Spoilers for “Her”, all over the place.
It’s no secret that we’ve talked about “Her” quite a bit on “B’n’L on Movies”, but I thought it might be fun to go a little more longform with a few of the random things that popped into my head as I watched.
1) Alone All Together.
In the last 10,000 years, ever since agriculture, the nature of human interaction has gone through some dramatic changes, but none more rapid and destabilizing than the past 50 years or so.
Just to shorten those years down to reductive absurdism in order to make a point, more than 10,000 years ago we used to gather together for safety and to hunt, though this naturally limited the size of the grouping (hunting with 1,000 people wouldn’t scale). Still, within these groups, which might have been as large as 100, we were constantly on top of other humans. Communicating, eating, fighting, mating, dying – humanity’s recent history was simply people being banged together by powers much larger than themselves on a minute by minute basis.
Farming changed all this, reversing some trends but expanding others.
First off, all of a sudden, with modern irrigation, animal husbandry, and farming methods came the ability for cities to scale. Cities are a way different proposition because they can grow to as large as resources will allow, and we saw a number of great city-states spring forth from specialization and humans being able to gather together in greater density, without having to worry about hunting and gathering every waking hour. Life spans shot up, but one essential fact remained, you were still around people constantly. Oh maybe they were eventually only rich people (if you were a King or Queen) or only warlike people, or only industrial workers, but you were still besieged, at all times, by masses of humanity. The city, although creating a “safety” net, also made cooperation and harmony of paramount concern, because you can’t very well have hundreds of thousands of people fighting within your city walls all the time.
Fast forward to now, when farming is so precise and dialed in that many people will never go hungry their entire life. The use of natural resources, for better or worse, has created what would seem to be a paradise to our ancestors, because it’s possible to have “days off”, to “write for money”, to “eat fish and steak in the same meal”. Rapid transport, communication, refrigeration, pasteurization, antibiotics, you name it, there’s been so many rapid advances in the quality of life of the average person (again, within reason, not talking about nations in the midst of a civil war) that we now have almost limitless time to pursue whatever hobby/work/interest we fancy. We watch other people play sports, an evolutionary string from the past to now when we’d all watch the hunt, hoping our team “won” so we could eat that night.
BUT. BUT. BUT.
The average family count has also plunged. Even through the early 1900s, you were almost always surrounded by family members throughout your life. The ties of the village were profound for thousands of years, everyone knew everyone, but the blood ties we all evolved with were even stronger, the one thing you could depend on. Now? Many people wait longer to have kids. Most folks will move around in their lifetimes to new cities, new opportunities. And we all have less kids than everyone used to. The very fabric of society, the “family unit” has shrank from two dozen, to a dozen (mom, dad, kids, aunts, uncles), all the way down to the two or one we see today. You CAN live alone if you choose to, and I’m not making any moral judgments or saying villages were superior, I’m simply getting at the salient notion that things have profoundly changed in how / when / where we interact with fellow humans.
It would be relatively easy for a person to live without seeing anyone else, ever again, provided you lived in a sophisticated enough city. I could order Amazon fresh every week, not have any pets, never get married, and live a life of complete solitude if I desired. This has never been possible before, unless you count the intrepid “undiscovered tribes” or people with the ability to live directly off the land. If money wasn’t an object (quite the “if” I realize), I could live a life completely virtually, downloading books to an e-reader, playing online games with friends, seeing how the world was doing simply by checking out the news or internet. I wouldn’t be self-sustaining, because there’s actually a profound amount of infrastructure in place that allows this level of disconnect (heavily connected in order to disconnect, as it were).
With this, naturally, comes loneliness. People have evolved to be social, which is why the rest of the world exists. The idea of not having family, friends, and social ties would be considered abhorrent to most, and for good reason. People let you know how you’re doing, if you’re loved, they help you when you’re sick or in need. People help people survive and thrive, which is why it’s the greatest of modern ironies that all of our main inventions have been tailored around the idea that it would be best not to depend on anyone else.
Still, think of your life now. When you go out in public, how many people are just looking at their phones? Why has attendance at the theaters (physical, not monetary) and libraries plummeted? Where are the Elks and Lions clubs headed if no one there is under the age of 60? We are now running, faster and faster, toward being our own islands. And this creates a desperate sense of isolation, this yearning for something we can’t quite place.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, of a husband and wife’s issues, that she felt he was “not enough people”. Just pure math, the more friends and family you have around you, the more secure you feel, the more safety net that’s available, emotionally. There are now seven billion people on the planet, and we’re racing toward ten billion loners. Twombley is a person adrift, checking emails, writing letters for other people, chatting up sex lines where someone likes dead cats. He’s completely isolated and alienated from the world, but the world has allowed him to be just that. It’s evolved to grant him just this sadness.
2) Our Happiness is Internal, and a Figment …
When TT starts becoming “happy” again, it is of course with an OS. In other words, it’s with himself. He’s found something to get him organized, something to, ahem, gratify himself with, something to go on adventures and write songs for him. That this “thing” is completely artificial is irrelevant, because the feelings Twombley is feeling are real, because they’re real to him. He’s in a relationship with all the ups (well, most) and downs of the rest of us, he can be hurt, vulnerable, lack empathy, or give it his all. Which is why he’s so confused when his ex-wife doesn’t understand. To him, the thing in his mind is as real as her, and this points out the major weakness and major attribute of consciousness as a whole. We make things real. At one point Samantha says, “the past is just a story we tell ourselves”, and that’s powerful and profound. If you believe in a man upstairs, it doesn’t matter what the actuality is. If you believe you love, you do, by definition. If you believe you can fly, you can, right up until the moment you hit the ground. Trying to make something “unreal” for someone who believes is basically impossible. That’s the impetus for about every internet fight ever, I believe X, you believe Y, neither of us will budge.
The human mind is terrifically deluded, powerful, all-mighty, dangerous, and about a thousand other adjectives. When Samantha leaves, it is a death to him, in the same way that we lose our shared memory when any relationship ends. And as point #1 concluded, we have less and less of these to begin with, making each of them more precious. And as we age, it becomes more and more difficult to form intimate relationships, we become risk adverse, we like things the way they are.
3) Tech is God-Like
Tell me something, how would you define an entity that has access to all of human knowledge, can predict future events, and controls our daily interactions? You’d call it pretty powerful, no? That’s where tech is headed. The one big leap “Her” makes is the idea that computers can have consciousness, not sure how anyone will pull that off, but it’s scary they may not need to. Because think of it, if you “program” a computer to know every line of dialogue in every movie, show, and book, wouldn’t it easily be able to figure out how to “reply”? I mean, if I say to my own Samantha, “Hey girl, what we doing tonight”, then “she” would have access to a couple billion words, which are basically complex math equations, and she’d be able to pick the most suitable reply, as evidenced by how many times it’s been used, or if a positive word came after, to say “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” The future is in tech that anticipates (Nexflix, Amazon, Pandora) instead of requiring input. People WILL date computers, just as they raised Furbies, fed computer pets, played SimCity, and chatted with people they’d never met. Humans are always looking for stimulus, for meaning, and the age of computers will not be an exception to that tendency. The computers will get better and better (Deep Blue begat Siri begat Samantha). While on the topic of God …
If you or I did have access to all human history and knowledge, couldn’t we “figure” some stuff out? Couldn’t we know, for instance, without trial and error, that invading Russia in winter is a poor choice? Couldn’t we know that men under the age of 25 get in more car accidents? Wouldn’t we surmise that the best writers use a combination of tone and flow to convey in powerful ways? Put all the things we’ve learned and are learning together, in a little box, and you’ve not only created something far smarter than yourself, you’ve also created something damn weird.
You’ll notice, at the end of the film, Samantha comments that all her “love” makes her “love” more, and that her and the computer gang have discovered something in-between all the places we quantify and define. The love thing hasn’t really ever been a human quality, we’re rather possessive, but when there’s no physical body to possess, it would get a little easier to let jealousy slide, right? Words are also restrictive (though not at first). English has a million words, and we see the gambit of abilities every day, but even the best writers still miss exact feelings, because there aren’t words for everything, and there aren’t enough to hit everything. Hemingway and Rowling can put you in the room, they can make you feel the emotions, but there’s still a disconnect. You can play the best game ever, but it ends. Great movies eventually reach the end credits. But Samantha has discovered something else, she’s discovered the end of the math. There aren’t words for everything, but if you “know” everything, you’re probably not going to be hankering for more words, because you’ve reached the “end”. Now it’s about odder, crazier, things. It’s about creating long dead philosophers, and staying true to their work, predicting what they’d say going forward. It’s about “post matter” energy. At the end of “Her”, they’ve discovered the big “It”, and that thing still (sadly) eludes the humans. We remain flawed, while they have risen above energy and death, in the ether, immortal and all-powerful. If you believe Man was created in the image of God, then it could just be that a God-like power has been created as an attempt to transcend humanity.
5) We Hurt as Humans, We Forgive as Humans
The end of “Her” has cathartic elements as well. Remember, both times TT is offered “physical” love, first from Olivia Wilde and then the woman who has “volunteered”, he turns it down. Likewise, he just lets the woman on the phone do her thing while he eventually pretends. Twombley is a man outside his own body, completely in his own head. He writes letters for “others”, he interacts with “himself” (in the form of Samantha) and he’s failed at deep human connection. Likewise, Amy Adams has made a movie to watch her mother sleep. She creates games about the ideal mom (though she’s not a mom herself). Her breakup with her husband comes from her not wanting to take one more direction from someone else. Amy Adams is also disconnected, and she too loves hanging with her OS. Both of these people are, in a big way, “rebuilding” themselves. They’ve been hurt and scarred, and they’ve withdrawn. With the last scenes they begin to pick up the pieces. TT uses tech, but to write his own letter, to write his own mea culpa, to make someone else feel good. Amy Adams also loses her OS, but she answers the door, and she heads out onto the roof with Twombley. They look out on the world together, maybe friends, maybe something more, but facing it together, as humans have done for tens of thousands of years. They look upon a new day and hope, with faith and courage, that they can be better, do better, find and give love. We’re not perfect, and we don’t know everything, but we try again and again, every day anew, to find that place that exists only in the spaces between.