About a week ago, I installed a a $2 iPhone app called Romantimatic. Every day since, it's been reminding me to text my wife. If I ignore the buzz, it'll keep reminding me. It's a gentle, if persistent, nudge to check in.
Tapping on the notification, I'm presented with a list of pre-programmed sentiments: "I love you." "I miss you." "I was just thinking about you." Several emoji options. I can also craft my own message.
If this makes you wonder what the world is coming to, you're not alone.
"It's almost impossible to not have that reaction," admits Greg Knauss, the app's creator. "If you approach the idea as a cynical one, that's inevitable."
But for Knauss, it's not about cynicism at all. It's about pragmatism.
"Romantimatic doesn't do anything that you couldn't do with your own brain," explains Knauss. "But it came about because my own brain was consistently falling down on the job."
Knauss is a computer programmer, and as such, often finds himself completely immersed in his work.
"Suddenly eight or nine hours are gone and you've spent the entire day without doing the simplest thing: telling your spouse or significant other that you're thinking about them."
Knauss released Romantimatic in mid-January, and almost immediately, criticism poured in on Twitter.
"I knew that there would be some tut-tutting," Knauss says, before paraphrasing some of the reaction he received. "'Is this what we've come to?' 'Have we mechanized everything in our lives?' 'Is there anything the people won't put on their phone?' I expected that."
But Knauss has a different view.
"It's a tool," he explains. "And like any other tool, you can use it to make your life better, especially at things that you aren't good at yourself. I see how people would take that as cold or distant. But it's not insincere or cynical."
As a Getting Things Done devotee and appreciator of well-kept calendars, this makes sense to me at an intellectual level.
But when discussing the app with my wife (yes, she knows I'm using Romantimatic), we realized that neither of us wanted to knowingly be on the receiving end of such a text, regardless of how sweet the content.
My wife responded to my first Romantimatic-prompted message, "Did your phone remind you to send this?"
I followed up with a pre-programmed message: "I love you. This is a totally spontaneous expression of affection."
Not the sweetest of sweet nothings, I'll admit.
Knauss has been married for 18 years, and uses the app with his wife. He claims that eventually, the artifice of Romantimatic melts away.
"She knew I was building it and I think she appreciated the sentiment. But certainly the first time I sent something, she'd reply, 'Is this you or the app?' And that is a totally natural response. Then, over time, it has become less and less of a question, because it's me *through* the app .… eventually, the intermediary of the app disappears."
Ultimately, I think your reaction to Romantimatic comes down to whether you believe romantic love is a special, separate part of life with a different level of acceptable technological mediation.
"Romantic love has a special place in our lives," Knauss says. "It's not work, and it's not taking care of the car, and it's not getting the kids to baseball practice. But it is still something that needs to be done … that needs to be tended to."
To me, the most interesting thing about Romantimatic is just how polarized the responses have been. In a way, they remind me of early attitudes towards online dating. I mean, why would you use a computer to try and find love?
But in this case, we're not talking about using technology to find love. We're talking about using technology to help with the ongoing, day-to-day maintenance of love. And based on the reactions to Romantimatic, we haven't yet reached broad cultural consensus on the appropriate role of digital technology.
We use digital tools in almost every aspect of our lives. But is there a different set of rules when it comes to romance? Should there be?