Thursday, February 26, 2015

I WONDER IF MY VIKING GRANDMOTHER MADE LEFSE

The History Channel series, “Vikings”--now entering its third season--has just as much violence and almost as much sex as “Game of Thrones,” with the added recommendation that it is a dramatization of real events.  And the even higher commendation that it is about my great-great-great-great-great grandfather and his wife, my grandmother, the Viking Shieldmaiden. (More about that later.)

Of course I must boldly underscore “dramatization,” but if the writers of the series have taken a bit of dramatic license, they have done so with the dusty books of history open before them.  The first season of the series is centered on the Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, England, in 793 A.D., which is also the year (and the event) that historians cite as the beginning of “the Viking era.” After watching the episode, I looked up the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles; it was immediately apparent that the “Vikings” screenwriter had done the same:
on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.
Further reading in these Chronicles even corroborates the detail, in the show’s story line, of how the Viking raiders had no sooner pulled their longboats onto the beach than they surprised and attacked the retinue of sheriff’s men who approached them, mistaking the invaders for traders.

And Alcuin, an English priest at the court of Charlemagne, writes to the Bishop of Lindisfarne:
Your tragic sufferings daily bring me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God's sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.
And that is pretty much how “Vikings” depicts the action. It is skillfully written as gripping viewing for a 2015 television audience. Gripping, but, it seems, not exaggerated.

Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok. (Those who know Caryl's
family will tell you that he looks a lot like a Nasby.)
The Vikings are variously described in the chronicles and history books as “Norsemen,” (Norwegians) and “Danes.”  Since these labels also define the lineage out of which Caryl and I have sprung, I have taken to playing a little game--while watching the series--whereby I identify a particularly strong (or beautiful) warrior (one who survives the battle, of course) and claim him or her as Caryl’s or my ancestor. The fierce farmer-King Ragnar Lodbrok, and his wife, the Shieldmaiden Lagertha—who have so far survived
The Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha
to be the parents of many children—have thus been added to the ancient pantheon of our family: our great-great-greats. (The mathematics of heredity and genealogy show that, in terms of our relationship to real characters living at that time, this is most likely true.)


In claiming the heroes and winners as part of my own line, I am in good company. Robert Ferguson, in his excellent, scholarly, and very readable new history, “The Vikings,” points out that the annals of many early chroniclers, although a source of good general knowledge, are “prejudiced by the author’s inclination to exaggerate the importance of members of his own family in the commission of important deeds.”

Walt, an elderly member of the congregation I served in Anchorage many years ago, was a man of thoroughly Norwegian ancestry. He was a gentle, soft-spoken guy, but his eyes would actually gleam when he got to bragging about how the Vikings literally “seeded” all of western civilization. I, too, am fascinated by “family” tales of world-wide exploration and, yes, conquest. The Age of the Vikings that began in 793 continued until 1066, when—rather than coming to an end—it transmogrified into the conquest of the English by the Normans, who were somewhat more civilized (and Frenchified!) descendants of the Vikings by another name. Some historians suggest that the Norman Conquest was the most complete overturning of one people by another in all of recorded history.

Do you hear that? Like my friend Walt, I’m slipping ever-so-slightly into bragging. When seen through the swordplay-loving eyes of the armchair adventurer in me, it is easy to overlook the fact that, as many historians point out, the experience of being confronted by longboats filled with exotic, armed warriors coming out of the mist of the sea into the local cove or quiet river estuary to wreak "rapine and slaughter" was an experience of violence, fear, and, yes, terror.

The ancestral Scandinavian story with which Caryl’s and my generation are most familiar is that of our doughty great-grandparents leaving the beautiful but impossibly tiny or rocky crofts of Norway and Denmark to settle in the unbelievably vast (160 acres!) and rich prairie homesteads of the Midwest, and of the earnest young pastors they quickly summoned to bring their church to them--a church in which their descendants hold sacramental feasts of the holy food of immigrants and seafarers: Lutefisk and Lefse.

It’s a story that I love and that is in my blood. But I am grateful to “Vikings” and the History Channel for reminding me that--in addition to (and before) that of our pious pioneer grandparents Johan and Ellen and Ole and Beret--my veins also contain the blood of King Ragnar the Fierce. And the Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha. "Grandma." 


The Sognefjord, in Norway, out of which the Vikings sailed
to invade England, and through which our grandparents
sailed in their journey to America.
In the mountains above the Sognefjord. The beautiful but
impossibly rocky Nesbo farmstead from which
Caryl's Great-Grandfather emigrated in 1878.


Monday, February 16, 2015

CUTTING RESEARCH: CUTTING OFF THE HAND THAT FEEDS US

A politician looks to the next election; a statesman looks to the next generation. ~unknown

I enjoy paying taxes; with them I buy civilization. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Every once in a while, when I ponder something I have just learned or when I am the beneficiary of a marvel of modern science or medicine, a small light bulb will flash over my head, lit up by the idea that this thing I have just heard about or experienced “was probably the result of somebody’s life-long research in a lonely laboratory.”  I have such thoughts in regard to something as commonplace as the wireless magic that allows me (alas!) to instantaneously purchase and possess the Bach cantata I have just heard on the radio, or—perhaps more profoundly—in appreciation and awe of the
Although the robot looks like he's ready to take over,
the doctor actually performs the surgery!
robotic equipment used in my recent successful surgery. (I was relieved to learn—pre-surgery—that it was actually the doctor, and not the robot, who would be conducting the operation!)

“Life-long research,” and “lonely laboratory” may be something of a romantic exaggeration—but not much of one, in many historical cases. And in this modern era, their successors are to be found in both the gleaming laboratory filled with research assistants and the one-man garage workshop.

According to last week’s episode of PBS’ “American Experience,” laboratories and one-man sheds each contributed to the breakthrough that led to the modern treatment of tuberculosis in the twentieth century. Although the disease is statistically the biggest killer in human history, the documentary was titled “The Forgotten Plague,” because of how thoroughly (if not completely) it has been eradicated. Because of research.

I’ve watched almost every “American Experience “ that has aired in the last thirty years; I had decided not to watch this one because it seemed to me that it would be “depressing.” In any event, I sat down, became engrossed, and watched the last ten minutes of the program with tears in my eyes. The tears were not for the millions of victims stretching back through the millennia; they were rather something like a delayed reaction to being told that one had been reprieved of a death sentence. That sounds a bit dramatic, but there is a bit of drama—selfishly, for me and my generation—in the timing of this saga: After rampaging through the human population for 6,000 years, the first effective vaccine was administered in the early 1940s, clinical screening tests in schools shortly after that, and I was born in 1946.  As the narration of the documentary caused that realization to wash over me, another reprieve came to mind: I was diagnosed with—and eventually recovered from—a “mild” case of polio in 1950, when I was three years old. This was at the time the Salk vaccine was achieving its first successful trials. Although I am fuzzy as to what part—if any—the vaccine played in my recovery, it was soon universally administered to school children, relieving what has been described as the most frightening epidemic in history (especially for parents).

It is safe to say that each of us, dear reader, can subscribe to or add to this list of potential terminal illnesses from which we or our children or grandchildren have been spared. (We can all add smallbox to the list.)

Robert Koch, 1843-1910
Robert Koch, of Germany, won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his groundbreaking discovery of the bacterial cause of tuberculosis. (His 1882 presentation demonstrating his discovery is considered by many to be “the most important medical lecture in history,” according to the Nobel Prize Organization.) His American disciple, Edward Trudeau, did painstaking follow-up work for years in something like a garage (actually an outbuilding he added to his home for the purpose). Jonas Salk worked in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh before taking advantage of a larger space at the fledgling National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. To read the stories of the findings (indeed, the careers) of all of these men is to read a history of research. From Robert Koch’s lab demonstration in 1882 to the first successful tuberculosis inoculation in 1941 is a lot of research. For the most part, government-sponsored or academically sponsored or
Jonas Salk (1914-1995), in his laboratory
publicly sponsored research.


In my neck of the woods, the University of Minnesota is currently lobbying for more money for research. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is suggesting that the budget of the great University of Wisconsin should be cut by three million dollars, and that professors should help by just “teaching more classes.” Nationwide, there is a movement among a significant number of politicians to cut taxes to the minimum for the sake of cutting taxes to the minimum.  It is not my intention to be churlish when I suggest that—whatever their political stripe—they have something in common with me: They are alive (or healthy) as a result of the very approach to clinical and other research that their short-sighted proposals would cut. All they need to do is recall their birth year, and then read the history of research.  Somewhere in there they will find a “life-long researcher in a lonely lab.” Or maybe a huge university medical facility. Perhaps the light bulb will come on.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

FOR EPIPHANY: THE ETERNALLY LATE FOURTH WISE MAN...

(Not to be confused with the old Henry Van Dyke story, "The Other Wise Man.")

The French writer Michael Tournier wrote a wonderful treatment of the “fourth wise man” legend in his 1982 novel, “The Four Wise Men.” (In the event you think you might actually read this novel, I would suggest you stop here and go do that; otherwise, read on.)

The last two paragraphs of the book have stayed with me over the years, and I offer them on this January 6th as a kind of Epiphany devotional. Here is a brief set-up: The fourth wise man, Taor, Prince of Mangalore, was late in setting out, and the other three had no choice but to start without him. Once he does begin his journey, he meets with many delays and misfortunes, the greatest of which is being imprisoned in the salt mines of Sodom. His travails and prison sentence take such a toll of time, that, having set out in search of a newborn baby, he is not able to pick up the trail until 33 years have passed; he is now an old man. But he does pick up the trail. Released from the mines, and having learned from a fellow prisoner that the baby grew to be a prophet named Jesus, who blessed the poor and spoke of peace, Taor sets off and makes inquiries along the way. He hears one report after another, he is getting closer. Finally, he learns that on that very day Jesus and his disciples are having the Passover meal at the home of one Joseph of Arimathea, and that he may be able to find him there if he hurries. After some vague directions, he comes upon the room. Here are those concluding paragraphs:
“The room was empty. Once again he had come too late. People had eaten at this table. There were still thirteen wide, shallow goblets, each with a squat foot and two handles. In some of the goblets there were still a few pieces of the unleavened bread which the Jews eat at Passover time in memory of their fathers’ flight from Egypt.
“Taor’s head reeled. Bread and wine! He reached for a goblet and raised it to his lips. He picked up a piece of unleavened bread and ate it. Then he toppled forward, but he did not fall. The two angels, who had been watching over him since he left the salt mines, gathered him into their great wings. The night sky opened, revealing a sea of light, and into it they bore the man who, after having been last, the eternal latecomer, had just been the first to receive the Eucharist.”


The Four Wise Men, Grand Staircase
National Monument, Utah



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

LOVE, LIGHT, AND LIFE...

Proclaiming the news of the Christmas gospel is a daunting assignment for a preacher. Many of us ask ourselves, "What can I add to this old, old story?" For a number of years my response to this challenge has been to attempt a Christmas sermon in verse. When preaching, I try to read these sermons fluidly, without undue attention to the line endings dictated by poetry. 

This is a verse sermon I wrote for the Christmas after September 11, 2001. The themes, alas, still seem timely. Perhaps--this side of heaven--they always will.

I offer this as my blog Christmas card, with thanks for reading, and a prayer that all will hear Good News in this season.

When God to the nothing said
   let there be light,
There was nothing … nothing to
   make a world bright.
There was no one to see it and
   no one who heard,
Except God – for the source of that light    was God’s Word.

The light wasn’t starlight or moonlight or sun
But the radiance to be everything, everyone.
The light was creation – the beginning of
Life, and a universe, made out of love.

It is love that has made you and love that made me;
God, with a word of love, called us to be.
In the dawn of that day when the morning stars sang
It was God’s song of love with which all heaven rang.

But how can it be that our tiny green world
Would even be noticed as space-time unfurled.
Not only noticed, but dear in God’s sight.
Love means that nothing is small in God’s light.

Love, light, and life: it’s the poem of birth;
Love, light, and life: it’s the portrait of earth –
Earth as God made it and saw it was good,
A good place to live in – a world neighborhood.

A neighborhood world with God’s light to share,
Plenty for everyone – water and air.
But some of the plenty we wanted to keep,
And hide under cover of darkness so deep.

So we came to love darkness, why would that be?
When light is a gift given so we can see.
People loved darkness instead of the light –
Walked from the brightness of day into night.

Hid, so our deeds would be covered and dark,
And tried to pretend that the tiniest spark
Of the light of God’s judgment could not seek or find
Where we were hiding. How blind we were blind!

So hatred and darkness and death took the place
Of love, light, and life for the whole human race.
It’s what happens to you and what happens to me
When we walk in the darkness but think we can see.

Then came a day when God looked with the eyes
Of his heart, and he wept when he spotted the size
Of the storm cloud of darkness that covered the land
And smothered with night all the work of his hand.

“This is the darkness of death that I see;
Death is not what I intended to be
On the day of creation.” And his eye dropped a tear,
And God wept for a world filled with hatred and fear.

But God is light – in him there’s no darkness at all,
So he would not, not in anger, just watch his world fall
Away into darkness,  into eternal night.
“Love leaves no choice,” said God, “I’ll be their light.”

But God did not send down mere moonlight or star.
God came as a baby, to right where we are.
The light is among us, one of us, near,
The light is Emmanuel, God with us – here!

But don’t think that the light burned the darkness away,
All the powers of darkness then came into play
And attacked with full force when they learned of this birth.
(These powers work best when night covers the earth.)

“It’s only a baby,” the fearful king cried,
“And, like all the others, I’ll soon see him die.
A mother’s – a father’s love? How can that stand
Against armies of night that I’ll send through the land.”

So there is the picture: A small family
Who carry the promise that all will be free.
And more – there in the darkest of night
That family carries the light of all light.

Imagine if all of the sky – near and far –
Was nothing but nothing, except for one star.
It would seem, as you look, that the nothing will win,
But the light of that star is where God will begin –

Where God will begin to create light again.    
And the light will bring new life – and new life will win.
And the baby will grow, and the darkness will shout,
“Now he must die,” but the light won’t go out.

And a cross will be raised on the crest of a hill,
And a mother remember that night, and the thrill
She felt then, and the light all around,
And the promise she kept to herself, then the sound

Of the hammer and nails pierce her through,
And again it will seem that the darkness can do
As it will, and that light will seem so far away.
And she’ll weep for her child, for this man, for that day.

But the promise is true, and the life has begun
The life of a world newly born in her Son,
Newly born, so that never again can a grave
Contain all the light, life, and love that he gave.

And now, in our own day, when shadows have grown,
Again, the Word’s promise we claim as our own.
Hope seems to dim, and our day turns to night.
Come, dear Lord Jesus, and let there be light!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THOUGHTS ON THE INTERNET, SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY, AND MY NEW FRIEND, THE DUCK...

Although the date of this post, “Small Business Saturday,” is mostly coincidental, I hope there is a certain appropriateness and coherence to this report on some changes I’ve undertaken lately in the tech-consumer-social-media elements of my life.

You might wonder, “Who cares?” and why I’m bothering to tell you about these things, dear reader. To me, this blog is a conversation as well as my “journal;” I’d be very interested to hear how you are navigating these various channels that are carrying us into and through the Brave New World that is still very new to all of us.

Here are some recent resolutions, changes, epiphanies, experiments having to do with my interaction with the internet and its wider context, with observations on why any of this might be important:

1. I now use Amazon.com only as a last resort. Two strands have led me to this resolution: One is the issue of Amazon’s treatment of employees. (One aspect of this is the basis of a case before the Supreme Court right now.) This op-ed piece by Paul Krugman is a good overview of the role Amazon plays in the economy.

The other strand is the common-sense realization that the presence of a local bookstore and other retailers enhances the quality of my community and my life, and I need to support them to keep them around. There are, alas, no longer any bookstores in Faribault (they departed while I was clicking away on Amazon), but nearby Northfield has a wonderful new bookstore, “Content,” as well as The St. Olaf and Carleton College bookstores. These are now my "first resort," followed by Barnes & Noble (both brick-and-mortar and online versions) and other online booksellers.

My resolution, “…only as a last resort,” may sound wishy-washy, but for me to say “I will never use Amazon again” is almost as unrealistic as it would be to say, “I will never use the power company….” For many years I have been (at least) a weekly Amazon shopper, and the one-click option became like the chicken-pecking-the-button-for-feed attraction at the carnival. At this writing, I have not ordered from Amazon for about two months. Surprisingly ( to myself), I haven’t missed it. I hope they’ve noticed.

2. For the same reasons of enlightened self-interest (I want these shops to stay around), I will “Shop Small and Shop Local” as much as possible. I recently had a problem with my iPhone. I was able to contact a real human being at the online Verizon site, and she was friendly and patient with me, but in the end wasn’t able to help me. I took the phone to our local Verizon store, and the cheerful, no-nonsense woman behind the counter solved my problem in about three minutes. She also corrected my mistaken notion that coming to the store or visiting the web site amounted to the same thing. “We’re actually in competition with each other,” she said. Brick-and-mortar Verizon is now my go-to site for most cell-related items and issues.

3. I have gone back to paper-and-ink as my primary medium for book-reading. I have nothing against e-books (except for that Amazon thing), and I read them quite enjoyably on my iPhone Kindle app, especially in a doctor’s waiting room, etc.
Books.
But I recently had two thoughts that led me to this change: 1). When our grandkids see me reading a book, I’d rather have them witness me reading a book and not staring into a screen. 2.) I like books. I like having them around.

4. I will happily pay a reasonable price for on-line content that is important to me. (Newspapers, music, etc). At the genesis of the internet age, most publishers and musicians were ensnared by the “I ain’t payin’ for nuttin’” attitude which was the ethos of those early days—and still hangs on. But of course It doesn’t make any sense. In the news business alone—to name one example—we’ve all paid the price for this stinginess by the cutting back of news coverage in general, foreign correspondents in particular, and the substitution of 140-character tweets for in-depth articles. (Again, nothing against Twitter—in it’s proper perspective. Here’s one of my recent tweets: “After hundreds of pre-school readings: I prefer early Berenstain Bears—when Poppa is a hapless doofus—to the later preachy-teachy tales.” Deep.)

5. I am taking the following initiatives against online data-mining and privacy invasion. (In the ever-changing internet environment, who knows if these changes are worthwhile or futile.)
  • I have changed my primary email from google.com to outlook.com. Outlook claims that they do not read e-mail content for the purpose of ad placement (as gmail does). Outlook is a Microsoft product, so it’s hardly a feel-good mom-and-pop replacement, but they are up front about stating that they target ads only according to zip code. I’ll take that trade-off. I am a Mac user, but I like the Outlook interface, and the easily-ignored ads are part of a clean-looking page. (And I can get an ad-free Outlook for $20 a year.)
  • I have switched my search engine from Google to Duck Duck Go, an extension of my Safari browser. The Duck does not track web searches. It is serving me well.
  • “Ello” is a new social media site that is ad-free and does not follow or track users. I am joining it as a kind of experiment—it will only be as good as the number of friends that I can convince to interact with me on the site.  Like many of you, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It is useful, but I mainly don’t trust it. It is clear that, as has been often pointed out, we users are the Facebook product, to be sold to advertisers. Like many of my generation, I stay with it for grand-kid photos (and, okay, I use it to lob the occasional bon mot), but I can’t wait to get off it. A researcher in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, "The Fall of Facebook," reports, “In three years of research and talking to hundreds of people and everyday users, I  don’t think I heard anyone say once, ‘I love Facebook…’”
  • Just yesterday I discovered and installed “AdBlock,” another extension of my Safari browser. My Facebook ads are gone. My tastefully placed outlook.com ads are gone. Data-miners are no-doubt still mining, but I don’t see the ads!


POSTSCRIPT:
I continue to be mystified at how easily we have acquiesced in surrendering our privacy (I’ve certainly played my part in this). Germany in particular and Europe in general are taking a harder stand against the likes of Google and privacy infringement. As a result of a recent trial settlement, the court assigned a social media privacy expert to be a part of Google’s “team." In an interview on NPR, he said, “If I
walked into the neighborhood right now and went door-to-door asking, ‘Could I have photographs of all your children?’ I would either be arrested or physically driven from the house. And yet this is very close to what most of us are voluntarily doing online every day.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE LINGERING QUESTIONS OF "HER:" A REVIEW OF SPIKE JONZE'S MOVIE

(This post is a review of Her, a film by Spike Jonze. It contains what might be thought of as spoilers for those who intend to see the movie but have not yet done so.)

A while back I posted a piece reflecting on the experience of playing a continuous on-line Scrabble game with my friend Warren, who lives in a part of the country quite distant from me.  I averred as to how—although sitting in the same room contemplating our moves over glasses of wine is certainly to be preferred—I was surprised to admit that (with the “chat” feature included) our app-enabled play supplies about 70% of the satisfaction of the real thing. And I mean “surprised.” In the pre-digital era (roughly the first half of my life), I would have scoffed at the possibility. (Not at the technology, but at the idea that any kind of electronically-delivered remote connection could come near to replicating the emotional content of a face-to-face encounter with another person.) But that was before I was introduced to my iPhone. My precious….

This observation came back to me as I was watching Her, the Oscar-winning movie about a man who develops an intimate relationship with the female avatar/voice that represents his computer’s operating system.  The fact that the film was conceived as an original screenplay, and not adapted from a book, makes it difficult to compare as a work of “literature,” but, that aside, I think it is not out of the question to place the story of Her alongside such works of predictive or cautionary near-future fiction as Brave New World and 1984.

Her draws us into speculating seriously about what might be right around the corner from the time we’re living in right now, and about the potential uses—for good or ill—of the systems and tools that we know are being churned out of a Silicon Valley think-shop—or some techie’s garage—right now.1  It achieves what I think of as this “seriousness” of cinematic purpose (while being deeply absorbing) by avoiding three clichés committed by less thoughtful filmmakers of this genre:

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in reverie with Samantha, in Her
Cliché #1, avoided: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), the recent divorcee who enters into an increasingly intense relationship with his operating system (“the world’s first artificially intelligent OS,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is not an anti-social misfit, friendless dweeb, or psychopath.  Although as played brilliantly by Phoenix, Theodore does have a few awkward eccentricities, his life includes fulfilling relationships and he navigates effectively in the world of friendship and work.

Cliché #2, avoided: When Theodore’s deepening relationship with “Samantha” becomes sexual, it is neither prurient nor pornographic. To what degree it is “mutual” (much has been written about the sensuality of Scarlett Johansson’s voicing of Samantha) is one of the questions the film asks us to ponder. In fact the movie opens with a humorous episode involving a phone sex-line (with Kristin Wiig’s voice switching from passionate to business-like as the call ends), as if to make it clear that this is distinctly different from what will later develop between Theodore and Samantha.

Cliché #3, avoided: The artificial intelligence of Theodore’s operating system is not installed in his back like a battery or implanted in his brain; he is not harnessed to do the bidding of an evil warlord nor does he lead a rebellion on behalf of society’s enslaved minions (doesn’t Tom Cruise star in all those movies?). There are no space cruisers or ray guns. Its subtle very-near-futureness is what makes it somewhat uncomfortably believable. And the open-endedness of the movie’s story lines and conclusion leave me with lingering questions. (A more discerning viewer may find the implications of the movie less open-ended and more conclusive. For me, the meaning of the film could be taken in at least two different ways at a number of points.) The lingering questions:

We know the A.I. of the operating system can “adapt and evolve,” but has it developed sufficiently so that Samantha is actually responding to Theodore emotionally of her own “volition?” Or is the software simply so advanced that it artificially (and “coldly”) adjusts to whatever it is that Theodore needs (or is seeking)? At one point Samantha earnestly tells Theodore that she “wants to learn everything I can.” Does she want to do this so that she can enter more and more deeply into a mutually meaningful relationship? Or is the OS designed to do this to make it more and more efficient at being of service? And…

…is the intention of the operating system’s developers benign? evil? or simply capitalistic? Is this a whiz-bang gizmo everyone will want (like I want Apple’s soon-to-be-launched Watch), or is it the beachhead of a takeover of our humanity?

Many reviews of Her refer to Theodore and Samantha “falling in love.” Does Samantha really fall in love?

The genius and frustration of the movie is that most of the questions above can be answered “yes…” and “no.” For example, if Samantha wants to learn everything she can in order to serve Theodore’s needs, and if she succeeds in doing so, does it matter if her motivation is “emotional” or functional? And what of Theodore’s “love?” Recent studies demonstrate that we relate to our devices (iPhones, etc.) with the same part of the brain with which we “love.”2 (“My Precious”….) Theodore is a smart guy, he’s not delusional, and yet he quite matter-of-factly loves Samantha. It could, in fact, be true love. I don’t have the same level of intimacy with my Scrabble partner that Theodore has with Samantha (sorry, Warren, but you’re no Scarlett Johansson), but our game-chat-exchange is an experience of some warmth, camaraderie, and genuine feeling. In my opening paragraph I surmised that this is about 70% of what the experience of meeting a friend has to offer. To the degree that Her is a futuristic tale, what direction is that percentage going to go? Up? …or down?

The concluding scene of the film is also open-ended: Two old friends, who each discover that the other has been abandoned by his and her OS lover, hold hands and go up to the roof of their building. Are they so bereft of the level of intimacy their artificial companions introduced into their lives that they are now in a pact to leap together off the building (with the hope of meeting their virtual lovers in the ether)? Or are they like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost:

     The world was all before them, where to choose
     Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
     They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow...

…make their way back into the world.

...to discover with one another the reality of a love that, however intelligent and adaptive, their operating system could never rise to? That’s my conclusion, romantic that I am.

A Final Lingering Question
Introducing Milton’s “Providence” into this tale is a bit of a stretch, but it elicits one more question: When Samantha confesses to Theodore that her love for thousands of others in no way diminishes her love for him, is this a reference to the all-encompassing love of God? Is God an Artificially Intelligent Operating System?

_______________________________________________________________
1. Not that far in the future: I just came across this essay in the NY Times, written by a mother who is grateful for the role that Siri--the voice of her iPhone's operating system--plays in the life of her autistic son.

2. Or, perhaps, worship.