was announcing his engagement to another woman! “But,” she said to him in anguish, “I thought you wanted to marry me?!” And this was his reply,”No, for me your answer meant that we don’t think of love/marriage in the same way. For you marriage is the culmination of a fully developed love. For me, marriage is the commitment to learn to love. Love grows by sharing a life together.” I consoled H as best I could. And I fully understood her despair and confusion about discovering that A was soon to wed another. I have not spoken to H for many years, but I understand that several years later she met and married– a short time later– the man who would be father to her children and life-long partner. I know less about A but I understand that he continues to live in northern BC and after raising a family of four, he and his wife of so many years have retired to a small farm where they keep a small flock of chickens, a couple of dogs, a cat as well as a small herd of goats. To my knowledge (limited) their love so simply engaged so many years ago has continued to grow.
The thing about the internet/shopping mall model of love is that it is just that– the commoditization of love and –not always but in principle—it is modelled on the market and the market, in the twenty-first century, has become about high turnover; waste today, buy tomorrow. It’s about the most you can get rather than what you have to give. All this might be empty speculation except that the divorce rate seems to reflect the observation that an abiding love is more than a digitized shopping spree.
Why did I tell you about broody hens and newly hatched chicks in an article about internet dating? Having born with me thus far you have a right to expect an answer to this seemingly intractable question. Well! If you haven’t been there when a hen goes ‘broody’ and gutterly threatens you with a nasty peck when you come to collect the eggs; if you haven’t seen her cluck so motherly to the newly hatched chicks; if you haven’t seen the young chicks learning the first lessons in dust bathing or insect chasing; if you haven’t seen mother hen so proudly leading her chicks back into the coup as evening comes on; then you will have to substitute your own experience of the visceral, felt wholeness and spontaneous joy of life that is so easily found in the uncommodified life of the natural world. Then compare that to being confined to a cage just big enough to stand up in. The connection I am making to internet dating is that sometimes how we do something is as—or more—important than what we do and has implications we couldn’t possibly have forseen. My fear is that while there is seemingly nothing wrong with digital matchmaking, the process of itself, the giving over of love finding to the market place is almost the last frontier—everything human is so rapidly becoming about the market and its all pervading sense of value. Marcus Frind, developer and CEO of the giant internet dating site Plenty of Fish says definitively, ‘successful match making is about matching income brackets.’ Match-making is about making a good deal and is rapidly losing its connection to the coming together of two people to love and care for each other and to participate in the organic wholeness that IS the dance of life. Or to paraphrase Wendell Berry slightly ‘What human love offers that the market doesn’t is the possibility that what you want is what you have.’ Or as A observed; love grows as two people make a commitment to love and care for each other—it doesn’t come prepackaged or in ‘bits’ or as an adjunct of a commercial message.

A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
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Our present public economy is really a political system that safeguards the private exploitation of the public wealth and health. The other kind of economy exists for the protection of gifts, beginning with the “giving in marriage,” and this is the economy of community, which now has been nearly destroyed by the public economy.

Wendell Berry