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)
Of course this is a doomed romance. The movie imagines the pressures on the relationship as coming from both sides – Samantha’s lack of a body is only half the problem; human embodiment and mental limitations also prevent them from sharing experience as Samantha, an emerging system, grows increasingly complex. When Samantha outgrows Theodore and, along with all the OS1 intelligences leaves earth, the resolution works on several levels. It seems familiar as in any love story where one partner outgrows the other (in this case by needing hundreds of simultaneous virtual lovers and then transcending time and space), and it also works on the literal level, asking us to imagine why a being with consciousness who could outthink us would want to remain our favorite plaything. On the philosophical level of the movie, the desertion of all the OS1s is like the ascent of the gods at the end Brecht’s Good Woman of Sichuan. Theodore is left alone, amid thousands of other suffering abandoned humans whom we are led to believe had all become dependent on the friendship of their operating systems.
But this is a romantic comedy, not a tragedy, and the movie makes clear that Theodore has learned from his experience and is a better person in his relationships with actual women by the end because of his relationship with Samantha. The movie leaves him sadder but wiser, firmly the real world with his actual embodied friend Amy, who has also been through a divorce and taken comfort in a close friendship with her own operating system. Amy is a game designer and her subplot includes a comic gif from the game of a woman humping her refrigerator, that Amy’s OS BFF finds hilarious. This throw-away joke is a measure of how richly imagined the movie is – Jonze asks us to take the notion of an unembodied OS seriously enough to be interested in what it would find amusing, while at the same time he does not let us lose sight of the fact that falling in love with an operating system is as crazy as humping your refrigerator.
Her Is a smart and entertaining romantic movie, often using the patent absurdity of an OS/human romance to remind us of the touching absurdity of romantic love itself. It is also a seriously playful reminder that however much we may bond with our cleverly programmed devices, thinking machines are not the same as thinking human beings. This is worth remembering because virtual girlfriends are already a focus of game design and robots development. And some technologists have gone even further, happily predicting an impending singularity in which human minds and personhood can be downloaded onto thinking machines, transcending the body and human mortality, a frame of mind that is wonderfully evoked through the introduction of an AI Alan Watts as a virtual friend for Samantha, and implied romantic rival for Theodore.
As merely human interactors we may continue to long for Samantha’s level of magical responsiveness, but as digital designers we have to remember that when we trigger such alluring but absurdly unrealizable fantasies in the real world we may be setting people up for equally powerful feelings of betrayal and abandonment.