News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The high cost of individualism

I’m at a loss — stunned, saddened, provoked.

I’ve just finished reading a heart-wrenching, soul-sucking article about the latest algorithm update about an AI software called Replika. Replika is an AI chatbot that users can access to create an artificial chat buddy as a virtual companion. The company boasts the catchy (albeit depressing) slogan: “Need a friend? Create one now.” Many of us can hardly believe that our fragmented, individualistic, narcissistic age would ever come to such a troubling tipping point, but regardless, here we are living in a world of imaginary friends, simulated community, and rulers of our own reality.

Here’s where an already depressing story takes a wild and chilling turn. This last week Replika announced that they would no longer allow the chatbots to “sext” with its users. In other words, Replika leadership decided to draw a line in how the app would interact with users (how they decided this one seems arbitrary and relativistic at best, but at least they did draw a line). The creators at Replika have begun to understand how dangerous and vulnerable the human psyche is when it’s alone with nobody else to love, to connect with, to care for.

In the article I read, this specific passage painfully and articulately describes how troubling our new AI world has become:

In response to a flurry of dejected remarks, concerned forum moderators shared and pinned information on suicide prevention hotlines.

It is simple to make fun of these individuals, yet they represent the extreme of a pattern that has seen us all anxiously turn away from the uncertain, complicated world of genuine human interactions and try to imitate them with phony virtual ones.

AI driven sexting services like Replika’s are possibly more addictive since they promote the development of parasocial interactions, which has the effect of making a human partner appear even more unsettling and bothersome.

This transcends sexuality.

Replika positions itself as a crucial source of support for those with limited social ties, and more of us in the UK are fitting that description: the percentage of people under 35 who report having one or no close friends climbed from 7 percent in 2011 to 22 percent in 2021.

The field of AI is developing quickly.”

Wow, one out of four young adults would say that they have no close friends? Heart-wrenching, sad, deeply troubling. What is the answer, what is the way out?

In Genesis 2, after God creates all of life, there’s a striking summary at the end of the creation story. “Then the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Literally everything else in the created world was classified as “good” or even “very good,” but the one thing that was “not good” was that man was alone.

We aren’t made to be alone. God himself evaluates Adam alone and his conclusion is simple: “This isn’t good.” The evaluation is core to the essence of humanity’s basic design; and at our essence together is good, alone is not good.

Communities fracture, relationships break, the human experience gets reduced to algorithms of pretend “likes” and manufactured intimacy.

Robert Putnam powerfully prophesied this moment in his classic “Bowling Alone” when he predicted what our world would look like devoid of embodied community.

Putnam says: “People divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.” Putnam saw the world that we were cultivating decades ago and saw that left to ourselves we would create echo chambers where we hear ourselves, mirrored windows where we look out and simply see ourselves, and devices where we curate an experience that is just another expression of ourselves.

Putnam’s prediction has become reality as we live out the fruit of this radical individualism, so what can we do in our own little world to work toward a greater vision of life?

Here at Sisters Community Church we have three prongs to our mission: We want to connect with God, care for one another, and cultivate community. We want to cultivate community with those both inside and outside of our church. If you are lonely, fragmented, disconnected from God or self or others, we want to invite you into the good news — a place where you can find real people with names, faces, and stories. People who want to connect with you, share life with you, be a friend to you, and hopefully deeply care for you in meaningful ways.

Ryan Moffat is a pastor at Sisters Community Church.


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