The Blog

Appy Valentine's Day

Maybe, with life being so busy, we have to prearrange it all, even if it means that we all end up celebrating our love in one identikit packaged, shrink-wrapped night. And yet... something about all that prearranged perfection makes me want that Boredom app to vibrate on my wrist or phone.

So apparently there's a new app which can detect if you're boring someone with your conversation, proving socially awkward, or making those you're talking to feel anxious.

The app, developed at MIT, can work from a watch-like wearable gadget or through your smartphone, and will act as a kind of 'social coach', vibrating discreetly to warn you if you're getting it badly wrong during a date or other social situation. An algorithm based in artificial intelligence analyses audio, language and physiological signals, and can even produce a 'sentiment score' for conversation. The idea is to make social situations much less threatening for those who can find them a particular challenge, for instance those with Asperger's, but as Valentine's Day hovers discreetly on the doorstep, straightening its date night outfit on its shoulders, the crackle of cellophane audible around its hothouse-grown forced roses, what could be more useful for those in search of romance than a bore alert for dates?

There are cards and red envelopes everywhere. Menus in local restaurants groan under the weight of sensuality. Tender chicken breast. Juicy rump steak. Whipped mousse, whipped cream, whipped paté on fingertip-thin toast. And oysters - lobster - artichokes - asparagus - dark chocolate - passionfruit - edible signifiers of physical congress nudge us suggestively. The polished tables conceal themselves beneath the starched damask of tablecloths and napkins, the sense of occasion neatly filleted by the heaviness of the silver cutlery. On 14th February, couples will take their places opposite each other for an evening of overindulged excess. Later, sated, they will adjourn for the pre-planned, pre-packaged meetings with an agenda of pleasure. Chocolates artfully pushed aside from the pillow. One last glass of wine on the bedside table. The lights dimmed... something unchallenging playing on the stereo, the volume low...

Maybe, with life being so busy, we have to prearrange it all, even if it means that we all end up celebrating our love in one identikit packaged, shrink-wrapped night. And yet... something about all that prearranged perfection makes me want that boredom app to vibrate on my wrist or phone. There's a desperate need for a fresh breeze through this sultry claustrophobia. Ditching the boredom would refresh the whole thing, the language of Valentine's Day as well as its, er, physiological symptoms.

No matter who we are, or what we feel for whom - Valentine's Day is somehow supposed to capture it all for all of us. All the happiness, the sadness, the pain, the joy, the certainties, the doubts, the predictability and the repetitive hope of being able to be still surprised - the whole complex mess of love, universalised into rather a boring marketing strategy. Perhaps the very point of Valentine's Day is the universal effort made by embarrassed boyfriends or husbands, sidling into shops selling perfume or handmade chocolates or lingerie, as opposed to the identity of the chosen gift, and whether it's what the loved one really wanted.

Recently, I noticed, among the expected array of twee, suggestive, obscene, cute and euphemistic cards, these: "Happy Valentine's Day to the cat"; "Happy Valentine's Day from the dog"; "Happy Valentine's Day to mummy from her special little boy." What glorious excess of trans-genus, trans-generational romance was going on here? What would a cat do with a card; how would a dog buy one; what would Freud have said? I had to scuttle out of the shop before I was overwhelmed with laughter. If we lay aside the jokes of litter-trays or barking or Oedipal fantasy, isn't this just the shopping equivalent of "bums on seats"? Is it no longer enough to send one card, to one person; do we now have to greet almost everyone we know - including animals? Different declarations for different people, like a packet of lovehearts with whole range of engravings?

And yet. Somehow, despite my boredom radar vibrating at all this stuff, I think the primary school in England which banned Valentine's cards, so that the inevitable children who don't receive any won't have to deal with feelings of rejection, has got it dreadfully wrong. Having been that child throughout my schooldays and beyond, not only did I survive the experience with only slight memories of residual embarrassment, I'm probably better for it: not having been the subject of a teenage crush possibly made me more likely to be properly happy in adult life. And anyway: we all have to go through rejection. Why not learn about it early, before it becomes too crushing?

But who am I to judge. I've never received the anonymous tribute of a secret admirer, or heard the heartbeat thud as the letterbox releases a countable tribute of blushing desirability. I'm sure I'm much too boring for anything like that. And yet I still hope that, when 14th February comes around again this year, there will be a simple recognition of love, and friendship, and shared laughter, and support, and trust.

And that won't be boring at all.