I Desire, But All I Have Is An Algorithm

I move things around, rent a refrigerator, spend a long time browsing through cushion covers; every movement is a trajectory of the impersonal, but call it social anyway. A category comes together as ‘not A’, together in the Whatsapp groups of righteous anger, often on the pretext of planning a trip or an event. Everywhere I go, tenement house to tenement house, parking lot to parking lot, store to store, I measure it. Sometimes as length of time, time of length. We’re always moving, coordinating through Web 2.0—asking ‘what’s the closest landmark?’ and ‘what becomes a landmark anyway?’

As montage, everything appears as a series of windows, all of them just frames, one after the other. The form is predetermined. I only meet my friends when we say goodbye or when I have to pay my dues. Then it falls apart. One leaves for another city, another continent, another disappears into the old city. The new friend’s father falls ill. It’s the pollution in the old city.

This will confuse you but I refused to fall in love in transit; I say this even as I’ve imagined it all as montage. At a bar on a somewhat-date, a man I’m not courageous enough to hate is speaking at me—I mean he’s looking at me so intently that I know I’m just a displaced object—saying that a local filmmaker is generous when his city cannot be identified by landmarks alone. In a world like this, every landmark is the same, but I won’t say that, not when the form (the bill, the sign of security, the style) is on the line. He did bring up generosity.

I have nothing else to do tonight.

To aspire is to move, this is what I have been told. There is never anything where you are. You have to be able to pick up your things and go—where ever things are better, where ever they offer you a new job. A stable career is never a stable geography. What is left over when you pay the rent, parse through the bills. Alienation feels less like a condition and more like a right I’ve fought for, a tooth and nail success. On the phone with a far-away-friend, I discuss the difference between transporting my things using a company, a Movers and Packers, or renting appliances through an app. Since I am able to afford both, the question is ideological. Do you want immobile property of your own, or do you want flexibility?

What can you afford?’

Online dating apps offer both, the options underneath the name make it seem like a choice. Write a 100-word bio and tell the potential others what you’re looking for—a love that lasts the ages, a linear future; or should one look to the ability to keep going, to keep making the unfamiliar familiar, through the adventure of romance? The determinacy comes prior to a purpose—the hook up, the date that may be one, the search for ‘the one’, or you’re ‘just looking, browsing’. Decide or be demonized; there is no room for accident.

The experience of online dating has often been compared to playing a game, one with its own rules, creating its own players. Many of these apps are designed as a puzzle, and a game. This has spawned critical think-pieces about the gamification, the win-lose, the frivolity of the experience of love and desire. Part of the critical negativity directed against this tinderization of feeling, its immediacy, the casual nature of it, is a reaction against the seemingly eroding seriousness of love; some of it about propriety and some of it about the loss of the grandness of a gesture. Opulence and vulnerability. Vulnerability as opulence. But now, romance has entered the order of the everyday.

Surprisingly enough, the games have always been part of desire, always producing more, and anxiously so. The representation of romance always included something of the secret, slowly unveiling itself and never quite enough of itself (a sleeve, a heart). There have been hints: the glances, the banter, the flirtation, something secret and mysterious. The distaste directed against the ‘everyday-ness’ of romance is also distaste against the commercialization of what had earlier been possible through the furtive secret. It’s all out in the open—and where’s the fun in that? Like everything else, love, too, has followed the order of the non-regulated and open market.

Why shouldn’t it? The organization of relationalities have always facilitated the social order of things through varied forms—a nuclear family, the couple-form. The framework of a system that supports itself through it. With neoliberal capital as the organizing principle, the social order shifts from the family to disparate and separate units; each composed of individuals, each vested with purchasing power. And we use it, we shop, we consume. In our sovereignty as consumers, we turn into passive subjects. The promise of a relationship is sold to us, and we wait for the perfect match. We’d prefer there be no queues that remind us that we’re all separate, all alone. There is always something safe, and secure, about finding love and gradually stabilising the excesses of desire.

The only way to live in a city is to keep making new connections. The independent, liberated individuals need the promise of availability. Matching. Unmatching. The trick is to pretend that we enjoy this movement, call it social mobility in a digital age. Cash is liquid and so are we.

We real cool. We
left school. We
lurk late …

And so on.

Those who cannot move are called the dispossessed.

And underneath it all, the algorithm of each application squirms. Its code belongs to the binary, and the binary belongs to the new lawmakers. This minimalist peace is unkind, like a grief in a silent airport.

Again, shifting bases. Again, baseless claimant that I am. If anything, I worry that I have only learnt an aesthetic element in all my movement. I know how to pack lightly. I know how to share anecdotes about appliances and applications that save you time. I have learnt well to gracelessly scatter a tangible memory into impotent spaces and to create habitation in the form of a gradual accumulation. I know how to decorate; to follow the logical routes of the good life. Its simplicity, practicality, this always ‘convenient’ minimalism. This is the only way to imagine a container. How do you make a life without making beauty into its function? And all our applications, our apps, are beautiful, they’re simple, and they’re easy to use—saving you time you do not have, time you do not own. In this life of austerity, we follow the order of pragmatism. This is the primary aesthetic of the contemporary moment. This is what we look like. I text a friend, ‘what should I say?’ and the answer is already there. Less is more.

Inside the larger moment of lonely is a mouthful of desperation. We do not know how to separate desire from consumption. We do not know how to separate consumption from experience. We therefore name our acquired love: community, family, fandom, designer label, first-contact, organic compound, gastronomic memory. We eat our way out of the onion with narrative impulse, each layer yielding the same, smaller till we have the individual and the individualized experience. A steady commodity. Social media applications, as well as online dating apps (Grindr, Bumble, Hinge and so on) have promised community, but all they signal towards is the openness of the market, and the replication of relationships according to its order—easily accessible, diverse, comfortable. Available.

It comes as no surprise, then, that these applications are also the most hostile to the communities that turn to them as a space for the non-conforming. Grindr and other similar apps have been a site of harassment against trans women and other gnc folk. Certain apps require you to buy accessibility while Bumble and HER are hostile to trans women because they’re crawling with TERFS, and almost all these apps block sex-workers, even when they’re not using it for work. And at the same time, they’ve been inviting minors. Every few months, some media outlet is outraged that individual users have also been making money through it; recently focusing on the targeting of stock market investors,. True to cause, the outrage has been against the ‘women’ and ‘catfishers’, not the apps themselves, whose net worth reaches millions. The money flows unidirectionally, in exchange for the experience—which, despite its appearance of flourishing activity, is one of the heart on a sleeve, the thumb on the screen, the paralysis of options, the passivity of consumption. By the time I find where I am supposed to wait in this landscape, I have already texted back—three billboards later, an address, a landmark—I am thinking of how someone said that the only universal language was a logo. If that’s the case, what belongs to me: a name, a copyrighted future, a property?

The algorithm hides its logic through our use; a spy with a little eye, another eye on the goods. The design of these algorithms is such that they facilitate the viewing and sale of the data they have. Recently enough, Grindr, OKCupid and others have been in the news for selling it to third parties. No one, really, is all that surprised. If the market-based algorithm and every stalker who knows me on the internet have found my location so far, then is the landmark an address, a place, or a position? Don’t ask me, honestly, I’ll just say that it is a property. And the sum of its parts, is that who I am? Always a hyperlink away and I never have the time.

At the end of the day, I cannot even see in front of myself. Whenever I move, I don’t know if the buildings behind me cast shadows. The only way to leave an institution is to leave it for another. A new order, a sign of security, a marketplace we know our way around. In every new city I have counted the commute. Even if you connected everything by a highway, it would not be seamless. I would spend it accounting. If I lived closer to you, I would not take the bus.

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Shinjini has been trying not to write so she could read everything. She works as an editor, drops out of most jobs, and doesn't care for grammar. She lives in Hyderabad, India.
Shinjini Dey

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