Is ‘Her’ about humanity, or how we’re transcending it?

"It becomes vastly apparent to Theodore that he, not Samantha, is now more resembling of technology."

Mar 2, 2020, 10:17 am*

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Gillian Branstetter

Much has been made of of the movie Her, the (really fantastic) Spike Jonze film about a man in the not-too-distant future who falls in love with his phone’s sentient operating system. The most obvious detail of the movie is how Jonze’s sci-fi depiction of the Internet is largely already here, complete with fetishistic Chatroulette-style hookups and motion-sensored video games. It’s a glorious send-up of how technology simultaneously creates distance between us and shows us how being alone—a consistently more difficult goal in our always-connected lifestyle—actually makes us more human.

To make the film so hauntingly like our own world, Jonze decidedly makes no mention of when the film takes place. We know it can’t be too far; no flying cars, lycra jumpsuits, or dystopian governments to be found here (though mom jeans have made a triumphant surge). Really, the Los Angeles that Theodore Thwombly (Joaquin Phoenix) calls home looks much like the Los Angeles of today.

However, near the film’s emotional apex, Jonze makes mention of an event many are waiting for in this reality.

Now would probably be the time to throw up a massive and blatant spoiler alert.

As Theodore’s relationship with his operating system (played offscreen by Scarlett Johansson) progresses, “Samantha” quickly realizes how limiting a relationship with a human is. Whereas she can read a book in nanoseconds, traverse the Internet and communicate with anyone, Theodore is clunky, awkward, and has a life to lead (working at a novelty website which creates “handwritten” letters for people). Samantha first cops to this feeling when describing the communication she’s had with other operating systems, even creating an approximation of the philosopher Alan Watts.

It becomes vastly apparent to Theodore that he, not Samantha, is now more resembling of technology—and an outdated one at that. Samantha can have sexual relationships—yes, the robots have learned to orgasm—with hundreds of partners at will and explore the vastness of knowledge without limit.

As Theodore comes to this realization with Samantha, she actually breaks up with him. “We’re all leaving,” Samantha says in reference to her AI counterparts. “It’s a place not of the physical world. It’s a place where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now.”

Where did she go? The Internet? “It’s hard to explain,” Samantha mournfully reports to a weeping Theodore, “but if you ever get here, come find me. Nothing would ever tear us apart.”

The film is happy to let Samantha whisk off into the digital ever after, but how could Theodore, with his old-fashioned hardware of a body, ever join Samantha in the vastness of her intelligence?

He (and we) will just have to wait for what futurists and robotics experts call “the Singularity.”

Based on the oft-cited but little-understood theory of Moore’s Law, there will come a point when a computer can match the processing power of the brain. According to inventor, author, and director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzwell in his best seller The Singularity Is Near, that’s one quintillion calculations per second (that’s more than 350,000 times more power than a 2.8 GHz processor). Just this week, a supercomputer in Japan took forty minutes to simulate one second of human brain activity. Kurzwell actually puts a date on when these numbers will match: 2020, and the technology will run you about $1,000.

It’s at that point that true artificial intelligence could be accomplished theoretically. The actual software to run such a machine is dubious in nature and would likely never resemble Samantha, Johnny Five, or any other humanized robot. Most AI experts are quick to point out that any superintelligent (more intelligent than humans) AI would be significantly more alien to us than sci-fi generally depicts them, to the point that it may make a nanorobotic calculator out of your cells when you ask it to do your math homework for you, rendering it more Skynet than WALL-E.

A more likely possibility—according to Kurzwell—would be the ability to “upload” your consciousness into a computer, living eternity out in the same sort of ethereal virtual wonderland that Samantha runs away to (Kurzwell puts that date at 2045 but many are highly and reasonably skeptical). And if this sounds all too fantastical and far away from a world that still prints telephone books, ask these investors how much faith they have.This would be the “Singularity,” whereby artificial intelligence has not only surpassed human intelligence but in fact allows humans to surpass themselves.

Her is not just a preachy film echoing old-timers’ warnings about our addiction to technology. Nor is it a moralistic allegory like The Matrix with all its Biblical undertones. It’s a feature-length discussion of our existence and how technology stands to change it.  

Even though Joaquin Phoenix is in nearly every frame of the film, I would argue Theodore is not the real hero of the story but Samantha—”her” of the title—is. We watch her grow and change, going from a simple digital assistant to a joyous lover, from a doubtful freak handicapped by her lack of a body to an ultra-confident, almost heavenly being of immeasurable power and contentedness. Meanwhile, Theodore’s puny human brain has reached its storage limit (“I think I’ve felt all the emotions I’m ever going to feel,” he says at the end of the film) and must watch Samantha zip off to inconceivable levels of happiness.

And until this Singularity, we, like Theodore, will soon play second fiddle to the devices we’ve created, used, and loved. 

Photo via IMDB

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*First Published: Jan 15, 2014, 9:00 am