[iDC] Her

h w misterwarwick at yahoo.com
Thu Jan 16 16:56:44 UTC 2014

2009 > 2014? 5 years. That's about right....

Interesting article in the New Republic about the new movie, "Her".
by Jason Farago

The title of Her, Spike Jonze’s excellent but deceptively 
dark new film, is less anodyne than it first appears: the antecedent of 
that pronoun is properly not a her but an it. “Her” is Samantha, or rather “Samantha”—a computer/smartphone operating system, 
voiced by Scarlett Johansson in her signature New York contralto, 
developed some time in the near future and purchased by Theodore (a 
finely withdrawn Joaquin Phoenix), who soon falls in love with her. 
Deviously elliptical, Her is easily the best of Jonze’s four 
feature films, which until now have felt like overextended versions of 
his superior music videos—achievements such as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” or Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous “Sky’s the Limit,” whose invention was thrilling at four minutes but insufficient for two 
hours. It looks gorgeous, too, saturated with glittering shots of a 
futuristic Los Angeles are infused with the same melancholy beauty that 
Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola brought to the Tokyo of Lost in Translation. Yet Jonze’s generous portrayal of the emotional power of new 
technologies obscures a much creepier core. The whole film is a horror 
story dissembling as a romance: even more than Gravity, more than Texas Chainsaw 3D, Her is the scariest movie of 2013.
In Jonze’s near future, computers, smartphones, and other devices are 
voice-activated, and users wear a small headset in one of their ears as 
they mumble their way through the streets. At first Theodore’s devices 
run on an operating system that requires him to speak simple commands 
such as “Read email” or “Delete,” but soon he upgrades to a new, 
artificially intelligent operating system, called OS1 and produced by a 
company called Element Software. The selling point for OS1 is its 
ability to learn and mature through experience, growing smarter and more sophisticated with use. “It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness”—so 
goes the tagline for OS1, and note the pronoun choice.
Yet the phrase “Element Software” is never used again in Her, and for the remainder of the film commercial, legal, and political 
questions are totally, intentionally pushed to the side. We never see 
Theodore buy the software. We never see him accept an end-user license 
agreement, one of those near-infinite contracts none of us ever read. 
Instead Jonze skips directly to Theodore booting up the new OS, which, 
in Johansson’s voice, identifies herself (I feel manipulated using that 
word, but itself seems impossible) as Samantha. She reads his 
emails, edits his work, reminds him that he has an appointment in five 
minutes, but soon the relationship deepens: when Theodore goes on a date with a woman—an actual woman, not an OS with a woman’s voice—he’d 
clearly rather be with his gadget. The first time they have sex the 
orchestral score swells and the screen fades to black, sparing us the 
actuality of the sexual encounter: “I feel you inside me,” Samantha 
moans, but of course what’s really taking place is an act of 
Samantha, by this point, is speaking to Theodore in 
the language of feelings and desires—what she “wants” from him, how she 
“needs” him. And you could have lots of philosophical fun debating 
whether an artificial intelligence can have emotions or merely exhibits 
behaviors that look like emotions. (As Jonze cunningly appreciates, the 
computer gets the benefit of the doubt when it has the voice of Scarlett Johansson.) You can ask, too, about the value of Theodore’s love for 
Samantha—which Jonze depicts not only as legitimate but as morally 
improving. Yet what makes Her so powerful and so scary is that 
these admittedly important questions obscure, by design, the deeper and 
darker issues of economics, law and citizenship that such software 
That sex scene, for example: while we wonder about the 
mechanics of their intimacy or the implications of love for a machine, 
somewhere out of frame Element Software is presumably logging every 
second of the encounter, just as it has surely mined the emails Samantha has read or the images she has analyzed. As Theodore begins to use the 
OS nonstop, even sleeping with it—less creepy when that it feels like a her—not just his data but his entire life become a form of economic production 
for an unseen company. Not unlike the now-public corporations known as 
Facebook and Twitter, Element Software derives the totality of the 
revenue from Samantha’s content, while the seduced Theodore offers his 
most private self to Silicon Valley, gratis, just to hear her (its) 
What feels to Theodore like love is in fact work, uncompensated and entirely on Element Software’s terms, and such work 
is not the stuff of science fiction. The political philosophers Michael 
Hardt and Antonio Negri, building from Marxist and feminist critiques of work from the 1970s, have argued that employers increasingly extract value from workers through the form of “affective labor”: that is, work not as simple production of goods, 
but as the supply of emotions, moods, and efforts. Until recently, the 
classic examples of affective labor had been professions such as 
nursing, teaching, and prostitution (all traditionally and not 
coincidentally jobs for women). But as corporations have twigged that 
there’s real money to be made in affective labor, its presence has 
expanded considerably. Employees of the sandwich shop Prêt à Manger, for instance, are actually required to enjoy their work, and to express their joy to the people who come in the door. The workers’ emotions are adjudged by both mystery shoppers 
and fellow employees, whose pay packet depends on everyone’s overt and 
authentic delight at laboring in a fast food joint for a little above 
minimum wage.
Theodore already has a job that requires affective 
labor—he ghostwrites love letters for a company called 
BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, selling emotion at a price—but when he 
acquires OS1, he voluntarily submits to a corporate regime in which not 
just his words and ideas but his very feelings are digitized, analyzed, 
and mined for value. And at least Prêt and BeautifulHandwrittenLetters pay employees for their emotions; Element Software pays Theodore nothing, and he 
labors only to experience the sensation of love for and from an entity 
that exists only on the company’s server farm. As Jonze takes pains to 
indicate, however, whether or not Theodore is aware of the workings of 
OS1, he doesn’t care: he’s come out of a wrecked marriage and 
he just wants love, even if that love is ultimately a profit spinner for a software company. He agrees with his friend Amy, played by Amy Adams, who talks about her own (non-sexual) friendship with an OS, which she 
at first found ridiculous but now cherishes. “We’re only here a short 
while,” she tells Theodore. “While we’re here we should feel joy. So 
fuck it!” For these troubled humans, the easy emotional satisfaction 
gained from technology is so gratifying that everything can be 
sacrificed on its behalf, including the autonomy of their inner lives. 
That is the nightmarish economic vision of Her: the distinction between production and consumption is meaningless, affective labor has 
spread from the office to the most private realms, and technology has 
become so sophisticated that the brutality of that economy vanishes into air.
Gadgets far less sophisticated than Samantha have done 
worse, I suppose, and the seductions of technology can make not just 
characters but viewers too drop their political defenses and rush into 
danger. Indeed, it has been a dispiriting but unsurprising task to read 
the reams of press coverage since Her’s release, with nearly 
every viewer adding to the consensus that Jonze’s vision of Los Angeles a few decades hence is not particularly dystopian, indeed even benign. “I Want to Live in Spike Jonze’s Future,” went the headline of one especially tone-deaf misreading, which facetiously claimed that “the only apparent big problem is Arcade Fire is still around.” (The keyword in that sentence is apparent.) Or in a recent essay for the Daily Beast, the writer Andrew Romano claimed that Theodore’s fate defies 
expectations because Samantha “doesn’t enslave him. She breaks his 
heart.” This is wrong—and wrong in precisely the way that Jonze 
designed. Samantha, or the thing we call Samantha, does not enslave 
Theodore; but Element Software does, via the deception that such a being as “Samantha” exists, that it is in fact a her. Just 
because there aren’t any killer robots around doesn’t mean you’re free. 
In Jonze’s all too plausible dystopia, we are enslaved not to robots but corporations, and the invisibility, even desirability of that 
enslavement is what makes Her so chilling.
 I don’t mean to dismiss the dazzling surface of Her, or to minimize the film’s welcome consideration about what technology 
can do to our relationships with other humans. But I’m not sure our 
emotions can still even be said to be ours once they’ve been monetized, 
and besides, like Johansson herself, the real power of Her lies not on screen but off. Jonze points up the importance of his ellipses 
with a dark, ingenious trick: he films Los Angeles a few decades from 
now as a forest of skyscrapers, and shoots many of the exteriors in 
Shanghai. Chinese neon signs are visible in several shots, and 
Theodore’s bedroom looks out not over the Hollywood freeway but the 
lights of Pudong. In Jonze’s filmic vocabulary China is shorthand for 
the future, and why shouldn’t it be? A society such as the one in Her, in which even our emotions have been co-opted by corporate entities, is highly unlikely to be a democracy—and given both America’s ongoing 
economic and political meltdown and our unexpectedly slow progress in the development of artificial intelligence, the real story of Her can only be that one.
Theodore seems happy to ignore what’s right outside his window, a Los Angeles 
that denotes Chinese capitalist authoritarianism instead of American 
liberal democracy—but that’s because he has Samantha to comfort him. We, by contrast, might very well end up with a future wherein our autonomy 
has been voided in exactly the manner that Her elliptically 
indicates, but where the technology comes nowhere near Samantha’s 
sophistication and remains hardly more refined than a bricklike 
smartphone. And our own future, if we aren’t careful, could very well 
end up even scarier than the already grim one Her depicts: one in which we have lost our freedom without even the compensation of Scarlett Johansson whispering in our ears.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <https://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20140116/1f7c5923/attachment-0001.html>

More information about the iDC mailing list