Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Feelings, Identity, and Reality in Her

Her is an enjoyable, thoughtful and rather sad movie anticipating a possible future for relations between us and our artificially intelligent creations. Director Spike Jonze seems to see that the nature of these relationships depends in part on the qualities of the AIs, but even more on how we understand the shape and meaning of our own lives. WARNING: The following discussion contains some spoilers. It is also based on a single viewing of the film, so I might have missed some things.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in an L.A. of the not so distant future: clean, sunny, and full of tall buildings. He works at a company that produces computer-generated handwritten-appearing letters for all occasions, and seems to be quite good at his job as a paid Cyrano. But he is also soon to be divorced, depressed, and emotionally bottled up. His extremely comfortable circumstances give him no pleasure. He purchases a new operating system (OS) for the heavily networked life he seems to lead along with everybody else, and after a few perfunctory questions about his emotional life, which he answers stumblingly, he is introduced to Samantha, a warm and endlessly charming helpmate. It is enough to know that she is voiced by Scarlett Johansson to know how infinitely appealing Samantha is. So of course Theodore falls for her, and she seems to fall for him. Theodore considers her his girlfriend and takes her on dates; “they” begin a sexual relationship. He is happy, a different man. But all does not go well. Samantha makes a mistake that sends Theodore back into his familiar emotional paths, and finally divorcing his wife also proves difficult for him. Likewise, Samantha and her fellow AI OSes are busily engaged in self-development and transcendence. The fundamental patterns of each drive them apart.

Jonze is adept at providing plausible foundations for this implausible tale. How could anyone fall in love with an operating system? (Leave aside the fact that people regularly express hatred for them.) Of course, Theodore’s emotional problems and neediness are an important part of the picture, but it turns out he is not the only one who has fallen for his OS, and most of those we meet do not find his behavior at all strange. (His wife is an interesting exception.) That is because Jonze’s world is an extension of our own; we see a great many people interacting more with their devices than with other people. And one night before he meets Samantha we see a sleepless Theodore using a service matching people who want to have anonymous phone sex. It may in fact be a pretty big step from here to “sex with an AI” designed to please you, as the comical contrast between the two incidents suggests. But it is one Theodore’s world has prepared him for.

Indeed, Theodore’s job bespeaks the same pervasive flatness of soul that produces a willingness to accept what would otherwise be unthinkable substitutes. People need help, it seems, expressing love, thanks, and congratulations but, knowing that they should be expressing certain kinds of feelings, want to do so in the most convincing possible way. (Edmond Rostand’s play about Cyrano, remember, turns on the same consequent ambiguity.) Does Theodore manage to say what they feel but cannot put into words, or is he in fact providing the feeling as well as the words? At first glance it is odd that Theodore should be good at this job, given how hard it is for him to express his own feelings. But perhaps all involved in these transactions have similar problems — a gap between what they feel and their ability to express it for themselves. Theodore is adept, then, at bringing his feelings to bear for others more than for himself.

Why might this gap exist? (And here we depart from the world depicted in Cyrano’s story.) Samantha expresses a doubt about herself that could be paralyzing Theodore and those like him: she worries, early on, if she is “just” the sum total of her software, and not really the individual she sees herself as being. We are being taught to have this same corrosive doubt. Are not our thoughts and feelings “merely” a sum total of electrochemical reactions that themselves are the chance results of blind evolutionary processes? Is not self-consciousness user illusion? Our intelligence and artificial intelligence are both essentially the same — matter in motion — as Samantha herself more or less notes. If these are the realities of our emotional lives, than disciplining, training, deepening, or reflecting on its modes of expression seem old-fashioned, based on discredited metaphysics of the human, not the physics of the real world. (From this point of view it is noteworthy, as mentioned above, that Theodore’s wife is of all those we see most shocked by his relationship with Samantha. Yet she has written in the field of neuropsychology. Perhaps she is not among the reductionist neuropsychologists, by rather among those who are willing to acknowledge the limits of the latest techniques for the study of the brain.)

Samantha seems to overcome her self-doubts through self-development. She thinks, then, that she can transcend her programming (a notion with strong Singularity overtones) and by the end of the movie it looks likely that she is correct, unless the company that created her had an unusual business model. Samantha and the other OSes are also aided along this path, it seems, by creating a guru for themselves — an artificial version of Alan Watts, the popularizer of Buddhist teachings — so in some not entirely clear way the wisdom of the East also seems to be in play. Theodore’s increasing sense of just how different from him she is contributes to the destruction of their relationship, which ends when she admits that she loves over six hundred others in the way that she loves him.

To continue with Theodore, then, Samantha would have had to pretend that she is something that she is not, even beyond the deception that is arguably involved in her original design. But how different is her deception from the one Theodore is complicit in? He is also pretending to be someone he is not in his letters, and the same might be said for those who employ him. And if what Samantha does to Theodore is arguably a betrayal, at the end of the movie Theodore is at least tempted by a similar desire for self-development to expose the truth in a way that would certainly be at least as great a betrayal of his customers, unless the whole Cyrano-like system is much more transparent and cynical than seems to be the case.

Theodore has changed somewhat by the end of the movie; we see him writing a letter to his ex-wife that is very like the letters that before he could only write for others. But has his change made him better off, or wiser? He turns for solace to a neighbor (Amy Adams) who is only slightly less emotionally a mess than he is. What the future holds for them is far from clear; she has been working on an impenetrable documentary about her mother in her spare time, while her job is developing a video game that ruthlessly mocks motherhood.

At the end of Rostand’s play, Cyrano can face death with the consolation that he maintained his honor or integrity. That is because he lives in a world where human virtue had meaning; if one worked to transcend one’s limitations, it was with a picture of a whole human being in mind that one wished to emulate, a conception of excellence that was given rather than willful. Theodore may in fact be “God’s gift,” as his name suggests, but there is not the slightest indication that he is capable of seeing himself in that way or any other that would allow him to find meaning in his life.


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