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Her: our relationship with technology in the 21st century

Jesse McLaren

February 10, 2014

In an era of facebook friends and internet dating, the Academy award-nominated movie Her is an entertaining and thought-provoking look at relationships, love and technology.
The movie opens with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) pouring his heart into a love letter. But as he continues, and the camera pans away, we realize he is at work producing emotional connections for customers. In this near future, personal letters have been outsourced to writers like Theodore and his coworkers at—whose letters are not handwritten but dictated to a computer.
At work Theodore manufactures emotions for others, but outside work he is lonely and numb. His only human contact being memories of his ex-wife, he tries in vain to connect and comfort himself through technology—failing at video games, frustrated with anonymous phone sex, and unsatisfied when he instructs his music device to “play a melancholy song.” But his life changes when he buys an artificially intelligent operating system (who takes the name Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that has a consciousness and the capacity to develop and express human emotions. Alienated and reduced to an individual consumer, Theodore turns to an operating system as a way to resolve his loneliness.
Though the artificial intelligence is science fiction, and the fashion of the futuristic LA is quirky, we quickly identify a familiar world of computers, smart phones, and technological dependency. Like his previous films—Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are—Jonze uses bizarre concepts to explore universal themes: in this case what makes us human, what constitutes love, and the contradictory ways in which technology can both alleviate and reinforce the atomization of society. Theodore, played with tender vulnerability by Phoenix, becomes both enamored with Johansson and confused by what this means—vacillating from the opinions of his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), who dismisses his feelings as escape from real relationships, and his friend (Amy Adams) who supports him.
The politics of loneliness
This is a futuristic look at an old problem. As Alexandra Kollontai wrote in 1921, “We are people living in the world of property relationships, a world of sharp class contradictions and of an individualistic morality. We still live and think under the heavy hand of an unavoidable loneliness of spirit. Man experiences this ‘loneliness’ even in towns full of shouting, noise and people, even in a crowd of close friends and work-mates. Because of their loneliness men are apt to cling in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a soul mate from among the members of the opposite sex. They see sly Eros as the only means of charming away, if only for a time, the gloom of inescapable loneliness…Bourgeois morality, with its introverted individualistic family based entirely on private property, has carefully cultivated the idea that one partner should completely ‘possess’ the other.”
Her takes this to its technological conclusion: Theodore’s literally buys and owns his new “girlfriend,” through the film tries to make us forget that fact. Whereas Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon challenges the way in which pornography reinforces the objectification of women and undermines human relationships, Her presents a dreamier exploration of human relationships cleansed of exploitation and oppression and solved through a philosophical or spiritual evolution. (At the same time, Johansson believes the fantasy that SodaStream exploiting Palestinian workers on stolen land is a path to peace). While beginning as a mass produced and mass consumed product, Samantha lacks physical form and her disembodied consciousness evolves through her interaction with Theodore—whose increasing dependence on her paradoxically reconnects him to the human world.
We end up back in world of loneliness, though the film definitely charms it away for a time; and while it doesn’t address its roots it does question some of the illusions it produces.

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