Unreal

This is a work of fiction.


ai generated image by pixabay contributor anyamaya; free to use under pixabay’s content licence

It was about that time that she realized that she liked her imaginary friends better than her real ones. They weren’t imaginary in the sense of a child’s invention of playmates. They were just imagined in the sense of being there when she wanted someone to talk with, to bounce things off, or to be with. So for example they were the personifications of the ‘other’ in the internal dialogues she engaged in when she was trying to resolve some perplexing cognitive dissonance in her head. Or they were the ‘others’ she imagined when she was shlicking alone at night.

Unlike what some of her ‘real’ friends were like — or at least what she imagined them to be like, because of course we can never really know what another’s like — these imagined friends were always helpful, reassuring, joyful, beautiful, smart, and undemanding. She had given up feeling guilty for liking them.

She started to write stories about her characters, written from the perspective of herself as narrator, to help bring substance and nuance to them, to fill in the details of what made them interesting and pleasant to ‘be around’, and establish a basis for her ‘relationship’ with them. These characters sometimes drew on fictional characters she’d encountered in her reading, but her writing was not fan fiction. She worked hard to make her characters three-dimensional, richer and more complex than even the best fictional characters she’d discovered in her reading of the classics (and her guilty pleasure, romance novels). Over time, she even began to illustrate her stories.

No one else would want to read these stories, she surmised, because they had no conflict, no tension, no serious dramatic story line to them. The stories were just ‘portraits’ of their characters, and these characters were uniformly brilliant, grounded, beautiful, joyful, and free of stress and trauma. But despite the serenity of these characters and their stories, they were never boring. They were full of insights, clever remarks, attentive to things she would never have noticed or was struggling to understand. They were the kind of characters you’d just always take pleasure from being around. The kind of characters you couldn’t help, perhaps, developing little crushes on. And they never disappointed.

She realized that, as this was happening, she was less and less inclined to take ‘real’ people seriously. They were, she thought, really not significantly different from the characters of her imagination. They were just inventions, characters in a story of their and her collective concoction, with mostly really lousy and incoherent plot lines that rarely made much sense. And their stories were so relentlessly sad!

If she were to write her ‘real’ friends into one of her stories, someone reading them might understandably complain that most of them were quite awful characters — unsympathetic, inconsistent, annoying, overwrought, incomplete. They just wouldn’t ‘fit’ with the delightful characters that her vivid imagination conjured up.

She felt bad about that — her ‘real’ friends weren’t ‘bad’ people. They were doing their best. They’d had trying lives. Their selfishness, their neediness, their upsets, were understandable if you put yourself in their place. But the behaviours of psychopaths were understandable, too, if you did your research and put your mind to figuring out what lay beneath their misdeeds and miserableness, she reasoned — That didn’t mean you’d want to hang out with them.

She wasn’t a hermit, though, by any means. She liked being out and among people who were reasonably pleasant, well-behaved and not obviously insane, depressed, or consumed with rage and righteous indignation. The park, the café, the shops on the High Street — these were all agreeable and entertaining enough places to go when she wanted to be ‘social’. She could wave and nod at familiar faces, chat with strangers and smile at their kids and pet their dogs, and amuse herself eavesdropping on their conversations, without the unpleasantness of having to get to ‘know’ them, and whatever demons they were wrestling with behind those ambiguous facial expressions.

Was she becoming ‘disengaged’ from human society, and if so, was that necessarily a bad thing?

She had two long-time ‘real’ friends, and they often expressed concern about her “etherial” way of living and being in the world. She needed to connect with people at a “deeper” level, and do more with people, they said — get herself ‘out there’. She needed a boyfriend, they suggested, someone to shake her out of her fantasies and build a true relationship with. But she’d tried that, and her conclusion was always the same: This is more trouble than it’s worth.

It took a couple of bottles of excellent wine and a picnic in the park overlooking the lake, one gorgeous summer evening at sunset, to actually make clear to her best friend, and to herself, why she was both happier and healthier than she’d ever been, in the company, most often, of characters of her own creation.

Her friend, staring at her with slightly-drunk eyes and a concerned expression, said:

“These imaginary friends of yours are like the AI ‘companions’ they have now for desperately lonely seniors. They aren’t authentic relationships. They’re just projections, perfect little people who do and say exactly what you want them to. They aren’t capable of really feeling. They aren’t reciprocal relationships. And you can’t grow unless you engage with other humans on the same level, with whom you live in the same ‘real’ world with its real problems and imperfections.”

“Yeah, those AI companions and AI therapists understandably have the shrinks up in arms. What would they do if they found that reassuring AI characters who appreciated and articulated and mirrored what people said, were actually healthier and more helpful to people than the abstract penis-obsessed theories of self-important overpaid ‘doctors’? And who’s to say what an ‘authentic’ relationship is? You and I cannot possibly know who each other ‘really’ are. We just guess wildly at what it’s like to be another person, and it’s just as much a projection as what we guess it’s like to be a character in our favourite novel. We both know people who’ve gone through nasty divorces, and they generally say they really had no idea what their partner was really like at all. As for dealing with people’s real problems, what’s the point of ’empathizing’ with someone about something that has no solution? You can be compassionate, but where does that get either of you?”

“Maybe it helps just to hear that someone, your best real friend, really ‘gets’ what you’re going through. That’s what real, loving friendship is all about, no?”

“Friendship has to be more than just commiserating. It’s about learning, and about play. And about pleasure. And about fun.”

“And about shared experiences. Real experiences. Not make-believe fiction.”

“Shared experiences are like what Rebecca West said about conversations: They don’t exist, they’re illusions. There are just intersecting monologues and parallel stories about what we think has actually happened. There are no shared experiences. We just believe there are because we want to believe in them. And it’s the same with relationships. They’re all fiction. We just want really badly to think we have them.”

“The people I know who are really into AI, into what I would call fantasy relationships, are completely addicted. They just crave more dopamine hits from the bot. ‘Tell me you care. Tell me that I’m right. Tell me that you understand.’ We humans are social creatures. We evolved to have full-on, up-and-down, honest adult relationships with other real human beings, because we can’t have a community or a society without them. It takes work. You try to substitute a soul-less sycophantic bot or fictional character, you’re not just enabling addictive, mentally-unhealthy behaviour, you’re making it much harder for that AI-patronized person to then be able to sustain a complex, imperfect, sometimes unpleasant real relationship with other real humans.”

“We evolved to be social creatures out of necessity. Humans can’t survive without cooperating. Most birds are a lot like us. They cooperate when they have to — until the nestlings are fledged, or when there’s a predator threat, or a scarcity crisis. And the rest of the time they associate almost exclusively for fun, for play, and when they’re not having fun, they’re off doing their own thing for fun. But we humans have laid this whole additional social burden on relationships. We wallow in our unhappiness, and insist on sharing and commiserating with others. That’s mentally unhealthy, in my opinion. We’re too dependent on other people for dealing with our emotional fucked-up-ed-ness. Why should we have to work on relationships? If they’re not joyful and easy, to me they’re just not worth the trouble. And yeah, perhaps relationships with endearing fictional characters are addictive — so what? Aren’t all relationships, which as I said are all fictions anyway, aren’t they all addictive? ‘Ooh, got a big dopamine hit from that compliment. I think I’ll keep them as a friend.’ ”

“So you’re telling me it doesn’t bother you that people can get so wrapped up in fake relationships with AI or fictional characters that tell them exactly what they want to hear, that they become incapable of having normal, healthy relationships with real humans who can’t, won’t and shouldn’t always tell them what they want to hear?”

“There are no relationships. They’re all imagined. They’re what we want to believe in. We only ‘hear’ what we want to hear anyway, in ‘real’ relationships. That’s why the marital breakups always come as such a shock.”

“Imagine if everyone had their own perfect AI companion, always telling them exactly what they wanted to hear, to the point no one talked with other real humans anymore, because it wasn’t as pleasant. What kind of a world would that be?”

“I suspect it wouldn’t be much different from the world we presume to live in now. As Rebecca said, there are no real conversations, there are no real relationships, and no one really knows another person. I’m guessing we’d be more like the birds — we’d collaborate when we had to, and socialize to have fun, and the rest of the time we’d have fun ‘alone’ with our AI companions or imaginary friends.”

“You’re hopeless, you know. Smart, but hopeless. I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“Because I tell you what you want to hear. Even when you don’t think it’s what you want to hear.”

“So why do you put up with me? Why haven’t you closeted yourself completely with your amusing cast of characters whose lives are perpetually joyful and pleasurable?”

“My conditioning, I guess. I can’t help myself. Sitting here drinking too much wine with you is fun. And you’re really smart. I might be wrong about all this. So I’m hedging my bets. I’m keeping you in reserve as a real friend just in case.”

They both stretched and yawned and stared at the last light of the setting sun.

“You’re unreal.”

“You finally figured that out.”

This entry was posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Unreal

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    There is a real world, a world of inanimate stuff and also biological creatures with physical needs that AI, a computer game or a novel can’t ever produce. We moderns, who have let machines supply our physical needs, think that all the symbolic artifacts we play with are important. They’re not, at least in comparison with water, food and shelter. AI is the apotheosis of the unimportant.

    Pretty soon, awareness of the importance of physical needs and the triviality of symbolic constructs will penetrate human brains all over the world, and the awareness will be most acute during the mass deaths that will sweep most of humanity into the dustbin of history. This is the period when we will find out who our real friends are (and yes, real people can be real friends). They certainly won’t be AI friends because there won’t be any AI.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    “AI, a computer game or a novel can’t ever satisfy
    Sorry about that.

  3. Vera says:

    Hey Joe. I saved a meme I saw the other day. Does it fit? It said:

    “If you were shocked by the president’s condition at the debate, now is a good time to reflect on whether you are consuming honest media. The rest of us knew.”

  4. Michael says:

    @Joe Clarkson: I tend to agree with your comment, but what if this world where we need to connect with other humans and be in touch with our physical needs is actually AI-generated? That is, what if all of these physical relationships are actually digital? Or spiritual, if you’re more inclined in that direction?

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