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The Value of Face-to-Face Relationships Versus Technology

I was mildly surprised by my reaction to Spike Jonze’s latest film Her, which I watched with my housemates last week. I admittedly harboured some preconceptions when I sat down to watch the film; I was aware of the hype and critical acclaim it had generated, and had Rotten Tomatoes’ buzzwords ‘sweet, soulful and smart’ fresh in my mind. While it is certainly ‘smart’, with its loaded ethical considerations, I found it slightly too creepy to be considered ‘sweet’, and the adjective ‘soulful’ is somewhat ironic, given that the title character is machine-generated. The entire concept behind the film was so alien, and so unnerving, that it invoked a vague sense of nausea that inhibited my enjoyment of an otherwise beautifully executed and well-lauded film. Her was paradoxically repelling and compelling, and incredibly believable. It made me think about the relationship between man and machine, and I found myself questioning the value of real human interaction.

The story revolves around protagonist Theodore Twombly’s flourishing relationship with an ‘OS’, or computer operating system, embodied and personified through an earpiece, camera contraption, and the voice that comes out of the earpiece and flirtatiously calls itself ‘Samantha’. If I sound sceptical, it is because I was so nearly seduced by the concept, and consequently cling even harder to my cynicism. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha in Her is undeniably convincing, if we ignore such niggling issues as its claustrophobic nature and the odd power balance (Samantha’s manipulative power: the fact that she is designed to be irresistible and so Theodore becomes semi-dependant on her, versus the fact of her physical impermanence and the fact that he can literally switch her off). Her manages to question whether relationships must necessarily involve human interaction, and if not, whether we can in some way be aided by technology in our quest to banish loneliness.

Jonze sets Her in the not-so-distant future, only a little over a decade away in 2025, and the sci-fi elements of Twombly’s futuristic city are believably realistic; scarily so. It is not just the narrow time frame that renders it so proximate, but the consideration that a decade ago social media was in its embryotic stages, whereas we are currently seeing the emergence of futuristic technologies such as Google Glass, and Apple’s Siri is now a part of daily life. Technological progression is fast, widely accepted, and universally affecting. It is little wonder, then, given its pervasiveness, that technology has transformed contemporary social interaction. What elements of Her’s technological vision are relevant to us, now? And should we be scared of Jonze’s robotic future?

The nineties generation is increasingly reliant on technology to organise and maintain their social lives; Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, LinkedIn and Instagram have become the fabric of our vocabularies. It only takes a short search on Google for the growing doctrine of ‘cyberpsychology’, to highlight the myriad issues surrounding these media, including shorter attention spans, life dissatisfaction, ‘devotion to devices’, and social media addiction issues. This is merely scratching the surface; the changing face of human relationships is a far more complex consideration. In fact, it would seem that a whole new vocabulary is needed to define the effects of our persistent social media usage; John Suler’s groundbreaking article on the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’ explores such issues as ‘dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority’ in transforming the way we interact online. For simpler reading/watching, Shimi Cohen’s short film ‘The Innovation of Loneliness’ addresses the central fact of social media; that it has the power to catalyse a loneliness epidemic. Rather than banishing loneliness, it rather increases our sense of isolation.

Jonze’s Her may portray a (mostly) successful relationship between man and machine, but the reality is that we are not there yet. Current online interaction is characterised by premeditation, shallow witticisms and lack of depth, while lasting relationships are built around mutual understanding and meaningful communication. The reason Theodore and Samantha are able to fall in love in Her is because ‘Samantha’ is humanised; she is the next best thing. And this is the key: however advanced our technologies become, nothing can replace genuine, human interaction.

 

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Mhairi studies English Literature at the University of Bristol and so spends a lot of her waking hours reading novels, plays, essays and poetry. Also writing; she has written for Inter:Mission, the university's culture magazine, and sporadically writes something vaguely remembling poetry...Her desk commands a sweeping view of the city in all its glory, and from her room she likes to listen in on the conversations of the people in the street below (actually, she doesn't have much choice; student house = single glazing). While she loves Bristol, she likes to escape the city (and people) most weekends and regularly haunts the Lake District or Snowdonia with the Expeditions Society.
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