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.