Comedian Aziz Ansari spent 7 seasons playing shamelessly modern, unlucky-in-love Tom Haverford on cult comedy Parks and Recreation. Not long after the final episode of Parks rolled in February 2015, it was revealed that Ansari would be writing, producing, and starring in a Netflix-exclusive comedy series. Titled Master of None, the show is "semi-autobiographical" and portrays the life of Dev (Ansari), a 30-something NYC actor navigating the complexities of growing up in the 21st century. Many of the shows best moments - both belly-laughs and heart-warmers - arise from relationship conflicts. Given both his role on Parks and his relationship-centric stand up, it's no surprise that Ansari would have a developed commentary on the confusing state of modern romance. What is a surprise is that he would publish a thought, well-researched sociological book about it.
Modern Romance (2015) is as much Ansari's observations and reflections as it is exhaustive study. It goes without saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this read. My recommendation: get the Audiobook - Aziz's narration is hilarious and worth every penny.
At its core, Modern Romance is a critique of "maximization" behavior as it's applied to romantic pursuits. Unprecedented levels of exposure to possible partners triggers a sort of modern malaise: the single life is inherently unstable and doomed to dissatisfaction, but commitment means arbitrarily stopping your search for true love (as tiresome as it may be). And stopping too soon means you won't have the best. You won't meet your soulmate.
How crazy is it that we read the preceding sentence as "Bambi's dead mom" levels of pessimistic when the very concept of a soulmate is relatively new? According to the many expert opinions presented in Modern Romance, the idea of every human having a soulmate they must marry out of emotional love is less than one hundred years old. It's the opposite of the political/economic "good enough" marriages experienced by nearly every generation prior. But soulmate love, as the wisdom goes, is so immensely gratifying that eschewing the potential return of settling down is worth it. Even as the search for a flawless soulmate experience is confounded by the literal millions of potential partners that flood your inbox, Tinder, and daily life and make said search a frustrating duty rather than emotional journey. In this way, finding a soulmate is the ultimate "maximization" behavior - although instead of quantitatively shaving minutes off your morning routine (Brewing coffee while showering? Gamechanger), there are much more delicate emotional stakes at play.
Despite the book's contemporary title and present bias, Ansari makes very clear that advances in communications technology have always disrupted the conservative (at that time) definition of human relationships. The crux of his argument is that Internet telecommunications and text messaging, specifically the rise of the smartphone, has disrupted on a greater magnitude than ever before. To borrow from Master of None: human beings have becomes "[bubbles] on a phone" totally removed from meaningful interaction but able to easily called/dismissed as each bubble searches for its own bubble soulmate. I aimlessly scrolled Tinder during a mid-book lunch break.
Much of the work is based on the interactions of middle class 20-39 year olds (a fact that Ansari and his co-author, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, acknowledge in the book's intro), but the social tropes explored extend far outside demographics. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to focus on the "phone self" (bubble) vs. "real self" dichotomy presented midway through.
In summary, recent advances in communications technology have created a persona far from who we actually are that we choose to project to those outside our immediacy (the "phone self"). Maintaining this image requires effort, but is generally perceived as worthy because its believed to help in our search for love. However, like anything that requires constant maintenance, keeping up this image generates a certain level of anxiety. At first, this anxiety is healthy - its why we get butterflies before the big dance, or decide to put on pants before said dance in the first place. But most sources of anxiety are temporary, or at least imply a (quote Aziz) "predetermined temporal sequencing." You know when and where they'll arise. Crafting the "phone self", however, is never ending. And if an ounce of phone self (an image you alone control) is less than optimal, you might miss your soulmate.
Granted, some thrive under this constant pressure. Most crack.
There's already a conversation surrounding "social media burnout", but its deeper than that: the root cause is anxiety due to image presentation. Applied to the phone self, image presentation anxiety manifests itself most often in the meticulous text-craft we indulge when talking to a potential soulmate. Because there's no predetermined response time (unlike a back and forth phone conversation), you're technically free to spend as long drafting a text as you'd like. And of course you're going to take a while now that you can afford it - that message has to be perfect. Your one shot at true happiness is on the other side of that FB chat.
The truly insane part of this whole process is that the emotional stakes we've assigned to these exchanges, coupled with the nonlinear response cycle, has essentially created a life-long variable interval reinforcement schedule. Variable interval schedules are ridiculously effective for conditioning behaviors because they're nearly impossible to extinguish when started. You'll spend all day languishing over a text, get a response in six hours, feel fulfilled, respond, spend the next three days languishing over a text, only to finally get the chemical hit of a response (which despite your three days of anxiety you feel somehow validates your torment), and respond again. The cycle repeats. Like lab rats with sugar cubes, the treat is not the addictive substance - it's the relief from anticipation.
In this example, anxiety related to a single person's responses seems analogous to the "I hope she/he calls me" of generations prior. In a lot of ways, it is. As mentioned above, advances in communications technology have always challenged ideas of traditional human interaction. However, as also mentioned above, those same advances in communications technology have led to an overexposure to potential partners that essentially creates hundreds of instances like the one described above all happening at the same time. Each interaction could mean soulmate, and therefore demands chimpanzee levels of "phone self" grooming. Constant pressure? Try omnipresent.
Here's where Modern Romance really opened up for me:
The amplifying factor, then, is a psychological phenomenon known as "the burden of choice." In essence, choice is burdensome because it implies finality. In a hyperconnected world with more exposure to choices than ever before, you are paradoxically happier to have more choices and dissatisfied with the effort you expend trying to search out an optimized final decision. The Milennial Generation embraces choice, but fears making an arbitrary commitment that could hamstring "true" satisfaction. I'm reminded of the popularity of "sharing" services (Uber, Rent the Runway, Citi Bikes; hell, even the global rise of tapas restaurants) that provide instantly-gratifying conveniences without the hassle of ownership. I want to make painfully clear that I'm not comparing romantic partners to owned products. Instead, I'm suggesting that when faced with a burden of choice (what transportation do I select? what dress do I wear? what do I order?), our uniquely modern world has allowed human beings to abdicate finality and instead "try out whatever's best." If it's a tiny serving of jamon croquettes and a tiny serving of pulpas instead of a single paella entree, no sweat. It's one meal, not some Burden of Tapas. But if its a deeply emotional experience humans yearn for but can essentially be incentivized out of, that's where things get a little more complicated.
Human beings will always prefer having and making choices as opposed to not. This is as much our psyche as it is the foundation of Western thought (see: Locke's "liberty of Man" as it pertains to indeterminism e.g. true choices existing). At a certain threshold, however, we will declare that there are "too many" choices. But this threshold varies widely by subject matter and by individual. In essence, its impossible to quantify how much choice is too much. It's up the individual to cry uncle and choose arbitrarily, or continue searching and repeat the maximization process.
The one constant between these scenarios is that humans will at purely the initial level be drawn to choice. In the book, Ansari presents an experiment involving grocery store sample stations: one station had six choices, the other had twenty-four. The station with six choices generated more sales of the product on display (more arbitrary choices), but that was sales as a percentage of visitors. The station with twenty-four choices drew many, many more crowds, even if less chose per capita. In both cases, stopping at the table still had to preclude choice! If you were drafting policy to fix the bombing fertility rate of rich world countries, you would then want to maximize this maximizing choice. No one will back down from having more choices without an end-of-emerging-adulthood psychosocial crisis of some kind (the "all my friends are getting married", "having kids", etc) to intrinsically force them down, and communications technology will never recede. Choice will be everywhere and people will be drawn to it. Because when your soulmate is out there, how could you not be?
Essentially: how can you incentivize enough choice that people choose without the exposure/anxiety of the soulmate cycle that prevents couples from coupling up?
Yes, I know I ended with words that sound like SoulCycle. The point stands.
While Modern Romance is far from rigorous academia, as a 19-year old male who second-guesses Read Receipts and once drafted Snapchat captions in a group text, its one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. I've never felt more hopeless and hopeful after closing a cover: I will make a final choice some day, and regardless of whether that was the objectively best choice or not, powerful neurotransmitters and a programmed human love of narrative will make that choice the perfect choice. Until then, I'm just another phone bubble seeking transient perfection. But I could be Mr. Right.