We have long accepted the fact, even if reluctantly, that we live in an age where we are in love with our machines. I am not talking about the happy romantic love where star-crossed lovers meet and dance around trees and fight against a society that doesn’t understand them. But the kind of love that opens ourselves up in the most perverse ways, exposing our fears and all our flaws, to the other person, in an intimacy that binds us together in aversion and eroticism.
Our machines love us. We confess to them, the darkest deepest desires of our hearts. So that you can be sure, that even if nobody shares your tweet or likes your status update, there is an algorithm, residing at the core of a server, capturing that information and listening to you. Our machines have penetrated the very essence of our being, so that they don’t even have to wait for us to actually perform actions. Predictive algorithms which crunch the voluminous data about you are already generating things based on the probability of what you will do rather than what you actually will.
And conversely, we love our machines. They are alive, vibrating in our pockets, sliding in between our fingers, sleeping next to us in beds, even analysing our sleep patterns, if we want. They require care and attention and we give it to them. It is now normal for a group of friends hanging out to look at their phones more than they will look at each other’s faces. They hang on us, they die and run out of battery, they crash, parts need replacement, and we do all of this, not as a mechanical chore but with a sense of duty and joy. Who among us, hasn’t been faced with the dilemma of having a device that constantly crashes, and not replacing it even when it is easy to do it, both in terms of costs and convenience? Who among us, when replacing an older machine, hasn’t experienced the pangs of a break-up and the anxiety of separation that makes us reach for that tub of chocolate ice cream at 3 am on a Thursday night?
This love that shall not be named has slowly and surreptitiously been creating cyborg love stories for the digital times. This year we saw a new love story that embodies our distant, distributed, disconnected, circulating lives in a way that we had always suspected but were but not quite sure. This is the launch of a new app called “The Invisible Boyfriend”, where, for a monthly subscription that definitely costs less than weekly dates, you have a boyfriend on your phone.
The Invisible Boyfriend does everything that your human boyfriend does to you through the phone — he sends you thoughtful messages, lovely snippets of poetry and announcements of love, he likes your status messages on social media, he keeps a track of your appointments and social schedules, he recommends new movies and books, and late in the night, when you are in bed, softly basking in the glow of the pearl white digital screen, he chats with you on Whatsapp, keeping you company, singing you digital lullabies. In many ways, it is exactly like having a long-distance relationship, mediated by the digital web, with the additional advantage of imagining what your boyfriend looks like rather than having to face with the reality of things.
The most interesting part about The Invisible Boyfriend is that it is not an attempt to create a thinking piece of self-learning algorithm that is mining your data and making machine choices which invariably do not match up to human interaction. Instead, The Invisible Boyfriend is a whole army of workers, distributed across the globe, managed by a server that connects you with them, and based on your profile, choices, and history, gives them cues to converse with you. The Invisible Boyfriend that you are talking to might as well be your next-door neighbour, or indeed, one of the people who lives in your house, or somebody far away, all connected to you through the distance of a click on the digital web. The Invisible Boyfriend has finally confirmed that in human-to-human communication what is important is the platform, the technology, the device, the algorithm, the data, and the predictive interfaces.
When you start using this app, you quickly realise that The Invisible Boyfriend is a cleverly managed bunch of people (we are presuming that they are male, but there is no way of knowing), who can be guided by an intelligent algorithm to cater to your needs and give you that sense of intimate connectivity that can only come from the truly meaningful interaction through the Web. True, you can’t ask The Invisible Boyfriend to have dinner with the family, but he can send you thoughtful messages through the dinner, letting others know how much you are loved. And that, in my books, is a better deal than the horror of introducing a boyfriend to the family.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore