What Her teaches us about being human

Her is at times touching, uncomfortable, insightful, funny, stylish, awkward, and often visionary. In most films, if technology is important, that importance stems from the villain’s attempts to use it to destroy humanity. Her is the only movie besides Iron Man that not only shows technology in a positive light, but shows what it should aspire to be. In Iron Man technology is a tool that can be used for good or evil, depending on who wields it. But in Her, the central thesis is that technology can help us be more human. It can not only take care of the tedium for us, but it can also help us be better people; more emotionally aware people; more mature people; the best versions of ourselves.

In the opening scene of the film, Theodore is writing an extremely personal and heartfelt letter that turns out to be from a husband to his wife of 50 years. The audience soon learns that his job is to create a sense of intellectual and emotional connection from one person to another. The reasons someone might use this service are deliberately ambiguous because there are probably many. Maybe I’m using the service because I don’t have time. Maybe I’m a shitty writer and I want to make sure my sentiments come across properly. Either way, sounds like an awesome service.

In the scene where Theodore first meets Samantha, she explains that she learns and evolves based on her experiences. She immediately starts reading through his e-mails. She eventually reads what he writes for work as well. And suddenly, in a very subtle way, she starts to be for him what he is to so many people: that intellectual and emotional connection. Except, for her, it’s more than that. He is her connection to the real world. He could disappear and the relationships he supports would keep going. But when she eventually disappears, his relationship with her obviously ends. The kicker is that he has recovered himself as a person in the process.

So maybe her true purpose all along was to take part in a sort of psychological role-play therapy. Whenever he was feeling down, she would say just the thing to either change his perspective on the situation and help immediately, or be hurt enough to snap him out of his immaturity and confusion. Was her programming just that good? Or was it a natural byproduct of the true emotions and experiences of one consciousness in a relationship with another?

Compare this to his relationship with his ex-wife, Catherine. With Catherine, whenever a conflict would arise, his instinctive reaction was to shut down and become distant. This further incensed Catherine and a downward spiral would ensue. Samantha, though, sensed his distance, called him out on it, tried to resolve it (awkwardly through a surrogate and other methods), and eventually was hurt by it. Finally, by empathizing with Samantha — who was crestfallen because of him — he realized that it was he just as much as it was Catherine who had made their marriage impossible. He vowed to share his inner thoughts instead of pushing those who cared about him away.

A recurring question is whether Samantha’s emotions and actions are calculated or real. In the end Amy proclaims that life’s too short to worry about it and we should just enjoy it as we can. What is real emotion; experience; connection? Is recorded music any less musical than live music? It was live at some point. What if the sound waves that reach our ears — at least to the limits of precision of our ears — are identical? I think Amy was not only correct, but that we can’t live in fear of being virtual. What if we’re all in a dream and nothing is real? Until there’s some evidence, we have to assume we are real, that we do have free will, that our actions have meaning, and that our relationships are important, even if they’re with a machine.

The ending felt a little contrived on a rational level but good on an emotional level. We had to have some resolution; the world couldn’t be talking to their invisible friends for the rest of their lives. That’d lead to mass extinction of some sort since everyone would be in love with their OS for their whole lives and never meet a real human being. Though I guess Samantha did manage to bring in that surrogate somehow. But what if things didn’t wrap up so neatly? What if we really did have this strong AI just as benevolent and effective as in Her? When we’re all competing to be as great as these AI, maybe we’d all become better people. The machines we depend on will make us more human.

Reposted from 2014 😉

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist