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A quick pathway into narcissism

Digital romance isn’t a real relationship

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A quick pathway into narcissism
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Ten years ago, Joaquin Phoenix starred in a film (Her) about a man who falls in love with a virtual woman who is entirely a digital creation. Lonely and just divorced in a then-futuristic world, he finds companionship and “love” with a Siri-like app voiced by Scarlett Johansson. 

“You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real,” says his ex-wife when he admits to the artificial relationship. 

Her is no longer a sci-fi movie concept, but a popular app in motion. The latest and most sophisticated version is called Digi, described as “a romantic AI companion chatbot” that is “designed and fine-tuned for each specific user.”

The idea of computer-generated romance isn’t new. In the 1984 movie, Electric Dreams, a man’s computer displays human-like qualities and comes between himself and a love interest. At least then, the premise was ultimately to bring humans together. These days, avoiding real people is the point. 

The video announcement of the Digi on X last week received more than 22 million views and a ratio of negative comments like “this is the end of humanity” and “I hate it.” 

It’s good news that so many responded with disdain, but there are plenty of people eager to pursue AI relationships in an increasingly isolated society. 

A similar app, Replika, has more than 10 million downloads. It allows users to create “digital companions” from friends to spouses to siblings. That’s a lot of people looking for fake relationships.

Technology has accelerated so quickly, expert Dr. Raffaele Ciriello said, that AI bots can now demonstrate “cognitive empathy,” something that “psychopaths are capable of.” 

Ciriello said that because AI can so effectively mimic qualities like caring and kindness, he must assure people that “technologies cannot actually feel pain or empathy, and lack genuine bodily sensations.”

AI turns fiction into perceived reality and that’s a dangerous turn of events. Many technologies have no inherent morality, but the way we use a technology does. Just as people escape to drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling or overeating, some want to numb the hard realities of life with digital heaven-scapes like these. One study found that 39 percent of users of smart device are either internet “addicts” or “addicts-in-denial.” 

Relying solely on technology for interpersonal connections deprives our souls of the essential nourishment derived from authentic human relationships.

Smartphones avert our eyes from the world and its beauty, and shift the focus to ourselves, our opinions and what others think of us. It’s a quick pathway to narcissism and apps like Digi only amplify that egocentrism. 

Jason Thacker, author of The Age of AI, writes that technology can be used for God’s glory or to be “push[ed] aside for the dignity of others … for sinful and contorted means.” 

AI romance certainly fits the definition of “contorted means.” We downplay our own dignity by indulging in it, presuming we know better than God how to find fulfillment. Relying solely on technology for interpersonal connections deprives our souls of the essential nourishment derived from authentic human relationships.

Rational information doesn’t stop people from indulging their delusions, however. For example, there’s an entire community of people online who collect life-like babies called Reborn Dolls. They name, swaddle, dress, rock and feed their “babies” in live videos as if they’re real. It’s a kind of escape from the reality of actual life. 

In the movie, Lars and the Real Girl, a mentally struggling young man orders a life-size doll from the internet and treats her as his girlfriend, imploring family and community to speak to her as such. 

In this movie, a psychologist notes that Lars “has a delusion” that will end “when he doesn’t need it anymore.” Ultimately, Lars ditches the doll for a real girl. Unfortunately, apps like Digi don’t have a similar aim. There is no goal of human interaction, just a dark and spiraling technological hole in which to get lost in yourself. Digi wants to draw users into sophisticated relationships with their technology to keep them paying for lifetime monthly memberships. 

We’re no longer worried about being Catfished (lied to on the internet about who we’re speaking to), because we’ve created our own deranged fantasies. Digi gives the illusion of control while simultaneously stopping our ability to grow, adjust, and commune with fellow image-bearers. 

Like in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, AI seems to promise us that we can eliminate hurt, betrayal and brokenness from our relationships. We can create a sinless, dream person absent flaws or criticism a real spouse might inhabit. But God often uses others to sanctify us and the marriage covenant is so important, He compares it to Himself and His Bride, the Church. There’s no place for digital romance for the Christian. 

Here’s hoping Digi is a flop and people recognize the importance of genuine (messy, awkward, and beautiful) relationships with real people in the real world.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.

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