Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 723:
NETWORK DATING

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 723.

Today, we find a technological revolution in a strange place. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I read a peculiar parable for our times in a Houston Press article by Edith Sorenson. She tells about her adventures in a new electronic medium. It's a computer dating bureau.

Now, when any radically new technology replaces an old one, the old function also changes. The automobile didn't just replace the horse. It changed our whole concept of place.

So when Sorenson first entered the world of computer dating, it looked much like the world it copied. Computer dating had the flavor of those tawdry personal columns in marginal magazines.

She types "browse" to see who's out there. A 45-year-old married man complains that his wife won't spank him. A divorcee has to say his preferences in code words. One man wants to go to a fine restaurant with a sophisticated woman and talk about her submissive fantasies. It doesn't look promising.

When one man wants to talk dirty, she finds she can activate a STOP command to block incoming mail from him. So she stays with the process, and the message exchanges begin drawing her in.

She actually goes out on a couple of dates. A young man with a fine touch on the computer keyboard is shy and tongue-tied in person. None of her dates seem to click in person.

Back at her computer, she activates chat mode. In chat mode you type messages back and forth like a conversation. Of course, everyone uses a code name -- like PLAINJANE 386 or MAX 442.

In the end, Sorenson's prince never comes. But something else emerges. She takes increasing pleasure in the interactions. Her prince isn't likely to show up here. What does show up, she hadn't expected. She's found a new community.

No one has B.O. on screen. No one's unbeautiful. No one subverts talk with the animal magnetism or repulsion of his corporeal self. She meets people in the intimacy of anonymity.

I spoke yesterday with a man in Dallas about the engineering networks. He said they let him feel less inhibited. They erased his concern for saving face. They freed him from the self-preservation that haunts professional life. On the nets, he said, ideas don't attack a person; ideas live for their own sake.

That's why Sorenson's foray into dating in the electronic networks arrests me. It's one more harbinger of a computer-driven change in human relations. Like other new technologies, it promised one thing -- then delivered something else entirely.

After all, your prince never does come. Or, if he does, he's flawed. But the network offers kindred minds -- free of physical constraints. And it offers what we all crave most -- the chance, at last, to reveal ourselves.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Sorenson, E., Looking for Mr. Goodbyte. Houston Press, July 2, 1992, pp. 36-42.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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