What exactly is dating?

Coming from and old fashioned upbringing in the countryside, I have to admit that all this London 'Dating Scene' is really quite confusing!
Let’s go back to our/my parents’ generation.
They either got married or they didn’t. Simple. They had very little depth to knowing someone, except that of 'courting'. This, however, only included dinner and isn’t really the lengths this generation, can go to as we all know in terms of 'knowing' our partner (before marriage).
Then we created a "Girlfriend and Boyfriend" before marriage. This I assume is the stage before marriage to check out if you got on, on a deeper level. Hopefully after a couple of years you will be sure you two are right and settle at least by then.
Now there is 'Dating'. Some of my friends are 'Dating' yet categorically say that they are not 'Boyfriend and Girlfriend'
Confused dot com yet? Hmmm...
So, let me get this straight. 'Dating' is effectively another level of 'caution', before we become a ' Girlfriend and Boyfriend" (which is the time to get to know someone)
So, basically, we are now in a society where we not only wish to "try before we buy" (a.k.a. Boyfriend and Girlfriend), but we want to try before trying to BUY? lol
Now, either this generation is absolutely petrified of commitment or I’m just confused about what dating is...
Can someone help clarify this or am I right in assuming that dating is another level of caution before actually taking a leap of faith on being with someone?
Sometimes we just have to follow our heart, not our head...
Any thoughts?