“Hang the DJ,” the fourth episode of the fourth season of the Netflix original show Black Mirror, tells the story of two adults who are involved in a matchmaking retreat of sorts. The retreat is facilitated by the “system,” a hyper-effective algorithm that guides people toward finding love. Despite being alien and mechanical, the system’s unique approach to love actually provides an honest view of dating that can help us understand how we find an ultimate match.
The system in Black Mirror doesn’t immediately pair people with their ideal mates. Instead, it is engineered to guide each user through a series of temporary relationships first. The system learns more about the user’s interests and preferences through each of these relationships. After learning enough about a user through these diverse experiences, the system is able to pair them with their final partner, his or her spouse. In the episode, nearly everyone who has successfully completed the system swears that the system found them the perfect person and that everyone currently in the system should have complete faith.
Some people in our society subscribe to the notion that we all have “the one”: someone out there who, if not perfect, is at least the best match for as our soulmate. Each romantic relationship we enter is an attempt to find “the one.” If a relationship fails, it is because that person simply wasn’t “the one,” and we two weren’t meant to be. When we finally decide to commit to one person for the rest of our lives, it is because we have finally found the person we had been looking for all along. Our language when talking about break-ups reflects the idea that a failed relationship wasn’t destined to succeed and that the perfect partner is still out there, undiscovered. We talk about finding “true love”; we enter our personality traits and preferences into dating sites to optimize match-making; we even have a data-match to discover who in the school is most suited to us.
If the system in Black Mirror had operated on that notion, each user would input data about themselves and would immediately be paired with their future spouse. But that’s not how the system works. Instead, the system presents each person with a series of romantic experiences that allows it to figure out what each person needs in a romantic relationship and what kind of person will attract each user. Then, armed with that information, it finds and presents each person with their final partner: the culmination of all their previous relationships. The system understands that when someone approaches the person with whom they will spend the rest of their life, it is with a wealth of experiences that have taught them about themselves and their preferences.
We should understand our own relationships similarly. When a teenage relationship ends, it is not because the pairing wasn’t destined to be, and it doesn’t mean that either person wasted time. Each relationship is an opportunity to understand more about ourselves and the way we interact with others. It’s a chance to determine what we like and dislike in a partner and what others like and dislike about us. Each relationship has the power to change the way we think about love and our relationship to love. Each relationship is an opportunity to learn. If we enter these opportunities and take advantage of them, we will each be better, more self-aware people who can eventually find permanent partners.
This isn’t to say that we should approach romantic relationships cynically, with the understanding that it’s unlikely that our current partner will be our partner forever, and therefore render the relationship not worthwhile. Instead, we should enjoy each person we date to the fullest extent, with the expectation that even if things don’t work out, we will leave the relationship with a better understanding of who we are.
The characters in Black Mirror are especially conscious of the likelihood of a relationship ending: when they first meet a partner, they have the option to check the “expiry,” which shows them how long they will have with that person. Even though they are sometimes limited to as short as 12 hours, the lovers take advantage of each pairing they are assigned, knowing that their experience of the relationship will help the system determine a perfect match in the end. In real life, we are our own “system.”
Teachers: firsts and worsts in love
“It was the summer before eighth grade, and I used to go to this really small town where my parents are from in Southern Spain. Everyone went out together, and I was part of this big group of people. I liked this guy that was really good-looking and tall, and we had this dance, and he asked me to dance, and, you know, we liked each other, but we were not dating or anything. It was so weird—dancing, slow dancing—and he kissed me, and I was like aghhhh, so I ran to the bathroom and washed my mouth out with water. I was disgusted!” – Spanish Teacher Rosario Sánchez Gómez
“I wanted Gail DiNunno to dance with me, so I walked across the gym floor by myself, and everybody was watching to see who Lindberg was going to ask to dance. I went up to Gail and said, ‘Would you dance with me?’ and she said, ‘No, thank you.’ I had to walk all the way back by myself, and everybody in the junior high who was at the dance knew Gail DiNunno had just turned me down publicly. It was the longest walk I ever walked.” – Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg
“My first kiss was HIGHLY public. I was at a sixth-grade dance with my ‘boyfriend,’ Peter. The DJs were high school students who threw dances for middle schoolers to make money. They saw that we were two of the only kids who ventured away from the all-girls and all-boys sides of the room to talk to each other and occasionally do something that resembled dancing, so they pressured us, loudly and with their microphone, to kiss (in retrospect, this was fairly inappropriate). We capitulated and shared an awkward peck in front of a couple of hundred staring and then applauding fellow middle schoolers.” – English Teacher Sarah Getchell
“Valentine’s Day, middle school, early 1980s. The popular girl, a happy alloy of physical virtues gilding stern authority and machinations, suggests I ask her best friend to go steady, to ‘go out’ in our parlance. Hm, I pause. A popular girl just acknowledged I exist. This was somewhat new in middle school. She must be right—I ask her friend out. The inevitable consequence: I duck out of hallways whenever there might be a chance of bumping into my new romantic interest. I don’t call, I pass no notes. I eat lunch in hiding. With what unfortunate mixture of naivete and dread I attended to these early and foundational events, whose lasting influence on my young notions of romance can be traced with some alacrity in the annals of my life, can only be guessed at, but such are the perils of uninformed aspirations. Valentine’s Day approaches. I go to the local drugstore, stricken with the task at hand, knowing not to get a heart-shaped box of chocolates for worry of appearing trite, and instead I acquire a plastic, heart-topped wand filled with chocolates. Upon presentation of such delicacies to her, the next day, our first interaction in over a fortnight, she promptly breaks up with me. Relief.” – English Teacher Wes Williams
Suggestions for an “Over It” playlist:
1. “New Rules” by Dua Lipa
2. “Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perri
3. “Gotta Go My Own Way” from High School Musical
4. “Best Thing I Never Had” by Beyoncé
5. “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson
6. “No Scrubs” by TLC
7. “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna
8. “Games” by Luke Bryan
9. “I Still Believe in Me” by Fame
10. “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry
11. “The Way Life Goes” by Lil Uzi Vert
12. “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber
13. “Forget You” by CeeLo Green
14. “Too Little, Too Late” by JoJo
15. “Ridin’ Solo” by Jason Derulo