Big Love Meets Big Data

Jane Austen, take heed: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man with a fortune is in need of a reality show to find him a mate.

And if you're in the 21st century, that must happen with the latest matchmaking technologies, as promised by NBC's "Ready for Love,'' which premiered April 9th and promises to find the perfect woman for three handsome bachelors.

But if you're already sniffing at this notion and long for the days of Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" or her unforgettable Emma, whose matchmaking was chronicled in one of her most popular novels, consider this: Jane Austen and such shows as "Ready for Love'' and "The Bachelor'' have more in common than you might think.

Far as it is from the quality of an Austen novel, reality TV creates plots and characters and tells stories about romance. Austen might teach us much about romance, but tech-savvy "reality TV" might shockingly tell us a thing or two about Austen.

The use of media and technology for rethinking the stories we tell reflects a more serious trend. The digital revolution is fully under way: even many people who did not grow up in the digital age now read books on their Kindle.

We might have gone through a bit of our own matchmaking, and selected "Emma" based on a website's interpretation of our personal tastes. There might be some serendipity involved - perhaps we are reading Jane Austen because we rented "Clueless" while we had a crush on Paul Rudd. Matches used to be made in heaven; now they are outsourced to the Cloud.

But imagine if we were to use the search process itself not just to recommend the book we are reading, but to tell us something new about that book. What could technology possibly tell us about love or about Jane Austen?

To be sure, data might not tell us anything about the "miniature delicacy" in Austen's writing that Charlotte Bronte grudgingly admired. There are things that we can only gain from the kind of careful textual analysis that is often referred to as "close reading."

We don't want to miss the nuances of this sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Who "universally" acknowledges this claim? Is this truth really true? Does it apply to all men, everywhere and at all times? What is the connection - as Edward Said asked long ago - between the self-enclosed society in which Austen's novels are set, and the larger empire England was building in Austen's lifetime? One sentence can generate so many questions that the novel will richly answer.

But the "universal" also pushes us outside of the world of the novel, and that is where technology enters the picture. Franco Moretti has suggested that computers' new capabilities allow us to crunch big data, and to complement our "close reading" with "distant reading." Such distant reading provides information about historical events, social contexts, and cultural developments.

This approach instantly generates skepticism, and rightly so. Data is not an interpretation; data itself calls for interpretation. And that is precisely where the calculations of Mrs. Bennet and the computation of our own era speak to one another.

Increasingly, databases can tell us how common terms such as "universal" were in early nineteenth century texts, and give us knowledge about their different meanings.

We can triangulate those uses with what we know about Jane Austen's reading practices.

GPS technologies might reveal how the local and universal intersect.

And we can mine vast statistical databases to find out how many specimens of that elusive "single man" there were, how large a "good fortune" was at the time, and how may eligible single women fell in love with both.

To be sure, some of these approaches take us outside the world of Austen's novel. But if we are reading about "universally acknowledged" truths, that outside world might greatly enhance our understanding of the time and place in which the novel is set, and perhaps even shed new light on its contents.

Before we get too carried away in our excitement, a note of caution is in order: these technological capacities raise privacy concerns that we need to consider. And the fact that new technology connects us to nineteenth-century matchmaking might be fruitful grounds for analyzing why old gender roles keep getting reinforced in contemporary culture.

Whether "Ready for Love" will bear out Austen's universal truth remains to be seen. Whether it will generate a compelling narrative alongside a romance plot remains doubtful, as the show's low ratings reflect. But its use of technology for matchmaking might not only be in line with the cultural traditions from which it emerges, it might also reveal something new to us -- for better and for worse.