Welcome once again to the unsettling world of CLOUDBURST, Ben Ditto’s eerie series about modern technology. In this fourth installment, we come to the inevitable future of online dating. As you read this not-so-impossible story, ask yourself: would you continue with the endless swiping and miserable drinks at a convenient bar, or give in and choose this second option?
I have a friend who approached dating using scientific methodology. She was a risk analyst in the city. She read that the likelihood of a chemically compatible match was 1 in 100. This ratio needs to be adjusted for being “sane, single and solvent”. She then proceeded to date someone every day after work until she met her ideal partner. It took her around two years but the stats checked out.
I’m too busy for that and I dislike dating so I set up and trained an AI model to act as a proxy, going through an avatar service. They went out and did the hard work, meeting dozens (hundreds) of potential partners. Most of the time it's an avatar speaking to an avatar. They cycle through each other at a much faster rate than we could achieve but they still take the time required: due diligence. They don’t need to eat or sleep or work so they are pretty much optimized dating machines. They need some calibration and you get the best results if you train them as realistically as possible: best foot forward but don’t hide the blemishes.
Of course you could reduce this to a cold process, big data clinically utilized to create the perfect partnership, but there’s a joy in observing the model you created going out into the world and having an adventure. Something like “The Sims” on autopilot but the main character is yourself and the prize is everlasting happiness. This comes at a subscription cost, but it's no more expensive than a streaming service.
There was a moment where my proxy was meeting a lot of suitor proxies who would do the equivalent of swiping right on literally anyone but I trained a second model to act as a filter: a mass-rejection model. Gatekeeper. Cerberus at the gates of All Bar One. The candidates that got through her got to date the real proxy.
Some of us have historical trauma or social anxiety. Bad relationships, abusive backgrounds… Getting to know strangers can be difficult if you’re not witty and gregarious; or rather it’s possible but you end up with the dregs—partners who are just as useless as you. It is so much easier to train a model on your preferences and then get it to work in the background, operating dating apps and going on dates. Most weekends I sat at home with a bottle of red wine flicking between old series and monitoring my avatar’s progress.
We all have masks. Idealized versions of ourselves that we present to others. After some time, the mask slips and what is underneath can be a horrible shock or a different but pleasant surprise. In the old days, you often just had to deal with that as after a year or so you might be emotionally invested—bonded, even—and you’d be faced with a difficult decision: stick with the real unmasked version, or lose the year you’d invested and move on; the sunk cost fallacy for relationships.
Really we all just want companionship and to know that we won’t die alone. Maybe we have some drive to further our gene pool but ultimately I don’t want to grow old and be left to deal with dementia and care homes, left to the mercy of the state and insurance companies. But it’s hard to find someone you want to stay with forever, especially now that we all live so long; easier to superimpose what you want onto a willing volunteer.
We sit together some nights at a restaurant, each of us projecting our idealized self onto the other. We have the conversations we want to have, or the silences. Nothing about them annoys me. Their hair always looks good and they don’t interrupt me when I’m talking.
So that’s what we are: two meat puppets projecting the illusion of a perfect partner onto another lonely soul. But it works, we’ll have children and we’ll stay together because we can be with whoever we want to be, forever, or we can turn them off at the flick of a switch and they’ll simply disappear.