Tuesday, October 14, 2014


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 possibility of 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 had 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, perhaps, 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.