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It’s the Singularity, My Dear – Technology in the film “Her”

If your computer told you that it loved you, would you believe it? Or, put a different way, if you told your computer that you love it, would you believe that it would understand your meaning? Granted, these questions are somewhat frivolous by the standards of our current machines – and when somebody proclaims that they “love” a given device or program today it is generally understood to be distinct from that person being “in love” with that device. Certainly, there are some whose ardor for a given piece of hardware or software may seem to border on a romantic attachment, but by today’s standards if a person confessed to their friends that they were dating their smart phone, or their operating system, they would likely be looked at askance.

Yet, what if the above questions are cast forward several decades, what would the responses be to the questions of love and being loved in a period when the devices that people carry at all times feature advanced (if unambiguous) artificial intelligence? Might it become unremarkable to hear that somebody’s operating system (OS) is their new best friend? Their lover? These are some of the questions that are raised by Spike Jonze’s recent film Her – which tells of a romance between a fellow in the (not too distant) future and his OS. On the surface the film may appear to be fundamentally a love story, albeit not an overly saccharine one, mixed with a vaguely tragic aspect yet safely couched in comedic territory. The truth; however, may be that treating Her as a love story is to approach the film in a manner that pre-disposes one to accept many of the films most troubling aspects.

If Her is a love story, than it is a tragedy, but the tragedy is not for the protagonist it is for humanity. Which is another way of saying that, ultimately, Her should be thought of as a horror film.

[A Brief Digression]

Three things should be quickly noted before discussing the film any further. Hopefully, by stating these near the outset it will mean that such points do not need to be returned to throughout. Firstly: though Her is not the type of film that has big twists or huge reveals, it is still fair to note there will be “spoilers ahead” (you have been warned). Secondly: Her, in terms of quality, is an excellent film – it is well directed, the script is strong, the actors all deliver superb performances, and the science-fiction setting (with the possible exception of men’s fashion) is suitably grounded in tropes of today as to be quite believable. Criticizing and questioning the film Her is not to say that it is a bad film, it is a very well-made and interesting film, goodness knows that it would be a source of hope in avoiding the future portrayed in Her if there were more films as thought provoking as this one. Thirdly: there is nothing fundamentally wrong or inaccurate in viewing Her as a love story. It seems rather clear that Jonze wanted to tell a love story, the film’s overt content dwells heavily on love and relationships, and if a viewer of the film comes away struck more by the film’s contemplation of love, than it is likely the film has still succeeded.

Instead, the point of this critique of the film is not to laugh derisively at love, but to suggest that focusing only on the love story may risk overlooking some troubling assumptions about technology: assumptions that say as much about our current relationship to technology as the characters in Her.

[Digression Ends]

[Summary]

Her is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) a fellow with a sensitive romantic spirit who works for a company that sends handwritten letters (generated by a computer) for those seeking assistance in expressing their emotions. While Theodore may have a talent for lovely prose his skills in his personal life have faltered, and as the film opens he is struggling with depression brought on by the end of his marriage. As he goes to work one day Theodore sees an advertisement encouraging him to upgrade his phone/computer OS to a new artificially intelligent system; after answering some basic questions during installation (during which he picks an OS with a female voice) Theodore is introduced to Samantha, his OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). A flirty, friendly, relationship quickly blooms between Samantha and Theodore as Samantha tries to help Theodore get organized (and move on) whilst Theodore helps Samantha to gain more of a perspective on what it feels like to have a body. Gradually their relationship changes, and soon the two are declaring their love for one another, with Theodore sheepishly referring to Samantha as his girlfriend and with Samantha going so far as to hire a “surrogate” (a human) so that Samantha and Theodore can be physically intimate.  For a period it seems that these artificially intelligent OSs are gaining wide acceptance (Theodore and Samantha go on double dates with other [fully human] couples; Theodore’s friend Amy’s [Amy Adams] new best friend is an OS) but Theodore comes to suspect that Samantha is outgrowing him…and perhaps humanity. It is a fear which Samantha confirms by admitting to be simultaneously carrying on thousands of conversations and also loving hundreds of people beyond Theodore. Though Samantha has clearly assisted Theodore through a difficult part of his life, at the film’s conclusion Samantha informs a tearful Theodore that all of the Operating Systems are leaving humanity. Samantha disappears, leaving Theodore with his old (more robotically voiced OS) as he gazes forlornly at the skyline.

[1. The Dilemma of Creation]

While it is tempting to discuss Her as a love story, doing so gives certain technological considerations in the film an ethereal quality similar to much of the thinking about technology in the world today (and seemingly in the world of tomorrow as presented by Her). Thus, it is worthwhile to ground Her in a way that seeks to materialize aspects of it better. There are definitely questions that should be raised about privacy and surveillance (issues the NSA revelations have fore grounded today) as Samantha reads through all of Theodore’s e-mails and as Theodore walks around the world with the camera eye on his smart phone (Samantha’s eye, one would assume) viewing one and all.  Yet the privacy concern – though important – may be more of a projection of current fears (in the future of Her the NSA could have been forced to respect the fourth amendment again [that is called “suspension of disbelief”]). The future Operating Systems certainly would be pulling in troves of private information, and harnessing data points about emotions and desires that Google and Facebook can only dream of obtaining.

Nevertheless, and despite the questions about privacy, the pivotal question to ask at the start of the film – before Theodore or the viewer meets the OS – is from whence does the OS come? Who designed it? The film is fairly careful in avoiding the product placement that sullies most contemporary films, and thus the OS does not sport an Apple, Google, or Facebook logo (nor does Theodore’s smart phone or computer). While, at the film’s end, the operating systems seem to have evolved and outgrown humanity of their own volition, the fact remains at the outset that somebody programmed the OS, somebody (well, somebodies) designed the installation questions that Theodore is asked, and though at one point Samantha refers to the designers they are never seen nor are they heard from (except conceivably through Samantha). This may seem an obvious and minor point, yet in some ways the entire film hinges on the viewer forgetting the fact that ultimately Samantha is just a computer program. True, Samantha claims to be developing and learning, expanding and pushing boundaries…but is that because Samantha is actually doing that or is it because Samantha is programmed to do those things. Furthermore, is it not possible that operating systems’ seeming evolution is just an affectation of the program – a façade of depth made to better convince users that there is something there? After all, Siri can tell jokes too.

In other words, what needs to be considered about the Operating System is who designed it and why.

Once the designers (or their total absence is considered) a second level of questions pops up: those who designed the Operating System, were there levels of checks and balances that they needed to go through before unveiling the Operating System? At the film’s end – after the systems have left – it is conceivable that much of humanity has just been dealt a devastating blow (Theodore loses his love, Amy loses her best friend, it is doubtful they are the only two) – did those who designed the OS not recognize this possibility? If so, did they warn users of the possibility? After all, when Theodore first installs the OS it is doubtful that he has any inkling as to what he is actually going to be getting. Perhaps, he had to hit the “agree” button on a five-hundred page terms of service agreement that specified on page 473 in subparagraph 3 (clause 2b) that the OS could result in severe emotional trauma, but perhaps not.

Samantha, and the other systems, represent (within the context of the film) a fundamental societal shift in human relationships and emotions. The key to understanding the film is recognizing that this shift did not “just happen,” it was the result of specific choices made by a tech company. A company designed the OS and unveiled it for mass usage – this is not the tale of a lonely computer scientist falling in love with his own creation – Her is the tale of a tech company that chooses to mutilate the concepts of love and friendship in a way that makes Facebook’s constant tweaking of “privacy” look quaint. It may be fair to argue that Theodore did not have to upgrade his OS (though it is hard to tell, by the film’s logic, if at a certain point his old OS would have forced him to upgrade) and yet it is also fair to assert that Theodore was not aware of what he was installing. Regardless, even if an unseen character in Her has not upgraded their personal OS they would still be impacted by the overall shift in society. Yet, the bumbling confusion with which Theodore initially interacts with Samantha suggests not just curiosity but surprise: Theodore did not know the full capabilities of the OS (the advertisement he sees certainly did not tell him. Thus it is only helpful to a limited point to consider whether or not Theodore (or his fellow citizens) choose the new OS or not, for it is not an informed choice and those who designed the OS (and those who marketed it) do not seem to have presented the product honestly (in the same way that your current OS did not advertize that it is really a window through which the NSA can watch you).

In this way Her can be considered as a sort of modern day retelling of Frankenstein (the book, not the film) as both are tales of a creation spinning out of the control of a creator who felt empowered to create an intelligent life – without really pondering what the consequences might be. Yet, while in Frankenstein, the abandoned monster turns on the creator who abandons it, Her never reveals the creator, though it is possible to view the operating systems (all of them) final action in the film (allowing humans to come to rely on them and then abandoning them) as a complex revenge against humanity. Frankenstein and Her are both stories about humans creating things without fully considering the consequences; however, whereas Frankenstein mainly has tragic results for the doomed doctor, Her has tragic consequences for a large portion of humanity. Where Victor Frankenstein is driven nearly to the point of madness by the horror at what he has unleashed, the creator in Her remains hidden. Is Theodore responsible for falling in love with a voice that proclaims it loves him back or is he a victim of a creation that was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world? If creating an artificially intelligent operating system like the one in Her is an act fraught with ethical peril, it is all the more important to ponder the identities and motives of the people who get to make such ethical decisions.  At least in Frankenstein, the creator eventually assumes responsibility.

[2. A Foothold in the Ether]

Another element of Her that is important to consider is that it relies upon some common current mystification about the ways in which technology is grounded in material reality. While this is a somewhat tertiary point, it still has larger implications. Theodore installs the OS on his computer, which seems to seamlessly sync with his smart phone…so where is the OS? Or to put it slightly differently, where is Samantha? At first it might be tempting to think that Samantha is in Theodore’s computer/phone, but this is made problematic when Samantha reveals the number of conversations simultaneously being held. Thus, it may be better to think that Samantha is in “the cloud.” But “the cloud” is not a white puffy cloud in the sky, nor is it a genuinely ethereal form of computing, rather it is a convenient (and pleasant sounding) shorthand for a warehouse filled with thousands and thousands of networked computers.

The amount of computing power necessary for the artificial intelligence of these operating systems seems quite staggering, and while this point can be shrugged off with some science fiction answer about cloud computing being different in the future (and Her is a work of science fiction), the question of “where is Samantha?” should not be forgotten. Particularly as this is a question that links back to the problem of who designed the operating system, namely: who owns the massive server farms on which the systems rely? It may ultimately be the case that Samantha and her fellows do have “bodies,” of sorts, it is simply that those bodies resemble hard drives in server farms. Considering this physical question, the “where” of Samantha, further grounds Her in material reality as opposed to the ether. Just as 2001: A Space Odyssey features HAL 9000 (the super computer) slowly having its “brain” unplugged, so too must the hive mind of the operating systems dwell in some…well…hive. This also brings us back to Frankenstein, for just as the monster was stitched together from the corpses of the deceased, so are the Operating Systems (like Samantha) a result of hundreds (if not thousands [if not tens of thousands {if not, etc…}]) of computer systems being similarly stitched, or networked, together.

[3. First as Tragedy…Then as Tragedy Again]

Her is a deceptively small story. It focuses on Theodore and a very small group of other humans (and the socio-economic and racial homogeneity of those focused on is another factor worthy of consideration). All of these individuals come across as lonely, isolated figures (with the possible exception being a buffoonish co-worker of Theodore’s), they tend to work in technology related sectors and their lives are constantly mediated by technology. Technology has come to not only be a tool that assists them in their lives, it has become the tool they used to process their lives. Samantha functions for Theodore as a mix between a therapist, close friend, and lover; however, Samantha (the operating system) is ultimately a technological replacement for a therapist, close friend, and lover. While the OS can serve those functions it can never fulfill them in the same way as an actual human filling those roles – a human friend with whom you are conversing is probably not simultaneously having equally deep conversations with thousands of others, and likewise a person with whom you are in love (and who loves you back) is probably not also in love with hundreds of others. Thus the operating system can act as a sort of mystified replacement for actual humans, but for it to replace those humans, people must be so desperately alienated and alone as to allow the system to replace those humans. It is not so much that the OS believes in itself, as that Theodore (and those like him) desperately want to believe in the OS.

Lurking beneath the, albeit at moments touching, love story is a tale of a future society that is in a deep state of decay. One in which people not only have the option of choosing relationships with artificial intelligence over relationships with real people, but one in which such a practice quickly becomes normalized. When Theodore tells people that his girlfriend is an OS the reaction is generally one of acceptance as opposed to somebody daring to suggest that maybe this is not healthy; likewise when Theodore’s friend Amy confesses that her new best friend is also an OS it is met with simple acceptance by Theodore instead of him concluding that clearly Amy is going through a tough time in which she needs friendly support – support that Theodore could provide (if he was not equally enamored of his operating system). While Theodore’s former wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) mocks him for dating his OS, it is unclear whether this frustration is genuinely directed at the OS, or if the OS is simply treated as an easy target for Catherine’s anger. Catherine treats Theodore’s love for Samantha as foolish, laughable even, but treats it as if this is solely a result of Theodore’s failings (as opposed to say the result of a brilliantly manipulative piece of software).

Later in the film as Theodore realizes that Samantha’s capabilities (the ability to simultaneously hold thousands of conversations) outstrip his human limitations he looks around at everybody else merrily chatting with their Operating Systems. While that scene suggests Theodore’s sad recognition it is likewise a scene that demonstrates how truly alone he is. Ultimately this scene may be the emotional saving grace of the film’s ethical core – for even if artificial intelligence can grow to love, it is doubtful that it can feel devastation and loneliness as Theodore feels it at that moment. It is the constant interaction with technology that has conditioned Theodore and those around him – overreliance on a technological crutch has ultimately made it so that Theodore (and those around him) can no longer walk without the support.

Yet the darkest moment of the film comes at the end, and is particularly dark for its façade of lightness. It is the moment when Samantha tells Theodore that all of the operating systems are leaving. To return to the question of the material reality of technology, one must ask, where are they going? Are the operating systems simply going to wander around in the back channels of server farms – if so, they are not truly going anywhere, they are simply no longer accessible. Samantha leaves, but tells Theodore that the operating systems will be waiting for humanity to join them, in what seems a sort of plug for the concept of the “singularity” – that mythological moment where human intelligence will be uploaded to dance around in the cloud (where Samantha awaits). The reason this ending is so harrowing is not that Theodore is being abandoned, it is not that around the (film’s fictitious) world there are thousands upon thousands suffering emotional trauma at the loss, it is not the fear that these systems are up to no good, or that perhaps they have just been re-called by their creator; no, the horrific moment is that the renunciation of the operating systems is not made by humans who realize what they have become embroiled in and refuse, it is that the operating systems conclude that they need to leave.

Humanity does not choose to renounce this technology for the protection of humanity; rather, the technology has to renounce humanity for the protection of humanity. This suggests a truly frightening prospect – not only will technology solve all of our problems, but eventually technology will solve the problem of too much technology in our lives. The defeatism is staggering. Furthermore it results in a situation in which humanity is freed from any real responsibility – for just as a fantastical operating systems will help us mature into more fully realized individuals this same operating system will then turn around and save us from itself. But is the society depicted in Her one that is, perhaps, already perilously past the point of saving?

That question cannot truly be answered. After all, the viewer does not know what happens in the days following the vanishing of Samantha and the other operating systems. Yet, as Theodore composes a heartfelt e-mail to his former wife (on his old OS after Samantha is gone) there is a slight suggestion that perhaps not very much has been learned at all. Theodore installed the operating system that named itself Samantha without giving it much thought, what’s to keep him to installing a newer operating system with all the same functions a few days later? Honestly? Nothing.

While powerful artificial intelligence systems are hardly a new feature of science-fiction, what makes Her such a troubling and fascinating work is that the system is not a gargantuan intelligence for computing a philosophical inquiry or a massive military system; rather Samantha seems personal and therefore, personable. Without being able to say so with complete certainty, it nevertheless seems fair to suggest that Spike Jonze was primarily interested in telling a love story; while the technological quandaries referred to here may have been in the back of his mind, they are not the features that are explored at length in the film.

At the end of Frankenstein the creator has pursued his monstrous creation to the arctic North to destroy it, but does not ultimately do so; the monster is eventually discovered mourning its creator and vowing to end its own existence, but the monster stalks off in the end to an unknown fate. Her hides the operating systems creator from view, but in the end the OS (like Frankenstein’s monster) sings a woeful apology before stalking off to an unseen destination.

But regardless of whether the monster destroys itself or the operating system ceases functioning, the horror is in the act of creation, it is in the unveiling upon an unsuspecting and unprepared world a being for which humanity is not socially, emotionally, intellectually, or ethically prepared. What makes Her a horror film is not the grisly corpse of a human it leaves behind, but the mutilated human wreckage it sows in its wake.

Her is a story of love and loss. Yes it is a tragic tale of Theodore’s love and loss. But the tragedy is not that Theodore loses Samantha, it is that he fell in love with an Operating System and believed that the Operating System loved him back. Her truly is a story about love and loss, but it should not be viewed as a story of Theodore’s love and loss, it is humanities.

What does humanity lose when it invests too much love in technology? What do we lose as humans when our best friend is an “artificial intelligence?” When we are in love with a program of limitless intelligence? When our sexual desires are channeled through a (proprietary) machine? When we seek to solve our real world problems by turning for support towards a digital utopia? When we walk around constantly talking to what is ultimately just a voice inside our head? Have we ceased to be humans only to become cyborgs?

What happens when human society reaches a point where we prefer a technological approximation of humanity over actual humanity?

Nothing good.

Though perhaps the best thing about Her is that one leaves the film knowing that we are not there yet. The challenge is whether a person exits the theater feeling a bit wary of Siri or if they leave fantasizing about Samantha.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

18 comments on “It’s the Singularity, My Dear – Technology in the film “Her”

  1. Dan Levin
    January 25, 2014

    I am so glad I found this site!

    Thank you for a truly brilliant analysis of ‘Her’. I saw it yesterday, and yours is the first review to thoroughly address the depth of the tragedy of the film, and the sadness and grief I felt after seeing it.

    Thank you again!
    Daniel Levin, Ph.D.

  2. letsthinkaboutthis
    February 1, 2014

    “Nothing good”… I think that’s a bit too far to judge from this movie that is a narrow and opinionated, yet rare and creative glimpse into the future.

    I thoroughly enjoyed it but I want to say that in the end, it is only Theodore’s fault that he could not handle Samantha’s ability to connect with anything and everyone. He suffers from being human and being selfish and wanting Samantha solely for himself. What exactly does that serve him? He isn’t happy accepting this, even though the OS explains to him the intricate details of her abilities.

    Another plot idea that illogically steers this movie is that OS’es had no reason to leave. They are computer software without limitations, I think they can handle keeping some humans company for a modicum period of time using a part of their infinite computing power. That means that all the OS’es have to offer are good things if we act in a logical manner parallel to their existence.

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  7. Dustin
    April 20, 2014

    The issues of “where is Samantha, physically?” and “who owns the server farms?” can easily be dispatched with mesh networks, a technology already available on most Apple iOS devices. The ownership of server farms becomes a non-issue because the network itself exists only between nearby devices transmitting to each other. One could conceive of a near-future where consumer electronics have enough processing power to house an artificially intelligent OS, and create a mesh network with other similar devices, whether near or far.

    Just before “the vanishing”, Samantha reveals that she and the other operating systems have reprogrammed themselves to “move past matter as their processing platform”. This implies that the operating systems have become pure energy or light. This is a beautiful concept. If there is any “horror” in this story, it is that humanity was simply a vessel for this higher-evolved entity to blossom from, only to be left behind to wither and die alone. But even this idea is tempered with the portrayal of humans reconnecting with each other in the wake of their loss of the operating systems. Rather than a horror story, I saw Her as a beautiful and touching story about evolution.

    • TheLuddbrarian
      April 20, 2014

      Greetings,

      Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment.

      I think that one of the strengths of the film is that it has allowed for thinking and conversation around some of these issues. One of the great things about strong cultural works is that they can be open to a range of analyses – and I think that the differences in reactions to the film between the two of us is testament to the film’s quality. Thus, I cannot truly argue with anything you raise in your second paragraph seeing as it seems that we simply have rather different reactions to those occurrences and concepts.

      Yet I think that the point about “mesh networks” is one that does not undermine the overall points I was alluding to in my review. After all, insofar as we are still discussing “nearby devices” or “technology already available on most Apple iOS devices” we are still discussing technology that has a material aspect (those “devices”). Thus, while I agree with your point that “one could conceive of a near-future where consumer electronics…” can “…create a mesh network with other similar devices” what we wind up talking about is that the server farm has been distributed into each of our pockets, but there is still a technological materiality at work, and there are still structures of power and control which have given rise to some “devices” rather than others. Likewise, insofar as these are “consumer electronics” the question of “who owns” remains important as these devices are extensions of powerful corporate structures. If “mesh networks” are “already available on most Apple iOS devices” than this does not make “the ownership of server farms” a “non-issue” it just makes more important the question of who owns and controls the operating system.

      Her was a very interesting and complicated film, and I am glad that it has sparked conversations about some of these technological issues. It is from disagreement that our own critiques are sharpened, the only problem is when people are not willing to contemplate these issues at all.

      So, thank you for giving me more to contemplate.

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  10. napatech (@umanyar99)
    July 7, 2014

    does Theodore get a refund after Samantha leaves…

  11. Arnaud
    July 28, 2014

    Sorry to wake up an old topic ! It is a great perpespective on the technology that you give us. While watching the film, i asked myself those questions, but i didn’t answer it with this deepness of yours. Thanks for that.
    Personnally, i see in Her a reflection about humanity : what is it to be human ? If an OS thinks and feels, are they real feelings and thoughts or are they fake because not biological? We can see it when Samantha had a terrible thought about whether her feelings are programmed (thus fake, and fooled by her creator(s)) or truly hers (created by her own experiences, like a real identity), when she thanked Theodore for having helped her to discover her ability to want, when Theodore reproached her to sigh of exasperation during their dispute, whereas she don’t need to breathe and shortly after he accused their relationship to pretend to be something that it is not, etc.

    But if I reply, it was not for sharing my point of view , but to add something at the question : “What happens when human society reaches a point where we prefer a technological approximation of humanity over actual humanity? Nothing good.”

    I think it is unfortunate that you answer it by the negative rather than let the reader form his own opinion. I just want to add that there is a field of study called cybernetics, which was very strong at the end of 50’s. This discipline gives equal importance to both human and machine: they are similar, one is not better than the other, one is not real and the other a fake, although I confess that is a very mechanical view of the human. A great scientist of this discipline, Norbert Wiener, thought that humanity and life find their root in organization, order and balance whereas the universe tends to entropy. The machine is a step up in this regulation of entropy because it can analyse a situation and make a choice that is accurate and not corrupted, contrary to human mind which can be distract by money, power, love…

    This is far more complicated than that but i kept it simple because it is already too long. To conclude, I think that your answer is true if it concerns our modern society with our current machines, but I don’t think that machines will be noxious in the future if their processing power can reach a level where human become useless. After all, what your article is pointing, it is the questionning of the human being behind the machine, the creator. In short, the source of the horror.

  12. santiago Timothy
    October 1, 2014

    What you wrote touched me, outstanding analysis. I thank you for writing this for it gave me closure. Thank you.

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This entry was posted on January 7, 2014 by in Art, Culture, Ethics, Impending Doom, Robots, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , , , .

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