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Don't outsource your dating life

By Evan Selinger
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1110 GMT (1910 HKT)
Is it cheating to outsource your dating life?
Is it cheating to outsource your dating life?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new service lets men outsource their online dating tasks to paid wingmen
  • Evan Selinger: There will be more outsourcing technology that will erode our humanity
  • He says the personal time and touch we put in activities convey attention and care
  • Selinger: We shouldn't delegate away conscientiousness, independent thinking

Editor's note: Evan Selinger is associate professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also head of research at the university's Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC). You can follow him on Twitter @EvanSelinger The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Critics haven't been kind to Personal Dating Assistants, a new service that allows men to up their online dating game by outsourcing tasks to paid, clandestine wingmen who pimp profiles, locate prospects and ghostwrite correspondences. GQ calls it "creepy." CNET says customers eventually will have to admit they are big fakes. And over at Jezebel, dudes who take advantage of the deception are called "human trash."

Evan Selinger
Evan Selinger

Unfortunately, Personal Dating Assistants is a sign of things to come. Thanks to technology, we'll be seeing more opportunities to degrade ourselves and others through outsourcing activities that are basic to our humanity.

Outsourcing isn't inherently problematic. After all, it's just about delegating tasks. As long as humans have been dividing labor and using tools, we've been outsourcing. Corporations have been doing it for a long while. Just think of how much stuff you use is made overseas.

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But in recent years there's been a shift of attitude. Some people advocate that we can live better by outsourcing more aspects of our lives.

Let's say you want to cook, but find preparation overwhelming. Just follow the lead of one "life hacker" and outsource the unpleasant parts -- let someone else pick out the meals you'll be preparing and automate your grocery shopping with online services like Amazon's Subscribe and Save.

The economic principle of comparative advantage makes outsourcing seem like a rational approach to setting priorities. Whenever time is spent on tasks you don't value or find frustrating, opportunity costs are generated. This means you're diverting attention and resources from activities that you deem important and enjoy doing.

Outsourcing will get even easier in the coming years. We already can go online and order a robot-written thank-you note. Or, if the human touch is preferred, we can get cheap ones at fivver.com. We can download an app that sends automated text messages to people we're dating. In the future, Google might release software that recommends how we should respond to social media posts.

There will be technology that anticipates our needs and recommends what we should do to accomplish our goals. We'll probably have algorithms that offer advice after tracking and analyzing other people's data trails, including our romantic and business partners.

And we might even be able to avoid self-sabotaging behavior by outsourcing our willpower. Today, we can be nudged away from sending hot-headed e-mails. Tomorrow, there will be app to help recovering addicts avoid relapsing.

The more hard and tedious work outsourcing can remove from our lives, the more tempting it will be to take advantage of it. And yet, that's exactly why we need to be vigilant.

Defenders of outsourcing believe the Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) ethic has too much cultural prominence and is wrongly "perceived as evidence of thrift or even moral virtue." They attribute this mistake to people having difficulty placing a proper value on their time.

Setting a value on time, however, is more complicated than outsourcing boosters lead us to believe.

First, outsourcing can impact responsibility. A calendar isn't just a tool for offloading memorizing commitments. It can be very helpful in organizing our busy lives and ensuring we meet our obligations. But delegation can be negative. If you only think of a lover because your phone prompts you to, maybe you're just not that into your lover.

Secondly, outsourcing can alter the quality. Sure, dating assistants can make you seem cooler than you are. But it's manipulative to use them. These supposed helpers actually diminish communication. They reduce everything to an instrumental goal -- idealized and false representation of who you are.

Ultimately, outsourcing is tricky because it can be hard to know when quality and responsibility will diminish. We've got a blind spot. It's easy to see activities filled with inefficiency, friction and hard work as boring and meaningless, rather than moments to exhibit care and develop character we can be proud of.

For example, if other people or machines write our thank-you notes, that's like believing a nice gesture is all that matters. But when we personally do it -- whether it's a handwritten note or a digitally composed song—the effort conveys concentrated attention and care. Taking the time to craft a thank-you note is not just a chore, it's an expression of the depth of our feelings for another person. Robots who write about appreciation don't actually think about generosity or behave generously. They certainly can't appreciate the saying "time is precious."

To embrace the values and develop the virtues that make human life meaningful, we shouldn't delegate away conscientiousness, independent thinking, self-control, and a host of other crucial abilities. Yes, to be human is to outsource. But we should not outsource to the extent that we erase our humanity.

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