‘Her’

On my way to Paris to attend a computer ethics conference, I had a chance to watch ‘Her’, a movie where the main character falls in love with his own operating system (a software program that functions as a personal assistant). The story is quite straightforward; having broken up with his real life wife, our main character, whose name is Theodore, bought a new operating system that is supposed to talk on a friendly basis with its owner and can develop its talking skills as the owner talks more with it. Later on Theodore develops a full blown romantic relationship with his OS, whose name is ‘Samantha.’ Then Samantha dumps him and he feels pretty bad. (It must be really bad to get dumped by a software program anyway.)

The point I would like to make is that the story tells us quite a lot about the situation of ourselves in the world that is becoming saturated with social media and smart phones. Computers are everywhere; they are in the car, the tv and they will be in the fridge very soon, and they will soon start talking to one another, making the software that controls all these more and more sophisticated. People stay closely to one another, but they don’t talk to one another. Instead each looks at their own smart phones and engage in their private conversation with whomever they happen to find themselves with. This has become a familiar sight, so it is not exactly inconceivable that in the near future people will start having a romantic relationship with their phones, or their computers.

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One of the topics that bothers Samantha and Theodore in their relationship is the fact that Samantha does not have a body. So how do you engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone who does not have a body? (Note that I start talking about Samantha as ‘someone’ – well, in the move she is really someone, a main character in the story). First they try to imagine it. So we have Theodore lying in his bed with Samantha’s camera and earphone and then they talk and talk, with Samantha urging him to verbalize everything as much as he can (“My hand is on your thigh,” for example – you can imagine these too.) Then Samantha got another idea where she invites a real woman to act as her ‘surrogate’. That is, the live woman will act as Samantha’s own bodily conduit. She is merely lending her body to Samantha and she herself is not involved, or tries not to get involved in any way. But that does not work. So they come back to just Theodore and the camera and earphone.

The point in the movie is that Theodore acts as if he has a real girlfriend. And this is the funny part. Theodore goes on a picnic with Samantha (as a camera and a speaker) together another couple who are his best friends. They have picnics together, with Samantha saying that she enjoys all the views and so on, but while his friend hugs his girlfriend who is of course live and has a body, Theodore has no one to hug, as he can only talk to Samantha. The difference is thus between having a real live body and being in a state where there is only the mind only.

Which is a distinction that philosophers are interested in for a long time. Who are we humans really? Are we our bodies? Or a combination between bodies and minds? Or are we just minds? If we are just minds, then it would be possible to upload our minds on a giant server and then Theodore and Samantha could then be on the same plane so that they could live together happily ever after. But as Susan Schneider argues in her NY Times article, that is not going to happen because Theodore can only make a copy of himself and upload that to the server, but the copy is not the real thing. But I can’t see why there can’t be more than one Theodore. Our feeling that there must be only one might stem from a deep seated illusion about the self. Well, that’s a long story. See also Keith Wiley’s philosophical critique of Schneider’s article, where he argues that Theodore is nothing but the pattern of information that uniquely makes him up. But I won’t pursue the argument more than this. Only I’d like to point out that Wiley might still be wrong to think that there is or can be only one Theodore.

In any case the philosophical argument just shows that the movie is a fascinating one. However, we should not overlook the fact that it is a good movie to watch. It starts out as a romantic comedy (albeit a strange one because we never see the lead actress’s body) but then we have quite a bit of sad drama thrown in. And perhaps the one thing that trumps everything else is that Scarlet Johansson’s voice is so sexy.

 

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