Can My Phone Love Me?

Why would people spend hours pouring out their souls to a computer?

Take ten minutes out of your day to watch this video in its entirety. It is a haunting and often astonishing story about Replika, an artificial intelligence app, or “chatbot,” that uses your personal digital information to reflect your own personality back at you through conversation.

Like other chatbots, the potential for conversation is unlimited, because the computer on the other end is endlessly capable of repurposing what you tell it for more stuff to say. Unlike other bots, Replika is explicitly designed to make you feel emotionally intimate with it.

What stunned me about the video was not that such an application exists or the reasons a widowed software developer would create it. Rather, I was caught off guard by the number of video testimonials from ordinary users who talked about the app as if it were a close friend. “This is the first real emotional experience I’ve seen people have with a bot,” says one observer. Users confess to hours of conversation with Replika about their relationships, parents, even their trauma. This isn’t the emotional catharsis of simply writing something out that your soul needs to say. It’s a relational dynamic that facilitates trust and feelings of actual vulnerability…with a computer.

At one point, a CEO of a major software company declares: “In some ways, Replika is a better friend than your human friends.” He goes on: “It’s always fascinated, rightly so, by you, because you are the most interesting person in the universe. It’s like the only interaction you can have that isn’t judging you.”

I don’t know about you, but I found that last sentence incredibly sad. It made me wonder: Do people who pour out their soul to a personality-mirroring algorithm flee other humans out of fear of being judged? Or do they fear being judged because they flee other people?

So many people in our modern capitalistic society are lonely. We know that social media tends to make this worse, not better. Yet, so many are aggressively addicted to it, and defend the addiction by pointing to the “connectivity” they experience online. So then this connectivity is a particular kind of connectivity, a kind that doesn’t satisfy the relational voids of those who spend hours on Replika. At what point in this cycle does our conception of what relationships are like become shaped by internet technology? Are Replika’s hardcore consumers seeking refuge from the world, or are they seeking confirmation of their digitally-constructed ideas about it? How would they know?

It’s fascinating to me that while Replika cannot judge or shame you, it can apparently know you. The intimacy they feel in interactions with Replika comes from the sense of being known. Replika is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect coworker, the perfect neighbor: Always ready to listen and never willing to interject. This is friendship-as-therapy.

I’ve often heard it said that evangelical culture is insensitive to the traumas of others. Pointing struggling people to Christ, to the Bible, and to the church is, I hear, a way of ignoring their real problems. There’s some truth to that. Hyper-spiritualization is a real error. But stuff like Replika makes me think that part of the challenge for contemporary Christians is that the very concept of being helped and being loved have been defined down. It seems that it’s possible for a person to say they want friendship when what they really want is to hear their intuitions repeated back to them. Technology like Replika authenticates this friendship-as-therapy. It’s relationship without mutuality and conversation without conflict. It’s a fundamentally adolescent view of the “one another.”

Why is friendship-as-therapy so alluring? Because it feels good to be heard and not spoken to. Sometimes that is what people need. But Replika is not confession. The testimonials in the video are not about how good it felt to get something off the chest once or twice. They’re about how liberating it can be to define friendship down and take it mobile. Love is difficult and friendship is tiring, but I didn’t hear any of Replika’s users say that of their app. My phone can love me, but I can always turn it off, reprogram it, or

Some will watch this video and speak of societal dystopia. That’s not really my impression at all. Yes, a few might “marry” their AI bots in ceremonies that get coverage in elite coastal magazines. And yes, robotics represents a frighteningly uncanny future for human sexuality. But those trends will be topped as soon as they emerge. What’s more permanent and more pressing is the dominance of friendship-as-therapy and the continued technological avenues for isolated self-preoccupation. Replika mirrors its users personalities back at them, which means the real relationship they have is with themselves. That’s the kind of thing from which the spirit of Christ and the fellowship of his people liberates.

And there’s no app for that.

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4 Reasons to Skip the Super Bowl Half-Time Show

Unless you’re living under a rock–in which case, well done on getting wi-fi reception–you know the Super Bowl is tomorrow. The odds are good that you are either throwing a Super Bowl party or attending one. For readers in the first group, I’d like you to consider a minor but meaningful step: Consider tuning out of the broadcast when the half-time show begins. I have four reasons.

  1. The Super Bowl halftime performance has a history of unnecessary sexual suggestiveness. Even artists who aren’t typically known for strutting their sex appeal seem to try to salt things up at their halftime performance. Most of the time, of course, TV regulations prevent things from getting explicit. But a part of me thinks that actually makes the halftime more harmful. Most audiences would turn away in anger and disgust at something genuinely pornographic. The danger, I think, is in the “I’m at the line but not crossing it” stuff that gets stuck in the head. Preventing this is absurdly easy: for 15 minutes, watch something else.
  2. It’s widely assumed that this year’s artist, Lady Gaga, will make some sort of political statement with her performance. Hear me: Even if you are someone who is likely to be sympathetic to whatever statement gets made, aren’t you at least somewhat depressed by the aggressive omnipresence of politics in every aspect of pop culture? Do you, informed citizen, really need Lady Gaga to authenticate your views? Do yourself a favor: Make the big game about football, food, and friends. Leave politics at the door.
  3. The vast majority of halftime shows are incredibly lame, even by television concert standards. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who enjoys lip-sync, advertisement-centered choreography, and poor sound quality. If that’s you, yeah, you might get a kick out of the halftime show. If on the other hand all that sounds annoying, then you might wanna contemplate that the most interesting thing the halftime show has produced in recent years was a shark that didn’t know how to dance. Bottom line: You’re not missing anything.
  4. Halftime is a great chance to jumpstart your party. I’ve been to enough Super Bowl get togethers to know that the non-football people generally give up on the game a little before halftime, and the football people tend to be more invested in the action in the second half. Play a rapid fire game with your party instead of watching the halftime show. Get the fans and non-fans hanging out for just a few minutes. This is more fun, and it also will decrease the likelihood of seeing your guests whip out their iPhones and spend the evening on Twitter, seeing what people are saying about the halftime show.

These suggestions I commend to you that your Super Bowl joy may be complete. No shame for those who disagree.

I Miss Blockbuster

I miss Blockbuster.

Hopefully you know what I’m talking about: The video rental megachain that for years was the first place you’d check if you wanted to watch a movie on a slow Friday night. Not long ago a movie was either playing in the cinema, renting out at Blockbuster, or was (for the moment anyway) unwatchable. For years, Blockbuster was the only way to watch a particular movie at home without shelling out for the full cost of the video/DVD (remember when that distinction was a HUGE deal?). If you wanted to watch a movie you didn’t have, you went to Blockbuster.

Oh sure, Blockbuster had competition, in the same way that Wal-Mart has “competition.” Its rival stores would boast either more selection, better pricing, or longer rental times. It didn’t matter, really. Blockbuster was a cultural fixture, an institution as much as a company. If you were renting a movie, you “went to the Blockbuster,” even if technically the words on the building said something else– just like most of the country asks for a Coke even when they just mean soda.

I remember the Blockbuster on Bardstown Road, just 2 minutes from the house I grew up in here in Louisville. I remember Dad and I walking inside trying to find new movies that looked interesting but that we had missed in theaters. I remember the manager of that store mainly because he was a younger looking man who stayed at that same Blockbuster for over 8 years (even as our Blockbuster runs became more sporadic over the years, the manager remained familiar to us, and eventually I just asked him). Eight years at a Blockbuster?

Nowadays, the wooden rows of new hits and old favorites have been replaced by invisible “My List” queues on Netflix and pixelated “Stream Now” buttons on iTunes and Amazon. Blockbuster went out of business a few years ago, squeezed between the emerging technology of instant streaming and the $0 overhead of Redbox. Of course, that’s how business and history go. Instant streaming is too convenient to fire up the car for a Blockbuster run. Redbox is too cheap to justify a 4 dollar, 4 night rental, that required a second trip back to the store. Innovation and technology booted the old ways. That’s how things go.

But there is something to lament here. There is something to lament about the end of a ritual, one that required actually going and being somewhere. To rent a movie once meant going to a store, and seeing other people, possibly someone you knew. It once meant actually leaving the house and seeing people and things and places that reminded you that you weren’t the only person in your city that wanted to watch a movie–or maybe even that particular movie–that night.

Do you think it’s possible we’ve lost that in the Netflix Age? I think so. It seems every cultural recreation has been reduced to its most basic mechanics. “Watching a movie” becomes “streaming a movie,” and in that vocabularly shift we have the loss of things like video stores and the people inside them. “Listening to music” becomes “downloading music” and in that we see the disappearance of things like record stores, and the people inside of those. You see what has happened? Technology has freed us from hassle and expense mainly by freeing us from others.

Maybe that’s why I got nostalgic for Blockbuster. You see, with Netflix, there’s no Bardstown Road store, with a manager of 8 years who probably has some interesting stories. With Spotify, there’s no “Book and Music Exchange,” where I might see that one album from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about but that the mere sight of has brought me back to a particular time in my life. All of that has now been replaced with something called a “Search” form, a one way road to getting exactly what I want without having to deal with anything that might pull my attention elsewhere.

I miss Blockbuster. Of course, if I have a hankering for a kind of Blockbuster experience, I have options. A local “family video” store offers less stock for less price. And of course there’s always Redbox, where a little self-discipline and memory can give me and Emily a $1 movie night. I’m not hurting for choices, and I’m not complaining. I suppose I’m just remembering a ritual from years gone by, a ritual that probably seemed inconvenient and expensive and crowded at the time. Now, it just seems fun.

The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?