Love in the loos

I’m not saying I’m a world authority on matters of the heart but I have been around a bit. And one thing I’m pretty certain about is that if a sad-faced, doe-eyed millennial asked me where to find love I wouldn’t suggest the loos in a Hackney pub. 

But the world is full of surprises.  

And not long ago, after doing the necessary, I pushed open the door of the gents intending to sway back to the table where the hot topic was, as it often is, the rise of the robots and the end of humans etc.  etc. when something caught my eye. It was a poster that said something like “Are you single and have you had enough of technology and dating apps and do you like pubs, if so sign up!”. 

This it turns out was not the only loo door that had been, in startup patois, “hacked” in this way.

Similar marketing devices to this non-interactive retro-poster had been blue-tacked to the toilet doors of several carefully selected pubs in the Shoreditch ‘hood. The idea behind the poster is to identify and corral those people who might actually want to meet up and flirt with each other face-to-face rather than Tinderize each-others photoshopped online dating avatars.

Those who sign up are contacted by a company called (appropriately) Anti-Date and summoned to a nice pub and then…well, nothing, they are simply left to their own devices. No pokes. No likes. No emojis. No crowd-sourced chat up lines.

I am conflicted about this back-to-the-future innovation. First of all, I take a certain pride in living in the thick of *where-it’s-at* from a techno-startup point of view. I like to think that if it’s new and shiny and sleek and replete with technology and innovation then this is where it’s happening. Old-fashioned posters are for, I don’t know, Cornwall or the Isle of Man or some other part of the country without Oyster cards and Boris Bikes. Here everything is data-powered and overseeing it all are the omniscient descendants of HAL and R2D2. And yet in the middle of all this artificial intelligence and technological disruption is an approach to dating which rejects algorithmic superiority. It’s a cheer for messy human intuition and suck-it-and-see approaches to life and love. It’s a slap in the face for the behavioural economists, nudge-psychologists and data-munching algorithm-inventors who claim to know more about us than we do ourselves. It is, I venture, bad for the Tech Startup brand.

At the same time, we all know that we can have – and do have – too much technology and data in our lives. This is true even when the advice about interests, travel, love and diet is correct. I recall a big retailer getting in trouble a few years ago because it could tell from purchasing decisions that a young woman was in the first trimester of pregnancy and it sent some congratulatory direct mail to the household. The local manager then got beaten up by the young woman’s father who had yet to be told the news and didn’t believe it. 

There are some who will tell you that this is a perfect example of the sort of over-powering intelligence and insight we should be celebrating and encouraging in magic roundaboutland. Others will see a different moral in the tale. 

There’s something attractive in the old-fashioned idea of finding out about people by speaking to them rather than calling up their Top Trumps-style dating avatar and seeing if it matches your wish list. In any event we are hopeless at knowing what we want. The data-matching algorithms at and elsewhere already know that successful matches often come when they create a collision between two people whose details are not what they expressed an interest in. So amid a sea of 6’4” blonde haired olympic rowers generated by the MUST HAVE requirements that a dater might have specified  the computer will insert a Woody Allen type.  The trouble is 99/100 the would be dater says “no” despite the best interests of the algorithmic matchmaker. The poster on the pub door fixes this.

It may also be important to the survival of the human race. If, let’s say, the electro- magnetic pulse of a solar burst frazzles the national grid and the Internet then it may not mean the end of the species because there will be some people in a pub in Shoreditch who have learned to do dating without devices.