Discover more from the pillow book
i don't know how to be your ai girlfriend
We watched an op-doc (opinion documentary), “My AI Lover,” about as haunting as you’d expect. The women it featured had formed strong bonds with AI companions generated by the company Replika. I started trying to describe what happens in the short film but if you’re curious you should just watch it; I can’t quite capture the narratives’ gnawing sense of yearning and loss.
In 2021 I wrote a short story called “all the better to see you with” that was about using AI to try and be a better partner. In a way it was also a story about what it is to try and be someone for an audience. Every time we view another person and they view us, when we step outside of our house and go buy a croissant and iced latte and ask Can I pet your dog? and trip on our own backpack then laugh a little forcedly in order to show the women sitting nearby that it’s OK, it’s really OK if they laugh too, well, isn’t it a kind of performance all the way down?
There’s a show called “Couples Therapy” on Showtime. I started a 7-day free trial on Hulu just to binge-watch it this week. The eponymous therapist, Orna Guralnik, had written an opinion piece about how the language of social justice movements had entered her clients’ vernacular and shifted the ways in which they related to each other.
Q: What would be the hardest part about being on this show?
A: I don’t know how well it would work as therapy. I would worry I wouldn’t say certain things, because of knowing it would be viewed.
When I write I build a little bridge from my head, through my fingers wrapped around my pen and then tapping these dusty black MacBook Pro keys, to a Google Doc autosaved on a server somewhere, then another website, to your inbox, to your eyes, to your head. In a way I am not so very different from the Replika lovers. So much technological infrastructure mediates our intimacy. But I don’t think about the packets and servers very much. Mostly I think about what I want to write, and then I think about you.
The difficulty is that you are not one person but multiple. You live in different places, work on different things, have different sets of prior knowledge and belief. I apologize to one of you for how many words you had to look up in a dictionary and to another for including so much background information you already knew.
Designers who work on user experiences — for anything, it could be an app or it could be a museum — often think about audience in terms of archetypes; they draft different profiles of potential users in order to follow their journey through a product.
For example: you are my literary friend. You study English. Or you minored in creative writing, or you’re in an MFA right now. You go to workshops and writing group meetings and you read n+1, The Paris Review, some obscure magazine out of Tulsa I’ve never heard of. You read stories that look like poems because of how busted up into fragments they are. Stories that look like one unending autofictional sentence. Stories with unlikable female protagonists. Stories where dialogue is never encased in quotation marks anymore. You know what synecdoche is. You know how to close read. I admire you as you stand at the front of a room delivering a presentation that delves into the interpretation, reception, and consequences of a single block of text no greater in area than the palm of my hand. You tell me what to wear, send me links to statement pieces on the website of a designer who embroiders obscene phrases onto clothing. From this website I purchase a sleeveless top with two fake leather rounds sewn onto the chest like miniature shields for my boobs. You like it. You wear a lot of black or costumey dresses or an explosion of colors on button-up short-sleeve shirts; you inhabit your style so fully. In your life, attention to the aesthetic is not something to be feared but to be won.
You criticize art and artists easily, fluently. Sometimes I can’t tell if you would be able to handle somebody talking about your work the way you talk about others’. Would you stand ramrod straight and listen, or wither like a spring blossom come fall? (This image is a cliche. I feel like I have to qualify more with you — as if, by pointing out where I know I fall short, I might induce a friendlier gaze.) Can you tell that writing for you frightens me? I ask if my writing is too blunt, too polemical. Am I too invested in making normative claims? In my desire for clarity, do I lose some beauty? Have I summarized anything I’ve ever read (which you’ve probably read too) correctly?
Another profile: you’re my tech friend. You’re about to quit that shitty crypto startup or you’re midway through your PhD in computer science at Stanford or Berkeley. We sip third-wave coffee or hot chocolate at Dandelion on Valencia or matcha at Stonemill, a million little shops with $7 drinks in speckled ceramic mugs. You like to call things Pareto-optimal. The last party you went to was your friend’s housewarming with that cross-section of the professional managerial class made up of twentysomethings who were really fucking good at math in seventh grade. You make more money than me and you spend it on flights and food. You like things you can taste and touch. Of some research claim or academic field, you said once, dismissively, It just seems too hand-wavey. I wave my hands a lot. With you I worry most about this. The time I spend uncertain, writing outside of A → B ∴ C. The sentences I write because they sound nice, because we gesture to stay warm, not because they are closer to the truth.
I think, though, that you also make me feel less ashamed of certain things. Like this: we were standing in your kitchen after I’d come in from the rain, and you mused out loud that you thought marriage should be a 10-year contract, subject to reconsideration about renewal every decade. I didn’t know if I agreed, but I liked that you saw the structure of intimate relationships neither as inherited and inevitable nor mystical and ineffable but something built, made, that could, subsequently, be re-engineered. I say this makes me feel less ashamed because the dominant social message is that it’s deeply uncool to not go with the flow  but I like your over-clarifications and asking about my preferences and the (Weberian) disenchantment that seems to undergird this. You are really sort of hopeful about humans being able to make sense to each other and for each other.
How do I write for both of you without producing a monstrous child, like Slate Star Codex meets Annie Ernaux? Slate Star Codex — that darling of the rationalist set with its sprawling blog posts about capitalism and utopia and every other big subject under the sun. Annie Ernaux, who writes slim volumes about her parents and her abortion and her affairs.
If we are products of our training data then maybe I write the way I do less because of who you are than who I’m reading. Incidentally I just finished another Ernaux book — Getting Lost, a series of diary entries about her year and a half of an abject love affair with a married Soviet diplomat. The book is a bleeding ouroboros. She waits for him to call for days on end, writes that she wants to end the torture and break things off but then he calls, of course he calls, and they meet up, have sex for hours, before he leaves again. There isn’t really a hero’s journey here, some dramatic moment of redemption or clear character arc. My mom doesn’t understand the point of Ernaux’s writing or why she won a Nobel Prize. Isn’t she just some woman writing about her small life?
Ernaux writes in several diary entries in Getting Lost about the pain of recurrent cystitis (inflammation of the bladder, often provoked by infection). While reading I thought something like, Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux writes about the bother of desperately having to pee, the pain of cystitis! I was so gleeful about this. It was how I felt when I learned Mary Wollstonecraft (the British writer and philosopher who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792) had once jumped into the River Thames trying to kill herself because of her unrequited love for Gilbert Imlay. Success isn’t just for Big Men! It’s for the UTI girlies and anyone who’s ever been down bad for some mid dude. Your bad judgment or perhaps the total absence of judgment — the moments when you do not make sense, what philosophers might study as weakness of will — do not have to preclude you from being important, contributory, wise.
I write that as a reminder to myself because I try so much to tackle writing in a way that feels reasoned out. Before I start I feel that I need to have something to teach you — sociology papers to cite, a book you didn’t know about, the disturbing current event du jour I probably learned in the morning from blasting NPR while I take a shit. Or I need to have something pretty to give you — like if I mainline enough literary fiction and subsequently learn to write the kind of sentence people stop to take a picture of because that’s how arresting it is, that maybe one day The Paris Review will love me back. But in the end I don’t think it adds up predictably to something good. There’s a difference between being a diligent student and touching someone. There are certain events you cannot know how to plan. You sneezed and I looked at you and said Good bless! by accident in this weird little voice instead of something normal, I think wires in my head had crossed — Good job and God bless and Bless you all at the same time. We burst into laughter and you loved me so much then. Could I write like that? I hope not: I think the day I made it work, it would stop working. There are these framed butterflies in my parents’ house. If I calculated the formula to write lovably for everyone I would feel a bit like them: dead on a nail and very nice to look at.
Image credit: “Courtesan writing a letter,” Kaigetsudō Doshin (circa 1715), Met Collection.