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Online dating has only recently become a culturally and socially acceptable phenomenon, but the use of technology to match singles has a long history. In the 1960s, computerized dating systems appeared in the Anglo-American world, which worked through questionnaires and customized algorithms.
The early stages of computer dating are shared between the USA and the UK. In the mainstream history of dating, the first instance of the use of computers to match singles dates back to 1965, with the invention of Operation Match by two students at Harvard. In a development very similar to that of Facebook, a service initially intended for students (then separated by gender in campus) was later extended to the general population.
But before Operation Match launched its first match-up program, a woman running a marriage bureau in London had come to the conclusion that computers were the future of dating. Joan Ball founded a computer dating service as an extension of her matchmaking business in Piccadilly Circus, London, in 1964. The movie "The Lady of Computer Dating”, directed by curator Valentina Peri, allows visitors to follow the incredible story of this entrepreneur woman through an interview and archival material about the St James Computer Dating Service, later to become Com-Pat, and its main competitor, Dateline.
The aim of the exhibition “The Museum of Dating” is to place the contemporary phenomenon of online dating within a spectrum of older technologies, practices, narratives, cultural and media artifacts.
Curator Valentina Peri presents an ongoing timeline of the history of dating with a focus on England and the emergence of dating mediated by computerized technology in the 60’s. It traces the path from the family-monitored courtship of the 50’s (“calling”), to the subsequent boom of the personal ads in the press, from the development of marriage bureaus to the emergence of the first computer dating services of the 1960s, from the introductory videotapes of the 1970s to the bulletin board systems of the 1980s and it ends with the creation of the first online dating site in the mid 90s.
The timeline is enriched by cultural, social and political facts and processes, both official and niche, that have contributed to shape the dating phenomenon and the idea of singleness until today.
Part of the exhibition is also a selection of cultural artifacts and mass culture productions, board games, movies, sit-coms, television programmes, books and old technologies, that are put into perspective through this chronological reconstruction.
The work of artist Lordess Foudre resonates with the content and the topics of the exhibition.
Her digital collages and drawings interrogate the technological infrastructure of normativity, the social derives of the misuse of social networks, and contribute to a growing body of conversations about transhumanism in the past, present and speculative futures.
According to Zoe Strimpel, who has extensively studied the way people used to seek love in Modern Britain, digital technology has completely changed the appurtenances and affordances of matchmaking via a third party. But the assumption of total rupture on a social level hides how digital matchmaking fits within a longer history of mediated dating, in which the methods of matching have constantly interacted with social dynamics both new and old.
“The Museum of Dating” makes it possible to shed new light on key categories of historical understanding such as gender, generation, class, race and social status, through analysis of the power dynamics at play in partner selection within the context of the couple, the family, and the community beyond. This historical study of dating can also help to better understand the ability of seemingly neutral technologies to extend the power and belief systems of particular groups, replicate heteronormative categories and create new social needs.