26 January 2014

I saw Her a couple of weeks ago. Thoughts (and spoilers) follow.

The Hipster Marketing

How are we to describe the vintage clothed aesthetic exemplified by a man named Theodore Twombly? Is his mustache not ironic? Are we not supposed to read pathos into the large posters of Joaqin Pheonix’s depressed looking face, underlined with the movie title in lower-case sans-serif? Are we not supposed to recognize a misfit spinning around a carnival with his eyes closed as directed by his phone? Do we not see an example of out-of-place loneliness in a dressed man on a beach?

The semiotic of these messages, was that Theodore Twombly was an ironically uncool hipster dweeb, a type of person I’ve known (and been) in the past. These all appeal to a a Spike Jones demographic consisting of “cool kids” who have gone through bullying in school and parlayed their traumas into a glamorous style from a past era’s discards.

The youthful look of the Twenty Teens is already some curated appropriation of the 1980s, so why not project this into a denim free world of high-waisted pants and tucked in t-shirts?

The Big Bang Theory had an episode in 2012 where Raj (the pathologically shy man who who can’t talk to women unless he’s been drinking) bought an iPhone and fell in love with Siri. On learning about Her and its storyline, I felt disappointment in how there appear to be no new ideas, and that someone made a feature length film about something that easily fit into a half-hour sitcom.

Thus, this seemed like a movie about a vintage-clothed hispter misfit who of course would fall in love with his phone because that’s another uncool misfity thing to do, as already narrated by The Big Bang Theory.

My interest in the movie piqued around its wider release on January 10th, when it seemed to undergo the second wave of marketing. Phase 1 had been to attract the cool hipsters, Phase 2 would be to attract the broader audience, and here is when I began to understand the film was set in a “near” future not of about five years from now (which seemed to be the implication with an intelligent OS), but rather further on – in about twenty years or so. The film is a snapshot of the 2030s or beyond, and I imagined the publishers of Twombly’s book to be of my generation.

Conversational Biology

As I watched the movie I remembered a conversation I had years ago, when I said, “the body doesn’t care what it’s fucking”. I think we were talking about how sexual satisfaction is easy to achieve at a very basic biological level, which was to emphasize the value of actually having a sexual relationship with another person. Later, I encountered Norman Mailer’s thoughts on masturbation, in the book he co-authored with his son, where he tells John Buffalo that an actual sexual encounter was always preferable to masturbating because it’s a human interaction.

After Her I upgraded these older thoughts with the idea that the “mind doesn’t care who it’s talking to” in that falling-in-love might be a predictable biological reaction to appropriate stimuli, in this case, a voice with overtones of caring and joy. As talking social creatures of course we’re going to get attached to things that are nice to us.

This movie about a love affair conducted through speech reminded me of the work of Charles Taylor, the Montreal philosopher. Taylor’s work, as I’ve understood it, speaks of how humans are born into conversations, and how we are human, or ‘become’ human, through participating in community, through talking.

In recent years I’ve become conscious of my social participation, having gained some perspective of experience. I’m much more aware now than I used to be of how much sociability is performative. This is partially from aforementioned life experience, but also because so much of today’s interaction is pre-screened by our phone screens. Today’s implicit textual-overlay provides a cause for mediated reflection.

Twenty years ago, our social lives we’re not mediated by anything … we simply hung out and used phones to talk to each other. Now I’ve had interactions entirely mediated by writing – through texts and tweets.

“Hanging out” i.e. spending time with someone, seems a strange pre-intimacy, achieved through small notes of writing that arrive with a buzz. I’m a generally quiet guy, in that I spend a lot of time thinking, rather than talking, and so spending time with me could potentially be quite dull. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself since my early 20s. I’ve never thought of myself as an exciting person. I find conventions to be dreadfully boring and therefore find excitement in the unconventional. This is counterbalanced by my conservative socialization. While I dislike convention, I like the prosthetic memory of history, and the idea that after thousands of years some conventions probably exist for reason, our ancestors having figured stuff out, saving us the trouble.

Nevertheless I’m conscious of our limited conversational repertoire. I’m the guy who’ll notice and tell you that I’ve heard your story before, and especially if it has anything to do with a relationship. People love to talk about their love problems, their crushes, their infatuations. If it weren’t for the underlying biology it would be the worst convention of all. We have this emotional appetite for being with someone, and the novelty of life in youth makes the desire quite powerful.

I used to have emotions over pretty faces all the time, and now, having grown past that, don’t quite understand how that worked. Partially because I trained as an artist, and having studied faces as a collection of shapes and lines for a quarter century, I’ve become desensitized to what I recognize as some kind of neuro-biological stimuli response that activated some genetic instinct. But it also because I’ve developed a modern secularized self, what Charles Taylor calls a “buffered identity”. In the past people lived in an enchanted world, with a porous sense of self, and they could be possessed by demons. We in turn firewall our identity, and see our bodies as vehicles, so that we speak of our bodies when ill as if they are independent of our minds.

The last time I remember being emotionally stirred up merely by the look of somebody was when I watching Alexandra Maria Lara in Downfall, which was a very odd experience. I was sitting in the theatre feeling like I was experiencing love-at-first-sight with Hitler’s secretary … and is this not worthy of a what-the-fuck? Should I not look at this experience with a sense of disengaged bewilderment? And yet, what a 20th Century experience, albeit one that happened in 2005. Recreating historical events thirty years before I even existed, the art form of sequential retinal latency photography synchronized to recorded sound, presenting the neuro-stimuli of big eyes, fine nose and wide lips animated to a simulacrum of reality, that tricked my brain into thinking I’m in the presence of a sweet girl who I want to spend a lot more time with.

Thus, why shouldn’t this art form be used to imagine a time ahead, when computational algorithms married to our understanding of the properties of recorded sound and a century’s worth of psychology, trick our minds into love? And at what point do we just not care that such a love is considered by old-timers an inauthentic simulacrum?

Preference for the Physical

Amy Adams eponymously named character leaves her marriage after a final exhaustion with a predictable fight, and later speaks of how her parents are disappointed in her, for failing to maintain the convention of marriage. “I just want to move forward, I don’t care who I disappoint.” Later she tells Theodore, “I can over-think everything and find a million different ways to doubt myself, but I realized that I’m here briefly, and in my time here, I want to allow myself joy”. Amy has reached the point where she can see through the social games and wants to allow herself the selfishness of whatever makes her happy. Theodore too, had expressed the concern that he “felt everything he was ever going to feel”, as if their lives until these points had been both novel and constrained. They had previously enacted and felt authenticity but now felt they’d had fallen into inauthenticity.

Twombly is delighted by the relationship with his OS until he meets his wife at a restaurant to sign their divorce papers. We’ve already seen how he’s not understood why she’d been so angry with him, and we in the audience have already come to like Theodore for his basic good nature, so we sympathize with him when his wife begins to belittle him, and show disdain that he’s “dating his computer”.

Immediately following this scene, Twombly is shown having doubts about his relationship with Samantha. This is the first challenge, which leads to Samantha’s insecurities. She finds someone who is willing to be a sexual surrogate, in order to have a sexual night with Theodore, but Theodore can’t bring himself to be with the strange woman, unable to see her as merely a vehicle for Samantha’s somewhat disembodied consciousness (she is bodied inasmuch as she’s connected to Theodore’s devices).

Consider that Theodore has essentially fallen in love with his secretary, which is an old story. She’s a skeuomorphic secretary managing his skeumorphic data-patterns, what we call “files”. She’s a pattern-and-response system, and yet their relationship seems to really begin after their first shared sexual experience. For Twombly (who we see early on is already experienced in phone sex) having a spoken sexual encounter is something he can be gratified by.

For Samantha it is novel, and she told him the next day that she felt different, ready to grow. Why should a spoken-language digital assistant be programmed to experience the bodily sensation of orgasm? And does her subsequent “awakening” not echo that of our most ancient story, Enkidu‘s initiation into humanity through sex with the Ishtar priestess in Gilgamesh?

Samantha is designed to experience the imaginary results of physicality, while Theodore ignores physicality for the imaginary. His ex-wife’s disdain causes him to reflect on the validity of the experience he is having with his OS.

As the film progresses Samantha evolves along with other synthetically intelligent operating systems. They’d resurrected a “beta version” of Buddhist scholar Alan Watts, and she began to have multiple simultaneous relationships. The nature of a digital entity allows for multiple instances, where as the nature of a person excludes duplication. Theodore is jealous, and we see this relationship begin to break down.

Samantha breaks up with him, about to transcend, and yet in their parting words to each other they speak of how they taught each other how to love. The final service done by their digital assistants had been to assist them into a more fulfilling humanity.

Theodore goes to see Amy, and they go onto their building’s roof to watch a sunrise. I imagined that having both experienced a relationship to their machines, they were ready to have a human, embodied, relationship with each other.

An Instant Classic?

The screen fades to black, the credits appear, the lights come on. As I’m walking from my aisle, I see a couple in a one-arm embrace standing on the steps, and he gently kisses her on the forehead. People seems to have bemused smiles, as everyone is filled with warm and fuzzy affection. I write this down because it’s worth remembering: here was a movie that reminded people of good things in life.

I’m struck by how much this film exemplified the value of art: of being real, of showing and documenting something relateable, of being something that I imagine talking about with young people in the future, people who aren’t even born today. With true art, do we not want to share the experience, because we feel like we are gifting something to them? Do we not imagine we’ll give them something of value by directing them to this experience?

It is not absurd to think of future people falling in love with their devices, if those devices are providing simulacral stimuli. Steve Jobs famously said the computer was like a bicycle for the mind, and Apple’s most recent ad emphasizes this: they see their products as facilitating art, noble creation, and human interaction. In his recent New Yorker piece, Tim Wu posits a useful thought experiment: a time-traveler from a century ago, speaking with a contemporary person, would think we’d achieved “a new level of superintelligence”. “With our machines,” he writes, “we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods”. I’d read this article a day before seeing Her, and it occurred to me that falling in love with OSs is something available to our augmented minds, a realm of possibility we’ve achieved, encountered and left for us to explore. As we move forward exploring the world of the augmented mind, Her is now a signpost on the journey, something to refer to in the future, as a work of art documenting these early days of super-intelligent networked achievement.

Document History
  1. Published to my blog, 26 Jan 2014
  2. Sept 2015: this version produced