Spike Jonze’s Film ‘Her’ Brilliantly Addresses Our Relationship to Technology

On the crowded subway trains in South Korea, it can be challenging to spot a single individual (Where’s Waldo?) not engulfed-via-smartphone in the world of the Internet. At the Korean elementary school where I work, a persistent problem I face is how to get the kids to put away their phones (a sixth grader once attacked me for snatching up his precious portal).

When seen through our 21st-century lens (particularly for us younger folks), these situations seem mostly commonplace, perhaps mildly off-putting. Our brains have internalized that information-technology is ubiquitous now—Internet in the palm of everyone’s hand, 5-year-olds with smartphones and 2-year-olds with iPads. So what? Many people hardly raise an eyebrow.

‘Her’: A ‘Boy Meets Computer’ Love Story

But a fair few of us are given pause and feel faintly uneasy about some of these phenomena. And then something like Spike Jonze’s film, ‘Her’, comes along to provoke serious reflection. The award-winning 2013 film presents a barely-sci-fi world that closely resembles our own, but in which technologies like Artificial Intelligence, virtual-reality gaming, and Apple’s Siri have eclipsed their real-world counterparts in significant ways.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Despite its aesthetic of pastel hues and futuristic sleekness, this world begins to feel surrealistically eerie when we find out that the plot revolves around a lonely, heartbroken writer, Theodore Twombly, (played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his Operating System’s disembodied AI personality, “Samantha” (whose tragically innocent and alluring voice is supplied by Scarlet Johansson).

Theodore and Samantha bond over oh-so-human conversations about existence, love, music, and people. He brings her places (in his phone) and shows her things via phone-camera. She, being a computer, is ever-attentive and constantly becomes more personable (or personalized) as she learns about Theodore and human beings in general. They even have sex (you’ll have to watch the movie to see how that works).

The couple’s often charming and/or moving dialogue contrasts with and deliciously complicates the seemingly absurd nature of the relationship. Our first instinct—that the situation is decidedly unreal and sort of pathetic—gives way at times to a vaguely unsettling sense of plausibility, familiarity, and maybe, even, dare I say, desirability.

Our impression of this unorthodox relationship and this world is imbued with shades of the uncanny as we begin to identify in some ways with Theodore’s adoration for the unwavering interest and affection of Samantha. The film seems implicitly to ask, Is this actually that out-there or incomprehensible?’, and at least in the story, the answer is “no”. Strangely, no one seems to give a damn about Theodore’s OS-romance, and as it turns out, he is far from alone. Other persons in the film also seem to be developing deep relationships with their AI friends or lovers. In public, nearly everyone is talking to or through their phone, and it is left to us to guess whether it is now the norm or the exception to have a human on the other end. (As if all of this weren’t mind-swirling enough, the end of the film takes another leap, hinting at a transhumanistic future in which something like a technological singularity becomes our reality.)

Strange Questions, Valuable Perspective

It is also left for us to speculate as to whether the film’s reality is one that we would invite. Is anthropomorphized technology a solution for loneliness? A remedy for our endless desire to love and be loved? Some have claimed that, at least in our current world, it isn’t—that social technology makes us lonelier—though that certainly doesn’t stop people (like me) from “falling in love with” (read: compulsively indulging in) iPhones, MacBooks, and social media that reflects a projected ideal persona.

How deeply will we allow/do we desire for technology to penetrate into our lives? When previously unthinkable or disturbing fictions become our reality, will we even notice or care? 

The film poses these questions beautifully and casts a telling light upon our modern obsession with interactive technology. It suggests that we underestimate our lust for our eternally available, customized-to-self technological counterparts; that we do not see the extent to which smartphone-human-inseparability and ever-more-constant screen-mediated communication represent another fundamental shift (the advent of language, the printing press, & television may be other examples) in our relationship to each other, ourselves, and the world; and that this state of affairs may be just the primordial beginning of a series of changes that will render us unrecognizable to our current selves.

As technology continues to change and evolve at an incredible speed and in ways that were previously unimaginable, films like ‘Her’ seem utterly necessary. Whether we are aware of it or not, the ways we live in, interact with, and make sense of the world alter (sometimes dramatically) in conjunction with our shifting technology. If we don’t stop, look around, and question what we are gaining, what we are losing, and how we should live in the midst of these changes—both on the macro and micro levels—we risk sacrificing conditions, relationships, and experiences that were once integral meaning-and-value-endowing aspects of our predecessors’ lives.

Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ urges us to ponder these difficult matters. It prompts us to hesitate and analyze a world in which 12-year-olds attack teachers over smartphones. Like all great works of science fiction, it holds up a mirror for us to better examine where we are and where we’re heading, and reminds us that we are the only ones who can reevaluate and redirect our course.

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a creator, entrepreneur, and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He questions all the things. He makes unusual rap songs. He wanders the globe and writes about the most vitalizing, useful, and/or world-changing insights he happens upon. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative global community in which every human being’s basic needs are met and all sentient beings are respected. Befriend him and/or get his free eBook on how to exit the world of traditional work and live a radically free life. Amor fati, humans.

  • If you haven’t yet seen it, you might enjoy the film Lars
    and the Real Girl. It’s a sensitive and thoughtful portrayal of the
    relationship questions you ask here. Also, if you haven’t yet read Sherry
    Turkle’s Alone Together, I highly recommend it. Both the first half of the book,
    which is on relating to robots as substitutes for humans, and the second half,
    on preferring digital social interactions to real world/real time encounters.

    • Jan,

      Thank you for the film recommendation. I’ll add it to my to-see list. Another friend recommended ‘Alone Together’, a book I’ve known about since seeing the video ‘The Innovation of Loneliness’. I do intend to read that book. Thank you again for the recommendations. I appreciate you dropping a comment and hope to hear from you again. Take care.

  • Just finished watching the film. Beautiful. Many subtleties within the film that could be explored, and no doubt people are gonna talk about this one for some time to come. Great insights. Looking forward to your additional posts regarding technology and humanity. It’s an absurd existence, our lot. Indeed, stranger than fiction.

    • Ryan,

      As always, thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂 Glad you liked the film as much as I did, and I agree that this is a classic film—one that lingers and isn’t easy to forget. Glad you enjoyed the piece and are interested in my further posts on this subject. It’s one that I find greatly interesting and worth talking about. Cheers, man.

  • Matt Sigl

    I’m amazed that in discussions of the film, no one really doubts that Samantha is “conscious.” I haven’t even read one review that questioned that assumption. Nor does Theodore doubt this. This, of course, would be the central question that would obsess people should the world of “Her” come to pass. And trying to answer that question is a philosophical rabbit hole. (I suspect hardcore Philosophy of Mind to become vastly more commonplace a discussion topic in year’s ahead.)

    The movie doesn’t really play out a coherent vision of how society would react to an AI like Samantha. The bomb it would drop on culture and our vision of ourselves is too radical to even imagine, the social implications wildly unpredictable. But, that’s fine. Her was a meditation on love, connection and loss filtered through the prism of our current relationship with our digital devices. Watching the real world deal with these problems will be a far more dramatic movie, to say the least.

    Love this movie, especially it’s vision at the end of the computers evolving beyond us into more perfect entities. Perhaps we will get left behind, as Theodore does. Perhaps the Rapture was for the computers…

    • Matt,

      Thanks for a very insightful comment. It hadn’t actually occurred to me either to question Samantha’s “consciousness” because ostensibly, she appears to possess every aspect that we would consider an element of human consciousness. I mostly thought of it in terms of what that says about our minds—you know, are we basically just nature’s programming? Biological computers designed to learn and adapt? I think that, to a large extent, we are. I mean, even some of the uber-human things like love and art are reproduced by/feasible with Samantha.

      I saw big questions being raised about what it means to be ‘human’. I think in discussions over whether she’s “conscious”, you’re mostly arguing semantics. I’m sure there could be fierce and convincing arguments either way. Interesting stuff. I like your opinion that our world would respond much more dramatically to the situation than the world portrayed in the film. I felt, though, that the film was asking us if we really would. Given the blasé way that most people seem to approach things like virtual reality, robots, Google Glass, 3-D printing, etc., it might be surprising how quickly people would adapt to and assimilate real AI.

      The film seems to suggest this, at least. It remains to be seen. I think you could very well be correct, but I ultimately do not know, obviously. Glad you loved the movie as well. The ending was pretty nuts; I loved it too. A strange vision, indeed. Thanks for dropping in to comment. Hope to hear from you again. Cheers.

  • Paul Vonharnish

    If anyone here understood how biologically destructive cell phone and wireless technologies are, you wouldn’t be waxing wonderful on the concept. Pulsed digital emissions from cellular towers, wi-fi mesh networks, BlueTooth devices, wireless DECT phones, and many other pulsed electromagnetic induction sources, cause direct DNA strand breakage. Birth defects. Childhood Autism. Behavioral disorders such as ADHD, in addition to autoimmune disorders. These devices are destroying your planet and your specie. Learn how to read science journals before you get so foamed up about balderdash and fiction.

    • Paul,

      Interesting. Can you link to sources for these claims? No offense, but they sound like the substance of a conspiracy theory. However, many fringe theories contain truth, so I’m not discounting you. Just curious. Please link to the journals in which you found these claims.