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)