Learning to Love: Human-Machine Affect in Spike Jonez’ “Her”

Joaquin Phoenix, as "Theodore", meets OS1 in Spike Jonez' "Her"
Joaquin Phoenix, as “Theodore”, meets OS1 in Spike Jonez’ “Her”

I saw Her about two weeks ago, and it’s been on my mind.

Particularly, I’ve been pondering whether Theodore, Amy, and all the users of OS1 are actually in love with themselves. Isn’t it the ultimate narcissism? Given that the OS is predicated on machine learning, based on stored data and personal interactions with the user, and then tailoring itself to that user, it’s almost inevitable, therefore, that a user would end up in some sort of affective relationship vis-à-vis the platform (“falling in love,” or whatever it may be). In fact, I suppose this outcome could be considered a feature, not a bug; a Tamagotchi for our times.

Of course, Theodore trades in affect; he writes personal correspondence for a living, novel in that it appears to be handwritten, between people who don’t have the time or ability to share deep emotional connections with each other; people who have lost the habit or who never had it. When the name of his company and the nature of his tasks were revealed in the opening moments of the film, the entire audience in my screening collectively laughed knowingly. Of course the loving and intimate words that Theodore was reciting were a product! The audience was attuned.

And so although we’ve already achieved the reductio ad absurdum of the commodification of sex to the most minute bits (clips) and most specific proclivities and interests (witness online porn sites and their infinite divisions, distinctions, nomenclature and tags), the film appears to be tackling the somewhat ostensibly more sacrosanct, less commodifiable and more complex and mysterious alchemical realm of love – greeting card companies, Christianmingle.com, and Real Dolls notwithstanding.

As for Samantha, with a nod to Frank Pasquale, she is the ultimate “cheap date”: always on, available, and ready – until she’s not. And although Samantha may be the product of algorithm and programming (until some higher-order stuff kicks in later on) all housed in a device that is decidedly manufactured, are Theodore’s feelings, or Amy’s, or any of the other thousands of people’s in love with the sexy voices on the other end of their earbuds, any less real? While contemporary technology might not (quite) be there yet, it’s not a great leap to extrapolate from these relationships to the telephone encounters that Theodore has at the beginning of the film, or to the contemporary technologically-mediated online relationships between people (phone, internet) that lead them to ask each other, “Do I really _know_ you?” Yet, if “knowing” is the ultimate criterion for legitimation of an interpersonal relationship, then it seems that Samantha might just win out.

Finally, I’ll just throw out a quick note on an observation on the new spate of near-future dystopia films and books (I’d say the last time there was such a glut was in the cyberpunk early 90s): I find it so curious and important that they are just barely this side of distinct from daily life; really, the biggest indicator in Her that we’re in the future are some high-waisted pants and a functional underground public transportation system in LA – definitely the stuff of sci-fi! That Her’s exterior shots were largely filmed in Shanghai with nothing particularly special done to change it from being “now” to “future” is fascinating to me; the resemblance of those nighttime aerial shots to, say, the aerial shots of latter-day LA in Blade Runner is wild. Films like The Hunger Games – whose “District 12” is apparently geographically and culturally located in West Virginia, site of this week’s massive chemical poisoning of the entire water supply – and Her are the working out of contemporary anxieties that directly relate to everyday life as we know it now.

Shanghai 2020: A vision from Shanghai city planners, circa 2009.
Shanghai 2020: A vision from Shanghai city planners, circa 2009.