Monday, December 30, 2013


seen @ Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY

Forgive me in advance, but it's impossible for me to talk about Her without bringing up Star Trek. Why? Because artificial intelligence and the question of whether or not it can achieve what we call humanity is and has always been a common theme in Trek history. I think even the casual Trekkie can understand - in the future, as technology gets more and more sophisticated and plays a bigger and bigger part in our daily lives, our relationship with it will inevitably change.

It's something I've talked about here before (also in relation to Trek), but AI is a whole different animal. Anyone who spends enough time surfing the Net may be aware of the breakthroughs that have been made in robotics, and voice-activated software, and things like that. I remember a couple of years ago, I was playing around with an online program that was designed to hold a "conversation" with you as if it were a true AI, but in fact, it was simply a highly sophisticated program that had a wide variety of pre-programmed responses to direct questions. (No, I don't remember where it is.) Stuff, like this, though, is kids play compared to the more advanced stuff.

In Trek, one always sees this dichotomy between human life and artificial life: the latter is generally depicted as missing a certain something that makes it truly "human," but over time, its actions force us to redefine "humanity" as something more than a matter of biology. In the Original Series, Captain Kirk repeatedly exposed computer intelligences that others regarded as being indistinguishable from biological ones, or in some cases, better. In the first Trek movie, a super-computer created by man evolved to the point where it needed the spark of humanity to exceed its programming and become a new form of life.

In the latter day Trek spinoffs, we became acquainted with characters like Data, an android who strives to fully understand humanity despite the handicap of being programmed without human emotion; the Emergency Medical Hologram, a holographic intelligence forced by unusual circumstances to serve humanity beyond its original function, and becomes more human-like in the process; and others in similar situations. 

We see them do things that humans do, and at every turn the question is raised as to whether or not doing these things makes them more human. At times, they've had to stand up for their right to exist as free-thinking individuals. In the end, though, what they are matters less than what they do, which makes them equal beneficiaries of the future built by humanity, in which the content of one's character matters more than physical appearance or personal ideology. 

Her tackles a similar premise, filtered through perhaps the greatest of human traits: the capacity to love. The way we function with technology today, in some ways, is not unlike a romantic relationship in some ways. I know that I've developed a strong attachment with my laptop in the last five years. It has become my constant companion whenever I need to write, and sometimes I get anxious when I have it with me but I'm unable to use it, whether for lack of table space in a coffee shop, or lack of a Wi-Fi connection, or what have you. My cellphone has taken on a similar aspect. 

Does this mean I'm in love with my gadgets? No, of course not. I don't think of them as being sentient. I go on Twitter to talk to my flesh-and-blood friends, not to my cellphone. I know that my gadgets don't have the capacity to interact with me the way humans can. But what if they did? For all of my easy acceptance of the premises in Trek involving AIs, if it were me in the position of learning to accept one as an individual, much less a potential lover, I'm not sure how well I could pull it off. 

As I watched Her, one comparison that sprung to mind for me was that of a long-distance relationship - two people living far apart from each other. Being in one another's physical presence is impossible, therefore the two lovers must make do with only words, whether over the phone or through online communication. (Yes, I know about Skype; I didn't say it was a perfect comparison. Even that's not the same as physical presence, though.)

Long-distance relationships are doable, but man, are they difficult. It requires a great deal of trust that your lover will remain faithful in the absence of your physical presence. It requires being able to live on the few stolen moments in which you can communicate with your lover, assuming they're not busy with something else - or that you're not busy with something else. And it requires faith that your love is strong enough to withstand prolonged separation. Yes, I have tried it, and I didn't like it.

But is it better than no relationship at all, especially when you have trouble connecting with other people, as Joaquin Phoenix' character does? God knows I get lonely. I have a misanthropic streak that does keep me from reaching out to people sometimes, but I don't know whether it's the cause of me not finding love, or the result. I think, if I were desperate and lonely enough, I might be able to see myself growing attached to a self-aware gadget (though I wouldn't be nearly as open about it as Phoenix' character), but the lack of physicality would be a big problem. Scarlet Johansson's AI character attempts to find a way to compensate for this in one weird scene. I think I might go for her solution, the more I think about it.

The ending of Her wasn't what I expected. It goes slightly askew from my genre expectations built from over twenty years of watching Trek, but then, this isn't Trek and doesn't pretend to be. I think a future like the one depicted here is coming sooner than we think, and we as a species need to figure out how we're gonna deal with it. Will artificial intelligence be given the opportunity to evolve and flourish in its own way, its own time, or will it be something to be feared and hated? Sounds like science fiction... but personal computers that fit into the palm of your hand seemed the same way too, once.

On an unrelated tangent: there was a piece in the New York Times about Her in which the production designer talked about de-emphasizing the hard tech aspects of the futuristic setting. At one point he mentions how the future Los Angeles utilized the above-street-level pedestrian walkways of Pudong, Shanghai. As a result, one only sees cars way off in the distance in the film. I found it interesting that cars are much less of a presence in the future America of Her. The best part is, they don't appear to be missed from the look of it. A small thing, perhaps, but worth mentioning.


  1. Rich, I am really impressed with this thoughtful and very interesting review of the movie Her. I have not seen it, and now I'd really like to be sure I do. The topic is indeed a fascinating one to me. I get more and more lost in technology with each year. I don't like a lot of it (i.e. texting) because to me it is a cold way to communicate, even if the person doesn't mean it that way. I like to talk to people, really talk. Well, that's just me, and most of the country sure doesn't agree! Thank you for this in-depth look at a movie that I think would be right up my alley. And Happy New Year!

  2. Things like texting, or tweeting, are substitutes for real human contact. That's how I see it, but I suspect lots of people may feel different, as technology becomes more integral to our lives. Technology is, of course, integral to HER, but it's about people more than anything else. So yeah, I think you would like it.

    Happy new year to you too.

  3. Fascinating.

    I find a real divide between myself and some younger people because to me technology is still "new" and wondrous, while to them it is commonplace. Are the things that may be seen as issues no longer be issues in the future?

  4. Maybe not. I know what you mean about technology still seeming new. I grew up with a Commodore 64 (even though I did little more than play video games on it), and I took an art class on the old Mac computers in the early 90s, but I still get knocked out over some of the things even my cellphone can do. And yet I look around me and I wonder sometimes what we did without this stuff. People adapt quick, especially young people.

  5. That last paragraph was really interesting, didn't even think about the lack of cars in near sight in this one.

    I can't wait to see it again, I didn't love it (originally thinking 8/10) but once I wrote about it I bumped it up to a 9 and I think it would do well on rewatch. Nice review!

  6. Given how much damage cars can, and often do, inflict, a future free from the over-dependence of them in our lives should not be taken for granted.


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