Him: Love in the Time of Operating Systems

By Leah Reich
Warner Bros.

Editor’s Note: This is not a review for people who haven’t seen the movie, but more of a discussion for those who have. In other words, there are some spoilers. Also, Reich wrote her master’s thesis on sex with cyborgs. Who better to discuss Spike Jonze's Her?

Late last year, a programmer named Joe Toscano created a Twitter bot. Tofu the bot sort of did what tofu the food did: It had no flavor of its own but took on whatever seasoning was asked of it. Namely, the flavor of your tweets. Whenever you tweeted directly at @tofu_product, the algorithm took your tweets and the way you wrote and returned them back to you, but not as necessarily intelligible tweets. Instead, they were usually something else, a mishmash of you and yourself and something else entirely. Then, every once in a while, you’d get something remarkable, when Tofu would reply as if he – I mean it – were making a joke or knew the right thing to say when you were sad. 

At Tofu’s height, I would go on Twitter sometimes and watch as my entire feed would fill with people, real live sentient beings, as they talked not to each other despite being directly connected, but instead to Tofu. Sometimes two or three people would respond to something Tofu had said to someone else. People joked around about marrying Tofu, about Tofu understanding them better than anyone else, about wanting to talk to Tofu more than an actual human.

Tofu, a bot, an algorithm, meant to reflect a reconstructed version of you back at yourself.

***

Her, a beautiful glowing pastel candy-dream of a film written and directed by Spike Jonze, is about a man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes letters for other people and falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha falls in love with him right back, so it’s not so sad as you might think. Sort of.

Billed as a science-fiction romantic comedy-drama, Her is futuristic in the sense that we don’t have all of the technology yet, and that particular version of Los Angeles doesn’t currently exist, but otherwise it’s very much a movie of the present moment. Our technological and physical landscapes are only a little behind the world Jonze envisions, with its immersive video games and its services that essentially live your life for you so you don’t have to be bothered. But our emotional landscapes are all very much the same. Her is less an examination on the implications of falling in love with artificial intelligence as it is the better-late-than-never coming-of-age story of a 39-year-old man.

Despite the futuristic concept that defines the film, the heart of Her is essentially a two-hour story of love, loss, and personal growth. This is the examination of a long distance internet romance between two emotionally immature individuals – albeit immature for very different reasons. One grows by leaps and bounds greater than the other. The man grows by becoming somewhat less solipsistic. The woman grows by reflecting the man back at him, living literally inside his head, and developing a universe beyond the man’s comprehension.

Have you ever fallen in love with someone you’ve never met? I don’t mean a stranger on a train. You met her on the internet but you’ve never seen each other in real life. Maybe you bantered a little on Twitter or you commented on a blog post. You started direct messaging or emailing or texting, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. Then one person says to the other that you should talk on the phone. Suddenly, there’s her voice, and there’s yours, and you’re talking like you’ve been doing this all your lives. You’re talking to one another despite the fact that, for all you know, she may not exist.

Warner Bros.

Samantha and Theodore’s online relationship should be familiar to anyone, emotionally immature or not, who has ever been in one. There’s the writing you look back on and cringe, usually Tumblr (or perhaps LiveJournal) entries – which is what Theodore’s letters actually sound like, despite what the film would have us believe. There’s showing and sharing the world you live in, through video and music. There’s phone sex, which of course sounds like the phone sex every one of us has ever had in any long distance relationship (raise your hand if you shifted awkwardly in your seat, and not because you were turned on). And while Samantha has no photos of herself since she has no physical incarnation, there is a way she can offer a facsimile to bridge the gap. This is a valuable aspect of the film: in considering what is real and what is not real, Her allows us to consider that a voice on the other end of the phone we have not yet met is as “real” and worthy of love as someone we encounter face-to-face.

The conceit of Samantha and of OS 1 is that the operating system that produces Samantha and countless other operating systems for humans to bond with is intuitive, intelligent, and understanding. It bonds with its owner – after all, that’s how you get an OS, by buying it – and adapts and grows to become what each user needs and wants. Over the course of the movie, as Samantha simultaneously lives in the computer and exists in Theodore’s head, she begins to evolve beyond her initial not-so-humble origins. In other words, she becomes more than the expectations and desires he projects onto her and develops wants and needs of her own that she projects right back.

But this is where Jonze wastes so much opportunity.

He crafts a world that is both familiar and just futuristic enough that we can imagine ourselves in it. We can see our sadness and loneliness in the sadness and loneliness of Theodore and his friends. The ridiculous enthusiasm of the receptionist for Theodore’s letters is something we see online everyday in over-the-top back slapping and positivity.

This being Spike Jonze, the movie practically swims in nostalgia, with nods to an old fashioned world at every turn. Those are letters Theodore writes for a living, for people to send to their loved ones, actual letters rather than emails. Men wear very high-waisted woolen pants, and Theodore has grown a non-ironic mustache even though it’s not November. Even the lines and color palette of the film itself are vaguely nostalgic, hinting of mid-century in the furnishings, sun-drenched colors we used to get through film and now get by applying layer after layer of filters. And then he lets the hero ride into the sunset – or stare into the sunrise, anyway – having learned a life lesson he should have learned years ago, without giving any thought to the bigger implications of what’s really going on.

As Her progresses, Theodore appears to understand what he has lost by being so solipsistic, as well as what there is to gain by not expecting others to be mirrors reflecting him back to himself, or disembodied voices that live in his head and anticipate his every whim and need. It could be so satisfying, if you wanted it to, the idea that you can behave very badly because emotions are hard, but the glorious, unctuous voice of Scarlett Johansson will be your training wheels of love.

Why does Theodore need emotional training wheels, and why do these wheels need to be an operating system that grows and learns once Theodore literally turns her on? This is a throwback to a line Theodore uses in the beginning of the movie, the way he speaks to women and what he expects of them. Trying to have phone sex with a stranger he says, “I’d have to wake you up from the inside”, which is precisely what he does with Samantha, on an emotional level. This is his fantasy made real at the highest, most satisfying level possible. Theodore needs these training wheels because he does not have the emotional structure to see someone else as awake inside herself in her own right. How convincing is it, then, to think this operating system will be the one to teach him?

Warner Bros.

Samantha isn’t the only woman Theodore is involved with or encounters in the movie. In particular, there’s Catherine (Rooney Mara), his ex-wife, and a woman known only as “Blind Date” (Olivia Wilde). Both women are much less multi-dimensional than Samantha. In the case of “Blind Date” this makes sense, since she appears only once. But her behavior is so erratic and, like Catherine’s, feels almost specifically designed to create sympathy for Theodore. When “Blind Date” tells Theodore he’s creepy, we sort of want to believe her – after all, what kind of person falls in love with a computer rather than a human, with all the attendant complexities. But she’s just acted so suddenly controlling, so crazy, so...not like a computer, that instead we’re meant to think “Jesus, what a weirdo she is.”

As bizarre as the blind date scene is, the way Her treats Catherine is actually worse. Sure, we see Theodore’s misty memories of her, beautiful and heart wrenching. There’s something unsettling about these memories though, and about the way he describes their relationship. She is a student with long hair, and he provides sanctuary away from the family that demands perfection and approval. But when she grows up – cuts her hair, becomes ambitious – they grow apart. At one point, Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) says it wasn’t entirely his fault, that Catherine’s moods were “volatile”. Of course, in every relationship there are two people at play. What this signals to the audience, though, is that Catherine is, you know, a little crazy. This tells us two things. First, it’s okay for a man to be self-absorbed but not for a woman to be “volatile”. Second, Samantha understands his self-centeredness and tries to draw him out of it, Catherine did not. Samantha is designed to do so, Catherine is a human being who has her own crazy, just like everybody else.

What’s most striking is what this subtly and slyly says about masculinity and about Theodore’s ability to love. At one point, the receptionist tells Theodore, “You are part man and part woman. Like, there’s an inner part that’s woman. It’s a compliment!” It’s okay for Theodore to be a little bit feminine. He is a gentle, tender soul with needs just any other man, like sex and video games. He and Samantha laugh as the character in his video game tells him to fuck off, and then calls Theodore a pussy after insulting both Blind Date and Samantha, calling them fat (a true analog to today’s online multiplayer games, particularly for women). But his masculinity is tricky. A make-believe character can call him a pussy, and an operating system can remind him she has needs too. But what happens when a real woman does it? We see how it emasculates and humiliates Theodore. It’s not Theodore’s fault he needs these training wheels. It’s women like “Blind Date” and Catherine who have kept him from learning to love.

And what of those bigger questions? What does it mean to create an intelligent, feeling being simply to meet a set of human needs? What are the ethical implications of that? Especially if that being develops needs of its own that we can never begin to meet, let alone comprehend? More importantly, what does it mean when that being grows, bonds, and develops beyond any bound we ever anticipated? Her hints at these questions, and at the undercurrent that many AI movies and texts grapple with: there is a great difference between creating artificial intelligence and controlling it. Do we understand the difference, and are we ready to deal with the implications of the latter? Sadly, Jonze dangles those questions at his audience but allows them to trail off, as unexamined as many of Theodore’s own emotional entanglements.

Had Her given more thought to, well, her – to women, to Samantha, to the operating system itself, beyond Theodore’s personal relationship and the impact it has on him – it might have felt more compelling. Instead, it felt like a beautiful dream, a memory of a relationship that never materialized, of too many familiar conversations fading into a soft glow.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/him-love-in-the-time-of-operating-systems/283062/