I may attend the next Israeli-Iranian party on Thursday, but
yesterday, I went to the Stasi-supplied home of one Salomea Genin, “given” the flat for a token rent (100 DM per month) in 1986, at 21 Sophienstrasse, one of the loveliest addresses in Berlin. When she “was offered” the flat, it was truly a sign of her previous devotion to the Communist cause: it had central heating, “rare for the GDR”. Her previous apartment was in Lichtenberg, the housing block-tastic district surrounding the former Stasi headquarters and not far from the infamous Hohenschönhausen prison. It was too big for her and associated with terrible memories, so they honoured her request for a one-bedroom. In the GDR, she told me, they offered people three different flats – if you didn’t like the first, you were offered a second, then a third, then that was it.
I was there because I cornered her after the premiere of a film by an Israeli film maker about her (the film-maker’s) missing great-uncle, who mysteriously chose to stay by the site of Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was held and survived, and live an East German life without reference either to his Jewish past or his Jewish family now in Israel.
The concept of Jews in the GDR had piqued my interest in the film; in all the discourse surrounding post-war German guilt, one never hears of the way East Germany dealt with the Holocaust. What were Jews in this police state, either in symbol or practice? Were there any? Clearly there were, though not many. Ms Genin piped up at the Q&A after the film, saying that no wonder he hadn’t contacted his relations in Israel – that as anyone living in the GDR, contact with the outside world was difficult, and with Israel even more difficult.
I had to meet this woman. How would the Star of David, the memory of the Holocaust and the bizarre day-to-day existence of East Germany intersect? She gave me her “card”, on funny flimsy paper with faded fuzzy ink, and told me to give her a ring. She had red eyes, a scowly but wry face, and a very husky voice.
I called her and went round. Unfortunately, this most interesting-seeming of women seemed annoyed I hadn’t read her two books -she called for concrete questions, and when I posed them, she gestured with irritation to her autobiographies, noting that it was all in there. Eventually she told me her eyes were agony and she was exhausted and I took the hint, getting up to leave though not before she strained those eyes to read out a 700 word glowing synopsis of her autobiography.
I had to make do with what I could. And there’s no doubt about it, Ms Genin’s story IS amazing, so I guess I should read her book, where its all set down. In brief: she was born in the immigrant West Berlin district of Wedding to a severely dysfunctional Jewish family from Lvov, Ukraine. The father had syphilis, and went to a madhouse after threatening to kill a policeman. She had two older sisters, eight and 16 years older. Her mother was fed up and divorced the insane, ne’erdo’well, infectious father who – miraculously – was cured of syphilis and did not pass it on to his offspring or wife, despite having had it for 20 years.
Hitler came to power the year she was born, but they evaded the deportations and most of the trouble due to being both officially stateless and poor, until the father was sent from the insane asylum in Wittenau to Buchenwald. Her mother secured an afidavit from relatives in Australia, managed to exploit a law I’d never heard of to get concentration camp prisoners out (requiring proof of passage and 100 marks), and – from a flat now near Alexanderplatz – masterminded the exile of the father first in 1938 and then the family in ’39, at the last minute.
At 12, in Melbourne, young Salomea became a Communist. In the 50s, as a young woman, she decided to commit herself to the GDR, which ticked two boxes: it fulfilled her deepest political dreams, and her desire to return “home” to a Germany she barely remembered but felt in her bones.
It wasn’t easy moving to the GDR – not that many people were tempted. She went first to West Berlin, had no luck, then to England then after 9 years of badgering they let her in and made her an instant unofficial collaborator. Ms Genin was a Stasi informant, met with her handlers every week or so, and told on people she met and her friends. She was one of those curtain twitchers of lore. Finally, after 20 years of this, she realised the GDR was not a noble bastion of communism amid hellish opponents and Nazis, but was rather a pathetic, banal and corrupt police state – and collapsed. Thanks to the wonders of psychoanalysis she recovered through the realisation that she’d been seeking a resolution to early trauma by returning to Germany, that indeed she’s been motivated by Stockholm syndrome. Ms Genin seems proud of both the suicidal state she entered on realising her dream was a straw man, and of the revelation of stockholm syndrome- both were made apparent to me in the two minutes chat we had after the film, in her flat, and on the backs of her books.
Nonetheless. Though I’m sorry to have taxed the elderly and well-meaning Ms Genin, it was worth the excursion to have had one of those moments of history-in-present. The thought of the flat having been presided over by Stasi henchmen and the lovely little street – the prettiest in Mitte – as well as the quaint white church, being the domain of a sinister network of spies, was rather piquant. Everything might be in her book, but I bet the blue velour jumpsuit she met me in, wall-to-wall white carpeting (the first I’ve seen in Berlin), green and brown chairs, and 1960s-style clock aren’t. Unlike those of the younger generation, this was not a cool, bohemian or hip flat, with acres of wood flooring. It was cosy, and its priorities were firm: warmth and comfort, perhaps to make up for lost time and long Berlin winters of shovelling coal into tile ovens. For now I’ll have to make do with this; once I’ve read the books perhaps the grizzled Ms Genin, who bills herself as “a Jewish woman of the world”, will re-admit me for some fresh insight.
Berlin is dredged with treats for those in the mood to look. Not one for trance and techno clubs, or drugs, the city is nevertheless studded through with delights for me: wondrous Rieslings, museums strange and grand, baked goods served in wildly bohemian settings (retro-minimalist-monarchical-communistic is the vogue now, only scuffed wood furniture and flooring and mismatched teacups allowed), pork products of all stripes, markets, and architecture silently screaming out its sinister history.
Cycling today from home to a new favourite café off the canal in Kreuzberg called Tischendorff for those coming to Berlin any time soon (excellent “long blacks”, ie Americanos, so strong that I had nearly blacked out on Friday after having had three), we hurtled along acres of Mitte’s south-west corridors. GDR-era blocks are of size and breadth that make it a struggle to see the end of them, streets are wide and empty, and so long. Pure blue sky framed bombed-out lots and skyscrapers – all is silent and vast and glinting, like a post-apocalyptic Canary Wharf. All you have to do is take a right or left turn off one of the grand boulevards of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden and suddenly the no-man’s land of Jerusalemer Strasse or Leipziger Strasse yawns before you through its old Communist mouth.
Zipping along, nipping through alleyways crammed with Turkish bakeries, ducking under hideous shopping centre arches, then a fabric market on Maybachufer, then ahhh, “Long Blacks” and little just-made buttermilk-raspberry muffins at Tischendorff, sun streaming in the wall-windows.
Shunning our normal food market trip to Kollwitzplatz, in Prenzlauerberg, we ran with our velo-freedom and kept peddling on through a park stuffed with drug dealers and, this evening, beer gardens, across a big brick bridge over the Spree, with the TV tower and Alexanderplatz in the far distance and GDR blocks in the foreground. Friedrichshain, with its grafitti dungeons and perfect flat whites hoved into view, and we swung down Simon-Dach street past the famous Hops and Barley hipster brewery and into Boxingerplatz for, wait for it, another farmers market. We took in the southern sausages, potato stalls, deep-fried apple stands and had pierogi stuffed with cabbage and some pomegranite juice before I went off to the Stasi museum.
Ten minutes cycle from this hive of consumption and prams is the headquarters of the GDR’s secret police, rumbled in 1990. Amid the monstrous complex of former East Germany’s state security apparatus is Haus 1, where Erich Mielke ruled. It’s a complex composed of buildings that look like any number of blocks in the East, bringing home the weird recentness of the Communist dictatorship. Prisoners were interrogated here in rooms barely altered. Hideous steel cabinets line cheaply furnished rooms. Best of all, Mielke’s office is left untouched, along with his private retreat room and staff’s offices. We’re talking acre upon acre of dingy brown 1970s fabric but some quite smart blue and wood chairs too. It all looks so 1970s, so banal. Perhaps that’s what is so sinister about it.
I hopped back on my bike and sped past GDR-built blocks of Frankfurter Allee, turning left back into the nice bit of Friedrichshain where I was stopped mid-peddle by a very cool looking wine shop. The man kept pouring generous samples, but into one glass, so I had to finish each if I wanted to try another one. I came away with some Sylvaner made by a genius (I had the same maker’s Riesling yesterday) and a SpatzBurgunder (red Pinot from Germany). The Stasi museum felt rather far away.
Then I beetled back to Kreutzberg, but first found a huge warren of bombed out lots and a warren of grafitti’d buildings – climbing walls jostled with clubs waiting for dark to get seedy. It was vast.
Tonight: a ball room in Mitte (Clarchens Ballhaus), in the heart of the old Jewish quarter and tomorrow: Potsdam, where the monarchy lived in the good old days.
It’s great that women’s empowerment groups are flourishing. But the physical world is still built by men
Today I was at the University of East London, where I participated in a lovely event called Visible Women, part of International Women’s Week. Last week I was invited to attend, but was unable to, a similar event at Goldsmiths University, in association with Prospect Magazine. Two weeks ago I was asked to talk to a secondary school about whether Beyonce is a feminist (of course I accepted, pending the right date). I have also very much enjoyed participating at Mumsnet Blogfest, which was about how to be a woman with a voice.
Keep in mind that I am not particularly famous. Usually I am far less impressive-sounding, actually, than the other women I have shared platforms with. They must be inundated. But it’s obvious that there are enough of these innovative events, platforms, and groups to go around.
Is this new? Not exactly: for a good hundred years, there has been a vibrant community of women’s groups in every city in Britain and throughout the US. But there seems to be a great deal of savvy media working around them now. These gals know how to get press, and the press are up for it, so the general buzz about women’s organisations has swelled. It feels like there are many more of them suddenly.
All do good work or intend to.
Still, I can’t help but question the long-term benefits of support networks, empowerment drives and “raising awareness” (is this a bit softer and more general than the iconic consciousness-raising of yore?), taken in isolation from the specifics of gendered dynamics at school, university, home, work, and acquisition of skills and interests. What I mean is not that women’s confidence and support-systems shouldn’t be built and strengthened through community and cooperation and outspokenness. Absolutely they should.
But I can’t shake the sense that other more concrete problems are not attracting the same buzz. General goals are all very well, but what about the severe shortage of women entering computer science departments? What about the lack of women going into maths and physics and engineering? Yes, groups need to be in place to lobby for better maternity and flextime policies so that women can continue their careers in these very fields after children if they want.
But there aren’t enough women going into these fields out of university. And the professions dominated by men happen to be the ones that literally build the world. Literally and conceptually, through engineering and high-flying architecture jobs, men build skyscrapers and bridges, hospitals and airports. Only 13 per cent of American engineers are women, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And British organisations like WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction) are barely heard of. They don’t throw cool media-friendly panel events, certainly.
Since men dominate the top of most political and corporate ladders, they also decide where these things go and what they should look like and even who should get to use them. More pressingly, perhaps, men rule technology – as engineers and as entrepreneurs. They build our dating sites, our search engines, our social media pages, our servers, our governmental security programs.
My question is: what would the world look and feel like if women played a bigger role in its construction? What would a woman-conceived bridge, or set of bridges or canal system, or women-built skyscraper, or women-made dating algorithm look like?
Maybe the answer doesn’t matter and even asking it is to get dragged into a world of polarisation and stereotype. But I think it’s a question that should be asked and I can’t help but notice how few young, cool, clever feminist entrepreneurs are addressing the very specific dearth of women builders. I’m not talking about work-life balance, the demands of motherhood or the apparently universal problem of female self-confidence. I‘m talking about: where are the female electrical, civil and digital engineers? Why, when we know that women’s cognitive abilities and even their tastes aren’t THIS different, are they absent? Is it just male culture in these industries? If so, what does that mean, exactly? How can it be changed? Isn’t this something that needs to involve men?
I want to know what a world with more women politicians and construction workers and engineers and tech entrepreneurs would look like but I’m worried that, for all the talk of support and empowerment, I’m going to be a long time waiting.
I hate to be the luddite, reliably heaping fear and loathing on new technology. Sadly, while I am broadly very in favour of technological innovation, I am utterly appalled by what it’s doing for singles. Dating and mating platforms have gone from “numbers game” to just “game” – with no shame whatsoever. It’s like we’re all being dragged into the lowest common denominator of masculine playtime values. World of Warcraft isn’t enough – now meeting the opposite sex has to look like gaming. Not gaming in the metaphorical sense that Neil Strauss, gross pick up artist guru, talked about it. But in the sense of actual games, gambling games. The coincidence and ubiquity of Chat Roulette and Tinder have made this abundantly clear.
Chat Roulette, or excuse me, Chatroulette “is a place where you can interact with new people over text-chat, webcam and mic.” It is not bounded by geographical location. Your screen pans through all the people on video and up for a “chat” and if you like the look of them (my guess someone’s impressive collection of Tolstoy in the background isn’t what’s going to stop most people), you stop and “chat”. If “chat” isn’t a word that hasn’t been utterly dirtified by the internet then OkCupid is a Jane Austen novel.
Tinder is hugely popular. Have you see Tinder? Tinder is what moves me to opine on “what technology is doing to us” or rather, what we (read: Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, aged 27, co-founders of Tinder) are doing to technology.
Tinder is modelled on a card game. There’s no going back. You set the geographical location to whatever you want; 2 miles, 89 miles, and press go. The satellite thinks and loads: now you rifle, literally rifle, through a deck of faces. If you swipe left, you’re binning the face, and a red stamp “nope” appears on the face. If you swipe left out of inertia, retrospectively deciding the person’s face you just binned was maybe a bit nice, maybe showed a glimmer of humanity that you were interested in, well too bad – they’re GONE man. Onwards. Next. Next. Next. Next. Next. Click the heart symbol or swipe right and in Valentine’s Hallmark letters it tells you “you’re a match!”. What does “you’re a match” mean? It means that the man you have clicked yes to also clicked yes to you when he saw your face moments before you saw his (the wonders of the algorithm). That means he liked your face – or he didn’t not like it – or vastly and obviously more likely, he lazily inferred that if there was nobody else available he’d shag you (if he could be bothered) if your face is anything to go by. Once you’re “a match!” you can message the person.
And that’s it. It’s completely bonkers because what happens is that clicking “yes” to a face, or rather, not binning a face, is absolutely identical in output or cost or inflowing knowledge to any other movement on the phone requiring one single flick of the thumb. So when you message the person (of eight or so “matches” none messaged me first), they respond a chronically uncharming message because, surprise surprise, you have nothing to talk about at all. You both did not swipe right, you clicked the heart symbol. That’s what you have in common. Nobody cares much about anything on Tinder – least of all other people – why should they? There’s always a deck of faces to go back to. Rifling takes no effort.
Tinder has been hailed as a “more honest” form of digital dating than internet dating because you get rejected and can reject so easily. Nobody cares about the profile anyway, it’s said, and therefore it’s only the picture that counts. But this is a false justification – checking someone out and thinking their face is nice in real life is a much better investment of time. You can see immediately if they’re enormously fat, have a terrible snarl when talking to their mates, or dead eyes. And if they really are attractive, then they really ARE attractive to you. They might have binned you on Tinder but if you charm them, there is room for negotiation. By contrast, Tinder shows you a face, and asks you to stamp it yay or nay while watching TV or masturbating or whatever people do – so static, rigid.
It’s more honest in the nightmare world of misleading pictures and binned faces that it has created, yes.
It’s not more honest in terms of the enigmatic mechanics of co-present attraction.
To end, I’d like to just remind you that Tinder, Blendr, and every single last online dating site bar MySingleFriend is the product of MEN. Male business school graduates, male engineers, male visionaries, male techies. Just saying. If women enjoy the feeling of thumbing a face into oblivion and the only very thin fulfilment possible when a message is exchanged, then great. But part of me wonders if Tinder’s followers are just – out of a combination of exhaustion and dutiful trend consumerism – just giving in to the dehumanising wet dream of a bunch of American boys.
I just finished reading a book that claims to explain “what technology does to meeting and mating” - Dan Slater’s Love In the Time of Algorithms. The short answer is: it turns people (women and men) into the worst masculine stereotypes of “shopping and fucking”-style cruisers, to borrow from Mark Ravenhill’s famous play’s title. Maybe this is because all the major sites were founded by, and obsessively managed, sold and bought by, men. There was one female CEO in the biz that I know of: Mandy Ginsberg, of Match in the US, who has now moved over to Tutors.com.
What’s fascinating and grotesque about Slater’s picture of the multi-millions of “users” or “customers” – webizens all seeking “more connections” with “better people” – is just how tangled up (others might called it wired up, or linked up) people are in their media streams. They are online daters, many of them, but his point is that mostly, they’re just online. A lot. In the America that Slater presents as the place living out the space-time bends in the “time” of algorithms, the following sentence obviously makes sense *on a wide scale*: “Today’s togetherness is often instantaneous, and then constant. You begin dating someone you met online, or off, and in a matter of days you are Facebook friends who also follow each other’s Twitter feed and show up on each other’s Tumblr dash and chat throughout the day via IM and text. By midday you’ve opened ten tabs on your browser, and on five of them the avatar of your paramour is blinking and winking and typing and poking and accepting and liking and smiling and frowning and inviting.” (Slater 2013, p. 178)
Umm, who are these people? This is a genuine question. What do they think about their MO (modus operandus), their tech-mediated perception of experience, others and sex, their inability to concentrate without a phone in their hand? Do they remember a time when reading meant reading, and watching a movie meant doing just that, sans app, and when working involved working without ten tabs and a million banalities of multi-media banter to distract? Tasks or occupations done without the ticklish whisper of the pulsating “network”? Perhaps not – perhaps the “time” of algorithms Slater describes is really the time of teenagers, born too late to have experienced offline being, and with too many tools at their disposal in which to channel all the restless dissatisfaction and questing insecurity of the teenage and 20-something years.
Ok, so this is not just a tech-bashing, remember-the-golden-days-pre-web post. At least, not yet. It’s an exploratory one, which briefly recounts my impressions of this algorithmic life that seems to define so many people’s relationships and quest for love.
Because while reading Slater’s well-researched, relentless slurry of web stats, zeitgeisty tech-phrases, business-of-love models and bland company names, I felt that I had missed some major aspect of my contemporaries’ experience.
I have given quite a lot of attention to digital life – aside from my own too-frequent Facebook, email and gratuitous weather forecast checks – I have written an MPhil thesis on women’s experience of online dating, complete with two “research” accounts of my own. I’ve also downloaded Blendr and in the past, used JDate and Guardian Soulmates for real(ish short periods.
Each brush with an online dating site, whether for real or for research, felt like a brush with a comb vigorously teasing my hair the wrong way. Nails on a chalkboard. Every last thing about it either repelled me or felt impossible. I cannot, cannot, cannot make myself write the kind of profile that gets the sort of guys people like me want to be in touch. I cannot in good faith genuinely describe myself in more than two lines, utterly suffused with the ridiculousness, the paradoxical nature of trying to describe YOURSELF for a dating site. Would you trust a lonely fridge or washing machine or to describe itself? You would not. You would trust it once you’d read about in Which? or Consumer Reports, or seen it. Or heard about its virtues or faults by either first-hand context or through word of mouth. That point aside – I mean, clearly people do find text profiles useful (women for men usually) – I personally could never surmount the embarrassment and clear impossibility of summing myself up in the way you’re supposed to sum yourself up for a dating site. You are not supposed to say the same old things -instead, dazzle with a good joke or anecdote to get people interested. Argh! I can’t do it! So instead I say a few terse lines that try to be friendly but are indeed probably a bit superior – they do not tell funny anecdotes (I don’t want the kinds of people that get in touch with me reading personal anecdotes!) The result has always been pitiful, and I mean pitiful men getting in touch.
Yet everyone else seems to be wading around merrily, riding waves high and low, through the soggy seas of diginetweblove.
So I decided to have another go at a research account (I am not looking to actually meet someone). This time, I went for OkCupid – some cool people I know, or interviewed for my thesis, did OkCupid and had a nice time. A nice time by the numbers, perhaps; nice dates with nice men who enjoyed scrabble and pub quizzes, or indie concerts and good flat whites on Sundays and so on. None seemed memorable, all fading away into the bulbous glob of people-you-meet-online, or is it the profiles-you-meet-online.
Since logging back on on, my phobia and disbelief at how bad online dating sites are (for me!) has soared.
In the first place, the tone of the sites are all reprehensible. Condescending, eg “this is fun! But not that many people like you so maybe you could try harder, engage more with our site, help our profit model along!”. Also seriously bossy and manipulative: even the inbox page of OkCupid tells me, insultingly, that I could “Join A-list” (or is that a command? Perhaps a threat?). It tells me also to “Complete my profile” and to “Answer 25 match questions”. It’s also completely incomprehensible, entrenching my suspicion that all those people riding the digital waves know something I don’t. For instance: below the menu with “Browse matches”, “Messages”, “Visitors” and “Quick Match”, there is a box headed thus: “You might like: Answer the questions to unlock” followed by a picture of a random hairy student, a box that says Answer 50 and a box that says Answer 75.
Ok Cupid tells you if you look good in the picture you post. Fuck off, I say. It tells you all the things you can do to attract better people. I did them: I answered several of their questions, though avoided the numerous deeply sex-obsessed ones that in reality won’t help match anyone (do you really want to date someone for whom taking it up the butt is a must?). Match and Guardian were even worse, in their own ways. My research account on Match led to daily inundations to the email address I’d set up precisely for this purpose, yelling at me about people who’d winked, checked out my profile, “liked” me, or even – hello hello stop the press – got in touch. All messages concluded with pushy exclamation marks. I reliably felt queasy every time I looked at this inbox.
Here’s who has got in touch with me on OkCupid since Thursday.
abdelalalilove: “Hi how ru today?” Abdela’s profile says: “I am going to get my diploma, I have just not decided where I am going to go or waht I are going to study”. And! “I know how to have the best time but I occasionally enjoy staying in!” He is also a devout Muslim. I may not be so appropriate, given “atheist” written firmly in my “beliefs” column.
HolyDiver83: “Hey:) Ur curls nicer than mine x”
MisterVenus: “Hiya, Lovely profile and I must say you look adorable. Get in touch if I appeal to you as well. Cheers, Veer.” Veer, “originally from Dubai” looks contemplatively out from under a baseball cap, eyebrows sculpted, in The Thinker pose. “I seem to have ended up single and having no mates around now which I’m clearly not cool enough for but I won’t worry about that for now”.
Pietro300: “Hey, I’m looking for new friends too”
Goanerboy23: “Before you click off cause I don’t have a pic, it’s because I’m having problems uploading them to this site…[goes on for four lines about technical problems]…I have a pic on kik though, so do you have kik so we can talk there, your stunning btw xx i’m 19 btw xx
[note: two days later, still no pic]
Bravo_two: “Hey there, sorry for being so direct but I would like nothing more than to take you on a nice date, and then if you are up for it, take you home and go down on you”…
All of the people who have messaged me are “0 % matches”.
So much for algorithms.
So much for profiles.
So much for new social horizons.
It’s a good thing I’m not on a quest IRL (in real life) for internet-mediated buddies or partners. A good thing for me. Other people might think otherwise – and I hope they find what they want, I really do. Because it’s a goddamn mess out there.