The Need to Know

I was alone on a cold winter night.  The house was empty, and the meal I made for dinner tasted faintly of solitude.  After washing the dishes in silence I tried to focus.  There must be something I could do to take my mind off this loneliness.  I could read a book.  I could clean my bathroom.  Any number of things might provide a temporary fix.  But one thought bristled atop all the rest: I could check my email.

Who knew what I might find?  Maybe someone had made plans for the weekend and I could try to tag along.  Or maybe someone had uploaded a funny photo on Facebook.  That might distract me for a while.  The mild absorption of browsing through my newsfeed, roaming and clicking to see what had changed in the lives of the 170 people who tacitly call me their friend, would at least put me in contact with some semblance of humanity. 

I was already up the stairs by the time I had this thought.  That familiar hunger fueling me, the computer was my only hope now.  Its solace was predicated on the reliability of my Internet connection, but I didn’t care.  The Internet always worked; it didn’t matter why that felt so good.  It just did.  There was no need to think further.  My reliance on this form of connection was too total to question on a night like this.

Moments later I was seated at my desk with fingertips poised.  As the Firefox icon bounced happily on my dock, my eyes widened in anticipation of the initial news my inbox would bring.  What a beautiful world I was entering.  What a pleasure to feel solitude receding so fast.  But when the page finally loaded, a pang of disappointment set in: there were only seven new messages in my inbox.  I could hardly evade myself for long on this meager diet.  But it was something, and the reality of my empty house around me made my shabby inbox feel full in comparison.

Nestled beside the uninspiring overtures from advertisers and volunteer organizations, one subject line grabbed me in particular.  “It’s snowing tonight in Rochester!” it read.  Yes, it was! 

The message was from OK Cupid, the online dating site I’d joined a few weeks ago, and I was desperate to know what it meant.  I clicked on it with everything I could muster, my entire being firm with needy resolve, only to discover another disappointment.  It appeared that OK Cupid had sent me a memorandum on the importance of thinking mathematically:

We noticed it’s snowing tonight in Rochester.  Our statistics show that more people sign in when there is bad weather.  It’s the perfect time to message that special someone!

This was not the first time OK Cupid’s outreach efforts had found their way to my inbox.  A week or so prior, I had received a similar epistle with an even less subtle subject line. “You are Hot!” it thundered alongside the more mundane messages in my inbox.  It was nice of them to capitalize the H.  I knew I was being conned, and under different circumstances I might have just deleted the email.  But some part of me wondered if OKCupid knew something I didn’t.  With the same trepidation that I open mail from the U.S. government, I clicked on the icon.  This is what I found:

We just detected that you’re now among the most attractive people on OkCupid.

We learned this from clicks to your profile and reactions to you in Quickmatch and Quiver. Did you get a new haircut or something?

Well, it’s working!

To celebrate, we’ve adjusted your OkCupid experience:

You’ll see more attractive people in your match results.

This won’t affect your match percentages, which are still based purely on your answers and desired match’s answers. But we’ll recommend more attractive people to you. You’ll also appear more often to other attractive people.

Sign in to see your newly-shuffled matches. Have fun, and don’t let this go to your head.

According to Sam Yagan, OK Cupid’s C.E.O., the company’s basic premise is that algorithms are the modern man and woman’s best guide to a happy love life.  “We use math to get you dates,” they explain on their About Us page.  Through detailed questionnaires and state-of-the-art matching software (all developed by a group of Harvard graduates between 2001-2007), the site calculates likely compatibility in the same way it calculates likely behavior; and this, Yagan claims, is what all of us really (secretly?) want.  For example, OKCupid knows that there is a strong likelihood that a woman who likes the taste of beer will be willing to sleep with a man on a first date.  In fact, liking the taste of beer is the only consistent factor that correlates to a woman’s willingness to have a one-night stand.  Apparently everything in life boils down to knowing how to crunch the numbers.

What makes this kind of knowledge so appealing? By Yagan’s lights, it is the eradication of uncertainty.  With fewer unknowns comes greater freedom, and with greater freedom comes greater happiness.  As he put it proudly during a New Yorker panel discussion of online dating last summer, “if you’re in line at Starbucks, we can tell you which of the three girls in front of you are your best match.”  Via your mobile device no less.

Who wouldn’t want to know that?  Who wouldn’t want to click on that icon?

Yet how do we not need to click?  How do we not need to know? 

Outsourcing our means of discernment to the gospels of algorithmic utopia certainly has its advantages.  But our quiet dependence on these new experts also generates a flight from reality that is rarely reported among more quantifiable results.

-Michael Fisher