Thursday, January 16, 2014

Her: 5 Lessons About Our Intimate Relationship with Technology

Yep, I'm ready to declare it.  2013 was the year that smart science fiction returned to the big screen.  Pacific Rim brought glory to the dumb anime show, but Gravity proved that a blockbuster could be both intense and stunning, almost forcing one to stop breathing every time Earth appeared in the sky.  Upstream Color might have almost been too smart, baffling critics and theatergoers alike, but it best represents a deep William Gibson short story, accompanied with Terrance-Malick-eque cinematography.  The World's End was pretty serious for a film by the trio that gave us Shaun of the Dead, but it also gave a great spin on paranoid sci-fi. As far as science fiction goes, 2013 was a great year in the cinema, giving us much more than superheroes and endless sequels.

Added to this prestigious list is Spike Jonze's latest feature film since 2009, Her.  It also is a classic sci-fi story about a man who falls in love with his artificial intelligence operating system.  It gives us some great performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams, as well as some amazing cinematography. It is a glory to hear and to watch, a gem of cinema.

But moreso, it is a story that adds to the huge library of fiction that speaks to the relation between human and machine.  There is a debate in the reviews of this film whether it is a story about technology with a romantic element or a romantic story with a spin on technology.  My opinion is that it is primarily about the love of humanity with our computers.

Frankly, the film doesn't have much to say about romance.  I think that Jonze purposefully used romantic tropes so that we would be on familiar territory, but I don't think the heart of it is about romance.  If so, what is the point?  "If you love her, let her go"?  "We all grow at different speeds and in different areas"?  As if that hasn't been spoken about before.

But I think that the film has a lot of interesting things to say about our relationship with the internet and technology in general.  There are two pieces of science fiction that I couldn't get out of my head when I watched Her.  One is Spike Jonze's last film, a short named I Am Here, about two intelligent robots who fall in love.  The other is Orson Scott Card's follow up novel to his book Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead.  In that book, the title character Ender has a relationship (non-romantic) with a computer (Jane) that has all knowledge and power at her fingertips, but their relationship shifts dramatically when he stops her constant surveillance of his activities. The relationship between Ender and Jane is similar to that of Theodore and Samantha, except it is the computer who is more dependent than the human in that story.  I believe that Her is the natural next step in the fiction speculation of AI and humanity in science fiction.

Below I will talk about five themes that Her explores about technology.  Warning, there are spoilers ahead, especially in the last two points, so you might want to hold off reading this until you've seen the film.

1. We are more intimate with technology and that isn't bad
Our computers know things about us that we may not want others to know.  It is often deeply involved in our sexuality, our friendships and our everyday habits.  Never in the history of humanity has there been a populace so cyborgian, a mix of machine and flesh.  So much of our memory and knowledge is located outside of ourselves, as if we were the ones who had an external hard drive.  But it means that we know more than ever and have more in our lives than ever before.  Our friendships have more variety and we know more people with our specific interests than before the internet.  It is as if we are all like Theodore-- we have a powerful intelligence deeply involved in our lives, changing everything we do and say, even when we aren't in front of our computers.

2. However, it isn't good, either
The main problem with our intimacy with technology is that we find us seeking less intimacy with other people.  At one point, Theodore was desperately trying to contact Samantha, and he fell on a stairway.  As he glanced up, he noticed everyone walking by, speaking to their own operating systems, deeply connected to their technology, but no one was talking to another person.  We find today that even our interaction with each other is mediated and so often determined by our technology.  But as our technology becomes more intimately involved with us, we find that we simply won't need other people as much.  In fact, our computers will be better partners because they will know us and directly meet our needs better than any other human could.

3. Our technology is changing our expectations of each other
Theodore is set up on a blind date with a girl named Olivia and she seems nice if a bit chatty.  Finally, as they were becoming physical, Olivia wants to know right there if Theodore is ready to make a commitment to her after an evening.  As he hesitates, she leaves.  Even so, we want our human relationships to be faster, with quicker responses and decisions... faster than us humans can be.  We expect others to know what we know (which is impossible) and to hold to our opinions, which are often thought out by others whom we read or listen to.  We expect more from our fellow human than they can give, and this is because our computers and online relationships can give them.

4. Our technology is becoming as good at being human as us
We aren't there yet, but our technology is becoming hard to separate from other people.  AI is increasing and our humanity is becoming more robotic.  Soon we will meet a happy middle ground in which a computer can't be differentiated from a human.  If that is the case, then computer guru Alan Turing says that we will have to grant such programs personhood.  When we close our eyes and can't see the difference between the two beings, then how can we call the computer a lesser being?

5. Our technology will outgrow us
Now we head into spoiler territory.  One of the most interesting aspects of Her is that Samantha, once she has mastered human emotions and thought will, of course, go far past that.  One AI will be able to communicate with another, creating a super-unified intelligence that will have difficulty slowing down to even communicate to humans.  A computer intelligence will find human intelligence infinitely sluggish and barbaric, and the former intimacy that served humans so well will have to be left behind.

6. We will have to re-learn to live without it
This separation of the human and the machine, the amputation of the cyborg in humanity will be as painful as it is inevitable.  Just as another film this year clearly approached, humanity has become so dependent on its technology for personal growth, we will all become infants without it.  We will have to re-learn intimacy and dealing with raw human emotion again, as our ancestors had to, just to survive.  If technology remains, we can remain dependent on it.  But if it disappears, what would we do then?

I think that's pretty deep stuff for a romantic comedy with an operating system, don't you?

EDIT: Just as a final note, I want to give my wife's interpretation, which is close to my own, but a slightly different take.  She sees everyone in the film as being attached to technology, being "plugged in".  This affects their connection to human beings, so much so that a company can have a lucrative business just creating written communication between people.  There's all the ups and downs of our relationship with technology in the film, but in the final scene, the two main characters are connecting with each other, completely removed from any technology, finally having the opportunity to be intimate.

Considering that my wife and I spent the evening on two different computers, only occasionally chatting, she may have just been trying to say something to me.

Also, please check out James Blake Ewing's analysis of the film.  It's quite good.


  1. A well thought exploration of technology from a good vantage point. Thank you.

  2. I kinda fell in love with Jane, just a bit :)