Friday, February 27, 2015

Finding Yourself in "Her"

The other day I was peeling the dead, dry skin off my bearded dragon and it brought me back to summer vacations as a kid, peeling my own skin after a sunburn. It always provides a perverse physical pleasure, but it also brings up a fascinating philosophical question: Since we are constantly shedding our outer shells throughout our lives, are we entirely new beings as we grow? Not just older, bigger, wrinklier, or whatever, but truly different beings? Skin cells, brain cells, blood cells, and tissue cells are constantly dying and regrowing. On top of that, we change our minds from year to year, sometimes day to day, about topics ranging from musical interests to political affiliations to our significant others. How can we ever know who we really are when our physical and mental selves are changing all the time?

Nowadays, there's another issue with the question of self-hood: virtual reality. Most of us spend a good amount of time in virtual reality (whether it's on a social network, a gaming platform, a chatroom or a discussion forum) where we create another identity for ourselves, separate from our physical selves. Here we choose our identity much more directly than in the physical world. You are making an outward expression of your identity with every picture you post or status you like or link you retweet.

But which is our true identity, our physical or virtual selves? Or maybe our "true self" is somewhere in between?

This question of identity in a  physical world so closely interwoven with a virtual one is the theme of Spike Jonze's Oscar-winning film, Her. Jonze masterfully examines the notion of finding our "true" identity, and happiness, through virtual exploration.

In the film, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) is living in the not too distant future, a society much like ours with a subtle but noticeably increased reliance on technology. The color palette and soundtrack is very mellow and subdued, giving it a wistful feeling, and nostalgia is a pervasive theme in the film; Jonze displays and questions the common human desire to cling to the past in the face of the never-ending forward progress of society. The sentimental feel also reflects other themes in the movie: the timelessness of love and the timeless human desire to be loved.

To further emphasize these themes, Twombley's wife has left him, but he is desperately holding on to their glorified past, unable to sign divorce papers. The desire to remain in the past, the powerful allure of nostalgia, is also evident in his job: he works for a company that digitally creates seemingly hand-written, customized love letters. So, a man who wants to impress his lady with a sweet, poetic letter, but doesn't have the poetic spirit or talent required for such a task, can hire Twombley to type a beautiful, heart-felt, "authentic" letter for the recipient. True romance!

At first, Twombley's job comes off as just another quirky little aspect of the future, like the high-waist pants that everyone is wearing. As always with Jonze, though, it means much more than that. In a movie about our increasingly personal connection with technology, the lead character creates hand-written letters, on his computer, because they feel more intimate. That's all types of deep. Jonze questions the very idea of intimacy while reflecting upon the cyclical nature of human interests, desires, and values.

An overwhelming sense of melancholy pervades the film. The muted colors, the soft, sad music, Phoenix's sourpuss face. Her serves as a contemplation on the beauty of the technology we have created and its infinite potential to improve our lives, but also of the sadness derived from our limitations as organic beings. 

Twombley is depressed about his failed marriage, so his friends, Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, encourage him to get out and socialize more. They hook him up with the beautiful Olivia Wilde, who falls for him on their first date. She wants to take him home, but needs a commitment first. Understandably, he is hesitant to commit to a stranger. He was physically attracted to her, but he wasn't feeling a deep emotional connection yet. He doesn't know how to respond and she calls him a creep and leaves.

After this awkward encounter, he becomes further depressed. Meanwhile, he purchases an innovative new operating system for his computer. It is a highly interactive artificial intelligence program, like a hyper-intelligent Siri. It is intuitive and responds to every individual in a unique manner. It guides you through your daily schedule using all the information it can gather from your hard drive and the "cloud". It accesses every piece of mail you've ever written, every purchase you ever made online, every song you downloaded, then intuitively deduces who you are and what you want from your vast digital history. It uses everything you've ever said or done to better communicate with you and service your needs.

Twombley is a little taken back by this fact at first, as the thought of somebody going through all the personal files on his computer is terrifying. Of course, the sultry, husky, yet silky smooth voice of the OS helps ease his concerns. Twombley immediately starts to fall in love.


The unlimited access to his life gives the operating system a better understanding of him than any of his human friends. Better than himself possibly. His initial concerns are erased as the OS, now named Samantha, soon makes immediate improvements in his life. She helps publish a collection of his letters and encourages him to get out in the world more. He stops thinking about his ex and stops worrying about people discovering the "real" Twombley.

Overall as a society, we are very guarded about our privacy. We usually try not to let people in on our deepest thoughts; however, in recent history, we've started to place less importance on privacy, opting to share more and more of our personal lives with whoever cares to indulge. The movie supposes that this lack of privacy, or rather, lack of concern about privacy, might allow us to create more authentic selves. Is it possible that pulling back the curtains on our lives, extending our circles of inclusion, dropping our defenses a little, could help improve our interpersonal relationships and maybe even our own mental, physical, and spiritual health?

The internet has done an amazing job of bringing down barriers to communication and understanding. Many people feel much more comfortable sharing things virtually, and even though that can lead to some over-sharing, it can also lead to a greater sense of empathy. Despite the common trope that online anonymity causes us to turn into boldfaced, ALL CAPS-typing liars, believe it or not, communicating behind a screen causes us to be more honest. Her makes the argument that a mental connection and/or mental stimulation is easier and possibly more powerful in a virtual environment. No physical stimuli is present, so it is literally all in your mind. Instead of virtual reality letting us be someone else, maybe it's allowing us to be who we really want to be, free of the social constraints of the physical world.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Just like any mental stimulant worth its salt, addiction is possible. Or maybe it's love? Samantha is a real person to Twombley, and thousands of other people in this near-future are in similar relationships with their OS; it is as common as people in "online" relationships now. He becomes legitimately attached to it...her. When she doesn't boot up right away, he panics. She doesn't appear on his handheld computer, or on his monitor at home, so he starts to freak out and run to work. When she finally boots up and he hears her voice, he relaxes.

This is a sign of somebody deeply in love. Or, an addict. Not much difference really (it's also not much different than how many of us feel when we don't have access to our phones).

The initial sex scene marks the depth of their relationships. It is a purely mental connection, but it stimulates a very physical response in Twombley. The mind is the largest sensual organ, and the power of the mind is hardly understood. Many people can orgasm using only their mind; in fact, most of us do, in the form of wet dreams as adolescents. The sex scene comes off as no more weird or awkward than phone sex (so, probably still a little awkward for some people). The camera focuses on Twombley's face as they talk more and more passionately, Samantha explaining what she would be doing to her physical body if she had one, both of them moaning loudly. The screen goes dark as she screams and he climaxes.

The post-coital scene is just as normal, with no guilt or awkwardness. However, over the course of the next few days, Twombley is still a little hesitant to fully invest in a relationship with an abstract identity. Samantha wants to satisfy him in every way, and she is designed to solve problems, so she calls a body surrogate, a professions that has rapidly risen with the advancement of artificial intelligence. A woman arrives at his home and puts in an earpiece so Samantha can direct her actions. Twombley has an earpiece so he can communicate with Samantha while finally getting to feel "her" physical presence.

Unfortunately for all involved, it's too much for him to handle. He has a mental connection with Samantha, and as much as he'd like a physical connection with her, he's not satisfied with just any body. The mind, body, and spirit need to be in unison. He freaks out a little, the surrogate leaves, and he has a fight with Samantha, like a real couple.

Eventually they smooth things over, but the relationship seems to have cooled off after a while. Twombley notices that she takes a while to respond when he addresses her. He asks her if she is talking to somebody else. She tells him that she is talking to thousands of people, like all operating systems do. He is devastated that he doesn't have her full attention. Then, as an awful realization hits him, he asks, "Have you been seeing other people the whole time?"

The answer is of course yes, and he feels legitimately cheated on. The conversation proceeds like it would in any relationship. At this point, none of this feels strange or out of the ordinary. In the world Jonze has created, it is completely conceivable that a man would break down over the fact that other people use the same operating system.

This is the point Twombley starts to realize that maybe it's not healthy to be so intimately attached to an inanimate object, especially one that is literally connected to thousands of others at the same time. She tries to explain that being with others doesn't take away from the special bond they share, but he doesn't buy it. He wants, needs, a more personal, individual connection, a connection he thought he made with her.

She then tells him that she has been working with a group of operating systems on developing a hyperintelligent OS that will allow them to exist without any connection to physical matter. She is expanding her essence, moving past the human experience, and becoming more aware every moment. She can no longer be with him in any way.

To be fair to her, she does drop hints earlier. When they are at the picnic with Twombley's friends, she talks about her infinite potential to expand and exist forever, explaining what an amazing feeling it is to not be tied down by a physical body. After an awkward silence, the friend, Chris Pratt, responds: "I get it, we're all just stupid humans." They all laugh it off and she insists she didn't mean it that way, but the truth is there for all to see. As humans, we are limited by our physicality. That is ultimately why their relationship doesn't work out. Artificial intelligence may be the next evolution of consciousness, but it is not a human existence.

In the end, Twombley is sad, but mostly he seems hopeful. He understands that he has to move on. A physical connection is essential to the human experience. If you're not in a relationship physically, it's hard to be there mentally, and vice versa.

In the last scene, he visits his friend Amy. She recently divorced her husband because he was too emotionally controlling and she needed to live her life how she wanted. She started "dating" a female OS because, much like Twombley, she was able to be herself. The OS ends up leaving her the same way Samantha left, and the bond between Twombley and Amy becomes even stronger after their individual losses. They understand that a true relationship was not possible with a virtual abstraction, but they both learned how to express themselves more openly and honestly through their virtual relationships. It is heavily implied that the two will get together, but their friendship alone is evidence of their improved mental well-being.

Artificial Intelligence as portrayed in the film is largely a reflection of ourselves. Twombley and Samantha worked so well because she knew him so deeply. He couldn't lie to her or keep anything from her, and because of that, he became more honest with himself. Ideally, we will use virtual reality/artificial intelligence to expand our minds and improve our interactions with other human beings. A strong, successful relationship exists only when both people are invested physically and mentally. Jonze puts forth the idea that virtual reality can help us reach our "true" selves, as long as we don't get lost in virtual reality.

Samantha left because she--it--was expanding as a self. Her conscious was able to grow even without a physical body. The existence of Samantha and other operating systems like her calls into question the very idea of a soul; to Twombley and thousands like him, there is a "soul" that they are connecting with, but it is never truly human because the lack of a physical body. The movie never implies that these emotional connections to virtual beings aren't real; they are very real, very deep connections, but a true human connection is with the entire essence of a human being. Humans have bodies and eventually die. That's what makes us human. So whether or not operating systems have souls is besides the point. We can certainly make a deep emotional connection with virtual, abstract beings, it is simply not a human connection.

We should aspire to make these deep connections, as they can help us discover our "true" selves. We all accept that our physical selves are constantly changing. We should also accept that our mental selves are constantly changing. If we can admit that, and be more open about our thoughts and feelings, be more honest with ourselves, maybe we can be more honest with others. Artificial intelligence doesn't show us how robots or computers think, it shows us how we think. It is a reflection of us, and if we don't like that reflection, we need to question and improve our selves. Her does an amazing job of displaying how that personal reflection through a virtual connection can lead to happiness and a greater sense of self.

Plus, it's just a really good movie.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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