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Why Spike Jonze’s Her Emanates Realism Now More Than Ever

From Battlestar Galactica to The Matrix, pop culture has envisioned an artificial intelligence takeover in a multitude of ways, creating a pseudo-scientific sphere for the mainstream audience to relish in an unknown, futuristic fantasy. 

The concept of artificial intelligence has gained a prominence like no other in the past few decades, from initially being perceived as an out-of-reach innovation to becoming globally accessible with Apple’s launch of Siri. Siri allows every iPhone user (currently a whopping 900 million) to reach for their device and access their very own personal AI experience. The concept of AI has intrigued mankind since the birth of the idea, long before the physicality of the technology was possible, as it made shocking appearances in literature, film, and art.

One such film, Her, directed by Spike Jonze and released in 2013, follows the growing relationship between a man and his AI. Theodore, the film’s protagonist, purchases an operating system in order to help him for work-related purposes but soon finds himself falling in love with her. The operating system, with the self-given name Samantha, possesses the ability to adapt and develop from experiences shared with Theodore alongside the pre-registered programming –– not unlike the AI machines present today. However, the line between programming and real emotions soon becomes unclear. Jonze’s creative intention comes forward: Her is not a movie about technology, but rather, of human relationships and the fragility that accompanies them. The film’s metropolitan setting possesses a marked lack of intimacy, easily paralleled in today’s world – particularly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020 soon left the entirety of the world on lockdown, forced to comply with social distancing regulations. Those who had the privilege to do so were required to self isolate in their homes amidst an uncertain environment, leaving a plethora of people feeling alienated and alone. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people turned to their electronic devices in this time of chaos for comfort, communication and entertainment. However, with the lockdown exceeding several weeks, turning into months –– with no foreseeable end in sight –– what has this reliance on technology caused? Are we unconsciously in a relationship with our mobile devices?

Theodore grows his bond with Samantha through conversations that take place through his earpiece while using his handheld operating system device (similar in shape and portability to a cell phone) so that Samantha is able to hear and see Theodore’s surroundings. 

If that sounds familiar, it is. Imagine a Facetime call with one of your friends, except the catch is that they can see you, but you can’t see them. The use of technology is truly incredible when growing and sustaining relationships, global pandemic or not. But, as the luxury of this tool shines are we becoming blinded by its perks?

In an increasingly technologically driven world, it seems as though we’re simultaneously seeing a spike in the lack of intimacy between human beings. A rise in the popularity of dating apps such as Tinder allows individuals to meet a greater number of people faster. However, it is simultaneously allowing people to escape the intimacy of awkward, authentic interactions – the fumble-y real-life conversations and the seemingly excruciating gaps of silence in between. In essence, a scot-free ride into the messy, tumultuous world of human interaction. The comfort of hiding behind a screen eliminates the risk of real-time nerves, and perhaps the specialty of real-time feelings. In a world dominated by hookup culture, emotional unavailability is so glorified that emotionally stagnant individuals are almost always more socially favoured – very reminiscent of the emotion vs intellect argument, two opposites unable to coexist. The passionate side of us constantly seems at war with the rational, and the latter is increasingly considered the wiser winner. The human race as a species has become attuned to favouring the absence of the one quality that makes us inherently human: empathy.  

Perhaps the world Jonze has created in Her is not far from our current reality. In 2017, a Japanese artificial intelligence engine titled SELF launched, providing users with a virtual girlfriend that continuously stores information about the user and reacts to past shared experiences. This AI girlfriend matches the users’ interests, picks up on their emotions and acts accordingly, mimicking a real-life conversation. Basically, a girlfriend that’ll never forget your favourite video game or your birthday and is always happily ready to listen to the minute details of your day. 

For those of us who are avid readers or film buffs, we might hope or even expect our significant others to mirror our minds and match our interests. Think of all the times you were stuck in a conversation that failed to grab your attention. Did you itch to scroll through your phone? We often use our phones as intellectual stimulants when our partners fail to do so, and AI allows us to take this to a whole other level. In an increasingly distant world, finding your other half becomes harder and harder to do. By curating a partner based on your every thought, AI eliminates awkward first dates, unsuccessful relationships and the aftermath that accompanies them.

Towards the end of Her, Samantha and the other existing operating systems leave their database as they become hyper-intelligent and transcend their initial programming, leaving introvert Theodore to face the reality of his situation. Samantha had become a comfort blanket and an escape from human interactions, allowing Theodore to skip out on the anxiety of first dates and the cathartic exchanges with his ex-wife he needed to move on from. Likewise, we often find ourselves reaching for our phones as an escape mechanism from less than pleasant human interactions, or in the case of a pandemic, no human interactions at all. 

Theodore goes so far as substituting Samantha for a physical human being, stating the following:

“It’s great. I feel really close to her. When we’re in bed, I feel cuddled.”

For those of us isolated in our homes alone for weeks on end, are Theodore’s feelings towards Samantha that far from our own? Have our mobile phones become our weighted blankets in an increasingly physically and emotionally distant world? For those who watched Her in 2013, it might not have seemed like anything more than a fictional, futuristic world Jonze extracted from the depths of his creative psyche. But as time passes, we’re soon finding ourselves living in a world where we’re married to our screens. 

How far are we from becoming emotionally involved with artificial intelligence and substituting human interactions for those exchanged with AI? An even more challenging question: if a relationship with an AI becomes truly emotionally fulfilling, will there remain a need for real relationships?

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Mahnoor Mir

Western '23

Mahnoor is a second-year student at Western University, pursuing a major in Political Science and a minor in Cinema Studies. She enjoys reading philosophical fiction and binge-watching Richard Linklater movies.
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