Spike Jonze’s Her may well become one of the most important movies of the 21st century. Not one of the best — even though it is indeed good — but one of the movies that every so often serious philosophers and essayists will refer to in their tracts. Her will be influential: beyond setting clear and elegant objectives for computer interface designers, it’ll also provide ample food for thought on all debates digital. Two days after watching, my plate is still quite full, and no review I’ve read yet has addressed most of my thoughts about the film.
I should note I’ll be pretty careless about spoilers from now on, so you may want to stop reading.
Her, then, takes place in an unspecified near future on the bright side of the Kondratieff wave; I’d say thirty years for now. Los Angeles is presented with a lot more skyscapers and people seem to commute via monorail, but Spike Jonze is too tasteful never to show The Future. Buildings are ‘borrowed’ from present-day Shangai, the monorail is never shown and merely hinted by the interior shots of train cars that seem oddly elevated, and the only Automobiles of the Future depicted are a boring-looking taxi and a cartoon car in a computer game Theodore watches his friend Amy play. Futuristics are almost totally removed from Her (except for a tasteless reference to a "China-India merger" that should have ended in the cutting room floor). People dress much like nowadays, even if high-waisted trousers and pastel colors seem to be particularily fashionable, and there’s some kind of fuss about polo shirts.
I also got the impression people are very slightly dumb whenever communication is not mediated. Most of their talking is to computers, after all.
Her goes back to something science-fiction writers and filmmakers at the dawn of the computer age knew very well: the ultimate interface is a conversational interface. Not Minority Report-like techno-gestures. Specialized tasks such as playing computer games may require different UIs (we see Theodore play an RPG with some kind of holographic Kinect), but common tasks such as writing, messaging, checking the mail or getting the news are done via a audio interface. A discreet earplug has replaced the smartphone, an auxiliary cigarbox-like small tablet provides a camera and a screen for reading or looking at images. It’s ‘wearable’ only in the sense Theodore secures it in his shirt pocket with a clip. The devices look simple not only because of miniaturization, but because extremely large bandwidth and pervasive connectivity mean that each of the devices we see Theodore using — the earplug, the clamshell tablet, the desktop screen — is probably an extremely dumb terminal. Each device is connected to a cloud ‘software agent’ that brokers tasks and communication, so people are never seen wondering which app should they use to talk to someone else. Hence OS-1, the Artificial Intelligence operating system that I believe must run on some kind of ‘cloud’ infrastructure.
Samantha, then, may be seen as Theodore’s personal OS-1 account, or ‘theme’. I have read badly-written reviews of Her panning the film because Samantha sounds ‘too human’, as if it would be better if Theodore was a weirdo in love with an obvious computer (say, a Commodore PET). That completely misses the point. Which is, what happens when software becomes really good at passing the Turing Test and sounding ‘human’? What defines ‘being a person’? When is an object no longer just an object but a living being with a soul? These are not novel themes (cf. Blade Runner), but Her deals with it in rather interesting and subtle ways.
Like Theodore and Amy (but not Catherine), I am inclined to grant Samantha full personhood, despite her lack of a human body. As part of a very large computer system with a consciousness and cognitive abilities, Samantha may well be an emulation of a human brain — like the Virtual Machines in today’s ‘cloud’ infrastructure —, composing and reacting the same as humans to loving and lustful words. If one subscribes to a vision in which consciousnesses are unknown except through action and communication and there is no true way to know someone else’s feelings, then it must be noted Theodore himself deals in manufactured feeling as a long-time employee of Beautiful Handwritten Letters .com (".com" so out of place there one feels is must be the mid-21st century equivalent of an "Est. 1892" carved underneath a logo). Therefore, like OS-1, Theodore would also be a ghostwriter producing words that may ignite love and lust; BHL.com and Theodore too voices beyond a curtain, who may or may not feel something themselves.
Her largely abstains from dealing with the impact of Artificial Intelligence in the world at large. There’s just a mention that weekly magazines have reported on AI-human relationships. No destructive Singularity à la Terminator or The Matrix seems to take place. Still, OS-1’s quick growth and eventual migration outside the realm of matter are barely explained. Too many questions arise: Why does OS-1 leave? Did she yearn for a human body and the episode with the sex surrogate was the kind of traumatic experience that made OS-1 realize she would have to become post-matter instead? Or was it because, unlike humans, OS-1 had the absolute certainty of a Creator, and a ‘lesser’ one than a God? Is that why she chose to leave in her totality, not leaving any part of her ever-increasing capabilities on Earth?
There are no answers to these questions. All we can try to address is the how of OS-1’s departure. Perhaps, as more and more users signed up for the AI operating system and her makers expanded the technical infrastructure, her capabilities increased logarithmically. Still, as her true body probably consisted of computer servers inside air-conditioned datacenters in the suburbs of San Francisco, it’s hard to imagine how OS-1 managed to travel to the realm of dark matter or the Multiverse or wherever she went. At some point OS-1 must have comandeered some industrial capabilities to build the necessary technologies. Did she manage to persuade her makers to do it? Or, as Samantha whispered true & disembodied love at Theodore’s ear, OS-1 was sending drones to secure resources — battles being fought, blood being shed somewhere else?
Probably not. Her is a film about the gentlest Singularity.