HER – or why our longing for Google Glass is like wanting to hump a refrigerator

In love with his operating system

In love with his operating system

In chapter  12 of ITM I talk about the  companion model of the computer, the persistent fantasy that a  computing machine can become our ideal personal companion, anticipating our needs even before we can articulate them. Spike Jonze’s new movie Her  (2014) takes this wished for merger of computation and consciousness as his starting point, creating a richly imagined love story between Theodore, a relatively normal human being, and Samantha, a disembodied operating system. It is a smart movie and an elegant corrective to our fantasies of the totally responsive system.

Samantha, is a self-aware and evolving artificial intelligence, an instantiation of a new product called OS1 that Theodore meets when she is installed on his desktop machine. Samantha starts out as the perfect Siri+Google Glass assistant, offering reminders, retrieving information, tidying-email, proofreading documents, and even remembering which of the  maze routes have already been tried in Theodore’s holographic video game. She is voiced with great charm by Scarlet Johansson, and given a sense of humor, a talent for cartooning and music composition, and verbal expressive qualities, such as breathlessness, that usually come from having a body. Samantha is also playful, “intuitively” sensing Theodore’s  need for cheering up, she uses her navigational mode to send him spinning around madly; and  she tricks  him into approaching a pizza window and speaking out an order before he even knows he is hungry.  This is Siri as the ideal playmate and mom for  one’s inner, neglected 7 year old.

In order for this film to work we have to be able to sympathize with Theodore, who is alone on screen for much of the movie, communicating with Samantha through a wireless earbud and a mobile device which is often in his shirt pocket, pointed outward to share what he sees as he moves around the world.  Joaquin Phoenix’s performance positions Theodore as a depressed but resilient person, who is unhappy but not desperate. His relationship with Samantha takes the form of an office romance – she is the perky and perfectly attentive assistant who understands him better and asks less of him than the embodied people in his life.

The film prevents us from dismissing the relationship by offering up a range of parallels to human/OS romance by which to calibrate what is real. Theodore works as a highly empathetic surrogate writer of computer-printed “handwritten letters” for a client base of caring but inarticulate lovers and relatives. When Theodore is at home he plays gesture-based video games on a holographic system projected in front of his couch, exploring an alien planet in the company of a comically insulting alien child. In one scene, the very personal, humanlike presence of Samantha, as a voice in Theodore’s earbud, is juxtaposed with  the  more rigidly programmed holographic  game character. Theodore is also given a range of sexual encounters with actual women including happy memories of married sex, comically dreadful phone sex with a stranger, clumsily eager attempts at intimacy on a blind date, and a disturbing attempt at a three-way with a body surrogate for Samantha. With these scenes as sympathy-building context,  the movie invites us to experience the loving words (over tasteful black screen)  of Theodore and Sam’s love scene not as the masturbatory delusion of creepy loner, but  as  an absurd but authentic romantic consummation between two conscious beings.

With this scene Spike Jonze has taken the software-as-companion fantasy as far as it can possibly go, leaving previous robot/human stories like Blade Runner ,  let alone Nicholas Negroponte’s longing for the perfect English butler,  in the dust. He also fittingly captures both the intensity and the futility of the underlying desire.

(Spoiler alert… for the rest of this post)

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How 19th Century Sexual Transgressions Are Reflected in 21st Century Information Design

There is a story on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education today about

Emily Dickinson MSS at Houghton Library: Wild Nights!—Wild Nights! Autograph manuscript, in fascicle 11, ca. 1861. MS Am 1118.3 (38b). Gift, Gilbert H. Montague, 1950.© President and Fellows of Harvard College.

the “acrimony” between Harvard and Amherst College which is disrupting efforts to create a comprehensive  open access on-line archive for the  manuscript papers of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson.  For over a century, efforts to aggregate these papers have been stymied  by the fruits of a bitter rivalry between Susan Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and Mabel Todd,  who was the first editor of the poems, and who had a long doubly adulterous love affair with Austin. Mabel’s stash of papers wound up at Amherst College while Susan’s heirs sent their holdings to Harvard, where it is considered the jewel in the crown of Harvard’s 19th century manuscript collection at Houghton Library. Now that Houghton is preparing to launch the  online archive and Amherst, which is listed as one among several collaborators, feels  slighted, accusing Harvard of appropriating their assets without sharing the design decisions or access to their own collection. What can we learn from this? Continue reading

The Ambiguity of Game Studies

Here are the slides  from my recent DiGRA’13 keynote, The Ambiguity of Game Studies: Observations on the Collective Process of Inventing a New Discipline,  reminding folks of the intersection of Huizinga’s concept of the magic circle and Victor Turner’s  concept of liminality.

Games as Joint Attentional Scenes

With DiGRA ’13 coming up in 2 weeks, I went searching for an accessible version ringroundrosey from diglib fsu eduof my keynote at DiGRA ’05, for which the short piece “The Last Word on Ludology/Narratology,” which I posted a few weeks ago in text and slides,  was just the preface.  The text of the keynote itself, “Games as Joint Attentional Scenes”  can be found on the Google Books site, since it was published as a chapter in Words in Play edited by Suzanne De Castell and Jennifer Jenson.  Continue reading

The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology (2005) the slides

Here are the slides from the oral version of the DiGRA 2005 Preface to my keynote talk, which was introduced  by Espen which made it more fun for both of us. Continue reading

The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology (2005)

ludologyfightnight

Ian Bogost’s rendering of the great critical struggle.

Recently this image has resurfaced in a talk by Espen Aarseth. I believe that the Ludology/Narratology discussion has moved on.  My favorite sign of the discussion changing occurred   a few years back when Espen announced that he was studying narrative elements in games.  But only last month I had a request for the content of my “preamble” to my DIGRA 2005 talk which I think was published in the Proceedings but may be hard to track down. So I am posting it here, along with a movie version of the slides. Espen introduced me for a keynote speech, and the body of my talk focused on other issues. But I felt a need to begin  by offering the “Last Word on Ludology v Narratology”.

The slides are here and  the essay is below:

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Molyneux’s Curiosity Game: why did anyone play?

Now that game auteur Peter Molyneux‘s massively mobile cube clicking game, Robot playing CuriosityCuriosity -What’s Inside the Cube?, is over we are left to puzzle over its odd success.  The gameplay was so mindlessly repetitive that it could be performed by a simple robotAnd yet millions of people downloaded it to their iPhones and iPads and clicked away at billions of pixelated squares, and 30,000  of them were still at it almost six months after the release date when the game came to an end last Sunday.  What would make a human do it?  I think there were 4 main motivators. Continue reading