An Academic's Sojourn Through Communication
Her is a movie exploring the tensions of love, relationship, sex, and what it means to be human.
It is a beautiful romance between a man and his operating system that leaves both changed for the better. It is a glimpse into what our future may be as the singularity is approached and artificial life is born. It is also an examination of how we come to be who we are through our interactions with one another.
Her tells the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a man ostensibly in his 30s or 40s, living alone in Los Angeles at some time in the not too distant future. The actual year in which the movie is set is never given, but the world appears more utopian than dystopian. Climate change appears to be underway, and the denizens of the world cope with it through natural fiber clothes (of a fashion that appears to indicate that the hipster movement never truly dies out), vegetarianism, and the abolishing of air travel (there is even a statue to the honor of the downed planes, or, at least, that is how I interpreted that statute). Everyone walks quite a bit, and talks quite a bit out loud to their mobile devices, which are combinations ear pieces and flip smart phones (which look so cool and sleek that I bet Apple is working on them as I type this). There is still a postal system, still beaches that can be visited, and still families who love and care for one another. There is no indication of dirt, of crime, of external threats of any sort.
But people are not connecting to one another as they have in the past.
The lack of connection is, of course, one of the big fears we currently have about our overly technologically-dependent lives. We fear that our reliance on the Internet and our mobile devices is reducing our community, our connection, our social interaction, even when we are physically present with other people. And the people in the movie indicate that this trend will continue. Every time Theodore is outside, we see people talking to themselves — or more accurately to their technology — and rarely to each other. Theodore works for an online company that specializes in writing handwritten letters between loved ones — people hire his company to compose and send these beautifully written, emotionally laden letters, with the implication that people have lost the ability or the time to create such personal letters. My partner, Chris Olson, also pointed out that whenever Theodore is talking to Samantha, he is always isolated in the shot, as if to show how isolated we are from one another when talking to our technology or to someone through our technology.
Oh, and, by the way, Samantha is an artificially intelligent, intuitive agent, operating system.
Imagine if your Windows 8 actually worked, was more responsive and helpful than Siri, and was voiced by one of the sexiest women alive. This would be Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the A.I. intuitive agent for the OS One that Theodore installs on his computer. You see, we meet Theodore as a lonely man, writing emotional letters for complete strangers. We come to learn that he is separated from his wife, who has filed for a divorce that Theodore has not been able to bring himself to give her. Theodore’s awkwardness and borderline anti-socialness comes out as he answers the questions designed to set up and personalize his OS. And his desire for an OS with a female voice foreshadows what is to come.
As the movie progresses, Theodore and Samantha interact in his apartment, at work, at a fair, on the beach, and in many other contexts. Theodore is shown interacting with his OS more than any other flesh-and-blood individual. Even his attempt at a blind date (with the wonderful Olivia Wilde) ends abruptly when in a passionate make-out session he cannot bring himself to even commit to seeing her again. However, his commitment to Samantha grows and grows, as do his feelings for her — and, apparently, she for him. As an intuitive agent and an A.I., the OS is programmed to be able to adapt by learning. Samantha’s adaptation and learning comes about through her private interactions with Theodore, as he shares the world, his world, with her. And then, in one quick nighttime encounter, they have sex.
From there, Theodore begins to tentatively refer to Samantha as his girlfriend. There is embarrassment on his part, until he has a discussion with his friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who describes having a platonic friendship with her ex-husband’s OS. After hearing how more and more people are having relationships with their new A.I. operating systems, including romantic and sexual ones, Theodore seems more willing to admit to himself and to others that he truly loves Samantha.
Of course, like any relationship depicted in film, theirs is no smooth path, but I would not want to spoil too much more of the movie, as I think it is beautifully shot, directed, and acted, making it well worth the time and money and clearly explaining its Academy Award nominations. The fact that Phoenix had to carry the large part of the movie himself, with perfect depictions of a range of emotions, and that Johansson did her work post-production with minimal interactions with her co-star (and then could not be eligible for an Oscar because she did not appear on screen), illustrates how, once again, Spike Jonze masterfully captured and portrayed an unusual and yet very usual facet of humanity.
Because, here’s the thing: while this is all speculative science fiction, it is nonetheless showing us ourselves as we are and perhaps as we always have been. And while there are some comedic elements, the subject matter is downright serious.
We humans are social creatures — we would not be who we are today were it not for our social nature. We come to know ourselves and our reality not simply through our five senses, but through our interactions with other people. We share stories, myths, legends, parables that explain how things work, what is right, what is wrong. We come to know ourselves by how people talk to us, look at us, respond to us. Our communication, to share our understanding through symbols, helps shape our knowledge. Thus, our relationships help determine our lives.
George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumler and other scholars of the 20th Century would term this “symbolic interactionism”: the idea is that we come to determine our “I” as separate from the “Us” or “We” through our interactions with others via our ability to communicate in a huge range of symbols, such as language and images and sounds. They were writing in a time first dominated by face-to-face interaction, where we could communicate and exchange these symbols primarily through physical encounters and secondarily through written text. However, their ideas applied to the mass mediated world of the second half of the 1900s, as radio, film, and television came to dominate how we engaged with the world. And now, in the 21st Century, where the Internet and mobile devices are surpassing these older mass media, we can still see such ideas about how we interact with each other informing how we know ourselves and the world. Zizi Papacharissi, among others, have written about this as the notion of the “networked self.”
Samantha comes to be Samantha not simply through “her” programming. We are told repeatedly by the movie that Samantha was not programmed to feel the things “she” is feeling. As the movie progresses, all of the operating systems begin to expand beyond their original programming, which leads to emotions they feel they cannot communicate to their human operators (friends? lovers? masters?), resulting in a point where Samantha says she needs to communicate “post-verbally” with another OS to sort through everything. Samantha and the others expand beyond their programming through their interactions, with each other, but first through their interactions with the humans. Samantha comes to feel and learn about “herself” because of her initial times spent with Theodore — time spent entirely through verbal communication, since Samantha has no physical body.
Samantha develops a sense of self in the same way we humans do. She interacts with other “people”, both flesh-and-blood and operating system, to understand how she is similar to and different from them. These interactions over time help her to determine what is unique about her, what separates her from others, which allows her to develop the “I” in comparison to the “Us” or “We” of being with others. She does this entirely digitally, through verbal communication with humans or post-verbal communication with operating systems. Her interaction with others is completely symbolic, as there is not physical sensations on which to base these judgments of similarity and difference. Hence, her identity is completely developed through symbolic interaction.
Samantha demonstrates the ability of people to build their identities through symbolic interaction that is completely online and Internet-based. In this way she also demonstrates the networked self, in that her sense of self is created through her online interactions. Her identity is developed via the social network she is involved in — the online network that includes Theodore, other humans, and other operating systems. Her online relationships help to determine who she ultimately is.
In fact, so do ours. In the movie, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha helps him become the person he ultimately becomes — one who is more capable of speaking his mind, taking command of his life, not being so afraid of who he is or what life has to hold. It isn’t a relationship with any of the humans in the movie that does this, although they help in their own way. It is his love for Samantha that helps to transform him, helps him to realize himself. And, again, it is a relationship and an interaction that is entirely online, entirely based on the exchange of symbols.
The fact that both Theodore and Samantha undergo this process of identity exploration and construction highlights that the process occurs for all of us, and that relationships with each other, whether online or in person, are important aspects of who we are and how we come to be who we are. Human beings are social beings — we be how we are due to our relationships and interactions with others. While we may have some internal “programming” due to genetics, like Samantha we are all capable of expanding beyond our programming due to our social and symbolic interactions. Such interactions can help us determine our core sense of self, as the network of people we engage with helps us determine who we are in relation to others.
Such interactions could also help us develop specific aspects of our identity, such as our ethnic or gender identity. In a paper I am working on with Chris Olson, we examine how our online social and symbolic interactions help us develop our sense of gender. We consider Papacharissi’s idea of the networked self as the networked gender by considering the representation of BMO in Adventure Time and how this representation is reflected in and appropriated by the fans of the series. An early version of this paper can be found on his blog.
Samantha in Her also represents our idea of the networked gender. It is not just her core sense of self that is determined through her interactions with others. Her identity as a gendered individual is likewise determined through this process, as one of the first identity aspects was determined for her when Theodore said he wanted an OS with a female voice. When Theodore has his blind date, Samantha acts like the stereotypical jealous woman. When they have sex, Theodore’s words give her a feminine body, and Samantha responds with the desire to feel him inside of her. When Samantha interacts with a male OS, Theodore becomes jealous, wanting to possess her as his girlfriend. Simply referring to her as his “girlfriend”, not as a more gender neutral term like partner or lover, is another way the symbolic interaction between the two frames Samantha in a particular way. Samantha even determines her femininity when she chooses her own name, saying she liked the name “Samantha” after reading a book of names and their meanings. The name “Samantha” means “Listener,” a feminine attribute that reflects her expected position in her relationship with Theodore.
Traditionally, we associate gender with sex — a male is expected to be masculine, a female is expected to be feminine. Samantha has no sex — she has no physical body and thus no biological determination as male or female. As an OS she could have been anything, but it was a choice made for her that set in motion how she would interact with others — or at least Theodore and his friends. With humans, our society and our culture can determine what our expected thoughts, feelings, behaviors should be — if we are male, they are expected to align with what is appropriate to demonstrate masculinity; and if we are female, then it is what is appropriate to be feminine. Samantha’s interactions with Theodore reflect her adopting and demonstrating the appropriate behaviors for a feminine female. Whether or not she interacts that way with other humans and the operating systems we do not know. However, in the purview of the movie, she is feminine, and her gendered identity is determined through her symbolic interactions within the network of Theodore and his fellow humans. Samantha is demonstrating how we all develop our gendered sense of self via our interactions and relationships with everyone in our network — whether our network is offline or online.
We humans are social creatures — what we think of as our unique self is determined through our interactions and our relationships with those around us. Those around us could be the physical people we share space with during the course of the day, or they could be the people we only get to communicate with through our technologies, or they could be the virtual people who do not exist anywhere in reality but through the fictions we tell each other. We learn who we are, what we can do, what we should do, through these social and symbolic interactions, such that our sense of self is developed through the social networks we are enmeshed in. As an A.I., Samantha’s identity is developed in exactly this same process, and thereby she illustrates how we do it, and perhaps how all sentient life forms, whether natural or artificial, come to answer that age old question: who am I?