A Conversation About Polyamory and Technology
In recent years, polyamory has seen a surge of mainstream interest. Is this new public fascination driven by technology? How have new tools changed how people discover polyamory, and how they form and coordinate non-monogamous relationships?
To help us answer these questions, we spoke to the philosopher Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, her husband Jonathan Ichikawa, and her boyfriend Ray Hsu.
Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins is the author of What Love Is: And What It Could Be and the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.
Jonathan Ichikawa is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.
Ray Hsu is author of two books and Faculty in Residence at the Emerging Media Lab at the University of British Columbia.
How have new technologies challenged the bias toward mononormativity in our culture? Have the internet or mobile apps helped make polyamory more mainstream?
Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins:
I’m not sure if they’ve made it more “mainstream”… it’s complicated. There is certainly huge public interest in polyamory. Online access to poly people and their lives—via media coverage but also through people putting themselves out there on social media—make it possible to satisfy that public demand efficiently.
But beyond that, everything depends on how we are represented and perceived. This varies wildly across different kinds of coverage and their various audiences. Visibility can be a positive thing: greater cultural representation of non-normative possibilities for love is, in my view, a key mechanism through which our “scripts” can be changed and challenged.
But when the representation is of a single, typically hyper-sexualized, stereotype—or when we are presented for public consumption as a new kind of “other” to gawk at or be outraged by—I feel like we’re moving backwards rather than forwards.
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa:
I’m seeing progress. When I first started using dating sites ten or fifteen years ago, “Single” and “Available” were treated as synonymous by most. On OkCupid, if you said you were in a relationship but also looking for dating, you’d show up as “Available” instead of “In a Relationship.” This lumped together cheating with ethical non-monogamy.
Last year, OkCupid announced support for an official “Open Relationship” status. I do think this has contributed to visibility and normalization in some circles. But obviously there’s still a long way to go.
Not all technologies challenge mononormative bias equally. But something as basic as the ability to identify as different categories, and to choose different ways of searching for others, challenge mononormativity by allowing people to move beyond tacit, unspoken norms.
What about abuse? As the internet has made polyamory more visible, do polyamorous people encounter specific forms of hate online?
Well, I get targeted online for specific forms of misogyny that are related to my being a poly woman. There’s a long list of colorful words that are specifically used for women who break the monogamy norm. I’ve been called most of them, as well as receiving plenty of other hateful—sometimes even violent—online abuse that relates to my gender. The way I experience most online hate seems to be distinctively aimed at the intersection of my non-monogamy and my gender.
I receive a fraction of the online hate that Carrie does. Even racist comments about Jonathan and me are directed to her.
I agree—this stuff is super gendered. I don’t get much of it personally. The times I receive a lot of abuse online are when I speak out about things like sexual assault policies and rape culture. Then some people will yell at me about whatever they can think of—which sometimes includes me being poly. But when I talk about being in an open relationship that doesn’t emphasize those respects that are threatening to the patriarchy, people don’t usually give me much of a hard time.
How does technology expand the possibilities for non-monogamous relationships? In the case of OkCupid, it sounds like the decision to add an “Open Relationship” status contributed both to normalization and to the ability for poly people to use the site more effectively. What are some of the other kinds of decisions that make for a better or worse experience?
I am not, on the whole, very plugged into poly “communities.” Not that I have anything against them, they just tend not to be really my style. But the internet facilitates connection and interaction in multiple ways: the creation and maintenance of such communities is one important one.
Myself, I use instant messaging to connect individually with my partners, especially when we’re not in the same place at the same time. And this isn’t always a “substitute” for other forms of communication; using written text instead of one’s voice is just different. At least one of my current relationships wouldn’t have been possible without it—maybe both. I am in many senses a writer: I am often able to express things in written forms that I cannot (or would not) using my voice.
Compare OkCupid to Tinder: Tinder is relatively inflexible when it comes to categories, whereas OkCupid has more categories for how one can identify and what one can search for in others.
I think much of it may be couched in terms of aesthetics: whereas Tinder might seem “clean” and draw from the aesthetics of simplicity and minimalism, this aesthetic comes at the cost of fewer identities and fewer ways to connect to others in non-normative ways. The simplicity is mirrored in the action of the swipe, and the relative non-emphasis on text.
I’ve always found Tinder basically useless. Perhaps what Ray is describing here is part of why.
The internet trend of the past few years tends to be towards streamlining and simplicity. Which means that things that used to be up to the user to decide for themselves—what order to read tweets in, which friends’ profiles they want to look at, what qualities in a romantic partner they consider important—are now done under the hood by proprietary algorithms.
I get why people find it easier to let machines guess what they want. They are good at guessing! But I think that tendency make people a little less critical about their choices. So I still prefer the more complicated interfaces that take a while to learn, but that let you really think about what parameters you’re interested in and why.
We’ve talked about using technology to find polyamorous partners—but what about scheduling? I know that one of the challenges of maintaining polyamory relationships is scheduling time with each partner. Has technology helped automate any of that labor? Are there specific tools you use?
Yes, Google Calendar. Any shareable calendar app with instant updating would do the same work, but this is the one I use. Other technologies, like messenger apps, don’t so much automate the labor of scheduling as make it possible.
Google Calendar certainly helps, especially with repetitive events. I would also say that messenger apps help with scheduling, although it’s less about the automation of labor and more about being able to connect and, say, make emergency rescheduling possible.
I want an app that reminds me when it’s been awhile since I’ve talked to someone. It’s easy to fall out of touch accidentally. This goes for friends as much as it does for lovers.
In The Sims, you used to get a reminder if your sim was letting a friendship die. How hard can it be to make one of those in real life?
Carrie, in your book What Love Is: And What It Could Be, you talk a lot about neuroscience. Do you think brain scanning technology has changed our understanding of love? Could these tools enlarge our idea of what love is—and what it could be?
I am a fan of science. I think we should get all the information we can about what our brains are doing when we are in love—I’m not in the camp that sees this as destroying the “magic.” So far we have had many suggestive glimpses, thanks to the insight of researchers who appreciated the potential value of fMRI scans for illuminating the mechanics of love in the brain.
It’s important that we don’t over-interpret these glimpses, though—we are so incredibly far from having a complete understanding of how any human experience plays out in the brain, let alone something as nuanced as romantic love. But we’re getting important clues: for instance, studies suggest that there can be similar patterns of brain activation between certain kinds of love and certain kinds of chemical addiction.
In my work, I aim to place these insights into a philosophical context, so that while we marvel at love’s biology we don’t lose sight of the fact that it is also socially constructed. My dual-nature theory of love is designed to accommodate both at once. And, of course, the two interact. For example, the researchers wielding the tech—the ones designing our studies, and deciding what to look for in the first place—are themselves socially and culturally embedded creatures.
I wonder if brain-computer interfaces will one day help articulate love, in a parallel way to how typing may allow us to articulate love differently than we do verbally.
Seriously, though, why don’t we have flying cars? Is Logic working on that?