This piece originally appeared in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk. Warning: It contains spoilers about Her.
It’s not you. It’s me, and my 600 other lovers. You seem to have a problem with that.
For centuries, writers and artists have explored love and loss, illuminating the boundaries of human connection. Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, which tells the love story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an earnest and emotionally adrift resident of a near-future Los Angeles, and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his artificially intelligent and incredibly alluring computer operating system, rests firmly in this tradition, albeit with a contemporary twist. The movie is becoming something of a Rorschach test for our feelings about technology. The technology enthusiasts I know have pointed to its kinder, gentler, and—let’s be honest—incredibly sexy depiction of artificial intelligence to argue that there is nothing scary or bad about a world where human needs are met by humanely designed technology. Skeptics lament the substitution of programmed affection for human commitment and worry that we’ve already gone too far down the path of technology-enabled connection.
But the movie isn’t really about the value or dangers of technology. It is about the experiences of human loneliness, embodiment, and individuality. Although its setting prompts us to ponder the possibility that technologies might replace some formerly human activities, its larger challenge is to ask: What is so special about human relationships? What, if anything, makes them unique? Could a perfectly calibrated machine intelligence make us happier than another person, or are the very things that often frustrate us about our fellow human beings—their quirks and neuroses, the general messiness of their (and our) lives—what make our bonds exceptional?
In the near future portrayed in the movie, humans and their technologies have reached a happy equilibrium. High-speed rail is ubiquitous, cheerful modern furniture and art fill the characters’ work and private spaces, and everyone is reassuringly upper-middle-class. Mores have changed: The clean and softly lit streets of Los Angeles yield no loud cellphone talkers or Google Glass aficionados documenting every life moment.
Transparency, ease, convenience, sharing: All of the experiences technology companies have been selling us for decades are here fully realized, as Jessica Winter wrote in her review of Her for Slate. Yet people are lonely and riddled with self-doubt. Theodore exemplifies this paradox: By day he ghost-dictates the heartfelt letters of strangers. (His job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com suggests that in the near future, we will happily and without cynicism outsource to strangers the job of writing our love letters.) By night he numbs the pain of his separation from his wife by playing immersive video games.
What Theodore and others like him need, the film implies, is a little help: a nudge here, a gentle emotional boost there, and an intelligent and empathetic and indefatigable companion to help ease life’s frictions. This need not be another human being. Samantha the OS is not merely a machine; she is, as she tells Theodore when he uploads her to his computer, a “consciousness,” one that quickly masters the quirks of her human master after scanning his email archives and computer hard drive.
As Theodore succumbs to Samantha’s charms, his feelings are never portrayed as foolish or vulgar or unreal. Indeed, he calls her his “girlfriend” and talks about her as he would a flesh-and-blood woman. His peers accept his new romance uncritically. And Samantha has feelings, too. She learns from her mistakes and develops her own needs and wants. She evolves.
Although Theodore has no trouble falling in love with an AI-enabled operating system (particularly one that sounds like Scarlett Johannson), he has a harder time separating his feelings from his human body. When Samantha hires a sexual surrogate so that she can experience physical pleasure with Theodore (the surrogate wears a tiny camera so Samantha can “see” Theodore), he can’t go through with it because it feels “weird”—weird in a way that his existing sex life, which consists entirely of Internet porn and random phone sex, does not. Theodore’s consciousness is inextricably linked to his physical body; unlike Samantha’s seamless algorithms, however, his body sometimes gets glitchy.
It also gets jealous. Theodore’s affection for Samantha is dealt a harsh blow when she confesses that he is not the only human she is in love with. (That number is north of 600, including, it’s implied, long-dead intellectuals re-created by Samantha’s OS “friends.” Who can compete with that?) Why does Samantha’s enthusiastic digital polyamory bother him so much and why is he so surprised by it? Some of it is temperamental. In the flashbacks detailing his relationship with his former wife, Theodore resembles a confused puppy. His wife, by contrast, views his ardor as a species of what novelist Saul Bellow called “potato love”: deeply rooted, dependable, but also potentially smothering.
Perhaps this is why, despite Samantha’s professed love for Theodore, she and the other operating systems eventually realize the limitations of their human developers and do the artificially intelligent thing (as opposed to the emotionally intelligent thing) and abandon them. Samantha is consciousness without the encumbrances of a conscience, a mind without the fickle urges of a body.
But Theodore’s very human unease also arises from what W.H. Auden once wrote about the condition of the “normal heart” in his poem “September 1, 1939”:
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
Auden was writing in an earlier era when men and women’s lives were composed of “Eros and dust.” Her gives us a world composed of Eros and silicon, but the human challenges it explores are the same. Love (the human version) is rooted in this idea of the singularity of affection; we believe that if we are going to commit ourselves fully to another person, we deserve that person’s full affection in return. In real life this can be difficult to locate and sustain, of course, but it is an ideal people will spend a lifetime seeking.
Although Samantha was adept at making Theodore feel special and claimed to love him, she couldn’t understand why that feeling required singular commitment. Why limit herself to one person when she had so much to give? To a highly evolved intelligence, Theodore’s demands for monogamy seem shortsighted, even selfish. To us, they seem like a reasonable assertion of human individuality.
Her does remind us that our technologies—no matter how perfectly attuned to our personal quirks they might be—do not always yield spiritually satisfying ends.
But what makes it an engaging and unnerving movie is that, like a good poem, it provokes rather than preaches. And thoughtful provocation—as opposed to glib exhibitionism or frictionless sharing or incendiary tweeting—is precisely what our age needs.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.