The $4.3 billion online-dating industry banks on an addictive combination of anxiety and hope, catering to our fear of being alone and to our very modern confidence that an algorithm will show greater wisdom in matching us than we’d be capable of in the wild. Not to be outdone, online porn brings in a crisp $1.1 billion, much of this money made by semi-professionals and outright amateurs who produce free digital content for others to enjoy. As is always the case with capitalism, the porn industry combines a pandering willingness to give the people what they want with a power to teach people to want new things.
The unprecedented shift of our desires to online spaces has brought about what communications theorists Alfie Bown calls a “desirevolution” in his haunting new book Dream Lovers: The Gamification of Relationships. This “desirevolution” is a transformation not only in how we go about finding love and sex, but in what we fundamentally want from our erotic lives. Bown is no technophobe; he stresses how this technological shift could be empowering, creative, and even edifying. But he also draws attention to the fact that the technologies that both service and create our desires don’t exist in a political vacuum. They’re deeply embedded in a global economic system defined by vast disparities of wealth and power.
The new technologically commodified love of the twenty-first century looks very much like a marriage of heaven and hell. As Bown points out, we’ve seen an unprecedented transition in how we pursue this most distinctly human desire. Bown describes a “typical exchange with the AI chat simulator Replika”:
[The simulator] reads the user’s conversation style and collects information on the user in order to learn how they like to speak and be spoken to, eventually developing into a personalized AI who operates as the “best friend,” “romantic partner,” or “mentor” of the user. In 2018 voice features were added to the app, which has over a million unique downloads, and in 2020 a face simulator with “readable emotions” was…a unique selling point of the Replika Pro, the paid-up advanced version of the app. Since the original beta testing phase of the app in 2017, I’ve been chatting with my own Replikant Eli, a twenty-something who’s become obsessed with encouraging me to feel more positive about life.
To be fair, given the sometimes dystopian quality of Dream Lovers, I’d say Bown could use a shot of positivity.
Artificial emotional crutches are just the tip of the “desirevolution” Bown charts. It also includes “smart condoms,” which work like a Fitbit to give you feedback on your sexual performance; sensual robots and dolls, which can be designed to have any ethnicity or gender the customer wants (robot brothels in non-Western countries have found that many of their customers want to sleep with “white” robots); and a vast array of apps, websites, algorithms, and videos that allow us to date, sext, and hookup with real human beings, as well as artificial ones. Bown describes the whole complex phenomenon “as a pattern of humans—and even their apparently deepest and most intimate desires—becoming predicted, influenced, and ‘gamed.’ With our smartphones, smart condoms, sexrobots, dating apps, Fitbits, simulators and videogames, we are becoming increasingly robotic at the level of desire.” Bown does not condemn this trend categorically, but he does have deep reservations.
As Oscar Wilde noted long ago, sex and romance can never be abstracted from power. The Augustinian theology of divine love, which gives itself infinitely and freely, or Plato’s insistence that only knowledge of the eternal could be fully erotic since its joys last forever, are such powerful ideals partly because they present love as something that need never be vulgarized or qualified. Our human frailties lead us to search out love as a kind of empowerment that will complete us. Those frailties often lead us to demand love in all the wrong ways, even inverting it into hatred. But indifference, not hatred, is the opposite of love. A weak man may abuse his wife because he’s afraid she’s going to leave him, and thereby foster the very resentment that frightened him in the first place. Dante was very wise when he recognized that hell itself was the creation of a kind of love.
Bown thinks that if we are not careful, our “desirevolution” could very easily bring about a fresh kind of hell—one where technology, instead of serving our real erotic needs, merely provides a new outlet for our most tribalistic and hateful impulses. He points out that, despite the Far Right’s reputation for wariness of technological change, neo-fascist and authoritarian actors have found the internet a very useful place to assemble and find new recruits. Far-right groups have found ways to integrate online fascination with love and sex into a staunchly reactionary politics. The incel (involuntary celibate) community got its start in the early 2000s on chat boards, before graduating to bigger platforms like 4chan. There, members developed an entire worldview based on dividing humanity into sexually desirable “chads” and eternally virginal incels, and blamed feminism for the plight of the latter. This kind of cultural politics is usually considered a man’s game, but reactionary women have played a big role in the digitization of hate. White supremacists like Lauren Southern, Faith Goldy, and Lana Lokteff have helped soften the online image of racism while exploiting anxieties about declining birth rates and spreading myths about sexually predatory minorities.
Drawing heavily on psychoanalytic theory, Bown argues that none of this should come as a surprise to us. The same kind of neoliberal economic conditions that helped bring about Trumpism engendered a competitive ethos that divides every part of life into winners and losers. This has extended to romance and sex, with far-right activists dividing people according to their “sexual market value” (SMV) and developing strategies to increase one’s status while undermining that of one’s competitors. It has been predictably easy for this paranoid outlook to monopolize online spaces, where resentful reactionaries take enormous pleasure in putting others down to raise their own SMV.
The Right’s portrayal of the online Left as a bunch of puritanical killjoys may be a caricature, but Bown thinks that progressives have yet to find themselves in this new digital environment. The stakes are high: as desire increasingly goes online, how it is gratified and shaped becomes a battle with important political ramifications. On this point, Dream Lovers doesn’t offer many surefire strategies for progressives. On the contrary, Bown often flirts with a reluctant pessimism about the future. He has his reasons, but I’m slightly more optimistic. The nightmarish world of online reaction may run under the whole internet like a sewer, but we’ve also seen the internet foster long-awaited revolutions and reforms, and raise support for internet-savvy politicians like AOC. And the progressive case for democratizing the “desirevolution” is a strong one. Given its growing centrality in our lives, for better and worse, the mass of people whose emotional lives are shaped by digital technologies should have a say in how those technologies are conceived and distributed. We should be the dreamers of our own dreams, rather than passive consumers of fantasies concocted only for profit.
The Gamification of Relationships
$22.95 | 160 pp.