Saving Face

Learning to Love in an Era of Advanced Narcissism

MIT professor Sherry Turkle has spent four decades studying how computers have altered the way we see ourselves and our relationships. In her seminal book Alone Together, she describes how she was cornered during a psychology conference by Anne, “a lovely, raven-haired woman in her mid-twenties.” Deeply frustrated by her current boyfriend, Anne wanted to know what progress was being made in creating robots that could serve as human companions. Anne said her current partner was too demanding, but she couldn’t leave him because she feared her loneliness would become unbearable. She confided to Turkle that “she would trade in her boyfriend ‘for a sophisticated Japanese robot’ if the robot would produce what she called ‘caring behavior.’”

Anne was searching for a romantic relationship free from the risks inherent in relationships with live human males. A responsive robot, even if its behavior was entirely scripted, seemed to her preferable to a domineering boyfriend. She admitted that if “the robot could provide the environment, I would be happy to help produce the illusion that there is somebody really with me.” She desperately needed to believe that there was a technological fix for the messy, frustrating, often humiliating, and sometimes threatening realm of sexual relationships. She hoped that “caring behavior” could somehow be automated.

As a result of her studies, Turkle believes people are now willing to “seriously consider robots not only as pets but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners.” Many are so weary of struggling with the pervasive narcissism in advanced societies that even an automated illusion of love seems preferable to the disappointment and danger inherent in relationships with fellow humans.

But those who hope for a technical solution to their need for “caring behavior” serve a god who is ignorant of the human heart.


One of the notable traits of millennials and Gen-Zers is how fragile and isolated they seem to be compared with previous generations. Their love lives often consist exclusively of online romances pursued with screen-based avatars in virtual environments such as IMVU (In My Virtual Universe). So it’s no wonder that, having retreated behind a screen for intimate encounters, fully automated friends and lovers might seem perfectly natural. By 2022, about 4,000 people in Japan had “married” their digital companions.1

What robots lack, of course, no matter how “caring” they might seem to be, is empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of another. Many people raised on social media exhibit varying degrees of narcissism, which might be characterized as an inability to understand the other as “other.” By replacing in-person conversation with texting and social media, the accountability demanded by the real face of the other can be evaded.

Narcissists often turn others into what psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls “selfobjects,” people who are treated as extensions of the narcissist’s own self. By reducing their companions to “selfobjects,” narcissists can pretend to have successful relationships while remaining fixated on themselves. A “friend” on social media allows the narcissist to gaze at his own reflection in the posts they exchange. Such relationships represent an inversion of true friendship in that users pretend to enjoy fulfilling relationships so long as they can maintain their mutual idolatry of the self.

The Flesh & the Self

In his lecture series “The Face of God,” Roger Scruton observed that human faces

are the outward form and image of the soul, the lamp lit in our world by the subject behind. It is through understanding the face that we begin to see how it is that subjects make themselves known in the world of objects.

In robotic relationships, “friends” are evaluated based on how they make their owners feel. But real friendship awakens only in the presence of the subject that lives within and behind the human face.

The human face is both an object in the material world and a subject that shines with a light that originates in another world. According to Scruton, the face is “where the self and the flesh melt together.” God has made us subjects that we might tame, rather than imitate, the world of objects. Subjects transcend the world of objects: they are the soul that makes us accountable to each other. By recognizing the other as a subject, we break the narcissistic self-enclosure within which our mediated world seeks to keep us encased. The other becomes an object of obligation, instead of a disposable source of self-affirmation.

It is the human face alone that accuses and forgives. A robot can’t pardon us because it can’t be hurt by our selfishness. The robot’s “face” lets us avoid the judgment we deserve when we fail to live according to the Imago Dei, the true self endowed by our Creator seeking to take shape within us. Instead of learning to negotiate our own and our friends’ deficiencies, we seek companions that respond to the face we wish we had so that we can pretend to escape the consequences of self-absorption by becoming as robotic as our cybernetic mates.

Relationships & the Discomfort of Presence

Real relationships are never painless. Crossing the boundary between self and other requires suffering because it demands that some portion of the self be sacrificed to make room for the other. If a relationship involves no mutual discomfort, that is a strong indicator that there is no relationship, but only two people sharing fantasies about each other.

Relationships are not a matter of narrative, internal or external, but of presence. They consist in appreciating and assimilating elements of each other’s characters that permanently enrich both. Fruitful human relationships require a discipline of the heart that enables each partner to surrender the self to the divine reality that unites them and makes them one. “And they shall see his face: and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4).


1. “This artificial intelligence companion was designed to be ‘a perfect wife’,” CBC (2022).

has spent thirty years creating web sites and content management systems for universities, consulting companies, and major corporations. In 2021, he presented his findings on how social media addiction works at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence held at the Colegio San Agustin in the Philippines. He has published in Touchstone magazine and maintains a Substack, The Gates of the City of God, where he provides a Christian perspective on topics such as artificial intelligence, salvation through technology, and other postmodern myths.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #68, Spring 2024 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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