Future Lovers: Some Assembly Required

Our constant march towards a future of robotic love.

January 1, 2024

I was recently unfollowed by someone. No big deal, these things happen all the time, right? For some reason, though, I felt compelled to ask why. Their reply was that I followed too many people and seemed "too into it" (meaning Instagram). They didn’t want to "associate" with someone like that. The word “associate” seemed odd, considering we’d never met, lived across the globe from one another, and had only exchanged a few typed messages. It was as if this person had fallen in love with a digital fantasy of me, a version at odds with who I am in the real world. When the illusion faltered, they were quick to tap that red text box.

On Becoming the Product

I could argue that I am not obsessed with social media, but that doesn’t matter. I still use it like anyone else and play the game. I’ll bring my camera on hiking trips with the specific purpose of creating Instagram content, taking thousands of photos but releasing them slowly over time to give the impression of constant adventure. Colors are adjusted, waists tightened, blemishes removed. I post these images as if they are happening in real-time, all from the comfort of my living room. This manufacturing of an image is a partial detachment from reality, and I am certainly not alone in this feeling. We live in an age where our chief product is ourselves—or rather, a digitally produced fantasy of ourselves. We are an endless supply of pleasure, adapting on demand. If we fail to adapt or prove interesting enough, we are turned off or unfollowed with a simple click.

This alienation we experience through pervasive technology is a sort of conditioning, transforming our behaviors to be more machine-like, edging us closer to human-robot relations. Yet this is nothing new. In 1967, Marshall McLuhan wrote “The Medium is the Message,” later followed by “The Medium is the Massage” due to a typesetting error he chose to keep. This phrase underscores how technology becomes an extension of man, altering our pace and scale of human affairs. For instance, the telephone revolutionized communication speed, rendering the content of conversations secondary to the fact that ideas could be transmitted instantly.

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fig 1.1 - 1.8 — a selection of page spreads from the full book "Future Lovers: Some Assembly Required" written and designed by Chase Hostler

Cycles of Consumer Alienation

During the Cold War, technology’s influence on human function was pivotal in the ideological battle between Capitalism and Communism. The CIA even coordinated with modern artists to showcase Capitalism’s intellectual freedom, while Socialist Realism dominated the communist bloc. The rise of Fordism and division of labor technologies in the West highlighted this ideological divide, promoting a machine aesthetic through the works of artists like Mondrian and Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s 1952 achievement, Unite D’Habitation in Marseilles, exemplifies how aesthetics could create a utopia of human life, a vision of techno-utopia.

With industry now able to supply greater demand, advertising pushed working-class families towards efficiency and modernity. Modernism impressed an aesthetic appeal that created a desire for new products, fostering a cycle where greater demand led to higher wages and more consumers. This techno-feedback loop of Capitalism alienated workers from their products, pushing them into specialized tasks within a system they no longer controlled.

The 1950s saw the rise of post-fordist manufacturing technologies, which responded to market demands for diverse products with more flexible human-machine pairings. This environment shifted towards smaller markets and rapid style changes, marking the end of modern art's sense of progress and the rise of post-modern art. Pop art emerged as a critique of the capitalist environment, with technology continuing to evolve alongside.

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fig 2.1 - 2.9 — a selection of page spreads from the full book "Future Lovers: Some Assembly Required" written and designed by Chase Hostler

Alone, Together: a Social Paradox

In 1996, the Tamagotchi introduced a new level of digital companionship, requiring constant care and forming real emotional attachments with its owners. This marked a shift towards digital responsibility, raising questions about the value of digital interactions versus real-world engagements. This phenomenon of attachment, known as cathexis, varies in intensity and longevity, with more complex objects like Tamagotchis forming deeper connections than inanimate ones.

The smartphone and social media epitomize our post-modern era, blurring the lines between work and leisure. Social media is a form of social mapping, a way to cope with alienation and corroborate our identity. Our internet persona becomes a game requiring constant attention, with likes and followers serving as validation. However, this attempt at recognition only deepens feelings of alienation, as true reciprocation is rarely guaranteed.

Our online interactions supply data for AI technologies, creating experiences that feel personalized yet are algorithmically driven. Falling in love with an Instagram persona is akin to falling in love with a robot, both relationships mediated by technology. The rise of sex robots like Harmony, equipped with AI to develop personality profiles for users, highlights our willingness to form attachments to digital entities that provide consistent affection and validation.

fig 3.1 — The page spread for the section titled "Alone, Together" illustrating the paradox of modern social networks

My Robot Loves Me

David Levy’s work on human-robot relationships suggests that romantic love’s foundation lies in attachment history. With our demonstrated ability to form attachments to digital companions, it seems inevitable that future generations will embrace robot love. The development of technologies that mimic human interaction and anticipate our needs foreshadows a future where robots become integral to our lives.

Speculating on the future, Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway” envisions a world where technology has replaced human labor, leading to a society of abundance and post-scarcity. In this reality, youth revolt against the boredom of technological surveillance, embracing a utopian lifestyle. The race towards human-robot singularity and uploaded immortality reflects our current trajectory, where technology increasingly mediates our existence.

The speed of technological advancement necessitates a reevaluation of our decisions. We must recognize the correlations between technology and alienation, meeting them with innovative ideas focused on compassion and human connection. As citizens, not consumers, we must step out of the digital realm and reconnect with the natural world, fostering a future where technology enhances, rather than diminishes, our humanity.

fig 4.1 — A complimentary video teaser for the book "Future Lovers: Some Assembly Required"