HBO’s latest documentary actually owes a debt to science fiction, and the unintended consequences associated with unleashing forces beyond our control. In the case of “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age,” the monster is the corrosive effects of dating apps that have rapidly led society into uncharted territory — what one expert calls “evolutionary unprecedented waters.”
That description comes from research scientist Justin Garcia, one of several academics who paint a dismaying picture of a world in which adults age 18-30 spend an estimated 10 hours per week on such apps, finding and engaging with potential mates in a way that’s unlike any previous generation.
Still, writer-director Nancy Jo Sales — essentially adapting, and updating, her 2015 Vanity Fair piece “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” — accomplishes more than just make old married folk feel relieved to be out of dating game; rather, she travels the country, to places like Austin, Tex., and New York City, talking to young people hooking up, and how technology has impacted their attitudes.
As evolutionary psychologist David Buss says, we now live at a time when the photo that someone posts online “tends to swamp all the other information,” placing a more pronounced emphasis on appearance than even in the past — a shift from when people were more likely to meet in organic, in-person ways.
Sales’ reporting also includes seeking out pioneers in this field, including Tinder co-founder Jonathan Badeen, who acknowledges the game-like features associated with finding matches and hookups. It’s jarring, too, to be reminded how relatively new this all is, with the app only having begun to take root on college campuses in 2012.
Tellingly, the broader issues explored in “Swiped” are so much in the public consciousness right now that they’re peripherally the subject of two dramatic projects that premiered just this weekend: “You,” a Lifetime series about a stalker who uses social media to try to seduce his prey; and “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” a Netflix movie in which a self-conscious teenage girl assumes a classmate’s identity as she uses her cellphone to flirt with an attractive boy.
“Swiped” also cites the influence of pornography, especially on young men, who — as some of the women interviewed note — use these digitally mediated hookups to find partners willing to indulge their porn-fed fantasies.
The most unsettling aspect of “Swiped,” as the experts note, is that because society is at such a nascent stage of this phenomenon, it’s not as yet clear precisely where these forces will lead — and whether those responsible have simply brought another shiny new wrinkle into the process of pairing up or, more unnervingly, opened Pandora’s box.
“Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age” premieres Sept. 10 at 10 p.m. on HBO.