[iDC] Her

Sarah T. Roberts sarah.roberts at uwo.ca
Sat Jan 18 18:34:26 UTC 2014

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. 


On Jan 16, 2014, at 4:28 PM, Lynn Hershman <lynn2 at well.com> wrote:

> And while we are at it, perhaps you would be interested in this.  I gave Adam Spiegel (Spike Jonze) the script to Teknolust in 1999 when I asked him to be in it.
> http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/-em-her-em-and-the-complex-legacy-of-the-female-robot/282581/
> http://jalarson.tumblr.com/post/70943831368/her-isnt-the-first-film-to-depict-a-relationship
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: h w <misterwarwick at yahoo.com>
> To: idc at mailman.thing.net
> Sent: Thu, 16 Jan 2014 08:56:44 -0800 (PST)
> Subject: [iDC] Her
> 2009 > 2014? 5 years. That's about right....
> Interesting article in the New Republic about the new movie, "Her".
> http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116063/spike-jonzes-her-scariest-movie-2013
> 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 
> masturbation.
> 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 
> raises.
> 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) 
> voice. 
> 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.
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S a r a h  T.  R o b e r t s

Assistant Professor
Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) 
Western University

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