Customized Lovers for Busy Working Professionals

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


February 11, 2012

Customized Lovers for Busy Working Professionals

I neglected to mention that my review of Alone Together was intended to be my contribution Tom Slee’s online reading group. It happened that the book was assigned reading in class that I’m taking and my blog post was based on my paper - thus the lack of a link. But Tom has very kindly linked to my review (proving that the letter always arrives at its destination) and other posts on the topic like Tom’s previous post and Rob Horning’s contribution are well worth reading.

In his most recent post, Tom writes “Turkle worries about these inauthentic conversations partly because we are so easily seduced by the appearance of caring.” I suppose I read her book in a different way, because I don’t really think the problem is that we will be deceived into developing real feelings for a robot. I think ultimately she is worried that we won’t do that.

Early in the book, she writes about children whose tamagotchis have died who experience real loss, grief and guilt. When they have the chance to reset the device and start again, they refuse. This is a sign of the absolute authenticity of their love for their virtual pet. This refusal is a refusal of self-delusion, that you can simply turn back time and pretend the death never happened. They realize that doing this would be a total betrayal of their feelings. As I mentioned in my review, I think she is making a point about a decaffeinated Other, an Other deprived of its traumatic aspects, like the ability to die and leave you alone. The acceptance of loss is what marks this relationship as Real, and quite unlike other stories where the people express a desire for a human lite.

Another issue is whether a robot is capable of reciprocating our feelings, but this is not unique to robots. Many humans do not reciprocate our feelings! The difference is that when humans fail to reciprocate, we generally feel we should leave the relationship. If someone said “I don’t love you, but I don’t mind acting like I do,” we would turn this offer down. The danger that Turkle is pointing to is that we are able to accept caring behavior from robots not only despite the fact they don’t really mean it, but because they don’t really mean it.

Perhaps one symptom is in the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence. In the original short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long published in 1969, we are led to believe that the character David is a real boy, but at the end, it is revealed that he’s a robot. In the 2001 movie, we know from the beginning that David is a robot. The tragedy is that he imprints on his mother, forming permanent love for her and is unable to simply undo his programming - effectively becoming human.

Or in different terms, in the classic horror story, we believe we are surrounded by ordinary warm human beings, but in an unexpected moment, find out that beneath their skin they are aliens or robots. Today this is reversed: we come home to our compliant sex robot to find that he or she has developed real feelings, jealousy, and so on. The horrifying realization is that beneath their skin, they are human.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind voices these anxieties in yet another way. After a difficult relationship, two lovers break up and both angrily undergo a procedure that erases their painful memories of each other. But this restores their minds to a point just before they met, which causes them to fall in love all over again, and presumably repeating the traumatic relationship - a nice illustration of the psychoanalytic point that repression of trauma generates a compulsion to repeat it.

The title of the film comes from these lines from the Alexander Pope poem Eloisa to Abelard: “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;” Isn’t this a perfect statement of the desire for the decaffeinated Other?

Obviously this means the problem of authenticity is also reversed: how to avoid being authentic is the main question today - everything must be wrapped in an appropriate level of distancing irony to make sure our genuine feelings do not intrude on another person. In normal circumstances, this is the function of politeness. The question “How are you?” is insincere because we don’t really expect an answer, but the paradox is that if we did mean it sincerely, it would be very rude - like if someone asked “How is your health? Are you on any medications? You look sad, are having a fight with your spouse?”

From a stranger, this would be experienced as an intrusion, and we’d almost feel like replying “Who do you think you are to care sincerely about me? We don’t know each other that well!” This is the overproximity of the Neighbor, and with politeness it is possible to say “I don’t mean it sincerely, but if we did know each other well enough, I would.” So it is sincere insofar as it is insincere, and once you get to know the other person better, you can open up and be yourself more.

But today, it is more expected that you will always keep up the polite facade, because every authentic intersubjective encounter is experienced as kind of harm. Certain people of my acquaintance have adopted what in their minds is a stronger interpersonal ethical commitment, and they believe this means presenting a pleasing facade, telling people what they want to hear, providing validation and support and making you feel good about yourself at all times. What was formerly considered smooth-talking manipulation and deceit is now the height of virtue.

But still, I struggle to not find this offensive. For me, the minimal authenticity, at least among friends, is to present yourself to others in a way that’s consistent with how you perceive yourself. (But this is not the Real you by definition, since that is repressed and unconscious even to you.) Many people say it’s natural to present an idealized image of yourself, you want people to like you and so on. But among friends, you should be able to admit to doing this. I never trust those who claim to be themselves, only those who can admit to being a fake. My position is that if you’re going to lie to me, at least be honest about it.

In many discussions of authenticity, there’s a fundamental assumption that the interior of a person is the truth, and the problem of inauthenticity is that we are able to conceal our interior selves and present a false image to others - the split is interior/exterior. In psychoanalysis, the split is interior, and the problem is the non-identity of the self with itself - my inner self (that I may be hiding from others) is the lie, covering up the unconscious.

So Tom says that psychoanalysis is fundamentally about confession and compares the psychoanalyst to a priest, but this is not really accurate. A psychoanalyst is more like a detective in a classic detective novel, looking at the analysand’s speech as a criminal investigation where the assumption is the criminal is attempting to throw the investigators off the scent. If the analysand came in with lurid confessions in the style of Post Secret, this would be like someone rushing in to confess to the crime. The immediate reaction of the detective is to question why they are so eager to confess. Is the suspect being blackmailed by the true perpetrator? Are they protecting someone else? Is the confession designed to conceal another as-yet undiscovered crime? And so on.

Confession implies that the analysand’s desire is to reveal a secret that they can’t tell anyone else. In fact, the analyst is interested in the discourse of the unconscious, what the analysand is not unaware of and also desperate to keep hidden. The analysand often enters analysis because they have developed symptoms which make it impossible to continue to deny it, adn what they want most is for the analyst to give them some technique to keep the truth hidden, not to offer a safe outlet where they can speak the truth.