Many people look upon those who express love for characters as having “given up” or “retreated from reality.” While it’s true that they have turned their backs on their fellow flesh-and-blood humans, it is woefully inaccurate to suggest they have “given up” on romance and love.
If the notion seems ridiculous, consider: the annals of relationship advice columns are filled with rejoinders for people to not “settle.” “Settling,” in this sense, is defined by the tension between insisting upon high standards for a partner and the realistic awareness of what it is reasonable to ask for. One’s own limitations play a part in the latter, but the bulk of it is a sense of “what is out there.” If you’re dating a real, live person, you are limited not only by theoretical design specifications (what is possible for a human to be or to achive at peak condition) but also the further, much more serious limitation of availability. Taken to its logical end, a refusal to “settle” can mean a refusal to date a human.
The lover of the 2D loves not because he (or she) lacks dignity or self-respect, but because he has an excess of dignity. He does not want to put up with imperfections. Deviations from his ideal in a lover do not fill him with amusement or delight; they instead evoke contempt, loathing, sadness, or pity. In the 1990s this was briefly called the “Martha Stewart problem,” after the perfectionist celebrity who went through a string of boyfriends and spouses. The only right and acceptable spouse for her was a perfect spouse, and that of course does not exist. Similarly, the right and acceptable spouse for a lover of the artificial descends from custom-tailored perfection, but rather than throw himself through a series of ugly breakups and uglier court battles, he opts to take his feelings to the virtual world.
A serious relationship between humans has a degree of give-and-take involved. There will always be times when you are not pleased with your mate; there will almost invariably be habits or mannerisms that you really wish he or she didn’t have. An artificial lover, eminently programmable and infinitely malleable, does not impose any such burden. It is the purest expression of unconditional love many people will find this side of the grave, and perhaps most seductively, it does not require anything in return. An artificial personality, unless programmed to, will not care if you take out the trash on time or remember to buy it flowers. Psychotherapist Jerry Brooker explained, “Someone who falls in love with objects can control that relationship on their own terms. Their objects will not let them down.”
Sure, it’s a simulacrum of love, not real, but practically speaking, why should that be an objection? We live in an age where crimes against virtual people are punished by real governments, potential profits gained or lost dictate the flow of massive sums of real money, and debate sees real people hotly divided over the rights and abuses of virtual persons (corporations.) In this context the unreal is not less than the real; rather, if anything, it is often more powerful and more privileged than the real. Why should matters of the heart be any different?
The phenomenon of interacting with the inhuman as human is not limited to anime otaku or the socially inept. JaYoung Sung at the Georgia Institute of Technology published a study about Roombas that suggested people like to customize even the most non-human of robots to give them “personality.” Sometimes the Roombas were given skins as “rewards” for enduring trauma or completing tasks, and some owners talked to their roombas as they would a pet. Even flat discs that exist solely to vaccum floors can be anthropomorphized, so why not android or gynoid robots designed specifically for that purpose?
Object social rights may see progress within our lifetimes. Artificial intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht has even gone on record saying, “My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots.”
So the next time you encounter an article about marrying a video game character or a movie about dating a real doll, don’t assume the principals are simply retreating from reality. For all we know, they are the wave of the future, and our descendants will hail them as trailblazers and visionaries – that is, assuming some people still settle for mundane, flesh-and-blood partners, and produce offspring.