A few words about Her

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.

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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.

Jan KempenaersSpomenik, a photographic series on Eastern European war memorials. More pictures on Wired, along with information on how these monuments are being repurposed as science fiction film locations.

Content-aware Typography, a blog collecting submissions of works that remix typography through Photoshop’s Content-aware Fill tool.

Last year's film (& etc.)

Even though a wee bit late as we enter the second day of the new year, I must collect some additional thoughts on 2013. I am not one to choose media over spending time with people, but books and film remain prime consolations. I even took up record colecting for a while, but lacking a proper living room environment (I have got the stereo hooked up at my office) made me slow down. The PhD put quite a dent on my reading for fun, even as I kept adding books to my anti-library, as Nassim Taleb, the harsh lebanese epistemiologist, would put it. And while I didn’t go to the movies as much as I would have liked, I saw some good movies in 2013.


Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was my favourite film of the year. As I wrote about it at the time, the greatest joy of Frances Ha is in how it manages to be a fully self-contained, soulful film about being a young adult nowadays. You get to know this carefree, hipster-ish young artist (as one reviewer I can’t recall put it, "the kind of person you want to hate"), and slowly you get to see the sacrifices, the heartbreaks and the immense dignity there are in actually trying to live one’s own life, and how what frequently passes for ‘responsibility’ is actually just an easy way out. Greta Gerwig’s great performance reminded me of more than one person I know. And I am happy she did.


Spring Breakers

I think Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a very sharp satire that perfectly captures the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, how a critical masses of want, greed, lust and desire collapse into pure sociopathic behaviour.


Gravity

The jawdropping technical gorgeousness of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is enough for me to consider it one of the best movies of the year. I must say I didn’t find it as Great a movie as Cuarón’s previous Children of Men (perhaps last decade’s only worthwhile entry into sci-fi canon), but I did go watch it in 3D three times. In a row. Even despite, in a film that works hard towards accuracy, the basic scientific errors that are like dark stains in a clean sheet. I’d still watch it again.


In addition, there are a bunch of movies I definitely recommend, such as Michael Haneke’s Amour, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle. These are all worthy of a five star rating, and enough has been written about them. 

I will rather mention a few movies I think are a bit weaker (four star?), but have a degree of interestingness to them, such as Joseph Kosinsnky’s Oblivion, a Tom Cruise vehicle that feels a lost 1970s sci-fi classic. I found it a solid and enjoyable sci-fi flick, whereas I found Gilleremo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, despite the hype (giant monsters vs giant robots, had to be awesome), plain boring and even more lacking in soul than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and its trully endless fighting scenes (endless to the point of becoming funny — I am sure there’s going to be a Family Guy parody between Peter Griffin and the giant chicken). I would also highlight Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a film with hardly any dialogue, a creepy and very wrong storyline, but pitch-perfect craftsmanship in the way it generates and sustains excruciating tension for 90 minutes.

Finally, a word about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: Like Greta Gerwig’s precise opposite, Cate Blanchett’s great performance as Jasmine reminded me of more than one person I know. And I’m unhappy she did.

Twenty thirteen, a year without qualities

Pardon the hyperbole. There were, of course, qualities to the year 2013, and most gripes I am about to complain about can be safely filed and tucked away as First World Problems. I am well-fed, don’t have to walk for half an hour to fetch a jug of water, and have wi-fi at home. Still, there’s this inescapable feeling of loss, of an unrealized — and one is afraid to suspect, unrealizeable — future.

A whole generation is losing love and friendship to whichever social and moral ills arise from financial insecurity — emigration, misunderstanding & strife, anxiety, shame. I had been naïve, expecting technology to help people become closer in a time people need each other most; instead, I have realized how swiftly social networking became the backbone of later anarcho-capitalism, reducing social interactions to the exchange of multimedia messages as specified by a bunch of appalling libertarian and sexist nerds living in affluent exhurbs of San Francisco, CA.

We are fully complicit in this, of course. A text message will never arise the kind of excitement one feels when receiving a postcard from a loved one. A Verdana asterisk will never feel like a kiss the way a hand-drawn star (or, if you are lucky, a smudge of lipstick) feels. Replying to a text, whichever the carrier (SMS, Facebook, Whatsapp, whatever), often feels like a chore and I too have to remind myself there’s a full human at the other end of such communication: that, no matter my guesses, motivations are unknown and neglecting a simple reply might be the thing to ruin that fellow human’s day. Needless to say, I’ve been often at the other end, feeling the full weight of the ways modern asynchronous communication turns one’s hellos into simple fragments of media to be lost in the stream like old newspaper pages or discarded brochures.

In an Austeritarian and increasingly unequal country like Portugal, the same complicity towards miscommunication also applies towards politics. I am not suggesting it is the same kind of complicity; I suggest it is exactly the same complicity. Crass obliviousness has people treating downtown Porto like a drinking Theme Park, wide-eyed at turbo-capitalist accomplishment while the BBC compares the greater city to illustrious destinations such as Havana or Detroit. Flea markets and antique shops multiplied in the last year, and while I am all for mature consumption in which things are resold and recycled or bought second-hand (sometimes I sell stuff at flea markets myself), there’s a definite feeling of chic despair in the air, as if the panzers are approaching and the new century’s midnight is nigh.

Class prejudices are key in miscommunication amongst people; Capitalism killed love, for how can anyone love someone who is looking for someone better, with a catalog at their fingertips (not specifying the metric, this was something someone once flat out told me)? Mass surveillance, as revealed by Ed Snowden, is not big news as we always, in a way, knew about it. What anarcho-capitalist tech makes us do to each other is worse: oppression became peer-to-peer, decentralized. It’s not the guys with the wiretaps, it’s us. Society’s ills, whichever one feels they are, are rebuilt every single morning when one wakes up and carries on not paying attention, not able to say hello, not able to send back an hi.


Twenty thirteen hasn’t been a good year personally. I have seen friends my age struggle with disease; and I permanentely lost someone to it. Single and almost thirty-five, it’s been hard meeting someone. I wonder if anyone else still wants to find someone to love, someone who makes one driven to full generosity. Working mostly by myself, it’s hard to get to know new people; even coffee dates are hard to arrange. Some people seem to be able to click their fingers and fix their loneliness. Not me. All that’s left is work and entertainment and (at best) something in the middle.

There have been some minor paradoxes. I’ve been doing some work as a freelance videographer, having done more in the last three months than in any moment in the last five years; all this when I had almost given up on videography. Interestingly, it all came about after my involvement with the RU+A project, a perfect example of the work-entertainment blend (at least for me), which took me to interesting places in the relationship between street artists and local politics. All this has been hard on my PhD, and working towards it must be top of my New Year resolutions.

I’m sure 2014 will be a better year. It has to.