Are we missing the good stuff with our quick-tap likes and loves?
It wouldn’t be overly dramatic to say that we live in a time of petty preferences. ‘The Age of Ratings” is an appropriate title. Exercising empowerment only in the most vapid sense, we endlessly assign things, services, food, and, yes, even people, an arbitrary number of “stars”. The driver gets two and half for not smiling. The movie was fantastic, so it gets four. The uninspired Pad Thai gets three stars. And we navigate our lives by these tedious constellations.
What do we lose when our experiences become quantified? We lose depth. We lose complexity. Running across the busy street that I used to live on in Brooklyn, dodging the rain to meet an old friend at the taqueria – the experience exist in a gestalt of physical sensation and memory. The smells of the sizzling pork, the sound of the weather rasping the large front window, and the familiar face of the man behind the counter; that all mixes with the idiosyncratic inertia of my own lived experience which brought me there. The fullest, holy experience of life is impossible to scrutinize or flatten into a rating system. How could my four stars mean the same thing as someone else’s?
Consumer product ratings are a pragmatic oversimplification, but rating people and relationships is a symptom of an entirely different malady. The dating app Lulu may just be a random thread in the ubiquitous web of social media networks, but it provides a particularly harrowing example of the shallowness of The Age of Ratings. Lulu is an app that allows female users to evaluate men as dates. Rather than stars, this particular cattle call uses a 10-point rating system. It’s an arrangement that makes one a consumer of relationships in the same way that one consumes food, movies, or power drills. And it debases the communion between humans into a mechanistic exchange.
In my romance with the love of my life, love has been a passion as well as devotion, each aspect of love reinvigorating the other. Everyday I prepare food, clean, wash dishes, and work. Performed in the context of love, these become acts of love. And these acts provide a sort of foundation on which I get the pleasure of experiencing love as a passion, as an emotion – which in mystery and intensity defies the neat strictures of language. Apps like Lulu, consumer baubles whose fundamental reason for being is to maximize shareholder value, by their very nature are unable to nurture the deep and radical essentials of life. They don’t cultivate the virtues of love, and they stifle the sublime passions. They’re cheap. And they cheapen us.
The wise Wendell Berry said that he imagines the next great division of the world will be “…between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” Succumbing to the passion of the algorithm enforces this stark dichotomy. Apps like Lulu are worse than useless in the pursuit of the good life. They directly contribute to making the world as vacuous and boring as necessary for the Apps themselves to thrive economically – while the best parts of us wither.
Scott Beauchamp is a regular political blogger for the magazine The Baffler and his writing has appeared in Bookforum, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Pacific Standard, The Daily Beast, and Full Stop. He lives in Portland, Maine.