Friday, March 14, 2014

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I managed to catch the new Spike Jonze film Her recently, which stars Joaquin Phoenix. Set in a hyper-stylised LA about 11 years from now, it concerns his character, Theodore Twombly, falling in love with (wait for it) the operating system of his computer, who has 'artificial intelligence'. As far-fetched as this sounds, it should be pointed out that in Jonze's vision of the future, operating systems have voices, which interact with their users. Furthermore, in Her, the operating system, called 'Samantha', is voiced by the sultry tones of Scarlet Johansson, as opposed to, for example, the creepy voice of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (more on that later).
The idea of humans falling in love with computer 'personalities' is not as far-fetched as it seems. In Japan, there have been cases of young men falling in love with female computers. However, in Her, what's important is that Johansson's operating system 'character' is so advanced that she has something approaching 'emotions', and interacts pretty much as a human would with Phoenix's character.

This brings to mind the aforementioned HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the ship computer of the U.S. spacecraft Discovery One, who famously 'malfunctions' in 2001 en route to Jupiter and attempts to kill the entire crew. 'He' – if we can ascribe a gender to HAL – succeeds in doing so, except for Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), who manages to shut HAL 9000 down. In an extraordinary sequence – one in a film of many – we see Bowman 'disembowel' the various connections of HAL while HAL pleads to Bowman in his monotone voice not to do so. “Please, Dave, stop - my mind is going...” HAL repeats, before his voice is a reduced to a robotic baritone as a result of regressing to his earliest programmed memory, whereupon he sings the song “Daisy Bell”, the first thing that was programmed into him:

“Daisy, Daisy
Give me your answer, do
I'm half crazy
All for the love of you.”

The computer then disconnected, a pre-recorded message is automatically played, which reveals to Bowman the real purpose of the journey to Jupiter, relating to those ubiquitous black monoliths. But I digress.

Out of the two films, Kubrick's robot feels far more convincing than 'Samantha'; HAL's deadpan monotone voice, even while he is being destroyed by Bowman, conveys artificial intelligence much more persuasively than 'Samantha', who in Her veers too close to implausible, hysterical real emotions to be really convincing (at least for this viewer).

What's interesting watching Her, though, is in the way it captures how a near-future society will be even more technology-obsessed than we are now. In the film, Twombly has his emails read aloud to him from his smart phone (via headphones) while he takes public transport; he can choose to delete them by simply stating the word 'delete' (surely something that's bound to be reality sooner or later). Meanwhile, his use of 'Samantha' is as a substitution for real love, and technology features all through the film (indeed, the whole thing looks like an advert for a tech firm, with its sun-kissed, sepia-stained vision of California that brings to mind something from the Instagram app).
In this, the film captures the way that technology is encroaching on our lives in ever more closer ways. When I get the bus around London, it's almost impossible now to not hear someone bellowing into their mobiles at full volume (something that the Underground is blissfully free from due to a lack of signal most of the time). It's as if we've collectively forgotten about the comfort of other members of the public, and retreated instead into our own atomised bubble. This is in contrast to the early 90s (before mass use of mobile phones), when taking the bus was a serene, enjoyable experience. The invention of smart phones has meant that more and more people on public transport effectively blot out the world around them. I'm not exempting myself from this – I usually play music apps on my mobile, and am guilty of checking emails on the bus when I don't need to. But then, I do the former in order to drown out the sound of other people talking on their phones. It does feel sometimes as if technology has made us more and more impersonal from each other. And that extends too to the fact that it's very difficult to walk into a shop or cafe now without being bombarded by music at frequently loud decibels. It's almost as if we've become afraid of silence and reflection.
The fact that technology can very rarely be a better substitution than corporeal interaction with other people face-to-face is captured in Her's slightly corny, if endearing, ending, after 'Samantha' has left Twombly (as a result of 'her' being due to be 'upgraded', as I recall); he responds by visiting his ex, Amy (who has also had a relationship with her OS, and subsequently also been 'dumped'). The two sit on the roof of the apartment building that they share, suggesting that they may get back together. Human contact has been restored, somehow.

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