HOW DATING APPS KILLED LOVE IN LONDON

On an epidemic of Bad Romance

Image

In London, love is dead.

Tinder killed it and Hinge is dancing on its grave. If the classic romcoms were set here today, When Harry Met Sally would be called Sally Never Met Harry (because she swiped right past him). Likewise, Bridget Jones’s Diary would be the tragic tale of a single woman who dies and ends up half eaten by Alsatians (as Darcy’s search filters were set to ‘non-smokers only’). Meanwhile, William Thacker wouldn’t be able to afford a cup of tea in Notting Hill let alone the rent on a bookshop that movie stars wander into — and even if a starlet was standing right in front of him, asking him to love her, he’d be too busy on Bumble to make eye contact.

The impact of dating apps on romance in the capital couldn’t be more catastrophic. If you see someone you like the look of in a bar or on an overcrowded Tube carriage, the absolute last thing you do is strike up a conversation. Being rejected — especially publicly — is not an option for a generation who grew up hiding behind computer screens and you don’t want to be accused of MeToo-ing anyone. Now when you lock eyes with a bona fide sex god/dess, all you can do is hope to God that Happn’s location services will pick them up and they’ll match with you. In London, the best-case scenario, romantically speaking, is to be  asked for your Snap so you can ‘chat’. Hardly a kiss under the clock at Waterloo station. 

In theory, online dating sounds so glorious. With a population of nine million, any single person in the capital should have thousands upon thousands of beautiful strangers whose hearts they could pierce with OKCupid’s arrow. But in practice, it’s bloody horrendous — dating apps don’t facilitate love, just lust. They’re like Deliveroo for satisfying our sexual appetites, so much so that ever increasing numbers of us now see staying celibate while spending more time with our mates as the most desirable thing on the menu — as far as our souls are concerned. For the whole of my 30s, I’ve been ‘benched’, ‘breadcrumbed’, ‘catfished’, ‘cuffed’, ‘curved’, ‘cushioned’, ‘fizzled’, ‘ghosted’, ‘haunted’, ‘stashed’, ‘submarined’ and ‘zombied’.

Last year, I was dumped — not once but twice — by a man I met on Hinge who I had (silly me) become terribly keen on. Maybe I should write and thank him. After murdering whatever hope remained within me that I’ll ever find a man to adore me who I’m matched with by algorithm, at least it meant I got a hell of a lot done. 

On the face of it dating apps are incredibly popular. In the UK, six million people are expected to use them this year. Then, every eligible Londoner will have at least three on their phone. The monopolies of Grindr and Tinder — which moved fastest and broke dating in the early 2010s — now seem out of date, responsible for a hook-up culture which has spread like a contagion from New York to London.

Meanwhile Bumble, Happn, Hinge and all the rest bill themselves as modern matchmakers each with their own gimmick in the game. On Bumble the woman must message first (it’s billed as ‘feminist’ though I can’t see how forcing one sex to make all the effort helps in the slightest.) Happn shows who you crossed paths with; Hinge’s ad campaign says it’s ‘designed to be deleted’ once you find your match. But of course you can always download it again if things don’t work out. And that’s all that happens. You get a bit excited, meet a guy, two days later, you’re like: ‘Oh, never mind.’ Again and again and again. 

After seven years of binge and bust, I no longer know what the hell the point is and like most long-term singles, I suffer in silence. And I’m not alone. About 56 per cent of adults view dating apps and services either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ negatively according to one online survey, with 36 per cent of Brits claiming they’d prefer to meet their next partner face-to-face.

While researching my next book, Love In Late Capitalism, I collated a chorus of complaints about dating culture today. Everyone I spoke to who’d come off apps had reached their breaking point — whether they’d contracted a sexually transmitted disease from someone ‘who ghosted me while I was waiting for the test result from the doctor’, because all their ‘dates were just so, so, so dismal’, because ‘I’m fed up of always being flaked on at the last minute’ or because ‘you talk for several years and they never want to meet up at all’. It’s the feeling that it’s a complete free-for-all that most gets daters down. One woman became hopelessly dispirited after she agreed to two dates on one day and the men concerned turned out to be living together and that was a hashtag too far’s worth of awkward. ‘Dating apps suck balls,’ concludes my 31-year-old BFF who has never had a boyfriend but not for want of wanting one. According to him, heterosexuals have it easy. ‘In 2016 alone I went on 146 dates… Three stood out as men I could have imagined building a life with but as ever, they just weren’t that into me, and who can blame them? Who wants to have their cake and eat it when they could have the whole bakery?’

‘The fact is, most dating apps are not designed to be deleted,’ says Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History Of Dating. ‘Instead they want to retain you as a user for as long as they can muster, with around two years being the goal for many. In that time they expect you to date several people you meet through the app — returning every time each encounter sours to look for the next person on whom to pin your hopes.’ 

Even I’m not immune. About once every three months I succeed in stewing my brain in enough vodka to block out the memory of whatever-the-last-one’s-name-was and tell myself in the mirror: ‘If you don’t try you’ll never meet anyone.’ I then download Bumble (for the 387th time) and send message after message to any man who has a kind face who’ll disappear from my phone forever if I don’t talk to him within 24 hours of ‘liking’ each other.

Increasing desperation exacerbates the problem. You start to notice how, in the capital, romance has been annihilated. Say you do get a date. Are you enthusiastic about it? No. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. Are you really supposed to believe that, if you keep at it, Mr Right will appear if you’ve spent 20 years of your life encountering endless Mr Wrongs? I always get confused when married people say they’re going on date nights. I can’t think of anything lovelier than never, ever having to go on one again. 

If your next big birthday’s 40, most of your dates go like this: you turn up, take one look at each other, something inside you says, ‘nah’, and it’s over in two drinks. You know you’ll have a better night if you take an early bath. 

That’s if you’re being polite, however. My last date wasn’t. The second he saw me the spark was extinguished in his eyes. Mid-way through staring at Helen Sharman’s space suit in the Science Museum, I realised he was standing at a distance from all the exhibits with his arms crossed. ‘Do you want to get something to eat?’ I suggested, as he steered us towards the exit. He did not. 

Not so long ago, you could assume that you were in some sense special. That the person you met would treat you like a human being with thoughts and feelings, not like an instantly replaceable avatar in this never-ending game they’re playing on their phones. But today, searching for love in London isn’t the way it used to be. A decade ago if you wanted to be treated like a piece of meat you could go to some sweaty club and snog someone random. But if you were seeing someone you had to be nice to them. Usually you met them in your local pub, they were a friend of a friend, you worked together, or shared something in common: like a bus route or a building. This meant you couldn’t just get rid of them on the click. If you acted badly there would be consequences, social opprobrium or a sense of shame. 

But now, the second someone does something ‘a bit off’ the whole situation gets snuffed out. Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about what I do wrong and the trouble is I’m insecure and send batty texts when I get nervous. Once upon a time a mutual friend, relative or co-worker would have been on hand to say: ‘Oh yes she’s mad as a coot but terribly sweet if you get to know her.’ In the age of the app, there’s no one to vouch for me. 

It isn’t just the men who are behaving badly; women can behave terribly, too. Forty-three per cent of all daters admit to lying online. If a date is a bit dull you can always spice it up with: ‘What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on?’ Everyone you meet will have a litany. The most appalling story I’ve ever heard was from a gorgeous man I batty-texted into submission who said he’d once gone on a date and the girl got so drunk she started racially abusing a waiter in an Indian restaurant and insisting he didn’t deserve a tip on top of the bill she wasn’t paying. 

While a man would never write on his dating app profile, ‘must be nine stone or lighter’, women rarely think about how awful it must be to read height requirements that basically equate to: ‘Don’t even talk to me if you’re short.’ One man I met admitted he never usually got anywhere because he was bald. 

Even one-night stands are too much commitment; Londoners are fond of the ‘half-night stand’. When I was promoting my first book, I was invited on to the Millennial Love podcast in which listeners wrote in with their dating stories. One young woman complained that she’d had a man over, bought him a pizza, given him an orgasm, paid for his Uber home, and thought this was all perfectly fine — until he couldn’t muster the manners to text her to say thank you. Something inside me screams, ‘We can’t go on like this!’ It is madness to treat people with so little respect. For me, apps don’t work. So I am now concentrating on meeting people the old-fashioned way and being much more patient. Trying to build up friendships first. Since I always sabotage by text, I write emails. When I get invited to parties, I don’t stand in one corner, I do as Jane Austen advised and take a turn about the room. A friend of mine asked everyone she knows to set her up on blind dates. She’s met a lovely man and is taking it very, very slow. 

Finding true love has always been hard, Hodgson insists. ‘When it comes to finding love, remember that modern dating apps are a capitalist enterprise focused on solving not the love problem, but the money problem,’ she advises. ‘They have commodified love like never before, and commodification is the killer of romance, which needs genuine attention, vulnerability and then just an ounce of calculated dare to thrive.’

In my 20s, before dating apps had been invented, I had boyfriends. Real ones. Not pseudo sort-ofs who pop up once a year, dangle the prospect of boyfriend-hood over my head like mistletoe and then scarper three seconds after I’ve slept with them. I try not to blame myself, say, ‘It just wasn’t meant to be,’ but I won’t be downloading dating apps again. Frankly, I’d rather be off them and die alone. There’s more dignity in that.

The Hookup #10

Style

I had been WhatsApping the hot American for a month when he finally suggested we meet for a modest cup of tea on Sunday (time and location TBC). He gave me seven days’ notice. As I’d let my work slip, I put my phone in a pot so I wouldn’t watch it. He didn’t message me. I didn’t message him. And I thought, sod this — I’m not bullying him into it. So we never met at all.

I should just move on and find some new and unsuspecting chap. But I’m fascinated by the fact that this hunk of a man expended so much time messaging me without any ulterior motive.

Carrie-style, I sit at my laptop, hair maddened with bewilderment, fingers flying across the keyboard, typing: “I couldn’t help but wonder, has the joy of sex been replaced by the thrill of text ..?”

The Hookup #5

Sunday Times author pictureLove is a game I’ve lost. So now I must date, which, if you ask me, is an exhausting, undignified, seemingly neverending bout of musical chairs. One day the music will stop, and if I don’t want to end up alone, I must run round and round, trying to snag a man before they all disappear.

Everything is speeded up, exactly like it was when I was an asthmatic six-year-old, and instinct dictates that I should drop to the floor, refuse to move, stick my fingers in my ears and howl: “But I don’t want any of these chairs. I want that shambolic excuse for a recliner over there, which isn’t even part of this damned charade, since another girl’s bloody sitting on it.”

But to confess to such thoughts, or act in such a way, is stupid. Hopelessly defeatist. Everyone tells me I have to get up and carry on. So I sprint faster and faster. Become dizzier and dizzier. Feel sicker and sicker. As everyone else stares and points and mutters: “Good grief, I’m glad I’m not her.”

There must be a better way, I thought, casting about for inspiration. So how about this for a heartening tale..?

Continue reading “The Hookup #5”

The Hookup #4

8th October 2017

Halfway through London Fashion Week, the Millennial and I fell out. Before this (hot as hell, confirmedly gay) roommate of mine moved in, I could sprawl about all day half-naked, eating mango chutney from the jar, obsessively writing and rewriting my own sentences. But it is such a sad little existence, he begs me to desist.

He’s also fed up with me on the matter of ZZ, the man I “refuse” to stop mentioning. I try to tell the boy that when a man finally arrives in your life and causes you to understand, once and for all, the meaning of Bonnie Tyler’s power ballads and the oeuvre of Bryan Adams, it might be impossible to forget. But the Millennial is much too young, and much too cool, for (Everything I Do) I Do It for You…

Why the super-rich are ploughing billions into the booming ‘immortality industry’

ES Magazine

ES MAG FRONT COVERImagine a world in which you’re 90 years old and nowhere near middle-aged. An app on your phone has hacked your DNA code, so you know exactly when to go to the doctor to receive gene therapy to prevent all the diseases you don’t yet have. A microchip in your skin sends out a signal if you’re at risk of developing a wrinkle — so you step out of the sun and hotfoot it to your dermatologist. Every evening you sync your brain-mapping device with The Cloud, so even if you were caught up in a fatal accident you’d still be able to cheat death — every detail of your life would simply be downloaded to one of the perfect silicon versions you’d had made of yourself, ensuring you last until at least your 1,000th birthday.

This may sound like science fiction but it could be your fate — provided you can afford it. If current research develops into medicine, in the London of the future the super-rich won’t simply be able to buy the best things in life, they’ll be able to buy life itself by transforming themselves into a bio-engineered super-race, capable of living, if not forever, then for vastly longer than the current UK life expectancy of 81 years.

The science of turning back the clock has never been more advanced. In Boston, a drug capable of reversing half a lifetime of ageing in mice is about to be tested on humans in a medical trial monitored by Nasa. NMN is a compound found naturally in broccoli which boosts levels of NAD, a protein involved in energy production that depletes as we get older. Professor David Sinclair, who headed up the initial research at Australia’s University of New South Wales, doses himself with 500mg daily, and claims that he has already become more youthful. According to blood tests analysing the state of the 48-year-old’s cells, prior to taking the pills Sinclair was in the same physical shape as a 57-year-old, but now he’s ‘31.4’.

Meanwhile, Hollywood stars looking for the elixir of youth might want to keep a close eye on developments at Newcastle University where last February Professor Mark Birch-Machin identified, for the first time, the mitochondrial complex which depletes over time, causing skin to age. Mitochondria are the battery packs that power our cells — so if we want to slow down ageing we need to keep them topped up; doing so would be transformative for our appearance. In the future, Birch-Machin believes, we’ll not only be taking pills and applying cosmetics, we’ll have implants in our skin. ‘Implants will tell us the state of it — how well our batteries are doing, how many free radicals, and will inform us how we are doing with our lifestyle,’ he says. ‘You can store it, log it, have that linked to your healthcare package.’

Such medical discoveries are being translated into treatment at an unprecedented rate. The day after the results of Birch-Machin’s study were published in The New York Times, his department was contacted by nine companies hoping to turn his research into revolutionary pharmaceuticals. In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, won a Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres, the protective tips on our chromosomes that break down as we get older, leaving us prone to age-related diseases. Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can stop the shortening of telomeres by adding DNA — like a plastic tip fixing the end of a fraying shoelace. Today, rich Californians now use telomeres therapy to prolong the life of their pets.

Last year, in Monterey, California, the start-up Ambrosia (founded by Dr Jesse Karmazin, a DC-based physician) began trialling the effect of blood transfusions, pumping blood from teenagers into older patients, following studies that found that blood plasma from young mice can rejuvenate old mice, improving their memory, cognition and physical activity.

Dr Richard Siow, who heads up the Age Research department at King’s College London, believes we may be soon reach a significant point in anti-ageing research because of the massive amounts of money allocated by governments and charities worldwide in the hope of making a breakthrough. Indeed, according to a survey by Transparency Market Research, by 2019 the anti-ageing market will be worth £151 billion worldwide. ‘Life expectancy in many countries has already increased from 65-68 all the way through to 70, 80, 85 because people are now surviving heart disease, strokes and cancer,’ points out Siow, who has been studying anti-ageing compounds found in Indian spices and tea. ‘We are now redefining what ageing means. How can we extend that period of health so we’re not a burden?’

It is in Silicon Valley, however, that the really radical advances seem likely to be made. Freshly minted internet tycoons appear willing to pay any price to prolong their lives and a critical mass of geeks is working furiously towards understanding our biology at an unprecedented rate. Take Dmitry Itskov, the Russian billionaire founder of the life-extension non-profit 2045 Initiative, who is paying scientists to map the human brain so our minds can be decanted into a computer and either downloaded to a robot body or synced with a hologram. Or Joon Yun, a physician and hedge fund manager who insisted at an anti-ageing symposium of the California elite in March that ageing is simply a programming error encoded in our DNA. ‘If something is encoded, you can crack the code,’ he told an audience which, according to The New Yorker, included multi-billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Goldie Hawn. ‘Thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end ageing forever.’

And then there’s PayPal founder (and Donald Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, who has a net worth of £2.1 billion and has reportedly invested in start-up Unity Biotechnology — which aims to develop drugs that ‘make many debilitating consequences of ageing as uncommon as polio’. Thiel has also offered funding to individual researchers, such as Aubrey de Grey, the Chelsea-born, Cambridge and California-based gerontologist who ploughed the £11 million he inherited from his artist mother, Cordelia, into founding the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation in Mountain View, which promotes the use of rejuvenation biotechnology in anti-ageing research.

Of course, the best known element of the ‘immortality industry’ is cryogenic freezing. Despite its reputation as the last resort of wealthy cranks, it remains in business; at the Alcor cryonics facility in Arizona, 149 corpses have already been preserved in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196°C since it was founded in 1972. Worldwide there are thousands of people signed up for cryogenics services, including Alcor’s 28 clients in the UK. The service doesn’t come cheap (full-body freezing costs £165,000, while having your head cut off and frozen is around £60,000) but it has some impressive-sounding clients, including de Grey and Dr Anders Sandberg, research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.

‘It’s a gamble but it’s still much better than being dead,’ says Sandberg. He envisages a world in which the brain is paramount, so when his is revived it could be transformed into a sort of computer programme containing all of his memories of life on earth. ‘If you actually exist as software you have a lot of options. I do enjoy having a physical body but why have just one when you could have lots of different ones?’

Of course, if such experiments do come to fruition, they could have far reaching implications for our society. Already, a rapidly ageing population is placing enormous stress on healthcare and pension systems worldwide. De Grey sees the problem of over-population being cured by a dwindling birth-rate. But he says little about the impact this would have on the young.

Then there’s the question of whether we will one day be living in a world defined by gaping differences in life expectancy — where the ‘haves’ live for 10 times longer than the ‘have nots’. ‘Mortality has been the great equaliser from beggars to kings to emperors,’ says Dr Jack Kreindler, medical director at the Centre for Health & Human Performance in Harley Street. ‘If people embark on really sophisticated, targeted therapies to repair damage to their cells… I think we’re definitely entering into “them” and “us” territory.’ As projected in Homo Deus, the best-selling book of Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, Kreindler adds, we could witness ‘a schism in humanity where we have some people so bioengineered that only the very, very rich can sustain the amount of maintenance required to look after their enhancements, while others simply can’t afford to do anything but be natural.’

Nevertheless, the quest to overcome mortality continues apace. Last year, at a TEDx symposium Kreindler convened at the Science Museum, Daisy Robinton, a post-doctoral scientist at Harvard University, put forward the theory that ageing should be considered ‘a disease in itself.’ She described the excitement in the medical community at the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, a protein that seems to allow us to target and delete genetic mutations in our DNA. ‘Gene editing provides an opportunity to not only cure genetic disease but also to prevent diseases from ever coming into being,’ Robinton claimed. ‘To treat our susceptibilities before they ever transform into symptoms.’

If this theory became fact, dying of old age might one day seem as outmoded as being felled by one of the mass killers of the past for which we get vaccinated. If gene editing on this scale is possible, Kreindler says we have to ask: ‘Can your cells become immortal, can they live forever?’

At the Centre for Health & Human Performance, treatments may still be firmly rooted in the 21st century, focused as they are on helping athletes optimise their fitness and celebrities such as David Walliams complete gruelling challenges for Sport Relief. But Kreindler is clearly in awe of what the latest medical advances might mean for the future of the human race.

‘I don’t believe this should be only for the very rich,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to do things, don’t just do it for the billionaires, do it for the billions.’