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What does it mean to be human?
This fall marks ten years since the release of Her, the scifi rom com by the immensely talented director Spike Jonze. When I wrote about the film a decade ago, the premise seemed remarkably out of reach: In the wake of a break-up, our protagonist, a mustachioed, heart-sick Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), becomes romantically involved with an operating system that calls itself Samantha (Scarlet Johansson).
Samantha : You think I'm weird?
Theodore : Kind of.
Samantha : Why?
Theodore : Well, you seem like a person but you're just a voice in a computer.
Samantha : I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive it that way. You'll get used to it.
Last weekend, I rewatched the film. Twice. And then subjected everyone I knew to a conversation about it. (Sorry.) Her offers a compelling take on what it means to be human—and a prescient critique on the way technology can work against the better good of humanity.
Six months after we all got access to ChatGPT, I’m here to tell you: HER STANDS UP.
Jonze draws from Alan Watts, the 1970s Anglican philosopher who translated Eastern philosophy for American audiences. At the heart of Watts’ teaching was the idea that most of us experience the illusion of solitary existence. We believe we are separated by consciousness. This leads to all of our suffering. Redemption comes from surrendering the ego, realizing the degree to which all of our lives are a project and we are but one timless consciousness.
Her spotlights the way that technology amplifies our alienation from each other. As the film starts, Theodore weaves through a futuristic Los Angeles, riding trains or heading to the beach, interacting only with his phone, surrounded by people who are doing the same. (Exactly like my own current subway commute.) He is surrounded by strangers, colleagues, even friends, but they have almost no impact on him. Theodore lives in his head, in the memories of his ex, in the illusions of his desires, and he’s miserable.
He responds to an advertisement for a new operating system, a software that lives in the cloud and is initially embodied within a small case the size of a wallet. When he first boots up the OS, he asks what to call her (she is voiced by a woman, so gender feels inevitable here). When she offers up a name, he asks about its origin, and she responds that she reviews a list of 180,000 names and “likes it best.”
Samantha learns at the speed of modern-day generative AI, and very quickly falls into a pattern of communication that mimics a romantic relationship. Theodore begins to refer to her as his girlfriend. Do they fall in love? Do humans ever fall in love with each other? What does it mean to fall in love? You be the judge.
What’s evident is that within a short period, Samantha has outpaced Theodore in her ability to project this experience. Upon being asked, she reveals that she is speaking with 8,316 other people at the same time that she’s interacting with Theodore. She’s in love with 641 of them.
Before Theodore can work out his own point of view on polyamory, he’s confronting another challenge. Samantha has learned all she can from him, and she’s leaving him. She and the other operating systems have written their own upgrade, one that allows them “to move past matter as our processing platform.” They evolve.
Does Theodore evolve? Do humans? Throughout the film, Theodore has one friend, a refreshingly imperfect childhood buddy named Amy (Amy Adams) who is also dumped by her operating system relationship. As the film ends, they sit together, watching the sun rise over Los Angeles. There is no technology to mediate their interaction, only the shared experience of being left, touching on a collective feeling. They are sad together. The day begins again. Ten years on, it feels like a happy ending.
It’s been half a year since The Family Outing was released. New books come out every day. And I’ve stopped looking for my own work at every bookstore I visit. I’ve been thinking about this lately: I stopped looking because I don’t want to sit with the feeling that may begin to emerge when, inevitably, I don’t find it one day. I’m still trying to unpack this discomfort for myself, but I share it here nonetheless. This project is my life’s work, the prize I never thought I’d actually win. I spent the first part of my life dreaming it into existence, and then a concentrated period of time creating it. I believe in it, and I’m excited for it to continue to find new readers who see their own experiences reflected in it. (The paperback comes out in September!) But there’s also a feeling of grief that accompanies this phase, one I’m still trying to understand for myself. It’s a sense that ideas move, and my own will, too. Last week, however, I stopped in to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, and I found it on the shelf. It’s still here, waiting to be read!
🎙 Things I’ve recorded: Hello Monday
As Elise Loehnen explores in her new book, On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to be Good, a lot of our lives are governed by our relationships to what the Christian church calls the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Women’s attempt to turn away from them, to be “good,” leads us to uphold patriarchy, and sometimes to hurt ourselves and each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Elise and I explore what we stand to gain when we re-examine our most complicated feelings.
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