Sure, I remember my first time. Well, I remember it vaguely. It was close on to twenty years ago now, after all. I have to admit that I don’t remember who I was with. But that doesn’t matter: on that fateful day, when someone leaned in and murmured, You should learn how to use this to do simple arithmetical functions, I wasn’t just gazing at the rows and columns of my first empty spreadsheet. I was getting a glimpse of the data-driven future. I would come in to adulthood in an age in which it seems that we increasingly believe that there’s nothing that won’t make more sense -- little, perhaps, that can’t be made better -- if we shoehorn it in to well-ordered cells, spread it across graphs and charts and diagrams.
I assume that’s the view of the innovators who have this month launched Spreadsheets, an app that takes the old-fashioned bedpost into the digital world. Gone is the era when keeping track of your multitude of lovers might chip away, notch by notch, at the structural integrity of your shonky IKEA bedframe. Keeping track of sexual conquests can now be as easy and banal as keeping an eye on the vagaries of your bank account, or receiving notifications about the weather and your mum’s birthday.
‘Have a little fun’ exhorts the Spreadsheets marketing copy, as it promises to provide you with a platform to collect all sorts of fascinating data on your sexual acts, from duration to frequency to place. But not too much fun, apparently: ‘We do not recommend using Spreadsheets without a partner’ the website notes later on, in what feels like an almost-prudish proactive strike against criticisms that secretly recording your sexual adventures on your phone might be creepy (‘Sorry, before you do that, just let me grab...my phone’). That’s not my particular critique, however -- or not so much, at least, as my feeling that applying quantitative analysis to sex sounds so very dull. For even if you and your partner have agreed to undertake the project together, if your sex life is not already at least ‘a little fun’, will breaking it down in to elucidating data sets make it better?
When it comes to understanding the motivations and emotions and actions of individual people, the collection and analysis of data has clear limits. So it should. Identifying trends in behavior is essential and fascinating. But true understanding of the nature of intimacy, of desire, of what it is that makes two human beings want to shag each other silly one week and never speak again the next, is not something that can be achieved through representation in an Infographic, no matter how beautifully it’s designed.
I can understand the impulse to try. The world is a scary and unpredictable place: every day, we’re fighting entropy. Collecting and crunching data makes us feel like we are a little bit in control. It can be a real a comfort to be able to look at numbers and feel that we have a clear and accurate understandings of what’s happened. To get an impression of what’s most likely to happen next. A sense that we’ve defeated uncertainty can provide us with the sense of security, and in time the energy and inspiration, that we need to move forward, as we face the inevitable arrival of the next unpredictable, incomprehensible thing.
For anyone who’s experienced a painful relationship or disappointing sex (everyone, perhaps) the prospect of avoidance through becoming the Nate Silver of your own bedroom can hold appeal. But I suspect that knowing too much is most likely to dampen ardor, in the end: true intimacy grows from the process of discovering the unknown about a partner; of developing an understanding of another person who is, like you, mutable and surprising and human. The possibility of surprise is what draws us together and keeps us there. Venn diagrams are wonderful things in the right context. But a bit of mystery about the point of intersection between yourself and another person will always be sexy.