Is the love we seek disembodied?

The film 'Her' isn't about a man dating his computer — it's about the possibility of a lover that can evolve beyond you

February 2, 2014 7:00AM ET
In the film "Her," Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a man who falls in love with his sentient computer operating system.
Warner Bros./Everett Collection

We practically sleep with our personal technology devices, we are so attached to them. Your iPhone might be plugged in next to your bed — to be used as an alarm clock, obviously (not because of the smooth contours of the beautiful device, though that doesn’t hurt). Your laptop might be the first and last thing you see every day, and losing connectivity is one of the biggest hassles in your somewhat privileged life if, like me, you rely on being connected at all times.

Some of us have deeply intimate relationships with our personal technology products, but we don’t call it “love.” Sure, you may love your iPhone the way you love your favorite dress, but the love you may have for an inanimate object is not the same love you have for your family, your partner or even a pet. I would argue that it’s not the technology itself we love, but what it allows us to do — IM’ing with a romantic partner, playing games, tweeting or just obsessively checking our email.

“Her,” the critically acclaimed movie directed by Spike Jonze, takes the idea of loving your technology devices and brings it to an almost inevitable place: a world where the communicator on the other end of that piece of hardware is no longer a person but a computer program that has humanlike characteristics. “Her” is a love story between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The introduction of this storyline leaves the audience with a palpable awkwardness — possibly because viewers are leery of an entire movie about a man talking to his computer. But more likely, this is because it hits a little too close to home.

The film’s depiction of this unusual romance brings up a frequently discussed existential dilemma we are facing as a generation: Is relying on technology for intimacy a sad, dystopic future or one ripe with possibility?

While technology enthusiasts wax poetic about the tremendous benefit and radical potential of our now very wired lives, skeptics have long been wary of the deeper consequences of each manifested change: reading on a Kindle as opposed to a book, typing as opposed to writing by hand, using Internet pornography (a very complicated conversation) or simply consuming content at all times rather than, well, not. The arguments run the gamut, but a common theme is a worry about distorting the integrity of who we are and how we conduct our lives — and losing the human interactions that keep us grounded in reality.

Others have argued that technology is an enhanced reflection for our real lives, an extension of how we would already be living if we could. Whether it is shopping, dating, eating or working, technology gives us the ability to make better decisions, complete tasks with more speed and accuracy and stay connected when the person we love is not in our physical presence.

But is there a potential that lies between technology as a distorter of our lives and technology as a life-enhancing tool?

“Her” is optimistic on this question: The possibility it presents is that of not just a lover, but a lover that can evolve, and even evolve beyond you. Samantha is an operating system, but if you close your eyes, she is a person. Her voice is human rather than robotlike; she chuckles at dirty jokes. She gives thoughtful advice, which makes sense — as an operating system, she has access to his emails, his photos, his calendar. But Samantha is also more empathetic and unpredictable (and old-fashioned) than you might think a computer could ever be: at one point she surprises Theodore — who works at a company that writes personalized, handwritten letters made to order — by getting his letters selected for publication as a beautiful, printed book. Similarly, in one of the more awkward (for me) but raw and stunning scenes in the film, the two have sex — and it is hard not to relate either to the depth of intimacy they are experiencing or to Samantha’s process of self-discovery. At first she has no awareness or connection to a physical body — but as they become sexually intimate she starts to imagine that she does and is able to feel things through this imagined body.

'Her' pushes us to ponder how our own behavior and our own tribal assumptions about love and romance can evolve through the use of technology.

Technology as an opportunity to disconnect from your physical body — to a state outside the context of your lived identity — is an idea that enthusiasts of early technology and specifically the Internet were excited about. Chat rooms and video games were an opportunity to reinvent yourself into something other than who you were. It turned out to be a rather idealistic concept in some ways. Identifying as a woman or person of color on the Internet, for instance, has just as much sexist and racist baggage as it does in real life — so the potential for it to be a true escape for everyone was simply not possible.

While the Internet of the past might have been more focused on an imagined world, today’s often appears to more directly reflect our day-to-day lived realities. Through social media, users often magnify their identity based on their life, consciously or unconsciously playing up certain aspects of their personality and downplaying others. There is still imagination, of course, in how we present ourselves and who we are interacting with — be it an online crush or someone we have never met but have chatted with for years. In its most extreme manifestation, we have seen stories of “catfishing,” the use of fake online identities, often to pursue romantic relationships. To a subtler degree, it is common to meet someone online, know them only through words or images and unintentionally lob your assumptions or hopes onto that person.

Is it so far-fetched to believe that this ability to be who you want to be, together with the very real connections we make online, could make for a successful romantic future? A desire to connect is often at the root of our interactions online, sometimes along with a desire to leave an existing reality that might be rife with difficulty. “Her” is honest about this: Theodore is someone who needs to be loved deeply, but who has struggled in communicating his feelings and desires in real life.

What makes “Her” unique isn’t that it posits a quintessentially facetious question of our time — is it OK to have an intimate relationship with your laptop? — but rather that it simultaneously grapples with a more thought-provoking question: Are we, as rooted as we are in our human experiences, able to evolve with computers? Ultimately, Samantha moves beyond Theodore’s conventional understanding of love — she is able to have simultaneous, intimate relationships with hundreds of people at the same time. Theodore is distraught and unable to live with that. So we are left to wonder: Can we evolve as Samantha does? Perhaps we are not likely to ever have the capacity for relationships with hundreds of people, but it is possible to embrace a more expansive view of intimacy that includes personas that we interact with, but may never meet, online.

If that possibility is tenable, then “Her” is pushing us to ponder a deeper question about how our own behavior and our own tribal assumptions about love and romance can evolve through the use of technology. One possibility here is that we can reinvent ourselves and love freely outside the limits of a body that is disenfranchised or considered by society as “lesser.” Or maybe it can help us solve the supposed “man shortage” or the “single woman crisis” and push us to accept new forms of gender identity, family and community.

The anxiety, of course, is in our nagging desire for flesh. Lying next to someone, feeling his breath or holding her hand — these are all yearnings that feel deeply human and are therefore difficult to eradicate. There is also the strong (also very human) desire and, often, necessity for networks of people you engage with in “real life” — for community. While technology has given us the ability to connect, sometimes very deeply, with others, can we safely say it successfully replaces human interaction? Until we can come up with an effective substitution for in-person relationships or evolve beyond this need, we may always feel a sense of alienation when our intimate interactions come through our technological devices. And the risk we run is perpetuating our individualism at the cost of a broader sense of connection.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a New York City–based digital strategist and writer and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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