January 3, 2014

Spike Jonze’s Her is an interesting and provocative film, coming at just the right time in our burgeoning love affair with technology:  a time when we seem to be forming relationships with our devices, and silicon chips have intruded into nearly all our moments. Even when we sleep, we can wear devices that monitor us, that can even tell us when we dream. A recent documentary, Google and the World Brain, portrayed Google’s controversial book digitization effort, and made it clear that Google wanted to use all this information to create an artificial intelligence:  a kind of new life form that we might actually have a relationship with.  

Her is a sci-fi-lite sequel of sorts to Jonze’s previous film, Where the Wild Things Are:  Theodore Twombly of Her (Joaquin Phoenix) is Max grown up, once again cut off from female affection and sent to bed without his soon-to-be-ex-wife, instead of dinner. The movie is all about what he does with his powerful emotions, his needs, in the wake of this separation, which is almost a second cutting of an umbilical cord, a severing of attachment. He free floats for a time, a seemingly empty emotional conduit for other people’s emotions (he writes letters for strangers at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com), until he re-attaches to Samantha, an advanced operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen). In this disembodied future, he can’t even know his own emotions, his own self, unless he is attached to something, anything. Theodore has lost a sense of self, and he can only find it in relation to a computer. It’s a borderline personality trait: his emptiness and fear of abandonment deform his capacity for relationship and causes suffering.  But Jonze is making the point that we are all on the edge of losing ourselves here. As technology insidiously slips its way between us (through Facebook and smartphones, etc), we have ads that proclaim “people when you want them; technology when you don’t” (e-surance).  Our dalliance with technology is really a fascination with the self, which inevitably will lead to an empty, shallow existence.

The movie highlights four classic existential questions for both humans and their AI counterparts:

  1. Isolation. We are all ultimately alone. How do we and they deal with that?
  2. Meaning and meaninglessness. How do we each make sense of our lives?
  3. Freedom. What do we do with all the possible choices available to us?
  4. Death. How do humans view the inevitability of death, and what do AI make of this aspect of human life? (It’s not much of a spoiler, but Samantha makes a huge gaffe when she implies how much she loves her disembodied, omni-“present,” almost God-like and omniscient, eternal life.)

I entered the theater skeptical.  After all, I specialize in relationships, as a psychiatrist.  I had a hard time believing that a person could fall in love with a disembodied voice.  But the previous week, at another movie, when the preview for Her came up, an older man next to me remarked to his date, “Sure, put that thing in a robot and you’d be good to go.” The woman was silent. Did she roll her eyes or was she imagining a robot of her own, the reboot of “a room of her own”?  And nearly all the ads preceding the movie were for tech products, and several of the previews used tech or Facebook for punch lines. Yes, we are indeed forming a relationship with technology; we are in danger of Cyberphrenia, a variant of schizophrenia’s split from reality.

But I think there are at least seven reasons that Samantha and all AI fall short of the companionability of real people.

  1. Samantha is a simulation of life. She has no life herself. Everything about her is modeled on a human, and extrapolated from human capacity—but she is not alive.  We would have to invent a new definition of life to include her.
  2. Samantha is not truly vulnerable. She cannot die; her “hurt” emotions are merely computer code, and don’t relate to actual frailty of her “life.” A real relationship is predicated on mutual vulnerability.
  3. Samantha is disembodied. She lacks all the tactility and presence of embodied life. Our need for touch is innate.
  4. Samantha has no real boundary. She is more intrusive than the NSA. When you turn her off, she is still snooping somewhere. People are at least bounded by their skin. There’s no real space between Theodore and Samantha for most of the movie. That’s more than a little creepy.
  5. Samantha has almost no ambivalence or uncertainty. She always knows. Theodore says she’s “excited about life,” but to me, she came off as a bit of a peppy know-it-all at times. Real life is about dwelling with uncertainty.
  6. Samantha is ultimately, unrelatable. (Mild spoiler.) In one sense, Her is a classic boy-meets-girl to boy-loses-girl story, but this girl was never really available to be “gotten.” Like my colleague Peg Streep wrote, “it’s all about him.”  At times she controls him (operating him) as if he were a mannequin, at other times she is ingratiating herself with what can only be seen as pandering and manipulation, and ultimately, she values herself more than the relationship.  Ewww.  We know people who act like this—we call them narcissists. 
  7. That’s the problem with Samantha:  she is literally independent of all life forms, so unlike us to be frightening. As humans, we are all reliant and interdependent on each other.  Remove our vulnerability and interdependence, and we become something far less than real and relatable.

But there are people who form relationships with inanimate objects (like the unusual men with their life-size female cartoon body-pillows). We would recognize these men as abnormal, in need of some kind of relational counseling. Yet a recent Singularity University event had one participant claiming, in a supposedly compassionate but actually self-serving tone, that older men in need of sexual relations would be the target market for his proposed sex-bots of the near future. (Cue my own eye-roll. “No, young guys would totally not be into that.”)  We can all see that there’s a gap here that technology purports to fill.  Men are, in general, more socially isolated than women. Theodore’s emptiness and loneliness speak to all of us, but particularly, I think, to men.

And (mild spoiler in this paragraph), this is the message of the final scene. As Theodore looks out over the twinkling city from the vantage of his roof, he is not Ozymandius, inflated by his might and the power of his creations, from impressive skyscrapers to intoxicating Cyberian companions. Rather, he is just an abandoned boy, struggling to connect in a world that increasingly doesn’t seem to need him.

(I expand on these themes in my manuscript Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. You can help me get it published by signing up for my newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com.  Thank you for your support!)

© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

Occasional Newsletter to find out about my new book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks: www.RaviChandraMD.com
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