In 1950, the British computer scientist, Alan Turing, wrote a paper on artificial intelligence in which he described what is now called the “Turing Test.” Turing proposed that a computer could be said to have achieved intelligence if a person conversing with it could not distinguish between the computer and another human being. In the remarkable new science fiction movie, Her, writer/director Spike Jonze depicts a computer program that not only passes the Turing test but demonstrates the capacity for empathy, insight, and love.
To say that Her is an unusual love story is an understatement. Intelligent computers have appeared in many sci-fi films, but usually as antagonists (2001 or Colossus: the Forbin Project) or aloof and coldly rational assistants (Data in Star Trek). In Her, the personable computer is played by Scarlett Johanssen, who does an excellent job of creating the persona of a dream lover. Joaquin Phoenix acts the role of Theodore Twombley, a lonely hack writer in the middle of a divorce. The strange romance of this couple is at the heart of a bittersweet film that is engaging, provocative, and unsettling.
Spike Jonze is something of a wild man in modern media. His background includes working on youth culture magazines, commercials, music videos, short films, and offbeat Hollywood backed feature films. With the zest of an energetic hipster, Jonze explores the weird twists and turns of man/machine love in Her...
...but he seems captivated by the opportunities to surprise and stun us, to the detriment of exploring the complex issues raised by a synthetic love relationship. The film gives us the equivalent of a thrilling amusement park ride, rather than a voyage of discovery.
It is difficult to describe Her’s triumphs and troubles without spoiling the story, but I must cite one accomplishment which I believe will rank among the funniest moments ever achieved in science fiction cinema. As Theodore confesses the nature of his new relationship to an incredulous neighbor, he reveals that he is having (auditory) sex with Samantha, his computer girlfriend. He says:
“She really turns me on. I turn her on too – I mean, I don’t know, unless she’s faking it.”
The distinction between the false and the genuine is one which haunts the plot of Her. Theodore works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits in a cubicle among hundreds of other writers, grinding out love letters, birthday greetings, and condolences, all fraudulently conveying the deepest emotions for paying customers. It is not at all surprising that he would feel no compunction in accepting the affections of a sophisticated operating system speaking in the sweet voice of Scarlett Johanssen.
The future Jonze depicts is one in which narcissism is so dominant that the thoughts, feelings, and even identity of others are far less important than the impressions we feel.
There is an historic precedent for the concept of the perfect artificial companion in Her...
The Japanese Geisha were highly cultured and carefully trained entertainers of men. The Geisha were not high-class prostitutes, although sex did sometimes enter into their dealings with clients. Rather, they were paid companions who were trained to amuse and delight their male patrons. Samantha is effectively a Geisha implemented by software engineers. Not only is she superbly skilled and knowledgeable, but she has the ability to detect and adapt to the needs of her client. Jonze never clearly addresses the question of the suitability of such an arrangement, and I think it likely that many viewers of the film would eagerly pay for such companionship.
So what is wrong with buying love in a box or software download? The difficulty is that the attainment of the pleasure of love is inseparable from the pain of seeking and sustaining it. One can no more buy love from a vending machine or app store than obtain wisdom, serenity, transcendence, or spiritual salvation through a commercial transaction. The only price for love is the travail of attaining it. Love is inextricably mixed with fear, doubt, anxiety, foolishness, error, hope, and despair.
To attempt to disentangle it from these elements and package it as a convenience product is to degrade it into a form of emotional masturbation. In short, there will never be an app for love. This argument is implicit in the denunciation of synthetic love made by Theodore’s ex-wife, played by Rooney Mara. “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real. I’m glad that you found someone. It’s perfect.”
The setting for Her is a future Los Angeles, in which the urban environment has been upscaled by the application of Apple-like technology and esthetics to everything in sight. The main result seems to be that people walk past each other entirely oblivious, rather than driving past each other with similar detachment. Theodore’s high-rise apartment building is a bleak place full of clean, shiny surfaces and empty souls. The magic wand of good technology has “fixed” L.A. in the same way it has solved the problem of Theodore’s loneliness – unconvincingly.
By all means, go see Her. It is an audacious and thought-provoking tale of love and loss in a distressingly possible future. Although the film ultimately falls short of making sense, it exposes a good deal of nonsense that should not be mistaken for progress.
Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.