Silicon Valley At Its Seductive Worst

First, two quick caveats, for this is an emotive topic.  One, I do not seek to condemn people who find that a poly-amorous or other non-monogamous form of relationship seem to meet their emotional needs, nor am I necessarily against responsible and respectful promiscuity.  Two, in other channels it appears that Chris Messina has, or had, some reservations about the interview he gave to CNN Money about “Why I choose non-monogamy”.  I suspect he may even privately agree with me (given his reservations) that such an important and complex topic should not handled in a short piece in CNN Money of all places.

There are many ways in which we might be concerned with how technology is changing our lives.  From how it appears to be altering our cognitive patterns, to how it has created a huge commercial and governmental surveillance operation, to how markets are being captured, disrupted and sometimes, de facto deregulated, by internet companies.  Our lives increasingly resemble a daily celebration of what these companies have brought to us, and it would also be churlish of me to fail to acknowledge that in many ways, I owe my career to them.

But when I read the CNN Money piece advancing the case for how technology can mediate the rise of non-monogamous relationships, I felt fear and sadness.  Not because I wish to judge non-abusive alternative lifestyles of others, nor do I judge those who find they need to make a change, or those who make mistakes or who succumb to temptations (we are human, are we not?).  But I do judge, and judge harshly, blase, superficial and self-serving analysis of the most important matters in life.  So let me declare my position: I am pro-marriage.
In the article, Messina advances an argument for being bullish about the future of non-monogamous relationships. He starts by attacking the “happily ever after myth”, and showing how it wouldn’t pass muster with your average Silicon Valley product manager.  He calls for a “data-positive solution-oriented” approach to the problem that “your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50% of your customers”.  I assume that this choice of language is at least partly tongue-in-cheek.

He explains that his “monogamish” relationship is not diminished or weakened by physical intimacy with people outside his (for want of a better word) main relationship.  He has been in this lifestyle for approximately 18 months.  He goes on to say that monogamy dates back to a time of scarcity, and that in the world of abundance which he inhabits, monogamy is a choice which may no longer be rational.

In further tounge-in-cheekery (I hope), monogamy and sex are being “unbundled” (a term typically applied to the simplification of a complex or compound product offering) and that romantic partners are now “fungible” (his actual word).  And naturally, this is thanks to the facilitation of technology.

In summary, he is not asserting that monogamy is irrelevant, but rather he is promoting the idea that non-monogamous relationships which he sees being borne of the Silicon Valley-Burning Man-Randian sub-culture may potentially empower the individual in unforeseen ways (“a bicycle for the heart”).

So, given my carefully exhausted caveat above, why do I have my knickers in such a twist?

People have rational capabilities, but we are fundamentally emotional constructs.  Nurturing our emotional lives, caring for them wisely, is the most important thing we can do for ourselves.  And being bullish on something with so much capacity for emotional harm, and with so little depth of thought, and with such a one-sided (and flawed) argument, is just the kind of dangerous hubris that gives the tech industry a bad name.

Why is Messina’s argument flawed?  

First, he erects a straw man, the “happily ever after” myth.  This apparently reveals his approach to relationships: they are only good while they are good.  This is a passive attitude, reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s view of them.  Surely anyone with any experience of a serious relationship knows that a rewarding partnership is not something that is preordained once you meet Mr or Ms Right.  It is about loving intentionally, every day.

Secondly, he very casually dismisses the obvious challenges of his position.  Being monogamish does not “diminish the integrity of our relationship”, but instead, it serves to “deepen our understanding of each other’s wants and desires, and give us the space to grow independently, without growing apart.”

Let us be happy for them, but I note with some trepidation that it has only been a year and a half.  I am not sure I would risk my marriage on such a small sample size in my A/B test of life (although I do sincerely hope that his and his partner’s experiences remain positive – I wish only happiness).  It seems very likely to me that people could easily experience jealousy, however.  Perhaps this is Messina’s appeal to our higher, Burning Man self: to be above jealousy (which is surely what free love was telling us in the 60s). Perhaps he is simply a very confident lover.  Or perhaps he just hasn’t thought about it much yet.

More broadly, many relationships are not perfectly equal: men earn more money everywhere on earth.  Biological clocks tick.  Looks fade.  Career prospects change.  We get sick.  In short, marriage vows exists for a reason.  I can imagine one partner in a relationship reading the CNN article and broaching the topic, claiming that it will not necessarily affect their relationship if he starts seeing other people too.  His partner’s response to that question may be a factor of both the appeal of the idea and the degree of security they feel in the relationship.  The idea, in other words, may be corrosive.

Thirdly, his analysis is a curious advert for technology-mediated social change.  I am still struggling to understand how much of this was self-parody (I do not know Chris Messina, but evidently he is a successful and clever chap and as the CNN piece reminds us not once, but twice, he is the “inventor of the hashtag”).  His choice of language, of monogamy as a “product”, of sex being “unbundled” from it and of romantic partners being “fungible” all seem to make his argument absurd, to be willfully clumsy metaphors or outright category errors.  Perhaps I am taking the whole thing too seriously -after all, the accompanying video has the host, Laurie Segall, telling us, “we’re lucky enough to be sitting with the dude that invented the hashtag”, while standing up.

The case for monogamy

Now, let us not say people shouldn’t have these relationships, but they absolutely should not do so on such flimsy understanding of possible consequences, underestimate what lasting romance can mean to their lives, and give up monogamy the way they give up their privacy when they log onto Facebook.

I agree on some things.  Our environment has changed.  We tend to believe less in gods.  We tend to look less to political ideologies for guidance on what is right.  And we risk finding less meaning in our lives beyond being cultivated consumers.  So what do you hang your soul on?

A lasting, meaningful relationship is hard work.  You don’t meet the one person in all creation intended for you.  You become that person.  You choose to devote yourself, and you keep on choosing to, and devotion without sacrifice is meaningless, as is monogamy without a desire for others.

If human progress is anything, it is our ability not to opt for the satisfaction all of our immediate desires.  True devotion to another person is, I believe, just about the highest state it is possible for us to reach, not the lowest, as Rand asserts.  If you are able to do that, if you master your desire, you have mastered yourself.  Not everything need be vanity.

I am no absolutist and if we do not harm others or behave towards them without their consent, then I do believe we should be able to do as we please.  But such decisions should be done thoughtfully, and the most important decisions in your life should not be treated like an A/B test in a social networking service.

My final appeal would be this.  There does seem to me to be an inherent contradiction between the need to preserve emotional distance from a sexual partner who is not your main partner and what most people understand as the idea of “romance”.  I hope we never surrender the notion that is a certain something in human emotional connections that will forever resist analytics.  Sexual partners may indeed, as Messina forecasts, become “fungible” -but let us agree that romantic ones never will.


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