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.
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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