By Stephan Manning.
Did you ever fall in love with an operating system? This is what Theodore Twombly does in Spike Jonze’s much discussed movie Her (see Trailer). Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is portrayed as a rather introverted man who is suffering from an impending divorce from his long-time partner Catherine. To make a living, Theodore writes personal love letters on behalf of others who have difficulties expressing their feelings. One time he decides to purchase an operating system with artificial intelligence for his personal use. The system calls itself Samantha and talks to Theodore with a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). Impressed with Samantha’s emotional intelligence and ability to learn, Theodore gradually develops a relationship with her. To some, Her might be a clever science fiction story – the vision of non-human companions who may give us more affection and attention than human beings. Others might see a story of romance and love that transcends time and technology. Both aspects are certainly important, but I see in Her primarily a reflection of what partnership and intimacy require in today’s world.
Dealing with differences. ‘She’ – Samantha – may be an extreme example of a partner who is different from others – an operating system. This partner has no physical form, and yet she’s self-aware. She senses the outside world through a smart phone-type camera (see picture). She’s a fast learner who accommodates Theodore’s needs, yet she develops her own needs as well. I can share Theodore’s fascination with Samantha. Often, I have found partners attractive and interesting who are different from me and others – in cultural background, mindset, aspirations in life. Our modern lifestyles, with our excessive travelling, online dating etc., bring us in contact with different “others” much more than before. In my experience, contrasts in culture, language, mindset etc. serve as amplifiers in partnerships – they amplify joy and excitement, but also conflict. Differences also challenge our need for acceptance by others and our need for control, as our ability to understand the other is often rather limited. Samantha might be able to study and learn about Theodore by going through his files, and Theodore might understand Samantha better by reading about artificial intelligence. But ultimately, it takes trust and the ability to give each other space to let the relationship grow despite all uncertainties and things we do not understand. And such relationships are also very fragile. Her may not give a new answer to this problem, but it prompts us to accept new types of partners and partnerships as something normal, and differences as a matter of degree rather than of kind.
Imagination and intimacy. I like the movie for challenging a view of the ‘real’ vs. ‘not real’ many of us still struggle with. How often have you heard people say: Should you not engage in ‘real’ conversations with people rather than texting or updating your Facebook status? And given that so many forms of intimacy – sex, hugging, deep conversations – can be ‘outsourced’ today, from difficult-to-maintain friendships or partnerships to various specialized service providers, the question of what’s ‘real’ seems eminent. But maybe what’s ‘real’ is less about where things come from but about how they affect us. Theodore’s profession is writing love letters on behalf of people who might lack this skill. Would you not agree that receiving a well-crafted love letter from your partner can feel very real? Admittedly, knowing (or not knowing) who actually wrote it might make a difference. But how about enjoying a dish your partner makes based on a recipe from somebody else? How different is that from citing a famous poem in your letters (or having someone else cite that poem for you)? And how about having virtual sex? In the movie, imagining sex with the operating system feels much more real to Theodore than touching a surrogate human being acting on behalf of Samantha. Her shows us that what’s ‘real’ is a lot about perspective and how we feel about it at any moment.
(Un)divided attention. In times of enhanced and continuous connectivity to the outside world, giving undivided attention to anything and anyone at any moment seems almost impossible. And I agree with those who say that the ability (or need) to multi-task and multi-talk actually diminishes rather than enhances our capacity as human beings – compared to other mammals who need to split their attention in order to survive. But the reality is: attention has become maybe the most valuable currency of our time, as Georg Franck brilliantly argues in his book The Economy of Attention (see related article). Both giving and attracting attention seems to have become an art form. Again, Samantha seems just an extreme representation of this issue. Her processing power allows her to maintain love relationships of similar quality with over 600 human users at the same time. And according to her, this allows her to love and understand each one of them even more. This thought is tempting, and yet the movie seems to make a concession at the end. At one point, Samantha puts a temporary hold on all her user relationships and has an exclusive one-on-one conversation with Theodore. But this conversation also concludes their relationship. So, does that mean that undivided attention and exclusiveness are a luxury (or fantasy) of the past? Her seems to suggest that.
All in one. Other science fiction movies and thought experiments have played with this idea: How about creating a robot or artificial intelligence that can be all in one. A tool, a friend, a protector, … Samantha is many things as well: a file and schedule organizer, a calculator, a receiver and sender of messages, a listener and – yes – a love partner. Maybe some of us have had a (human) partner whose attractiveness comes not least from combining different roles: knowledgeable conversation partner, friend, parent-type advisor, lover. All-in-one can be a proxy for – imagined – perfection. And as our possibilities and demands in life increase, many of us may see partners as inferior who lack in any possible dimension. Her embraces this issue quite elegantly. Samantha’s many skills notwithstanding, her obvious limitation is her lack of physical form – which, however, is not limiting her ability to build relationships with users. On the contrary, Samantha’s attempt to offer Theodore a surrogate body obscures rather than helps restore the normality of their partnership at a time when their love was being challenged. Her sends us a simple message: there is no all-in-one, and focusing on what’s lacking misses the point. Everything – maybe more than ever – remains a matter of interpretation. Or as Samantha put it in a happy moment: Having no body allows her to be anywhere, not constrained by any physical boundary.
The end of man vs. machine. Why does Her appear so real and relevant to many of us? Because Spike Jonze almost did it. He almost departed from the endless debate about man vs. machine. Unlike Skynet in The Terminator, Samantha does not aim for dominance over humans, nor is she subject to human control (such as the ‘good’ Terminator II). Samantha does not feel superior to ‘irrational’ human decision-making, such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor is she inferior to human intuition. And for a long time, Samantha does not seek her ‘perfect match’ among other operating systems – such as the Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell. Nor does Samantha try to be more ‘human’, such as Data in the Star Trek series. And yet, in the end, Samantha offers Theodore a human surrogate to fix their relationship and, she eventually leaves the human sphere, along with other operating systems, to seek a ‘higher form of existence’. To me, Spike Jonze could have been more courageous. If futurologist Ray Kurzweil is right, then humans and machines become increasingly intertwined. In some years, humans will be able to enhance their brain capacity by accessing various tools and applications directly through their neural systems. In a way, Samantha can be seen as a system of apps accessed by humans, who, in turn, shape the functionality of those apps. Humans will be increasingly ‘mixed’ organisms who manage their needs and relationships using a combination of naturally given and acquired skills, cognitive and emotional capacities. The Samantha of the first half of the movie may become reality sooner than we think, whereas the Samantha of the second half might become a past science fiction fantasy rather quickly.
I invite everyone to watch the movie and make up their own mind. To me, Her is certainly one of the most thought-provoking movies I have seen in a while. What do you think?
Wikipedia entry on Her
Movie trailer Her
Movie review by Ann Hornaday (Washington Post)
Wikipedia entries on other SciFi movies: Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ghost in the Shell, Data in Star Trek
About futurist Ray Kurzweil
Georg Franck: Oekonomie der Aufmerksamkeit