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The dating-app future of Black Mirror’s Hang The DJ doesn’t seem that implausible

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Especially given what people most want out of dating apps: variety, convenience, and answers to common anxieties

Jonathan Prime / Netflix

The fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on December 29th, 2017. In this series, six writers will look at each of the fourth season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.

The other essays in this series address “USS Callister,” “Black Museum,” “Metalhead,” “Arkangel,” and “Crocodile.”

Spoiler warning: This essay does not give away the ending of “Hang The DJ,” but does offer plot details not seen in the episode trailer.

Blind dating is typically associated with mystery, dread, and minimal bleak optimism, and technology complicates the process immensely. So it’s surprising it took four seasons for Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker to center an entire episode around it. In the fourth-season episode “Hang the DJ,” many of the common complaints about dating apps — there are too many options, promising matches suddenly ghost, it’s difficult to tell how serious a relationship is, the anonymity of early interactions makes users vulnerable to harassment and abuse — all disappear, because personal choice no longer exists. There’s only one option for anyone who wants love, sex, or anything in between.

In this world, dating is a highly regulated process managed by something called The System, which promises every user that they’ll eventually end up with their perfect life partner. Users interface with The System through disc-shaped devices equipped with a seemingly sentient voice assistant called Coach. The System decides a user’s matches, where they’ll go on their dates, what they eat there, and most importantly, how long each “relationship” will last. Each couple is given an “expiry date” determined in advance by The System’s algorithm; it could be anything from hours to years. This eliminates one source of dating anxiety (will it last?) and replaces it with another. (Why spend several years of your life in a relationship you know will eventually end?)

“Hang the DJ” opens with a date between Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), both new to The System, on a date at some nondescript restaurant. Afterward, automated golf carts shuttle them to a small home in the middle of nowhere, where they must spend the night together. Every date on The System is like this: dinner, followed by a ride to a house that looks like it’s been staged for prospective buyers. It’s the version of romance sold by The Bachelor: pre-planned food and drinks, mood lighting, and a night in the fantasy suite, where no one has to have sex, but it’s assumed they will. Frank and Amy have a good first date, with easy, witty conversation, but The System has determined their relationship will only last one night. Neither of them argue, or try to override their orders: dating only exists within The System, so there’s no point in seeing each other again without its permission.

Even if they had, the System is enforced by armed guards, so users can’t quietly back out of their customized quests for romance. Eventually, the System begins to feel just as untrustworthy as its users’ hearts: is it pairing them with the right people? Or is something better still out there?

The System’s big claim is that each date will get users closer to their “ultimate compatible other” — the perfect soulmate that always seems to be waiting in fiction, in romance novels and romantic movies. The idea is that every date will give The System more data it can use to determine that person’s perfect match, with a 99.8 percent success rate. Conceptually, it’s not unlike our current “system,” where apps collect enough data to effectively push products at users, or predict human behavior. There are already apps that collect data about your dates to determine whether you actually like them, and apps that award successful couples with “milestone gifts.” This past November, Tinder announced that it plans to release consumer-facing AI features that will “blur lines between the physical and digital world.”

Netflix

Black Mirror just pushes that further by prioritizing data collection over the actual user experience. It doesn’t matter whether Frank or Amy want pasta for dinner, any more than it matters whether they want to spend years in enforced relationships with people they hate. Too bad, they’re told, suffering through bad relationships is an important part of how you find true love. That may seem cynical, but people who’ve been on long, fruitless dating-app quests, looking for someone compatible, might recognize the appeal in the idea that it all means something, that no unpleasant evening or hookup gone wrong is actually wasted, that it’s all a means to an end.

Throughout all this, there’s never any mention of who owns The System, or whose purposes it serves. The System’s omnipresence, the lack of any visible figurehead pulling the strings, and the stern enforcers all add more layers of tension to the matchmaking process. When The System disappoints “Hang the DJ”’s protagonists, they have nowhere in particular to direct their anger.

Black Mirror is most comfortable when it’s suspicious of technology, but it’s sharpest when it examines distinctly human anxieties. In “Hang the DJ,” those anxieties are related to social acceptance, loneliness, and the blank unknown of the future, the unanswerable question “How will my life ultimately turn out?” The System might pair users with the wrong person, but without The System, they might choose the wrong person anyway — and have to accept all the blame for their failure. And at least The System has done away with the universal fear of ending up alone.

“Hang The DJ” takes place in a world that looks like this one, but without any details that could give away its era or location. Its universe feels flat and neutral, which makes it look both eerie and like it could be the backdrop for a Victorian-novel romance, where characters take long walks around the lake, and generally have nothing to do but kill time. There are no outside influences, or even friends, in the world of The System. There’s no sign of class inequity or poverty or luxury. The whole world is apparently just men and women looking for their “ultimate compatible other” in a controlled environment. There are ultimately good reasons for that impression, but the way the story plays out is still striking in its narrow focus.

The main difference between this world and ours lies in the amount of influence dating apps have on individual lives. Online dating is more popular and more socially accepted now than ever before, but only around 27 percent of Americans aged 18-24 use dating apps, according to a study from Pew Research. Even those who do use them often remain open to other ways of meeting people. In the world of “Hang the DJ,” that isn’t allowed. Everything is part of the System — users even affirm their sexual consent by checking off a few boxes on their Coach devices.

Netflix

Is this a remotely plausible future? It does seem possible that we could eventually give dating apps more decision-making power than they have now, especially in the name of convenience or compatibility, as a way to lower the stakes of those difficult first meetings. It’s not hard to imagine a new Tinder feature that suggests your likelihood of dating a person based on your message exchange rate, or one that suggests restaurants in your area that would be perfect for a first date, based on past data about matched users. Dating apps now require very little actual commitment from users, which can be exhausting. Why not quarantine everyone looking for marriage into one place until they find it?

Because this is Black Mirror, “Hang The DJ” does eventually shift trust away from the System. The System was meant to prevent users from making the wrong choices, from being resigned to a lifetime of disdainful sex or silent sulking. But Black Mirror is never about blindly trusting technology, it’s about examining how we use it — and then, often, rejecting it. Here, the pattern holds, and the show’s long-awaited romantic advice is pretty old-fashioned: go with your gut.

“HANG THE DJ” RATINGS

Relevance: High, especially for people who are currently dating. Turns out near-perfect dating technology can’t eliminate confusion, boredom, and anxiety.

Aesthetics: Neutral, like the platonic ideal of a relationship

Squirm Factor: This is one of the lighter Black Mirror episodes. It’s about as anxiety-inducing as a first date.