How Online Dating Can Explain Our Perception of The Natural World


Think back to your first date. Was it with a high school sweetheart? Set up through a mutual friend? Or maybe it was with that person who made you nervous at the bar.

If you were to ask a teenager about their first date, or question an adolescent couple to where they first met, there’s a decent chance the answer would involve an online dating app. Increasingly, American teenagers are turning to digital platforms for dating; in 2015, PEW found that 27% percent of 18-24 year olds have used digital apps, up 17% just from 2005. And it isn’t only 18-24 year olds; in nearly all age groups percentage of use has risen. Compatible with increased use is a perspective change surrounding online dating; in 2015, 59% of Americans stated that they believed online dating was a good platform to meet people, up 15% from 2005.

In the past 10 years our relationship to online dating has become increasingly positive: fringe usage and original concerns have transformed to common experience and more widely held acceptance; it would seem that online dating is becoming cemented within the fabric of our culture.

Given these trends and increasing technology usage, one can imagine a not so distant future where online dating will be the norm for incoming generations. It may even become such a widely used convention that the thought of meeting a significant other in person will sound weird. Where only 20 years ago having a date based off a digital interaction would’ve seemed audacious, incoming generations may now be born into completely opposing ideas as to what is the normal and acceptable way to meet a potential suitor. Fostered by technological and digital innovation, our dating dynamics have been restructured in less than half of a century.

The transformation of dating dynamics and the accompanying changes in acceptability, vividly portray the process of cultural conditioning: how a culture defines and influences the validity of a large group of peoples’ ethics, actions, and value systems.

Cultural conditioning isn’t only limited to technological trends and dating ethics, it can dictate which animals are acceptable to eat, what clothes are appropriate to wear, and even what constitutes a successful life; it can change the totality of the way we perceive and relate to the world.

One of the most impacted victims of cultural conditioning is our relationship to and understanding of the natural world. It’s become not only acceptable, but standard practice to destroy whole ecosystems in the name of human betterment. This is a methodology that most people in past generations were born into: the value of Nature lies in commodification - extracted for resource use, made into a product for capital gain, or developed into urban landscape. This way of living, though foreign to most people who ever lived on earth, has become widely understood as imperative for modern human living. Akin to what is happening with the normalization of online dating, over time the destruction of Nature for human advancement has become a cultural norm. As this methodology grew in regularity, societies became further removed from concerns and reservations, from concepts of an alternative. Instead, this understanding came to be seen as the normal way things were and should be done: a conditioned truth. To say or think otherwise would not only be irregular, it would go against the story of our culture.

Most pre-modern people - who lived in a more intimate relationship with Nature - understood the natural world as sentient, intelligent, and sacred. In some cultures, humans and Nature weren’t even considered separate constructs. With the agrarian revolution came the opportunity to alter entire ecosystems for human use. The potential to manipulate Nature as to provide exclusively, and maximally for human life enabled a completely different understanding of Nature; Nature could be thought of as a vector for human development, and advancement.

The arrival of modern Judeo-Christianity robbed the trees, plants, and all living things of their presumed sacredness and divinity, instead enabling for a great migration of the divine to the sky. There was now One all encompassing being, who placed a special inheritance in humans, giving them the right to preside over, and rape the once sacred land. Western science and philosophy concretized these notions, pervasively disseminating that humans were superior to and separate from the nature they were exploiting. Descartes, credited as the father of modern philosophy, proposed that humans had a rational soul, a soul that animals and plants weren’t capable of possessing. Aristotle postulated a great chain of being, an ecological hierarchy, which placed humans above animals, and animals that weren’t domesticated - considered less useful to humans - lower down on the hierarchy.

These stories propagated with the best of intentions, thought as what would bring us toward a better future - further away from the ‘uncivilized’, pre-modern life. Destroying ecosystems to build roads, structures, and to make more space for human living became synonymous with progress and was termed development. The more we “developed” the landscape, the more we evolved from the savagery past, and the better promise the future held. As we grew the technology, we grew our capacity to continually put space between the ‘human’ and the ‘non-human’, between the ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’. And as physical and mental space grew, it acted as a feedback mechanism reaffirming these philosophies, eventually not just as philosophies, rather taken and passed down as a conditioned truth: the natural world was separate from, and below the ‘civilized world’; Nature was an entity to be developed, with value only found when human use was possible; and a culture, which remained living intimately with Nature was savagery, brutish, uncivilized, and themselves wild.

In a similar way to how our digital innovation has directed us away from meeting others in person and instead conditioned us to grow accustomed with using digital mediums for our dating preference, our cultivation, religion, science, and philosophy has directed and conditioned us away from Nature. Where once Nature was considered sacred, and not distinct from ourselves, today it is implicit understanding that our species - one out of more than 8 million - is “special”, the god given rulers of the land, with inalienable right to hold dominion over the land, using all other life forms exclusively for our betterment.

In past generations, with markedly less people and technological capacity, it was plausible to continually ‘develop’ the natural world, to view humans as separate from Nature - its health not tied into ours - without catastrophic threat to our planet. Then, the sustainability of our actions could go unquestioned, but now they must be questioned. The fantasies of our old stories are being replaced with fallacy. Where we used to have a dream of a future in which innovation lead to the apex of leisure, happiness and harmony, we now aren’t quite sure what the future holds. The old methodology we employed our innovation, technology, and development based upon, with the hope of a better future, is now precisely what threatens any future. We now have lost over 80 percent of old growth forests, 90 percent of big fish species, and are continuing to see the global temperature rise at alarming rates. We’re now hitting the bottom of Nature’s balance sheet and are encountering the finitude of our planet. We’re now being confronted with questions our ancestors could never have imagined, and are being forced to examine the crux of our worldviews.

This isn’t about figuring out our place in the different stories of a culture, rather to examine and question if the stories of a culture are working in the way our ancestors intended for them to, and if not, figuring out how we can adjust our ways to form new stories for future generations.

While the breaking point nears, we are displaying our own flexibility. Our ecological understanding is being widely reformed; many are challenging what is an acceptable way for individuals and societies to live.  Smart cities are no longer solely defined by the safety, efficiency, and innovation they offer people, but also for their level of environmental sustainability. Destruction of common ecosystems for private business interests is increasingly being scrutinized and legislated.  Millions across the globe have risen to challenge further oil and gas exploration. And resultantly, climate change has become the paramount issue of our generation, with many understanding that we need not only technological solutions, but also wholesale perspective changes to combat climate issues. In a similar way to how a new story, acceptability, and understanding is forming around our social pairing and online dating, we need a new story, acceptability, and understanding surrounding the way we relate to Nature.

This process has largely played out in the political playing field. But these aren’t partisan issues; it’s realizing our future depends on the health of the resources we extract; it’s reshaping the story of our culture; it’s conditioning new generations with completely different concepts for the value of Nature; it’s forming new ideas for what are acceptable ways of living, for what we should prioritize as individuals, as a culture, as a species.

How we relate to the world and the technology we create will always be changing. The 180-degree flip surrounding our dating dynamics shows how remarkably flexible human perspective and cultural views can be. Now, in the midst of ecological crisis, and the reformation of how we relate to the natural world, we need to continue to be flexible, continue to have the courage to deeply examine old mindsets, and continue to let go of those that don't serve the planet. The more we do such, the sooner we can stop fighting about who's right or wrong, but instead work toward designing new systems and solutions, collectively.