February 27, 2012

Empathizing with imaginary people (three cases)

When people's mindset shifts toward social avoidance, they never fully lose the basic human desire to empathize with others. Yet reaching out and connecting with real people poses the risk of cementing long-term bonds, so they search for a solution that will let them have their cake and eat it too.

Put simply, it is to try empathizing with things that are not people, but that through repeated practice the mind could construe as at least passably human. It is the social bonding equivalent of jerking off to pornography.

An obvious example is the gizmo worship that cocooners develop during falling-crime times. Not even they can convince themselves that those things have a mind and emotions, so the urge to hug machines usually shows up in fiction, with movies being the ideal medium. A.I. and Iron Giant are just two recent movies where the idea is that the machines are all but fully human, and suitable for affection-starved children to bond with. Terminator 2 was right about there as well, although he at least had to learn how to become more human.

In rising-crime times people are more suspicious of drastic technological change, so they don't feel like trying to bond with machines. Blade Runner had a "droids as humans" portrayal, but no one bought it. Everyone perceives them as human outcasts, not mostly-human robots, and anyway you only like that movie for the spectacular visuals. Johnny Five from Short Circuit was even less human than the Arnold terminator from T2, more like a talking pet than a being with the warmth and sensitivity of a person. C-3PO is a stock character with no emotional depth, so he doesn't really count either. The closest we got to empathizing with a robot was Bishop from Aliens, although he too had totally flat affect and seemed autistic.

The best movie about our attempt to welcome androids into the in-group circle is of course RoboCop. There are only a handful of vignettes, but the message is hard to ignore. All involve people looking up to RoboCop as a hero or savior, trying to connect with him, and only getting a canned response that leaves them emotionally unsatisfied. One shows a bunch of children climbing over him and admiring him, and a TV news reporter asking him excitedly what message he has for the kids watching. Just some monotone pre-programmed line about staying in school and saying no to drugs or something. Not exactly what a living hero would say, or how he'd say it.

In another, a woman is chased, held hostage with a knife, and nearly raped by two thugs, when RoboCop shoots one right in the dick and sends the other running. The terrified woman runs up to her savior, hugs and thanks him profoundly, and looks up at his face for some kind of "Everything's going to be OK now" reassurance, as well as an acknowledgement of her gratitude. Instead he states the obvious ("Madam you've suffered a traumatic experience"), and says he'll notify a rape crisis center. Not what you want to hear when you basically tell someone you owe them your life. He doesn't acknowledge her gratitude at all. This cold and distancing response makes her face twist into a mix of shock and puzzlement.

The movie doesn't belabor the point, but it remains clear: that's what you can expect from trying to connect emotionally with machines.

Reality TV solves the problem a little better because at least you're watching people. But however much empathy you send their way, you know it'll never stick and be returned. There's no danger that you'll have to interact with those real people.

When we see people trying to hug a brick wall in this way, it should make us feel pity for them, or depending on our mood even disgust. I've never seen the movie Real Life, a spoof about reality TV back when the genre was barely visible. But it doesn't sound like it looks at the audience of the show, just the participants and producers. That leaves only two movies about reality TV, one from rising-crime and the other from falling-crime times. The Running Man may be a schlock fest, but at least they have one of the proper reactions -- disgust -- to an audience that tries to satisfy their social and emotional needs through reality TV characters.

By the time The Truman Show came out, we were asked to empathize with the Truman character as well as his audience members, making us one of them. Indeed it was supposed to be spiritually uplifting, not degrading and pitiable, that the audience resulted to watching reality TV as their supreme form of an attempt at empathy.

It's too bad there wasn't a movie in the '80s that took the disapproving view of the state of the world that The Running Man did, but delivered it in the more sincere and less hammed-up tone of The Truman Show.

Perhaps the purest form of empathizing with imaginary people is gay friends. Because they're only 3% of men, few people make use of this solution, but it is one of the clearest examples of the imaginary empathy trend since the '90s. It's even better than gizmo worship and reality TV because it's an actual person, just not a real one. How can we tell? Simply by the fact that fag hags never have any straight guy friends, where I mean someone with whom they mutually let their guard down around, disclose personal matters, share secrets, and so on.

Normal males come in such a wide variety that at least some should be to her liking, yet she keeps them at a distance and only lets homosexuals close. It is a fear or anxiety of the real per se, not just this or that annoying sub-class of real people. Girls with gay friends are blind to even the most basic facts about homos, for example how much more they crave drugs than any normal guy does, how uninterested they are in monogamy, how obsessed they are with sexual fetishes, and all other manner of sick thoughts and behavior.

Because they are merely imaginary people, gay friends can take on whatever qualities the fag hag desires. Most people outgrow that in elementary school, when they're starting to learn how to deal with other people. Since gays are all afflicted with a Peter Pan complex, they're a perfect match for the childish regressive queer collector.

In all other ways, though, the two are from different planets, one real (if detestable) and the other not, preventing any chance at empathy. It's the most dangerous form of trying to empathize with imaginary people because the responses during chit-chat are so convincing -- she feels like he's really picking up on her mental wavelength. "He's so much more understanding and sensitive than a straight man!"

Except that he cannot understand anything about her desires. She wants to be seen as pretty but appreciated for more than just that, and longs for a partner who likewise is attractive but also funny, exciting, courageous, and so on. All he worries about is whether he looks good naked, and whether his warm body for the weekend does too. She wants long-term affection that she's earned, not just some throwaway compliments to try to get her in bed. All that matters to him is quick-fix praise and attention, no matter who it's from or how insincere.

During their interactions, she's sending a bunch of empathy his way, but he has no interest in cementing a bond with her -- only in using her as a reliable source of the attentional quick fixes he craves at every moment. Again the back-and-forth is far more convincing than with gizmos or reality TV show stars that I wonder whether fag hags ever wake up to the fact that there's no real empathy being established, that she's squandered much of her social life acting like a groupie to a disturbed drama queen.

Those are just a handful of examples that probably only scratch the surface.


  1. Not sure if "The Matrix" is an example of series that presents AI in a hostile and false manner- they are antagonists - but they aren't predatory or evil in quite a Terminator fashion, but acting out of self preservation in a conflict with nebulous origins. It is a series that blurs the line between human and machine.

    Cyberpunk was born in the mid-80s. William Gibson's cyberpunk is interesting in that it depicts artificial intelligence not as human or malevolent or unsatisfying per se, but as kind of an unknowable god/ghost thing (lots of loa metaphors) that isn't really understandable, and attempts to present as human as really masks, usually of something malevolent.

    I do get the impression that later cyberpunk books, movies, anime is more sanguine about the transition from human to machine/AI (e.g. Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain, although that might just be them being Japanese) and more transhumanistic in orientation (even though that's something with earlier origins), while the early cyberpunk stuff sees it as empowering but potentially quite dangerous and dehumanising.

    Videodrome might be another example of an 80s movie that fits your idea.

    *batteries not included fits with the robot pet idea - although they are machines literally given life like qualities.

    Transformers is an 80s thing - I wonder if the 2000s revivals are more humanised? The 80s Transformers were fully protagonists.

    Not sure if Tron fits in with the idea - it's like the most weirdly humanising of technology movie there is...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D.A.R.Y.L. - This seems like an 80s film with a robot-boy premise like AI. Doesn't look too successful

    Not sure if Weird Science counts or not. Probably not.

  2. I loved the Truman Show. What do you think of Gattaca, which is directed by the same man?


  3. The Matrix was pretty ominous, unlike an older action movie where the good guy blows away the enemy and rides off into the sunset.

    Matrix give off the feeling that technology is so entrenched that the AI can be as non-responsive and apathetic as it wants, cause what are a handful of little destitute human losers going to do? Actually incite a reaction? Make them afraid?

    The movie would have been so much better if everyone suddenly got proof they were human batteries. Then they could all nuke it out.

    But would they? I think today's politically correct maze proves that people are satisfied to devolve into narcissism and self serving mindless absorption

    You want me to empathize with you? Then accept the fact that if I release those emotions, I will also release the ones that cause me to hate and be violent.

  4. I'm thinking more about robots or androids, which people may try to empathize with, rather than technology in general.

    Videodrome didn't show people using TV to try to connect emotionally with others. More like to feed some individual addiction, e.g. through softcore porn. The Cathode Ray Mission looks more like a halfway house for junkies than a lonely hearts club.

    The AI in The Matrix is like the replicants from Blade Runner -- totally not convincing as artificial beings. They come off as your generic tough-nosed, cold-blooded government spy or conspiracy cabal, but still human.

    Those movies also didn't show people trying to empathize with the AI, whether they failed as in RoboCop or succeeded as in A.I.

    I don't remember trying to empathize with the Transformers when I was little, and couldn't tell you what their personalities were. It was more like this robot does this badass thing and that other one does some other badass thing. I don't remember the plotlines -- did they show people trying to reach a meeting of the minds with the robots?

    In Tron, there's the computer programs (or whatever they're called) that are based on real-life people, and others that are just creations from nothing. The latter are the typically robotic ones that you can't connect with.

    With the former, you felt like you were watching two people interact and connect, have good teamwork, trust each other, etc., but just in a technologically mediated way. Kind of like talking on the phone or on Skype.

  5. "I never saw Gattaca."

    I highly suggest it, if you have the time. Very much in the same vein as the Truman Show, and written and directed by teh same guy.


  6. This may be of interest to you.

    "According to the study, in the years from 1965 to 2002, higher rates of out-of-wedlock births in a given year correlate with higher crime rates roughly 20 years later, when members of that birth cohort had become adults. The findings suggest that children born out of wedlock may receive lower educational and other resource investments from their parents, and may therefore be more likely to commit crimes as adults, say the study’s authors, economists Todd D. Kendall, of the consulting firm Compass Lexecon, and Robert Tamura of Clemson University."


  7. And this:


    The Strauss-Howe generational theory explains about how historical events and generational types tend to "rhyme" themselves into cycles every 70-100 years.

    These cycles are broken down into four eras that last 15-25 years. The High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and finally the Crisis. They are defined by the people's attitudes and feelings about themselves and the world around them.

    A High is a time of high birth rates, low crime rates, low drug and substance abuse, and rapid economic growth. Society as a whole during a High tends to be conservative and conformist, individuality is discouraged and there is emphasis on building and doing. To society, the future looks bright and wars are unlikely to occur. Turnings

    During an Awakening, the babies born during the High come of age, protest against the values of the High. Birth rates fall, crime and drug abuse increases, gender roles begin to narrow and economic growth slows down. Immigration levels begin to increase. Turnings

    An Unraveling is a time of embracement of the liberation from the Awakening. Birth rates are low, drug usage and crime rates peak, but are high, and economic growth tends to be irregular. Turnings

    Finally, the Crisis. The Crisis is a time of decreasing crime rates, falling and then rising births rates, economic setbacks and falling drug abuse and immigration levels. Society begins to crack down on bad behavior and public orders tighten. Tolerance for risky behavior begins to lessen, society begins to shift towards more conformity and the gap between gender roles begin to widen again. Wars are likely and if a war does occur, it's likely to be fought with maximum fury. Turnings

    Generational types are broken into fours as well...Prophets(Idealists), Nomads(Reactive), Heros(Civic), and Artists(Adaptive).

    -Prophets are born during a High, come of age during an Awakening, spend their midlife years during an Unraveling and finally, spend their elder years during the Crisis. Personality: Stormy in youth, visionary as elder, righteous, austere, principled and creative but sometimes selfish and arrogant.

    -Nomads are born during an Awakening, come of age during an Unraveling, spend their midlife years during a Crisis and spend their elderly years during a High. Personality: bad in youth, lonely elder, pragmatic, savvy and practical but often amoral and uncultured.

    -Heros are born during an Unraveling, come of age during a Crisis, spend their midlife years during a High and spend their elder-hood during an Awakening. Personality: good youth, confident elders, grand, powerful, rational and competent but maybe insensitive.

    -Finally, the Artist generation. They're born during a Crisis, come of age during the High, spend their midlife years during an Awakening and spend their elder-hood during the next Crisis. Personality: placid as youth, sensitive elders, flexible, caring and open-minded but indecisive and guilt-ridden.

    Read more: http://www.city-data.com/forum/history/1291021-strauss-howe-generational-theory-war-greatest.html#ixzz1ndAmNyvG"

  8. Don't forget the biggest nonhuman empathy target of all: dogs.

    (I guess you could say animals in general but in my personal experience ascribing human feelings to one's cat or other animal is much less common.)

  9. You underestimate the extent to which a gay man's mind can mimic a woman's. The intelligent gay man is aware that whatever beauty he exudes will rapidly dissipate past the age of 23. For this reason, he will seek the same emotional connection and "appreciation" that drives women and try to cement it while he's still attractive.


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