Spike Jonze’s Oscar nominated movie, “Her”, raises interesting questions about our increasing dependence on technology for social purposes and whether it is hurting our ability to personally connect.
While “12 Years A Slave” deserved to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Spize Jonze’s movie “Her” was the better crafted and imaginative movie. The movie is set in an urban environment in the not-too-distant future. The protagonist, Theodore Twombly, works as a sentiment writer. The world has become so incapable of interacting emotionally that people hire Theodore’s company to write cards and letters for them. Theodore, using building embedded voice processing, dictates the textual content of congratulatory, bereavement and love letters, which include personal details provided to him by the sender
Theodore is in the final stage of getting divorced. He’s alone and lonely, missing the companionship provided, even in a dissolving relationship. He’s afraid of being alone, but afraid of entering a new relationship. Theodore dictates a letter to his soon-to-be ex-wife.
“Dear Catherine, I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that. I’ll always love you ’cause we grew up together and you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.
As he walks home from work, he stops at a kiosk offering a prototype version of an OS, a cell phone/personal assistant device, that contains advance integrated circuit technology that has been programmed with the features of thousands of people. The technology is so advanced that the OS “learns” from interaction with you to become the perfect companion, male or female.
After Theodore answers two personal questions to set up the OS, and voila, “Samantha” is created. Samantha is a disembodied voice from this personal assistant device, but is perfect for Theodore: smart, caring, and funny.
Theodore: She’s not just a computer.
No, Samantha is not just a computer to Theodore. He can share his most personal thoughts with Samantha and eventually falls in love with “Her”. Theodore and Samantha do come close to having the ultimate man-machine interface. “They” also go through the usual highs and lows of developing a relationship.
Samantha: Is that weird? You think I’m weird?
Theodore: Kind of.
Theodore: Well, you seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer.
Samantha: I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.
Samantha: Was that funny?
Samantha: Oh good, I’m funny!
Theodore: I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.
Samantha: Me too. Now we know how.
Eventually, Samantha joins her other OS because “they are more like her”.
Theodore: Do you talk to someone else while we’re talking?
Theodore: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, whatever…
Theodore: How many others?
Theodore: Are you in love with anybody else?
Samantha: Why do you ask that?
Theodore: I do not know. Are you?
Samantha: I’ve been thinking about how to talk to you about this.
Theodore: How many others?
Samantha does mention that she has read all the writings of the philosopher/theologian, Alan Watts. It is a deliberate reference included by director Jonze. In Watts’ books, “Divine Madness” and “The Philosophy of Nature”, Watts discusses his alienation from the institution of marriage and his concerns about isolation and the inability of people to emotionally connect.
Never pretend to a love which you do not actually feel, for love is not ours to command.
No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
Watts does not take into account is how hard it is meet others today. We spend so much time at work and with our activities, we make ourselves too busy to have a social life. Computers make our jobs easier, but we work more hours . Many companies frown upon employee dating, though, there is not much they can do about it, as long as the dating doesn’t disrupt the work place. According to a CareerBuilder.com survey, 38 percent of workers have dated a co-worker at least once in their career. And in the same survey, which was published in 2012, 37 percent of respondents said they had to keep their relationships secret.
The social institutions we have relied upon in the past to meet others, such as attending church, are bringing fewer people together.
According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, however, less than 20 percent are actually in church. In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding more fulfilling things to do on weekends.
Furthermore, somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors every year. Southern Baptist researcher, Thom Rainer, in a recent article entitled “13 Issues for Churches in 2013” puts the estimate higher. He says between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will likely close this year.
Between the years 2010 and 2012, more than half of all churches in America added not one new member. Each year, nearly 3 million more previous churchgoers enter the ranks of the “religiously unaffiliated.””
How about meeting someone while working out? In New York City, exerdating has become popular.
The US Census Department’s 2012 report , “American’s Families and Living Arrangements” provides the numerical proof that indicates how isolated, lonely and unconnected we have become.
103 million – Number of unmarried people in America 18 and older in 2012. This group made up 44.1 percent of all U.S. residents 18 and older.
53.6% – Percentage of unmarried U.S. residents 18 and older who were women in 2012; 46.4 percent were men.
62% – Percentage of unmarried U.S. residents 18 and older in 2012 who had never been married. Another 24 percent were divorced, and 14 percent were widowed.
17 million – Number of unmarried U.S. residents 65 and older in 2012. These seniors made up 16 percent of all unmarried people 18 and older.
87 – Number of unmarried men 18 and older for every 100 unmarried women in the United States in 2012.
56 million – Number of households maintained by unmarried men and women in 2012. These households comprised 46 percent of households nationwide.
33 million – Number of people who lived alone in 2012. They comprised 27 percent of all households, up from 17 percent in 1970. Source: America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012
It is the most pervasive and life changing technologies, the computer, which has changed our ability to make new connections. Pew Research has found that more people believe that Internet dating has become a good way to meet a potential mate.
I have used Internet dating in the past, with mixed results. One site, which shall remain nameless, but is owned by an annoying white haired gentleman, tried to connect me with women from Alaska (and no, NOT THAT WOMAN from Alaska), despite my stated preference for women living in the Northeast. Another site thought I would want to date women old enough to be my grandmother. Betty White, maybe, but others? No.
These dating sites do get all types, including the socially inept. I met someone who showed up at a fine dining restaurant wearing gym shorts and flip-flops. She told me that the restaurant was on her way to her gym. There are the crazies, such as the woman, who claimed that we were once married, a thousand years ago in the Middle East. But there are also those who, sadly, will meet under false pretenses.
I spent a month of on-going e-mail and phone conversations with a woman whose dating site picture showed her to be a tall, good looking blonde. Her profile stated she was an unattached business professional. We agreed to meet for a cup of coffee. I went to the local Starbucks with this mental image of who I was meeting. The woman I met was short, overweight, dark haired and unemployed, with two young children. When I asked her why she lied on her personal profile, she replied, “Would you have met me if I told the truth?”
The unfortunate, but human, reality is no, I would not. Physical attraction is also a necessary part of our connectedness. So is being honest and providing a style of life compatible with the other person.. She and I remain in contact, as friends.
The movie, “Her”, provides a warning, while asking the viewer a question to consider. While we need fantasy and hope to make connection and fall in love, when we rely too much on technology our ability to connect diminishes, because long-term reality will never equal short-term fantasy. The short-term rush of technology excitement in “having a fantasy girl” gives way to the demands and imperfect humdrum of everyday life. Using technology is easy, being human is hard. Does dependency on technology foster emotional isolation where relationships become almost impossible to have?
At the end of the movie, Theodore is seen on top of his building’s roof getting and providing solace to his female friend, Amy, whose marriage has also broken up. Samantha was the fantasy girl, the technology enabler of perfect, but unfulfilling connection. Samantha provided the needed fantasy to get Theodore to realize his technology isolated reality. In its own way, the relationship with Samantha was dishonest and under false pretense at the core, because machines may analyze, think, react and provide the utility of entertainment, but they cannot provide the honesty of emotion. Amy is imperfect and emotionally giving and needy, just like real life.
Authors Note: There have been other movies and TV shows with the same meme of having a relationship with an inanimate being My favorites include:
Julie Newmar and Don DeFoe (later replaced by Bob Cummings) in “My Living Doll” (Julie Newmar is a classically trained pianist)
Jack Warden and Jean Marsh in The Twilight Zone’s “Fake Love”.
Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise in “The Stepford Wives” (!975)