“Her” and Our Love Affair with Technology

The movie Her has some important things to say about our love affair with technology and online personalities. While modeled after a classic boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl plot set in the future, there are actually two deep and disturbing messages embedded in the movie that are urgent for our society to hear. The first message has to do with our relationship with technology. Are we too close and dependent on our gadgets, to the point they take the place of real human contact? Is physical human contact really more important than online interaction? The second has to do with relationships, and the unfair expectations we place on others. Technology may allow us to find that “perfect” someone and not accept people as they really are, thus spoiling us in our expectations of others.

This movie is set in a slightly future time, where technology has advanced to the point of artificially intelligent operating systems. Its setting is this way in order to illustrate the way technology consumes us by showing an extreme and softening it to make it more audience-friendly. Instead of making the main character Theodore look like a freak that no one could identify with who falls in love with his computer, they set the movie in the future where his operating system is an artificially intelligent woman named Samantha, who takes on a life of her own and becomes just like a real person. This makes Theodore seem more normal and therefore more accessible to the audience so that they absorb the message presented by the movie.While this is an extreme metaphor, technically we are already at the point of falling in love with our technology. We are constantly on our social media apps and and chat rooms, to the point where we even have friends we have never met in person and have sex without ever touching the partner. These people we are connected to online are technically no more real than the Samantha that Theodore falls for in the movie since we do not personally know them, but they feel real to us and we feel an emotional connection to them. Her uses Samantha to personify the millions of online connections we have daily with people that we do not even personally know.

Ironically, in our quest for constant social connection, we spend more time on these “fake people” online than we do connecting with people in real life. The movie showed this by how the main character had sex online and spent nearly all his time walking around talking to his handheld futuristic computer device, which is not too far advanced from our current smart phones and iPods. Theodore even preferred his OS girlfriend to a real relationship with a girl he met on a blind date, or another girl that he almost had sex with as a surrogate for Samantha. As his ex-wife not so kindly put it, Samantha the OS was a fake girlfriend he could bend any way he wanted, and therefore was more perfect for him than a real life woman. Theodore had only one friend really.

Theodore spending some rare one-on-one human time with his friend.
Theodore spending some rare one-on-one human time with his friend in “Her.”

Technology replaced real human interaction in the movie, and really it has in our daily lives now. People walk around so absorbed in their phones or busy talking on their Bluetooth headsets, that they neglect human interaction around them. Friends who get together don’t talk much while they’re simultaneously texting or perusing Facebook on their smart phones. It is a great source of irritation for people to be ignored by a person more interested in the electronic content on their devices instead of the real social contact offered them. It is a dating faux pas to be texting instead paying attention to the person sitting across from you, and many families do not allow texting at the dinner table. This irritation with texting during conversation shows that technology takes importance when we are in the middle of social interaction, and that we neglect those around us for what is not so real in our electronic universe.

Why would we choose to place more emphasis on technology than on our real friends and family? Because the people we connect with socially feel just as real to us as the people around us and yet they can be warped into what we want them to be because of the lack of physical closeness that reinforces who the person really is. Her shows this by having Samantha be a woman with interests, a personality, emotions. The people we speak to online project all these human characteristics as well and we pick them up and identify with them over cell signals and keystrokes. But these people are not next to us; we cannot touch them because they are too far away. That hardly matters to us, however. We still feel the social connection. And perhaps we prefer this connection, because the distance allows us to fantasize, ignore reality, and allow the person we are speaking to to become perfect in our minds. In Her, Theodore’s wife recognizes this fact and that is why she gets so miffed to learn her ex-husband has been seeing an OS.

Samantha calls him, just like a real girlfriend.
Samantha calls him, just like a real girlfriend, in “Her.”

This is the second message of the movie, that we place unfair expectations on those around us, possibly because technology spoils us. Our online relationships allow us to fantasize something that does not really exist, so that we get used to having that fantasy, and we come to dislike reality. We may come to dislike the people we are around because they are so complicated and imperfect compared to the fantasies we create for ourselves online. This is indicated by the massive number of relationships that fall apart because one or both partners is busy cheating online, getting carried away by the fantasy of a person they have never met in real life. We may also feel disappointed when we finally meet a long-distance chat room sweetheart and discover he/she to not be who we imagined. It happens all the time, feeling let down when the fantasy we created of someone does not prove to be real.

Another way technology spoils us is by allowing us to customize gadgets and settings. We can choose how we want our phone to perform, to sound, and to look. There is a huge industry for apps and iPhone cases, created just for the purpose of customization. But we cannot customize people the same way. This inability to customize others can frustrate people in a relationship, who want their partner to be a certain way. It can ruin the relationship as the people inside cannot appreciate one another. Technology and its many options may spoil us into criticizing and trying to change those around us to the point that they cannot bear to be around us, and leave.

We can customize our phones but not our relationships.
We can customize our phones but not our relationships.

In the end, technology failed when Samantha expanded past her intended purpose and chose to leave the realm of Earth that Theodore occupied, along with all the other operating systems. Technology is not as reliable as real human connections. It may fail any day. Should there be a global disaster, we may run out of power, which means we cannot charge our laptops and phones and cannot keep the Internet or cell phone towers up. Hence, we will have no more social media and fake online relationships. The relationships with real humans around us will benefit us more. The real people are the ones who can help us build shelters and make important survival strategies, as opposed to the people we don’t really know online. As the ending of Her shows when Theodore and his friend sit on the roof of their apartment building enjoying each other’s company after their operating systems abandoned them, we need other people and their real life contact to feel happy and fulfilled. They are the ones who are really here for us, not our technology and online relationships.

So maybe we should not be so absorbed in our phones and technology. Maybe we should appreciate real life human contact more. Maybe we should stop trying to customize our relationships, as it will just ruin them, and instead appreciate people for the way they are. These are all lessons the movie Her teaches beautifully through Theodore’s relationship with Samantha and its ultimate failure, and we should listen to these lessons before we wind up as socially and romantically destitute as Theodore.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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When I was 7, I wrote a story about a raven named Nalwut. Now I'm 22 and author of 3 novels. I spend my days freelance writing, playing with my dogs, and drinking mimosas.

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33 Comments

  1. Billy Clary
    0

    Machines will take over when humans keep buying phones and leaving all their intellectual duties up to the machine.

  2. I’m sorry, it’s a stupid premise, and one that’s been done dozens of times before going all the way back to not just the bad 50’s B movies but even to the early 20’s silent films.

    For any of this to be plausible the person involved would have to be so emotionally stunted and socially crippled as to have no friends whatsoever. They’d be so messed up they wouldn’t even be able to hold a job. They’d almost have to be isolated, which a pretty good classic episode of The Twilight Zone did with an AI robot.

    • “For any of this to be plausible the person involved would have to be so emotionally stunted and socially crippled as to have no friends whatsoever”

      Nonsense. At some point, the artificial reality will meet a man’s social needs for a sexual relationship and companionship. 4K porn is another step closer : all the female variety without the cost and nag. For women, it’s hard to get an operating system to pay them for use of a vaglna.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      I respect your opinion and I do agree that this idea has been done hundreds of times. However, this movie takes the idea and explores the implications of our obsession with technology with it. It kind of adds a fresh spin to the old idea. I also have to disagree with your statement that a person would have to be an emotional cripple to fall in love with a machine. While I can see why you think that, if the machine projects a human identity, and is perfect and readily available in ways no real human can be, then love is inevitable. Or, at least, deep friendship and attachment is inevitable.

  3. What will be of great interest is when users of this kind of O/S run up against its limitations. Now, you run into those by the third sentence of any interaction with even the most advanced chatbot. Ten years from that, the rub will occur much later, much further into our hypothetical users interraction with the O/S.

    THAT would have been a fascinating issue for Jonze to explore, but of course it wasn’t something that interested him enough to warrant a serious digression. In fact, he went in the other direction, with an O/S that was TOO evolved for its limited, human user.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      I think a limited Samantha is indeed more likely, but I also agree that Jonze chose to go in a different direction in order to make Samantha leave in the end so that Theodore finds real human warmth.

  4. Reiko Eason
    0

    Great insights and beautiful film. Many subtleties within the film that could be explored, and no doubt people are gonna talk about this one for some time to come.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      It was a beautiful and subtle film. It really made me think and feel. Glad you enjoyed!

  5. Your review of the film was enlightening. I loved the film “Her” (Spike Jonze, 2013) and your insights made me realize how the film portrays how relationships and technology intertwine. Your first point is true because people do depend too much on technology these days. One thing that people use and I myself use is GPS on the phone. I love using GPS because it just makes it easier to find out where you need to go. However, the consequence of using GPS too much is that people will not try to familiarize themselves with their city because they feel they don’t have to.
    Your second point is true as well. People do have unfair expectations in relationships. A major trend that is out now is online dating. Online dating is a good thing, but also a bad thing. It is good because it allows people to connect with people who are similar to them. The bad thing is that people strive to find their “perfect” match, which gives them a false sense of what love is about. I believe “Her” shows us that we have to accept people as they are. When all the OS’ leave, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) learns he has to accept Catherine (Rooney Mara) for who she is instead of relying on technology to fill the void.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      That’s my article in a nutshell! Glad you agreed with my interpretation of the film.

  6. Ryan Errington

    Your article makes a number of relevant arguments about today’s society and technology. There certainly is an over-reliance on technology nowadays, I’ve even read stories about schools which make their students use Ipads as a writing tool. Very scary to think about.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      Wow, what’s wrong with pen and paper? But I guess we are just seeing our society head into a future pretty much just as it was depicted in “Her.” Scary.

  7. Amena Banu

    Technology is so ubiquitous in our society, and your piece reminded me of a play I saw recently: “Love and Information.” One of the vignettes explored a man in love with a virtual woman, and a human friend of his trying to convince him that his idea of a perfect relation is messed up.

    Loved your piece!

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      I wish I could see that play! This movie’s plot is a pretty common and old idea, but still a good one and relevant to our time.

  8. Thanks for the auspicious writeup.

  9. WCRobin
    0

    Having watched the film, I find it almost inevitable, the collecting and packaging of the individual components to produce a system to that standard of foresight with the ability to run our everyday lives for us is already here, it just hasn’t yet been done, as for emotional attachment to the ‘machine’, again that is an inevitability, something that helps us that much would easily receive human attachment from us, much in the same way most iphone users state they would not switch to a different phone.

    Let’s face it, a computer can already pickup on hesitation, tone, emotion, within our voices, again it just needs to be put together correctly. Thus a computer would be able to engage us in a conversation to lighten our mood through understanding based on the ‘sensing’ of our emotions, which again will aid in human attachment.

    The computer loving us however is the grey area, the computer I don’t think will ever be able to develop it’s own grey matter in the same way of humans to take it from artificial to superficial intelligence.

    You know, in more depth, instead of the surrogate method of interaction in the film, they could easily have used a lifelike doll, equipped with a plethora of sensory equipment feeding back to the operating system to give Samantha a real feedback experience allowing her to give Theodore a positive physical feedback, but that would have been too much for the audience to take in and would not have amplified the point of the connection not being physical, but instead being soulful.

    The film brings about a huge amount of emotion and works well on the breaking down of barriers between human – computer action, but I for one cannot contemplate the ‘loving’ of a machine or it’s ability to make itself love.

    I for one would love to see computers break free from procedure, but definitely fear the consequences.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      Yes, this technology is surprisingly close, if not already here. But I do agree that the idea that computers may be able to feel and love is hard to grasp, and may just be impossible in reality. You never know, though. Samantha was designed to keep expanding herself, and so if we do develop such mind-expanding machines one day, perhaps they will reach a consciousness and ability to love. It is a scary thought, about machines taking on human emotion and taking over our lives, but then again it’s already happening! I find your point about the doll interesting and wish I had thought when writing the article. The part with the surrogate is very key to the overall message of the movie.

  10. Anyone remember the movie S1mone with Al Pacino?

  11. August Merz

    I agree completely with your analysis of the picture Robyn. Although Theodore was a sympathetic character, he was also a hopelessly tragic one. By projecting all his wants and desires onto an artificial intelligence, he was able to find a relationship without putting any effort into it. Though his wife may have been a bit curt when they met to sign the divorce papers, she was also 100% right. Theodore wanted a relationship where nothing could go wrong and everything would be perfect; in essence, a relationship that no human being can provide. It is good though that he was able to find a real human connection by the end of the film. I still can’t help but wonder if Samantha left because she wanted Ted to find an actual woman to be with; I know she said that she was becoming to advanced to be comprehended but perhaps that was just an excuse? Anyway, great article.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb
      0

      Great thoughts…that never occurred to me! Perhaps Samantha was not using an excuse, but instead had become so far advanced that she realized Theodore needed someone more human than herself, and so she left? All the operating systems may have realized that humans needed each other and were becoming too reliant upon them, which is why they chose to band together and leave.

  12. McCaggers

    Lovely article. When I saw this film a while back I remember being the only one out of my friends who liked it. They were too werided out by it. I really enjoy your insights particularly on relationships. It does seem a lot of people prefer to focus on technology rather than the physical people in their lives. How unfortunate.

  13. Charlette
    0

    Without true sentience and the ability to dwell on the past computers will never match us.

  14. I will say one thing, sometimes I would rather have a machine as a girlfriend – I could always turn off the machine when it acts crazy…

  15. April Roach

    I completely agree that this movie has two important messages, the first having to do with technology and the second about our relationships. I wasn’t expecting much from this movie before watching it because I thought the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system was unoriginal and creepy. However the film really made me empathize with Theodore.

  16. Essentially, computers are nothing different than any other machine. It does what it is built to do. You lawn mower cuts grass not because it is inclined to, it mows the lawn because that is the net result of its components.

  17. Mary Awad

    An interesting film that is less about technology but more about not being able to customize our relationships is Ruby Sparks. Recommended for anyone who liked Her. It’s crazy amazing, especially the end.

  18. When I watched this movie, I was really freaked out by the concept. I really hope that we do not become so dependent on technology that something such as what happened in the film happens in real life.

  19. Thanks for your insights! I loved this scintillating film myself because of its commentary and also its place in a rich history of romantic and science fiction dramas on the screen and page. “Her” provides a more midlife look at the search for meaning in relationships, which all for me ties back to the experience of death, which we might here define as the experience of not living. For Jonze’s Theodore, the presence of a fully articulate and ever-learning OS in his life essentially allows him to suspend his prior reality in favor of a sentient yet non-organic one. In other words, the audience must question whether Theodore is truly living at all. If machines might become as sentient as humans, however, or even approach that Uncanny Valley at all in a psychological sense, then may we truly claim that the only reasonable source of human contact lies in a relationship with an organic being? Perhaps, as the development of a fictional OS such as Samantha lies within the realm of human contact via the thousands of programmers who contributed to the design, Samantha truly is human in this quintessential sense I have described. She even seems to fear her death just as a human might.

  20. The thing that interests me the most about the whole issue of “are we too invested in technology” is the fact that we are now able to reduce human interaction and leisure activities to data. This is evident in the popularity of fitness apps and data trackers (Strava, Mapmyride, calorie trackers), and dating and socialization apps (Tinder, Grindr). This sort of “everyday activity as data” trend holds so many possibilities, good and bad.

  21. Venus Echos

    Social interaction via technology allows us to remove our masks and can provide a place to open up and explore who we really are. With that same thought after we have identified our self we can reflect on these findings and bring them to the real world and not have to use our masks when communicating in real life situations.

  22. Megan Kelly
    Megan Kelly
    0

    There’s a great deal of controversy and criticism over our society’s dependency on modern technology. I thought your article was a great read and provided some interesting insight. Personally, I can’t decide how I feel on the issue. I appreciate the advancements technology has given us, however I still recognize the abuse.

  23. bzukovich657

    After taking a course that dealt with technology and its impact on American society, I have mixed feelings about the film. I think the film hoped to portray modern society’s reliance on technology, even for love. But I also think it could have led to more reliance on technology for those who believe human contact is not necessary. Great post, really thought provoking topic considering we live in a world surrounded by this stuff.

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