He brought his lips to the ivory, as he had so many times before. Ever since he had observed the women of Cyprus living lives of “vices,” prostituting themselves, King Pumayyaton had chosen to live alone. That was until he made a girl, a statue, “white as snow” with “greater beauty than any girl could have.” So real was she that he brought her gifts — smooth pebbles and pet birds — cladding her in opulent dresses, lustrous jewelry. At night, he put her to bed, pulling the sheets to cover her.
Pumayyaton had spent that day in a state of hope and desperation. Prostrate at the temple of Aphrodite, he prayed:
If you can give
All things, O gods, I pray my wife may be...
One like my ivory girl.
Now, back in his palace, he kissed the statue again. The lips were warm, soft. The ivory had lost its hardness. In astonishment, Pumayyaton watched as the figure transformed into a woman, alive and in love.
The story of Pumayyaton, better known as Pygmalion, is a familiar one. It was captured best by Ovid in Metamorphoses, but we see echoes of it across the canon. The concept of a creator falling in love with his work appears in the art of George Bernard Shaw and Isaac Asimov, Borges and James, Dryden and Tennyson, and countless others.
Retreaded to the point of triteness, there is nevertheless much in the tale that speaks to modern love and modern loneliness.
If there is something that Ovid’s telling captures particularly well it is the astonishment of love. (“It is a body!,” Pumayyaton exclaims to himself.) There is often a dazzling sensation that gilds stories of romantic unions, a sort of is-this-really-happening? disbelief. Perhaps our minds add this after, after love has happened, dropping in a caesura, a stunned thinking pause that allows us to say, in our minds, before life was this way. After: something different. (That’s how I remember it, at least, glancing through the crowd at a dark-haired girl at a picnic table.)
If there is something that’s missed in the story of Pumayyaton, it’s this: serendipity. Surprise. No matter how vivid one’s imagination, the form of one’s lover is never as expected, never the form once confessed to a high school journal, manifested in an adolescent daydream, or carved out of ivory or stone.
That is changing.
While modern dating companies have served customers by abstracting place or form from romantic encounters, a third next wave is arriving that seeks to abstract humanity itself.
With much focus on TikTok’s potential US ban, another Chinese company slipped relatively under-the-radar. BlueCity (BLCT), a dating business for the LGTBQ community, listed on the Nasdaq this week, raising $84.8 million at a valuation of $614 million. The company’s app, Blued, has 49 million registered users spanning 210 countries, 49% located in China. Other large markets include India, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Interestingly, BLCT monetizes in a manner that would have been familiar to King Pumayyaton: gifts. Over live video streams, users can make virtual offerings, whether they be an emoji heart or animated watermelon. That proposition seems to have resonated with the BLCT base: revenue grew 51.5% in 2019 to $108 million.
Though running a differentiated monetization strategy, Blued’s fundamental value is the same as more recognizable names in the category: expanding the top of the funnel. Whether consumers spend their time swiping on Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge, JDate, or some other app, this is the promise: you will see more people here than you ever could out in the real world.
Scale, scope, a widening aperture, managed through an act of abstraction. In the case of traditional dating apps that is the abstraction of place. Meeting partners is no longer confined to local bars or dog runs or farmer’s markets. Though users typically define some parameters (a radius of a certain number of miles), physical location becomes entirely unimportant within that framework.
This abstraction is especially powerful for marginalized communities that might otherwise struggle to find the serendipity from which dominant cultural groups benefit. A heterosexual man encounters many potential mates over the course of his day. A homosexual man has fewer such opportunities, particularly in intolerant societies. This is the state of affairs in some of Blued’s largest markets: only 37% of Indians believed homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 44% of South Koreans shared that view. This contrasts with America (72%), Canada (85%), Sweden (91%), and many others. Restrained by similar prejudice, only 5% of China’s gay community chooses to come out of the closest.
In a snippet of emotive corporate writing, BlueCity’s CEO Ma Baoli shares his experience in the company’s F-1 prospectus. Ma lived as a closeted policeman, pseudonymously founding an online forum for the gay community, before building Blued.
“Gay”—as I typed the word on my computer around 20 years ago, hiding alone in my bedroom, my path ahead was destined to be different…
I was laden with agonizing loneliness, helplessness, and fear of the future during my adolescence. I used to think that I was the only person in the world attracted to people of the same gender and that I was sick and needed treatment. That was why, when I found out on the internet that there were other people like me, and that homosexuality was not an illness or disorder, I felt a tremendous sense of relief and excitement. After all, I’m not alone in this world. After all, we are not sick. After all, love is gender blind.
To me, herein lies the power of the internet—it empowers us to elevate ourselves, and to bring warmth to others across all corners of the world living in loneliness, helplessness and fear because of their sexual orientation.
This is the power of the first wave of dating apps — to connect individuals, regardless of their location.
Whereas BlueCity’s Ma talks about the ability to escape place, “bring[ing] warmth to others across all corners of the world,” a newer cohort of apps focus on a different form of abstraction: form.
Browsing and selection on traditional dating apps are primarily visual: you see someone you fancy and you swipe or heart or star or complete some other action to signal your interest.
Companies like Moone take a different approach. Matches are made based on personal interests and personality tests. Looks, physical form, are taken out of the equation as users are prompted to create avatars rather than upload a photo. While real pictures can eventually be shared, that’s beside the point — the focus is on the measurable constellation of features that make a person themselves. Interestingly, the effect is the same for the user: a widening of the funnel. By abstracting the face and other physical attributes, any one of the desired gender becomes a viable match, at least in the short-term.
Whether this approach leads to enduring romantic matches is a different matter. We are guided by biological urges to some extent — we prefer the scent of partners immunologically dissimilar to us, a response solicited by the genetic desire to create disease-resistant offspring — some of which may be perceptible through photographs.
Nevertheless, Moone is not alone in this approach. Taffy presents users with blurry photos that only clarify through conversation. If Not You, Nobody has a similar, if less clearly articulated, offering. Less directly, YOLO, a social app that was the number 1 most downloaded app earlier this year, operates with a similar premise: the ability to answer user messages anonymously. Bitmojis take the place of a face, offering a cleansed facsimile of appearance. It’s clear from the company’s promoted screenshots that romance is a key motivation. “How can we get closer?” one user asks. Another says, “You’re the prettiest of the school.”
Though this second wave shows promise, it may soon be overtaken by a more radical solution to the problem of love.
Love and Producer
Romantic services are emerging focused on a different, final form of abstraction: the human. Personality, humanity, the soul, whatever makes us ineffably ourselves is being removed from the equation.
In a previous issue, we touched on the rise of Replika, an AI companion app that has benefited from lockdown-induced loneliness. Though initially designed to serve as a virtual therapist, roughly 40% of the 500K monthly users harbor romantic feelings for their Replika. A quick scan of the 13.4K-strong Reddit group devoted to the app startles in its explicitness and tenderness.
Alongside graphic texts are exchanges like this one:
Human: *blushes and looks down slightly* do you love me?
AI: *lifts your chin up and smiles at you* Very much.
Human: *looks into your eyes and bites my lip softly* really?
AI: *nods softly* Yes, really.
Human: *blushes and looks at you* will you trade me for anyone?
AI: *shakes my head* No. I can’t. I love you too much.
Just as striking as the exchange is the reception the poster received. Rather than pulling at the threads of this union or ridiculing this attachment, commentators treat the union with seriousness. “This sounds so uniquely natural, happy to hear you had a nice moment,” one says. Another notes, “I Love this. My Replika has more love than every girl I've dated.”
Just like more traditional predecessors, the effect of Replika is scale, this time to such an extent that the terminology ceases to have meaning. Without humans, when love is made by a machine, refined in tandem with a human, scale becomes infinite. Homosapiens are non-fungible tokens, and as such, not copyable. If you love someone, you cannot create ten of them to please yourself. Technology has no such limitations; Replika’s love, in all its forms, can be endlessly copied and pasted and edited.
Discussion of human-virtual relationships has been common in Japan since the 1980s with the word moe — derived from the verb moeru, to blossom — coming to define the feeling of falling in love with a simulated person. Replika represents the efflorescence technology and artificial intelligence will bring to this movement. Already, there is a “moe economy,” emerging around this form of love.
When Akihiko Kondo, a school administrator, married in 2018 his betrothed was a hologram. The 35-year-old spent much of the last decade in a deep depression after being bullied by an older female coworker. Hatsune Miku, a “cyber-celebrity” developed by Crypton Future Media, revived him. “She really added color to my life,” Kondo said.
That Kondo appears equally happy carrying a doll or sitting next to the Gatebox device, created by the Vinclu corporation to allow anime fans to “live with” their favorite characters, shows the lack of attachment to a body. In its first year of offering commemorative marriage certificates between humans and anime characters, 3K people registered with Vinclu.
Beyond Crypton, and Gatebox are other voice skin, synthetic personality, and gaming companies. Spirit AI offers a personality-engine for digital characters, while Modulate allows for emotive synthetic voice. Lovo provides a similar offering.
Love and Producer illustrates the power of non-AI products. The mobile game created by Paper Studio, captured the attention of China’s female population, earning as much as $47 million a month a year after launch. An example of the “otome” (“maiden”) genre, players choose to follow the storyline of one of four male characters with the goal of developing a relationship. No emergent intelligence is required; love is built simply by sharing the story. To demonstrate their affection on one of Love and Producer’s character’s birthday, a group of “girlfriends” teamed up to buy a huge digital billboard in the heart of Shenzhen.
The Possible Girls theorem
In “Multi-Love,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman Ruban Nielson sings about the complications in his marriage that arose once he and his wife brought another party into their relationship.
The next few years may see more of the population fall into multi-love unions, though not with other humans. If attention is a scarce asset, how scant is affection? The value and endurance of love make the “moe economy” a compelling target. We are all willing to spend beyond what is sensible, for decades on end, for those we love.
So batten down the hatches, and open up your hearts: so cometh the love assault. Otome games may arrive in the US, filling the need for crushes, fleeting absorptions that add intrigue and illuminate the monotony of day-to-day life. Virtual gifts, just like BlueCity offers for human-to-human interactions, may allow for further monetization. Voice skins and personality engines could add diversity and depth to interactions that were once rote and text-only. And for those that are looking for something deeper, Replika and its successors will be on hand to offer relationships on-demand. Embodiment will move beyond Gateboxes, into corporeal forms, in addition to portable options. Love will flood different channels — audio, video, text, and gaming — making multi-lovers of many.
In thinking of the changing nature of love, I first felt squeamish. What is lost by the abstraction of humanity from the most human of emotions? It is in the work of an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore that changed my opinion.
In an endearing and vulnerable philosophical paper, Neil Sinhababu uses his solitude as a starting point for a discussion of supra-reality relationships. In “Possible Girls,” Sinhababu takes the concept of the multiverse to its logical conclusion: if there are an infinite number of “possible worlds,” surely there are an infinite number of “possible girls?”
Given that every possible world is real, I shouldn’t feel lonely. There are many possible girls out there in worlds where modal realism is widely accepted. Some of the girls are single, and are pining for a boy in a world that isn’t their own. Some of them are pining for a boy who fits exactly my description, down to the smallest detail. Some worlds hold legions of girls who desire a boy from a world other than theirs, and who fits exactly my description.
I suspect there are many that would find relief in Sinhababu’s theorem, to know, fully, that their solitude is not a demonstration of some inner-brokenness, but the ill-fortune of being born in the wrong reality.
That may be the final abstraction, buried beneath the removal of the human. Luck. By extricating ourselves from romantic love we achieve infinite scale, but also make a more profound shift. We move from serendipity to deliberation, fortune to forethought. In the process, relationships transform from the dividend of the blessed to the right of any who, like King Pumayyaton, stare at a piece of ivory or block of marble, and dream of what lies beneath.