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Love and Sex in the Age of Data


In the Los Angeles Review of Books, media theorist Alfie Bown examines how data-driven technologies, from dating apps to sex robots, are reshaping love and desire. Bown’s central argument is that contrary to what its evangelists claim, data is not morally or politically neutral. In the realm of dating and sex, data does not merely reflect the desires of those from whom it is gathered. Instead, writes Bown, data fundamentally shapes desires and preferences in a way that tends to exclude what is “abnormal” or fringe. Here’s an excerpt:

What is important here is that this is not, as it might appear, the logic of culture nor of nature (whatever those terms are taken to mean) but of data . It is not sufficient to say that it is because we are a narcissistic society, for example, that our culture produces apps and websites that match us with those who are like us. It is also not because of an imaginary natural human drive that the data reflects racial separatism, the argument used in neo-fascist interpretations of such data. It is data whose laws our society and our connections, friendships, and lovers now obey. Data is neither culture nor nature, and it does not reflect or reveal the truth of either. Instead, it is its own force, propelling us toward a continuation of the existing relationship between people and things, since it can only agree with the pattern and exclude the anomalous. Further, data can not only feed norms and continue them but produce new norms that have yet to be visualized as norms until the helpful data apparently assists us in the process. Data establishes and then extends or proliferates the typical, while also making it appear to have always-already been there.

At the same time as data-driven relationships become the norm, technology infiltrates sexuality in other comparable ways that at first appear subcultural, niche, or non-normative. Often we give cultural or natural explanations for such bizarre occurrences, but they are also the product of data as well as of culture. Sex robots and Virtual Reality relationships, for instance, reflect misogynistic and patriarchal traditions of domination and subservience (the cultural explanation), or else they gratify the infinite libido of the hungry sexual animal that is the virile male (the natural explanation).

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