Unrequited Love in the Time of Technology

Is it better to feel we are loved, even when we are not? I recently stumbled across an app that got me asking this question, and wondering what it might mean to live in a world where we outsource our love to machines.

Bruised-HeartMy first real experience with love was in my early twenties, living overseas. The demands of my job eventually took me back to the US, and after about a year, her feelings for me faded, while mine remained strong. From talking to other people, I know I am not alone in having experienced this kind of heartbreak, this suffering of an unrequited love.

The only real consolation is knowing that these experiences are what most make us human: a jagged, little pill, of little comfort to anyone actually in the process of experiencing it.

“Brogrammed” Love

Imagine a young guy, caught up in the thrill of his first job, wanting to hang out with his buddies, but torn by his need to pay attention to a promising new girlfriend. Now imagine he finds a way to automate paying attention to her through an app that fires off a steady flow of pre-canned, romantic text messages.

BroAppI couldn’t make this up if I tried. This is a real app called BroApp, and its developers appear quite sincere in their conviction that we will inevitably outsource some of our most intimate communications to machines.

BroApp is a tool, and like all tools, it has a human behind it; in this case, a human who wants a little more efficiency and convenience in his relationship with his girlfriend. From the point of view of intentions, how different is this from a young man in the 1800’s penning a bunch of love letters, stamping and addressing them all at once, and mailing them out over time for a little more efficiency?

In the case of the BroApp though, many of the messages are actually written by a ‘bro’ at BroApp. This takes us beyond just efficiency of delivery, and into the actual outsourcing of our thoughts and feelings. We’ve been here before, with Hallmark cards, of course, but there’s something about the BroApp that feels a little different – a kind steepening of a slippery slope.

So what’s the difference? Why does BroApp feel so wrong and why do its developers go to ingenious lengths to hide the app’s existence from bro girlfriends? Perhaps because the whole concept is built on a deceit: that the bro is acting in a loving, thoughtful way – when in fact, it’s really just the machine.

More troubling still is the app’s premise that what really matters is that the girlfriend perceives that she is loved (or at least the object of affection). By this bro-logic, it matters not whether she actually is loved, so long as she feels loved.

And this gets us to a horribly tricky dilemma about our future.


Alone in the Dark

In my experience with unrequited love as a younger guy, I knew when my girlfriend no longer loved me. The only thing worse would have been not knowing. In other words, unrequited love is sad, but unknown, unrequited love is tragic. The unloved person isn’t just unloved, he is also either deceived or deluded: alone and in the dark.

Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, highlights her research on people’s relationships with “sociable robots” and gives us insight into a new, technological edge to being alone and in the dark. One of the main things she points out is that our social nature makes humans quite good at projecting relationships onto all manner of people and things:

“…when we are asked to care for an object when an object thrives under our care, we experience that object as intelligent, but more importantly, we feel ourselves to be in a relationship with it. The attachments I describe do not follow from whether computational objects really have emotion or intelligence, because they do not. The attachments follow from what they evoke in their users.”

Love Furby Turkle is talking about things like Furbies and a robotic doll called My Real Baby, toys designed to evoke emotional attachment in kids. More vexing, perhaps, is Paro, a robotic seal, designed to automate the benefits of animal therapy in care for the elderly. What Turkle shows is that our built-in drive for social connection doesn’t just make us vulnerable to extending those relationships to machines; it makes us vulnerable to extending our relationships to machines that can’t possibly love us back.

I am not one to reject the possibility that, one day, an artificial intelligence might well be capable of feeling love. Without precisely the same kind of human body that we have, it is unlikely to experience love the same way that we do; but then, it’s quite likely that no two humans experience love the same way either. So yes, Spike Jonze’s vision in the movie Her may well come to pass someday…a very long time from now.

In the meantime, we may well be stuck relating to, and possibly even falling in love with, something that cannot yet truly love us back. It will be able to perform loving us, but not actually love us. It will be a new form of technological unrequited love that will leave us alone, and in the dark.

Simulated Love

How would I feel if one of my sons were to grow up never knowing real love with another human being? Let’s say that while gathered around a Thanksgiving dinner table ten years from now, he broke it to my wife and me that a human relationship was just too much trouble, especially when compared to the simpler, more convenient connection he’d been able to find with his new virtual girlfriend. I love my son, so I would try to be supportive and understanding, but deep-down, I would be tremendously sad that he might never really know what it feels like to be truly loved by someone other than his parents.

Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service.

– Shakespeare

If that picture seems unrealistic, you should know that this very scenario is happening right now in Japan.

According to a 2011 report from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (PDF), the percentage of single Japanese men who never intend to marry has more than doubled since 1987 to 9.4%; for women it’s grown some 50% to 6.8%. What’s more, 49% of single women, and 61% of single men, ages 18-34 are not in any relationship with a member of the opposite sex and both these figures are also up sharply from 1987. (Unfortunately, the report does not cover same-sex relationships).

Japanese-Aversion-to-SexSomething is also happening with Japanese attitudes towards sex, particularly among the young. In a 2011 report (PDF in Japanese), the Japanese Association for Sex Education surveyed men and women across a range of ages, which, when averaged, show that some 19% of men and 48% of women reported being “indifferent or averse” to sex. Once again, these numbers are up significantly from recent years. They are also even more dramatic in the youngest segments, with 36% of males and 59% of females between the ages of 16 and 19 reporting indifference or aversion to sex. (Click on chart to the right for details).

It’s a complex story, and one the media has overplayed to some degree, but something is happening in Japan right now. The common explanation is that as women have become more economically empowered, they’ve become less willing to put up with the undesirable aspects of a kind of cultural lag that keeps men locked in a post-war work and behavioral ethic. With nowhere left to turn, men are increasingly turning to online pornography.

But “pornography” fails to capture some of the nuance of what seems to be happening here, especially with the rise of Japanese “otaku” culture. Roughly translated as nerd or geek, “otaku” is a more derogatory term carrying the implication of a shut-in, someone unable to relate to the real world outside their computer screen. You’ve no doubt seen the big-eyed anime drawings from Japan. Now imagine these as sexualized, fetishized objects that a subsegment of the male population now refers to as their 2D and 3D “girlfriends.” “Dating Sim” creator Konami even organized a summer gathering in the beach town of Atami for players of its game, LovePlus, and their virtual girlfriends. This isn’t just porn; it’s a kind of virtual relationship, and I believe it is just the early days of something still to come.

“Aoyama cites one man in his early 30s, a virgin, who can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers.”
The Guardian: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”

MendokusaiIt’s difficult to explain what is really happening here, except perhaps that Japanese men are learning to escape the “mendokusai” (“too much trouble”) complexity of real life relationships in favor of idealized, iconic virtual women (and more). This takes us back to what Sherry Turkle says in Alone Together about our growing preference for relationship convenience; something that shows up in that insipid BroApp too.

We are developing a new generation of “sociable technologies” based, to some degree, on the promise of relationships that are much more convenient and tidy than what we can have with real human beings. These may seem like choices we would never make ourselves – and most of us would not – but it’s important to understand that there is a growing segment of the population who is.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Human love is inconvenient; it’s messy, illogical, and sometimes it hurts. It is also powerful, life-affirming, and often helps us become better human beings. Love is all these things because it lives in the heart, that messy meeting place of our animal and transcendent natures. The heart helps us to rise above that nagging sense of existential dread, now so pervasive in modern life, and gives rise to our most noble aspects as a species.

The question that emerges is why would we willingly give this up, and my sense is that we may not really know what we’re doing. We are becoming enchanted by the convenience, the compelling, one might even say the seductive and even addictive, solutions created by the marketplace to answer our crazy, “life-out-of-balance” world. The stress, the isolation, the numbing drive for constant connection – these are all just some of the consequences of a lifestyle that challenges our traditional understandings of what it means to be human, and we are really struggling with these changes.

Don’t get me wrong. With thoughtful application, some of these social technologies could prove quite helpful to us. We just need to be very careful. For in extending our drive for ease and convenience into matters of the heart, we risk diluting that which most makes us human. The messy, difficult experiences I had with my relationships made me who I am, and helped me to understand what it means to really love someone.

What troubles me most is the thought that my sons and their generation may inherit a world where their love feeds something that is, at least for the foreseeable future, inherently incapable of truly loving them back. This prospect of mass, technologically unrequited love takes my breath away because of the loss it would mean for humanity. Yes, it may well help us to scratch that existential itch, making us feel better about our crazy lives; perhaps, even to the point that we forget that the love really only flows in one direction. But that just makes it all the sadder; a whole generation, alone and in the dark.

“And, in the end
The love you take
is equal to the love you make.”
― Paul McCartney





Anime image modified from original by MariCatgaga.


3 thoughts on “Unrequited Love in the Time of Technology”

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