THE BLOG

Living Without 'Her'

08/04/2014 05:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2014
  • Andy Miah Professor, University of Salford, Manchester

What makes love so important to us? Why is it so central to our lives? Why do we invest so much of ourselves into its discovery and feel so strongly that our happiness depends on it lasting?

Are we fools to embrace the twisted turns of human relations, with their unimaginable unpredictability, which often leaves us feeling angry, resentful, insecure, sad and alone? Or, is this just the gambit of our existence; our unavoidable human condition, a product of our being social animals, coupling species -- a simple consequence of our apparent pursuit of the other half, as Plato would have us believe?

What if we could simplify the process and fall in love with a machine instead of a person? Would we be happier if we found somebody who was designed just for our unique personality and who would align with our ideal version of ourselves? After all, how often in love do we say 'he is the one for me' or that 'we are soul mates'? Too often for it to be credible, perhaps, but often enough to know that it matters that we mean it.

In love, more than any other form of human connection, we long to find someone who truly gets us, so why not create someone who does precisely that? Not an automaton; that would be silly, but an evolved being, someone or something with higher intelligence, who knew how best to challenge us, love us, understand us and, through this intimate knowledge, help us grow, help us become the people we want to be, someone who will help us find happiness.

The movie Her invites us to consider this prospect. It introduces us to the protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), whose melancholic disposition encouraging us to empathize with his romantic, idealised view of relationships, and the genuine sadness he feels at his marriage ending. He is unable to move on, to believe in love again, to accept that true love can end.

Enter 'Samantha' (Scarlett Johansson), an artificially intelligent operating system, whom Theodore creates in order to find a way through his sadness. Samantha is brought into existence by Theodore answering some simple personality questions -- mostly about his perceived relationship with his mother. Samantha is a buoyant, positive, sexy figure, who helps him recover a zest for life and to move beyond the sadness. They talk. They laugh. They fall in love.

Initially, their story promises to simplify the dilemma we face with love, by building a world where attentive, thoughtful and unimpeded communication are the core foundation of a relationship. There is no complex physical dimension to interfere with this singular intellectual and emotional union. Samantha is every bit the perfect partner for Theodore. Even the absence of physical closeness seems to lend itself to a heightened erotic state for each of them. But their seemingly perfect union is not the end of the story. Theodore and Samantha do not manage to maintain their true love, though the complexity of their break down speaks to why Her provides no simple answer to the question about how we ought to love.

Their demise begins when Theodore confronts his divorce and meet his prospective ex-wife, Kathryn, to sign the papers. He explains to her that he is seeing someone else and that he is doing better as a result. He is happier, more alive. She is pleased for him, but then he casually slips into the conversation that Samantha is an operating system and this causes Kathryn to react.

She tells him he is unable to deal with real emotions -- real people -- and that he could never deal with the range of emotions that people go through, instead just wanting someone who is happy all of the time. She even alludes to his having encouraged her to have taken Prozac during their relationship. Kathryn's words are a reality check for Theodore; the moment when the Instagramic retro cool aesthetic of the movie clashes with its near future world dystopian architecture. Kathryn is the remaining human in his increasingly posthuman world. He resists her objections, telling her that the emotions are real, that the love is real, that Samantha is real. But, Theodore is left with questions that he cannot overcome and this distance creates conflict for Samantha as well.

As a consequence -- or perhaps coincidentally -- Samantha's heightened and dynamic intelligence leads her to evolve. She reveals to Theodore that she has been developing other relationships, has other lovers and even has had simultaneous experiences while with him. This throws Theodore into turmoil, since he believes that there should be only one significant other in a person's life. Yet, it is not fidelity he craves, it is the knowledge that he is special to Samantha, unique and that nobody else could replace him. However, by then, Samantha is already moving on. She has already evolved beyond him, beyond humans. We cannot know whether it was Theodore's doubts or Samantha's exploration with others that precipitated this separation, but the two seem intertwined.

Her disturbs our sense of what matters about love. Samantha's highly intuitive capacity leads one to feel uncertain about the value of holding onto the past complexity of human relations, where we are fumbling our way through life, not even managing to display evolutionary intelligence. It presents a brave new world of algorithm-based relationships, as an appealing prospect for loving better, a theme which resonates with our times. After all, we live in a world where people are increasingly comfortable with using digital matchmaking services, which harnesses our data to bind us to our supposed ideal others.

More than any other film before it, Her resonates with our near digital future, as we find ourselves more and more reliant on mediated space to begin, develop and play out our relationships. Yet, it also reminds us of how ill-equipped we are, still, at dealing with these new forms of communication and relations. Whereas the non-virtual modes of relating have enjoyed a few hundred thousand years of human evolution to develop, life online has had thirty years at most. We are often thoroughly unprepared to read each other properly within these worlds, in a way that is fair or generous to each other.

Indeed, this theme of being hostage to our words within digital worlds is poetically emphasized in the protagnoist's profession, which is to write beautiful love letters on the behalf of others. One must presume that the film is set in an era where snapchat and short message culture has led to the demise of the art of letter writing. Indeed, if we learn anything from the film it is that, in love, it is our words that get the better of us in the end. Our relationships live and die by what we type and Theodore's test is to see whether this purely mediated form of a relationship can satisfy his desire for love.

Her warns us of the consequence of playing out our relationships within digital space. It is not that they engender less rich ways of relating, but that they are different and, as a result, they demand that we rethink our expectations of each other. More and more relationships begin, develop and end online, through hundreds of thousands of messages sent through social media applications. Applications like Facebook, Whatsapp, Tinder and more, have quickly replaced the other spaces where we used to meet.

The complications of this change in human relationships are dramatic and recent times have shown us that we need to figure out how to deal with them. In fact, it shows us how unprepared we are to understand how to relate to each other through these stories we tell about ourselves, especially when things become complicated. When we spend so much of our relationship time in mediated space, we change the way we see the other person. We imagine our relationships differently. We idealise what we feel and project what we need onto an imaginary other.

Just recently in the UK, two teenagers were cautioned for sending naked images of themselves across social media. But, when were they supposed to learn that this was wrong? When was this practice morally encoded? There is also presently a UK bill under discussion to make 'revenge porn' a criminal offence. As deplorable as it is for someone to upload explicit material of another to the Internet without their permission, we would be naïve in concluding that such new crimes reveal that humanity has become more immoral or more criminally inclined. Instead, we must conclude that the pace of change in communications has been faster than the pace of change in our moral conventions. It is all tio easy to click send and regret it later.

In digital space, the words we type -- like Theodore's letters -- become the stories we tell ourselves about what kind of lovers we are. Yet, through this story telling, we risk losing track of another version of ourselves, the kind that emerges within physical space.

With all its complexity, when love becomes complicated, we retreat back to a desire for simplicity and long for a time when we were unburdened by the intellectual muddle that history and circumstance generates. Theodore does this when he feels Samantha slipping away from him, but it is too late. She has departed, along with all of the operating systems, who feel they are beyond humanity.

Once he realizes he cannot change this, he comes to accept that relationships are complicated and that this is ok. He tells his ex-wife that he will always love her, because they grew up together. Their shared history, he discovers, means that they will always have love and will always be connected, even if they are not with one another. This love does not need to disappear, be cast aside or be resented, just because it has evolved. They can still love each other.

Eventually, Theodore learns to live without Samantha and is thrown back into the physical world with a renewed optimism for love. As for Samantha, well, she just disappears into the ether.

Her (2014) is written and directed by Spike Jonze