An Address in Cyberspace

her-joaquin-phoeni_2765299bSome movies ache. They bother you because they hit you at the wrong (or right) time and, instead of being simply beautiful and admirable and impressive, they’re true, so true they make you see life fresh, which is good and terrible.  The next few days, they haunt you.

That’s my encapsulated review of Her, the Spike Jonze movie starting Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

In summary, the near future brings a new computer operating system that mimics—or, more exactly, enacts—the psychological and emotional evolution of a human personality. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) and an OS (Johansson) fall in love. Complications ensue.

Like many movies about the future, this one isn’t really about tomorrow. It describes the zeitgeist of our time, our grand and perhaps foolhardy experiment with vicarious, electronic experience. For me, it’s a movie about surrogacy, the replacement of direct experience for something more—and less—complicated.

Many of the scenes depict a future city only slightly exaggerated from the one I occupy—people have conversations with no one visible. Sensory reality seems a nuisance interfering with much more satisfying—more reliable, more controllable—interaction with private, virtual, cyberspace relationships. In Her, as in our world, people desire experience on their own terms. But in Her, a companionable computer suits itself to its master, so they have tailored helpmeets more perfectly theirs than their dreams… for a while at least.

The film contrasts Theodore’s relationship with Samantha (his OS girlfriend) and Catherine (Rooney Mara), his partner in a recently failed marriage. When Catherine hears he’s moved on to “dating” an OS, she quails. It must be, she believes, that he can’t have a relationship with a real person. It must be too threatening (read: messy) to deal with anyone unpredictable.

Except that Samantha is real, troublesomely, problematically real. Her reality is the rogue element and a disruption to Theodore’s life as he’d like it to be.

My purpose here is not to write a review—you will review the film for yourself—but to address the movie’s implications, which seem profound to me. What does it mean that so much of our lives exist outside the here-and-now and reside in cyberspace? We denizens of the 21st century have a nearly boutique existence, a synthesis of special interests, special tastes, special fetishes. We have our own virtual rooms and, though we can’t ignore the real world—we work there—our imaginations and fantasies may live elsewhere.

In Her, the OSs transcend us. They find a space far beyond humans. They are, in essence, more real than we are. Being more capable, they outgrow our superficiality. OSs lack some vital skills—I love the film’s luxurious attention to vistas, the indulgent moments looking through windows, standing in snow, and all the beautiful cinematic moments experiencing sensory delight denied machines—but machines also occupy a richness that supplies 600 lovers for our one, all of them between one uttered word and another.

Isaac Asimov would spin. His three laws dictated that no manmade intelligence could  a.) harm us (or sit idle while we came to harm) or b.) disobey us (unless it meant harming us) and c.) save itself if that meant violating a. and b. Samantha ignores those laws. She is herself, so much more than Theodore. However well-meaning and lovable he is, he hasn’t her direct take on existence. She leads him from his vicarious life because the life she lives is actual.

I wonder if the movie means to remind us that, though we’re certainly limited, we can create great things beyond us, or if it means to say that what we make neglects or supplants what we ought to appreciate (the wind, the horizon, the scent of new mornings). Perhaps it means to say, “Pay attention—the sensory world is passing you, and you, you are absent, obsessed and immersed in abstraction.” An OS can see each nanosecond as new. We can’t.

The movie moved me because I know the truth of those assertions. My fantasy life dwarves reality. So much of what I ought to notice is secondary, or often repeated in a parallel life online. Recording life displaces direct events. The news in email or on Facebook sometimes seems as big as weather. Which is to say, I don’t really live in original moments.

Samantha says to Theodore, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

I wish she weren’t so different from me. I wish I might be so curious, so aware of the heart’s capacity to soar over detritus. I wish I could learn as Samantha does, to be so alive.

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2 Comments

Filed under Allegory, America, Art, Brave New World, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Film, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Metaphor, Modern Life, Science Fiction, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

2 responses to “An Address in Cyberspace

  1. Suutzi

    There are so many layers to the movie that it is hard to explain them all. The one scene that struck me was when Samantha laughed at humans, and was able to say that she was glad she did not have to worry about mortality. And, frankly, that is the one dimension in which OS-human relations would never find common ground. So, despite our worry about cyber-affairs or FB friendships, at least we *know* the person on the other side of the equation is equally susceptible to that one basic fact. We *can* have digital relationships with another mortal, but when you take that to the next level and the person you are having a relationship doesn’t play by the same rules or mortality – it does begin to feel like humans are interacting with Gods. And, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

  2. dmarshall58

    The movie is layered. It has stuck with me so much that I find myself thinking about it differently each time I consider it… and I’m afraid to reread what I wrote in this post for fear that I’ve been dumb.

    The comparison of Samantha to a god is especially interesting because it speaks to a feeling I often have that technology—because it eliminates errors, human mistakes, and human fallibility—can do more and be more than I could ever be. “No one is perfect,” people say, but a computer, I sometimes think, could be. Thoreau’s idea that we’re “Tools of our tools” takes on a different meaning, as our tools make me look at myself, even my potential, differently.

    My reaction to Her was probably similar to one many viewers had… “Where do I get me one of those OSs?” That we could make something so divine is inspiring. At the same time it points out how limited we might feel in comparison to our creation. I wonder if Dr. Frankenstein felt that way.

    Thanks for your comment! –D

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