Swipe Left

Dating Apps and Drone Strikes

NOTEBOOK: For the past few months I have been experimenting with inserting simulated drone strike “kill decision” imagery into the Tinder dating app. I’ve been trying out various things, ranging from aerial drone photography to mugshots of targets of previous drone strikes in the Middle East and South East Asia.

Screenshots from various experiments: “Haki” (Hakimullah Mehsud) Tinder profile; drone strike imagery in the new Tinder “moments” feature; and responses.

I don’t have a grand game plan for this project yet, but sometimes I find value in exploring an idea “live.”

So, some rambling notes from my files to document the “why” I ended up doing this below, in particular what parts interested me. (Note: I worked on and wrote this prior to the recent revelations about the unacceptable executive behavior within Tinder (the company), and haven’t had time to digest how that impacts the way I had been thinking about this project and whether I want to continue working with their platform. So for now, I’m just going to publish this as-is, and perhaps come back to it later.)

A large part of the popularity of Tinder is owed to the user interface. On a high level, Tinder essentially uses UI to make what should be difficult (picking a potential partner) into a simple game.

The interface of Tinder is consciously reductionist. You get a name, age, and (sometimes) a very brief bio. The decision tree is binary: yes or no (or in Tinder UI, swipe right or left). No winks, nudges, or ratings. No bookmarking to come back later for decision. You have to make a decision in order to move on.

Perhaps most interesting is how all actions in Tinder are final. Accidentally swipe left on someone who you thought might have actually been interesting? Too late, they’re gone forever. To combat loss-aversion, Tinder aggressively attempts to de-emphasize the significance this interaction — more and more people will come, so just make a decision quickly and move on. The addictive magic of Tinder lies in an interface that pushes constant momentum. No time to feel bad. Reflection and contemplation would break the magic cycle.

(To be fair, this magic cycle is part of what makes Tinder work so well for it’s intended purpose. No one wants to participate in an online dating site that makes them feel worse.)

The nature of computer interface to modify how we feel about “difficult” activities is intriguing to me. User Experience Design is often about trying to make complex actions achievable, but to me this feels like something different — using interface to make us feel “okay” about the reduction of complex activities to simple ones. What the full consequences are of reducing these complex activities to simple actions is unclear.

So let’s talk about drone strikes.

Part of the reason drone strikes produce such a visceral response in people is the sense of dehumanized technology — killer robots that kill without judgement or conscience based on algorithmic criteria. Reports such as this one by the Human Rights Watch, all echo the importance that a human being, instead of an algorithm, be a gating factor in the approval loop of making the final kill decision.

Active ordinance drone missions are typically carried out via a secure compound located 45 miles outside of Las Vegas. While the piloting of drones may take place in suburban Nevada, kill decisions frequently appear to go all the way to the top.

But what about the interface these decisions are carried out via? What does it really mean to be “in the loop” in a computer mediated interface?

Here are some select phrases from a well circulated New York Times article about drone strikes, focusing on the experience of President Obama reviewing the kill list:

“The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout…[President Obama] took a moment to study the faces…‘How old are these people?’ he asked.”

A list consisting of members who met a series of criteria.

Photo, age, a brief bio.

A binary decision.

The similarities between these tasks struck me.

I wondered what the computer mediated interface for reviewing drone strike targets might look like, and wanted to attempt to simulate the reduction of complex judgements with consequences into simple binary UI decisions.

Which is how I arrived at my little experiment, and for a period of time some New Yorkers would find drone strikes images interspersed with their continuous yes-and-no swiping to Tinder matches of shirtless-ab-photos and Instagram-filtered-art-selfies taken in the MoMA rain room, forcing them to make just one more binary decision before moving on.

I generally attempt to produce work that is apolitical in nature. Thus I feel it’s important to note that my interest in exploring this project is not in exploring foreign policy (although I suppose some comparisons are inevitable). Rather, the main intellectual question which has driven my interest in this topic is the ability of computer mediated user-interfaces to produce a distancing barrier between a viewer and an action that aides in creating quick action. I’m curious about the effectiveness of UI in “helping” make the difficult less difficult, and whether the consequences of doing so are always desirable.

As a side note: Tinder turns out to be a great platform for performance art. Especially interesting to me is that Tinder members who encounter the images are forced to make a decision. In the UI of Tinder, they are simply not allowed to move on until they’ve done so. (For everyone who asks “how many people swipe left?”—this really more about performance art than data viz in concept. How viewers choose to react is far less interesting to me than the fact that they’ve been forced into this situation to begin with.)