dinner for two at restaurant overlooking city

I am a paying client of two dating apps. Both allow users to “smile” at matches and receive “smiles” back. This is roughly equivalent to smiling at someone in real life: a way of communicating interest.

Both also allow users to send and receive original messages. This is roughly equivalent to having a spoken conversation.

One of the apps, however, has an additional feature. Users are offered a menu of prewritten questions and can choose to send one or several to a match. The match then receives the question(s), plus a menu of prewritten, multiple-choice answers. (There is also an option to type an original answer.) Whenever two users smile at each other, the app invites them to engage in this canned question-and-response routine.

This is roughly equivalent to bringing your mom and a friend along as you pursue a love interest. After eying him/her with a big grin and receiving a big grin back, you stand there awkwardly, while Mom whispers two possible things you could say in one ear, and your friend whispers two other things you could say in the other ear. You then say one or more of their suggested utterances aloud. You don’t have to feel too embarrassed by this, however, because, as it turns out, your love interest also brought along his/her mom and a friend, who are whispering possible responses in his/her ear.

Simply put, these canned questions and responses are infantilizing. Further, they don’t allow the two people to express who they are and thus get to know each other.

But wait—isn’t choice a good thing? Isn’t choice what makes us free, what makes us individuals? In choosing among a menu of several options, aren’t we expressing our uniqueness as authentic human beings, since everyone has the opportunity to choose differently?

Not according to Matthew B. Crawford. His 2015 book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction offers one of the profoundest and most far-reaching critiques of modern society I have encountered in a very long time. In fact, there’s so much great cultural criticism in this book that I am able, on this blog, to share only a few of his many, many insights. That being said, here are two of them:

“We are offered forms of unfreedom that come slyly wrapped in autonomy talk: NO LIMITS!, as the credit card offer says. YOU’RE IN CHARGE.”

“Those with a material interest in doing so have learned to speak autonomy talk, and to tap into the deep psychology of autonomy in ways that lead to its opposite.”

Credit card companies, in other words, tell you how much freedom and autonomy you will have in spending money as you wish, while working to trap you in a cycle of increasing debt as a result of exorbitant interest rates and fees.

This dating app of mine uses a similar technique. Yes, it’s in the best interest of the app owners for some people to find significant others through the app; they can then tell stories about how great the app is at helping people. However, it’s also in the best interest of the app owners for even more people to fail to find a partner, yet receive enough encouragement so as not to give up on the app entirely. That is, it’s great for the app owners if lots of people are clicking around on the app, having conversations that don’t lead anywhere, and renewing their subscriptions each billing cycle. In order to make this happen, they must find a way to offer entrapment in the guise of freedom and opportunity.

Hence the genius invention of canned questions and responses. It’s brilliant because being presented with a menu of options seems like being offered the freedom of choice, but it actually prevents users from getting to know one another in any meaningful way.

True agency, as Crawford points out, is the opposite of choosing from a menu of options. True agency arises when you delve into the messy real world, when you make choices that count because you’re choosing from a dizzying array of options—not just four, or even forty—and risking being wrong. True agency happens when you compose a personal note and send it, not knowing how the recipient will react to your opinions, ideas, and choice of words—but thereby revealing who you are, and implicitly requesting a reply that is similarly open and sincere.

Can you think of any other examples of a large company, or another source of wealth and power, offering “freedom” in the form of restrictive choices? If you choose one of the options presented to you, does that benefit you, or them? How might you circumvent the presented choices and do your own thing?

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