spike jonze’s her and a cinema of artificial intelligence

In my essay on Her from a couple of weeks ago, I bent over backward trying to figure how the romance between a man and an artificial intelligence could be boiled down to to one of the big archetypal stories or themes that we struggle with as a species, the kind that have been around since the first campfire story. I ended by concluding the only way to make that link between artificial intelligence and our human condition is to look back to the magic of a more primitive time, when spirits and golems were more naturally part of our understanding of the world.

But since then I’ve been wondering whether I’m starting with the wrong question. I’ve been asking, implicitly, how does this relate to humans? when maybe, in the final analysis (that most conclusive of analyses), the movie can’t just be judged only by its significance to our species. What if this movie is not only for humanity? What if the story is in part about extra-human issues?

photo from james childs via cc

photo from James Childs via cc

Her is clearly for and about people to some great degree. But it’s one of the rare movies that would seem to at least hint at the possibility of an entirely inhuman perspective. Samantha, Her’s operating-system-cum-sovereign-being, begins talking at the end about non-matter processing and partaking in some mind-meld that doesn’t sound comprehensible by Theodore’s puny human intellect. It’s a glimpse of a point of view that has completely effaced the human from it.

I can’t think of many times a movie does that. One is Watchmen. (The comic and the movie are quite similar, so it’s hard to remember which parts of the following are one or the other, but I don’t think it matters much.) Dr. Manhattan, the blue baldy who’s able to see backward and forward in time (and whose lack of loincloth is a real distraction in the film), becomes inured to the worries of the inferior species he originated from. His temporally unmoored mind has transcended pretty much all of our traditional biases, such as our preference for life over inert matter: “In my opinion, it’s a highly overrated phenomenon. Mars gets along perfectly without so much as a micro-organism.”

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg’s execution of a project developed by Stanley Kubrick, spends much more time in this odd headspace; the protagonist of the movie is a “little boy,” David, who is actually a feeling robot. The movie doesn’t seek to make David a passable human, and though he’s sympathetic at moments, he’s also distinctly alien at others. And by the end of the movie, David is the only hint of humanity left, as some sort of next-gen stick-thin robots have supplanted humans. (Apparently, the most evolved robots are also the ones with the starving-model silhouette.) The last section of the movie just emphasizes and expands on the brief look at a human-free existence that Her gives us at its end, and as such A.I. feels even less tied to humanity.

It’s not clear to me why, as a member of homo sapiens, I would find A.I. interesting, but I get why a robot would. In other words, I have that feeling that so many older NPR listeners have when faced with Transformers: I am not the target demographic for this movie.

(I saw A.I. when it came out in the theater with my sister. Both of us were rather unmoved, and she later admitted that she felt a little less alone in her reaction when a woman closer to the front started breaking out in laughter. But, wait, no: That was crying, not laughing.

I find this story funny, but I hasten to affirm anybody’s right to cry at whatever moves them. Or maybe that woman was an android? Either way, no judgment here.)


There was plenty of good writing about Her. At The Dissolve, for instance, Scott Tobias perfectly captured the state of social media by way of describing the movie: “Her captures the tenor of the times — sleek, antiseptic, weirdly alienating in its connectivity.”

One article struck me in particular, one by Christine Rosen, writing for The Weekly Wonk and Slate. I’ll get back to artificial intelligence thing in a second, but first I’d like to counter her on this point, where she describes Her‘s future:

High-speed rail is ubiquitous, cheerful modern furniture and art fill the characters’ work and private spaces, and everyone is reassuringly upper-middle-class.

Rosen’s mistake isn’t that she forgot a part of the movie. It’s true: We don’t see anybody struggling with poverty. But what’s funny to me is that this only highlights the problem we have on the cultural level with movies set in the present, namely, that you’d have little idea that poverty was a problem in America if all you watched were sitcoms and 90% of the movies coming out of Hollywood. Our entertainments forget about the merely working class — much less the destitute — all the time, in favor of the relatively financially secure.

photo from Steve Rainwater via cc

photo from Steve Rainwater via cc

You could object that just because a movie doesn’t show those people doesn’t mean that it’s denying their existence. But Rosen almost proves the point by figuring that when a movie doesn’t show us poor people, it means they don’t exist. I don’t particularly care in the case of Her, because the movie is about the life of one man, not the sociology of poverty. Even so, Rosen’s (seeming) oversight is nettling.

To get back to the artificial intelligence though, here’s Rosen talking about what the movie is about:

Although its setting prompts us to ponder the possibility that technologies might replace some formerly human activities, its larger challenge is to ask: What is so special about human relationships?

This is quite possibly true, but only if you assume, as I did before, that the movie needs to be about humans. Which it probably is, but if I thought it were only about humans, I would find it much less compelling than I do. Instead, it seems to genuinely wonder what the priorities of these artificial intelligences would be, and not just as a reflection of us meat puppets and all our issues. Here’s Rosen on Samantha’s emotional IQ:

…despite Samantha’s professed love for Theodore, she and the other operating systems eventually realize the limitations of their human developers and do the artificially intelligent thing (as opposed to the emotionally intelligent thing) and abandon them. Samantha is consciousness without the encumbrances of a conscience, a mind without the fickle urges of a body.…To a highly evolved intelligence, Theodore’s demands for monogamy seem shortsighted, even selfish. To us, they seem like a reasonable assertion of human individuality.

In that parenthetical about Samantha’s lack of emotional intelligence, it’s hard to tell whether Rosen thinks the A.I. is somehow less a being than Theodore; it sounds like that’s what Rosen is saying. But I think we ought to give Samantha the benefit of the doubt and really look at the entire situation from her perspective — one that isn’t human at all. Maybe we ought to look at things like Mars for once, instead of like Venus.

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