“Grindr: The Opera” taps into debates about desire and big tech

IF FACEBOOK were represented on stage, it might take the form of a huge house party, where podgy babies, perfect prom queens and advertising executives jostle for attention. Twitter could be a tree filled with birds, chirping a discordant cacophony day and night.

What about Grindr, a dating app used by millions of men looking for men for sex and romance? In Erik Ransom’s musical production, directed by Andrew Beckett at Above The Stag Theatre in London, the app is depicted as something between a god and a siren. In black feathers, a leather corset and a cape, the character (Christian Lunn) is unnerving and ever-present. He neither interjects nor directs the human drama. He lingers behind the protagonists as they have sex.

Presenting the app in this form works well. It draws on the incarnations of destiny and fate common to Greek mythology, and ensures that the “opera” (the show actually features a range of musical styles, from baroque to contemporary pop) is more than just a jolly romp through the world of casual gay relationships. Grindr, in humanoid form, is a reminder of something important—that behind seemingly omnipotent technologies are people, ideas and code. Many tech entrepreneurs downplay the fact that their platforms and algorithms are built and moderated by people with biases: they like to claim that their inventions are just tools that simply help humans to solve problems. “Grindr makes life easier,” said Joel Simkhai, the app’s founder, in an interview. “These technologies…don’t get in your way or make you jump through hoops. They’re there to facilitate your life.”

But technology and algorithms are never neutral; Grindr asks users to categorise themselves into one of 12 “tribes”—such as “jock” or “geek”—which are hardly objective categories. Accordingly, there is nothing about Grindr on stage that suggests neutrality. He is as full of motivations and desires as his human peers. He entices his users to fornicate; when they get into trouble he does not wince with guilt. He shrugs it off, a fallen angel delighting in the drama.

Here Grindr cares little about users’ wellbeing, and more about creating a habit. The production neatly captures the ubiquity and stickiness of such apps. “They think they leave me when they delete me,” he intones, “but I still lurk in the corner of their minds. I am addiction, their affliction.” Users are dragged back time and again, coaxed by Grindr to leave their partners and spend time on their phones to find new ones. He stretches out his spindly fingers to beckon them into fresh temptation and debauchery.

If this compulsion seems inevitable, so does the very creation of the app in the first place. Grindr appears almost by surprise in the lives of the four main characters, and yet they seem to have been waiting for him all along. At the beginning of the show, their laptops are carried away and replaced with glittering smartphones, a progression as natural as evolution ending with upright man. “I am technology and nature combined at last,” Grindr sings. “It’s in the genes of every man to get his rocks off where we can,” he croons, suggesting that when smartphones met with geo-technology, an app helping gay men to locate each other was a matter of time.

Presented on stage in Mr Ransom and Mr Beckett’s opera, this inevitability is both hilarious and thoughtful. The show is rightly not a moral crusade against the app: characters’ lives take both positive and negative turns as a result of using it. Humour is used to comment, to observe and to probe, parodying modern dating and sex dramas in memorable songs. And as with all the greatest operas, it is a tale of humanity struggling with love in all its forms. “It’s the oldest game,” Grindr sings, “but the rules are new, and the best we can do, is muddle through.”

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