I'm dating a robot 🤖

Attachment theory & Instagram algorithms

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about attachment theory, and how disordered attachment issue plays out in adult relationships. For those that aren’t familiar, here’s an excerpt from From Shitshow To Afterglow (my book coming out in 2020!) introducing the concept:

Attachment theory was first developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby to describe infants’ tendencies to frantically cry, cling, and search for their caregiver if separated. In the ‘80s, researchers started applying attachment theory to their studies of adult relationships. Turns out that infant-caregiver relationships and adult romantic relationships are remarkably similar, which means that many of us adults are acting out relationship patterns we learned as babies. Aww, it’s both cute and sad.

Adults usually act out one of these attachment types: 

  • Secure: you feel confident that your partner has your back and you’re comfortable letting your partner depend on you

  • Anxious-preoccupied: you easily become upset when you feel your needs aren’t being met and worry that others may not entirely love you. (This is me! I’m clingy and chasey, and prone to panic)

  • Fearful-avoidant: you want closeness, but are so afraid you’ll get hurt that you often push people away

  • Dismissive-avoidant: you look aloof because you have a lot of pain associated with depending on others or being depended on

Again, this is a bit intense to dig into if you’re mid-chaos, but as you part to put your life back together, I highly learning about your attachment type. Reading the book Attached by Levine & Heller felt like getting a magical key – suddenly I had so much more understanding and compassion for the confusing things so many of us do in our partnerships. Knowledge is power, and this particular knowledge is extremely powerful.

Ok, so basically the ways in which you related to your caregivers in childhood continue in adulthood, and influence how you relate to people in your life, especially partners — but also friends, colleagues, children, and more. It can so liberating to be like “Why am I freaking out right now — oh shit, right: my attachment system is triggered. Gottit.”

Where it gets really crazy is when you realize that our attachment triggers don’t just affect how we relate to people in our adult lives, they also affect how we relate to objects in our lives.

This means that your attachment system can get triggered by inanimate things like, say, your smartphone.

My head almost exploded when I read some research about how people express their attachment issues through how they relate to their smartphones. This explains why those of us who skew anxious will sometimes feel a physical jolt of panic when we don’t have our phone close to us: it's because our phone has become a stand-in for the caregiver we felt like we were always chasing.

This also explains why some of my avoidant friends have phones that are always out of batteries, or forgotten in the car, or with 23478 ignored notifications: because their phones are acting as the stand-ins for caregivers they were distancing themselves from.

Your attachment weirdness will show up not just in how you relate to the physical object of your phone (is it close? is it charged?? have I checked it in the last 2 minutes???), but also in how you relate to the apps you engage with on your phone.

When you’re using social media like Instagram every day, you’re developing a relationship not just with your phone, but also with the social media algorithms that drive how you engage with that phone, and how you engage with your world through that phone.

This means that on a certain level, those of us who use social media heavily are in intense emotional relationships with robots... Relationships that are heavily influenced by our childhood attachment dynamics.

We’re mammals. We attach to nipples, to caregivers, to creatures, to objects… and that attachment is messy and can be a little dysfunctional. Those of us who skew toward anxious attachment live with the chronic feeling that we’re never quite getting the attention we want, and so we’re always chasing chasing chasing to try to get it.

And the attention we’re chasing on Instagram is driven by algorithm. So when I’m using Instagram (or letting it use me), I’m essentially chasing a robot, begging it to love me.

Once you understand just how intensely your anxious attachment issues drive your life, it can't be unseen. For me, this meant that sure, there were the romantic relationships (always chasing!) and the failed marriage (always chasing!), but I could also see how attachment issues had shown up in my career as a writer and publisher. I was always chasing readers, chasing eyeballs, chasing engagement, chasing advertisers. Always chasing!

A portrait of the artist and her robot lover, circa 2019

Instagram is just one more place to chase, and I’m convinced that its algorithms are designed to make the most of human attachment dysfunctions… the robots know what drives engagement, and the chasing done by a triggered anxious attachment system is a deeply dedicated, focused form of engagement.

I’ve fallen in love with a robot, you guys. I know it’s unhealthy and that the robot doesn’t have my best interests at heart, but my triggered attachment system tells me to keep chasing.

I’ll post again, to see if the robot will reward me by showing my very squishy human heart to a few other humans who may or may not double tap on it.

We like to think the connections we find on social media are about the double-tapping humans… but I’m pretty sure that really, it’s about the robot.

I know it’s a dysfunctional relationship… the robot just wants my eyeballs and my time, my taps and scroll metrics, and most importantly my click throughs on paid advertising. The robot doesn’t want me to connect with people unless the robot benefits from it, so on a certain level, the robot wants me lonely and disconnected feeling.

Even knowing this in my head, my poor triggered attachment system keeps picking up my phone, in the same way that an anxious child will tug on its mother’s shirt hem endlessly, whining “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy? MOMMY?”

It’s sad. I have so much compassion for my poor triggered attachment system! Poor bb.

But at the same time, for the love of fuck, I am a 44-year-old woman, not a tiny whiny child begging for attention. Thanks to a mindfulness practice, therapy, a shitload of reading, and a spiritual practice, I have the awareness of what’s happening, and that awareness gives me just enough room to try making different choices.

Migrating to a subscription-based platform like Substack is part of that choice. I get to make the choice to say, “Algorithms, I know you’ve been playing me. I know what my nervous system feels like when I’m getting hacked.”

I don't want to create from a place of attentional scarcity. I can choose to give less attention to my dysfunctional relationship with the robot, and get back to creating for humans.

I want to have a secure attachment with both the act of creating itself, and the people who enjoy those creations.

PS: Is anyone else reading Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy? Lots of related food for thought in there.