What's New In Version 2.1: An Original Short Story

To mark the publication of his third novel, Glow, Booker Prize-nominated novelist Ned Beauman unveils a dystopian vision of online dating in an original short story for Esquire.

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As I warmed up the T-shirt on the radiator, I reminded myself that I could never admit what I was about to do , even when I was drunk, even with my best friends.

Plenty of them had probably tried it, too, but candour does have its limits – unless this turned out to be one of those weird new modes of behaviour that before you knew it would feel totally acceptable and normal, which these days seemed to happen more rapidly and more unpredictably than ever.

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I didn’t feel guilty so much as just pathetic. Part of me wished I’d never kept Lucy’s old Grimes T-shirt, so that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stoop to this level, but by this stage there was no going back.

I held my phone against the inside seams of the armpits for long enough to let its chemoreceptors get a good sniff, and then I waited for Musk to process the data.

My phone already maintained a record of my own body odour for my various medical apps to monitor – I’m a bit of a hypochondriac – so when I installed Musk it had just been a matter of giving it the necessary permissions.

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The app loaded a page of results. There were 124 matches within a 50-mile radius of my flat. One hundred-and-twenty-four was a tiny selection by the standards of the other dating apps I’d tried, and even that was prior to filtering by age, but the matches were supposedly very precise.

In each case, the woman smelled exactly like Lucy, and I smelled exactly like her most recent ex-boyfriend (or whomever else she might have chosen as a model).

According to the articles I’d read online, a date with one of your matches was almost guaranteed to proceed to frantic sex within an hour or two. You just had steel yourself for a certain amount of mutual weeping afterwards.

One woman – Emma, 26 – even looked a bit like Lucy, or at least she did in one of her four profile pictures, if you ignored the bottom half of her face. I almost couldn’t bring myself to contact her, but then I reminded myself that she was voluntarily on Musk, just like me.

I’d started typing out a banal message when I was startled by my phone ringing. Jonny was calling me. I didn’t want to answer, but I had the irrational feeling that if I didn’t then somehow he’d guess why.

“Have you tried it yet?” he said.

“Tried what?” I said in a rather strangled voice.

“You know what.”

“Oh.”

Jonny had been pestering me for weeks about another dating app called Horizn. Its slogan was “Build a future together”, but I still wasn’t sure exactly what it did, and anyway it had some off-putting features.

First of all, you had to pay to use it, even though nearly every other dating app was free. Second, it demanded access to all your messages, all your photos, all your transactions, and all your biometric data, which seemed to me not just intrusive but potentially criminal.

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Third, it supposedly used a smartphone’s Q-chip, which seemed like such overkill for a dating app that it had to be a silly marketing gimmick.

“No, I haven’t tried it,” I said.

“Seriously, mate, you have to. Just trust me. All those apps for random shags are fine but this one’s all about the real thing and that’s what you need. You’ve been moping around for so long now. If we’re not careful you’re going to end up as one of those poor bastards on Musk!”

“Right. Don’t want that.” I forced a laugh.

“You know all the girls on there are looking for guys who smell like their dads? You know that?”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Promise me you’ll give Horizn a go.”

“Fine. I promise.” We chatted for a few more minutes before he rang off.

I decided that this time I really would try the app, if only because it might rescue me from a long evening of swapping emoji with Lucy’s pheromonal doubles.

After I installed it I was disconcerted to find that my profile was already complete, presumably because it had gathered everything it needed from my personal archives.

All it wanted to know was whether I was currently looking for “new friends”, “long-term dating”, “short-term dating” or “casual sex”. I ticked all four, and right away Horizn presented me with a page of matches.

I didn’t realise how long I’d been using it until I heard the birds singing outside my window the next morning.

The full details of Horizn’s technology were proprietary, but according to the FAQ it used the phone’s Q-chip to locate the possible universe in which you agreed to go on a date with the person whose profile you were looking at.

Using the information it had about the two of you, it simulated your future together from the first minute of that first date. If you liked the future it showed, you swiped to the right, and if you didn’t, you swiped to the left.

When I saw a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman on the Tube and immediately found myself fantasising about the hilarious speech I’d make at our wedding, I felt sheepish about it, because it seemed to me a bit unmanly to be so sentimental and conformist.

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As a red-blooded male, my mental simulations weren’t supposed to go beyond a glamorous restaurant and a desecrated hotel room, and even that much detail would be extravagantly elaborate.

Also, if by some implausible turn of events I really did get a chance to introduce myself to this person, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about how creeped out she’d be if she ever found out that in my mind we’d already gone shopping for furniture together.

And yet I couldn’t stop making these projections and extrapolations. So Horizn was perfect for me. 

Most of the women on the app I wouldn’t see again after the first date. A proportion of those first dates would be one-night stands, and I might have considered pursuing those, except that some of the other outcomes were so much more interesting.

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A few evenings with legal secretary Tasha, 31, would leave me so infatuated that I would agree to join the secretive Fulham-based “personal development community” that had already taken most of her savings, and an intervention from my friends would bring me to my senses only after I’d handed over most of my own.

My relationship with artisanal cheesemaker Marianne, 28, would end so badly that for years afterwards I would find myself not just resentful towards coagulated milk but also physically allergic to dairy products.

And then, with about one in 40 women on the app , I would end up married with children (seven daughters, in one case). The proportion was so high that it made a bit of a mockery of the notion that each of us has one true love out there waiting for us, but I’d never found that very plausible anyway.

There was nothing to stop me swiping to the right on all of them, and waiting to see which ones would actually develop further. But the strange thing was that I couldn’t bring myself to swipe to the right on a single one.

I felt like, if I did, I would be announcing that at least in principle I would be satisfied with the possible future it was showing me. And yet how could I possibly be satisfied with any one possible future, when I would be missing out on so many others?

Obviously, the same is true of any decision you ever make. Any time you’re on a date with a woman, it entails that you’re therefore not on a date with any of the other women at the bar.

But on Horizn the sense of infinite potentiality was so blinding. Of course, none of these visions of happy middle age were anything more than hypothetical constructs on my smartphone’s Q-chip, and I didn’t even know if these women would reciprocate by swiping my own profile to the right, so it was preposterous that I was already “afraid of commitment”.

And yet the app made it feel like a sort of existential tyranny that I would ever have to make any kind of irrevocable choice ever again. By this point it was hard to imagine even ordering off a menu in a restaurant.

I was so exhausted I was going to have no choice but to call in sick to work, so if I’d felt like it I could have spent the rest of the morning scrolling through my future selves.

But I didn’t want Horizn’s limitless paradise any more. I just wanted something narrow and shabby and backward looking. I opened Musk and started a chat with Emma, 26.

Later, after we’d arranged a place to meet, she had one last condition. “As well as everything else, there’s a particular cologne I need you to wear. Is that OK?”

“Yes,” I wrote back. “That’s absolutely fine.”

Ned Bauman's third novel, Glow, is out now.

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