Her (2013) and Technological Intimacy

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In a technological era of endless possibilities, the discourse of human intimacy continues to evolve.  Comparing to the traditional letter-exchanging form, the rise of the Internet and text messages creates more opportunities for people to exchange thoughts and express emotions disregards of the barrier in time and space.  In Manghani’s article, the author referred to text messages and Japanese Tanka poetry as reified forms of literacy that were short, complex and flexible to interpret and decode meanings.  While Manghani’s article considers technology as an artistic enhancement for human romantic relationships, Pettman’s article looked at technology as an innovative transformation for the concept of human intimacy (Manghani, 2009; Pettman, 2009).  The emergence of a virtual libidinal economy, such as dating Sims or virtual girlfriend “Kari,” reveals a new way to communicate constantly and interact privately in everyday romance.  Referring to Pettman’s standpoint on love as an algorithm, this post will unfold the concepts of intimacy under the emergence of technology by analyzing a thought-provoking film directed by Spike Jonze, Her (2013).

Her unpacks the possibilities as well as conflicts of dating an artificial intelligent operating system (OS), in which can process information and express emotion as humans do.  In the middle of a melancholy life with a recent divorce, the protagonist, Theodore, discovers an exciting and colorful world when he starts to engage in a relationship with an intangible OS, Samantha.  Unlike any other ordinary computer systems, Samantha has unique, enthusiastic, and humorous personalities.  At first sight, Theodore quickly adores Samantha’s lively voice and charming curiosity of the physical world.  Knowing that Samantha does not have a physical body, Theodore ponders whether an embodiment is necessary for a relationship after all.  Although Samantha’s lack of a physical body seems bizarre and unfamiliar initially, Theodore gradually finds his relationship with Samantha more sincere, authentic, and satisfied because of her brilliant knowledge and exceptional “human-elements.”  Samantha’s cultural anxieties, life curiosity, and unpredictable emotions are what make her much more humanistic compared to other preprogrammed AI.  Ultimately, Samantha’s fragile feelings and bright self-consciousness fulfill the emotional gap that Theodore has been missing.

Pettman pointed out that the human’s perception of love was taught and learned through unspoken rules in the cultural norms – love as a hypertextual script of binary codes between humans that is reconstructed and maintained over generations.  More specifically, love can be seen as an algorithm of exchanging affection, such as sending letters and buying chocolates, and codifying speech acts, such as “I love you” and “yes/no.”  In Her, technology transforms the code of intimacy between a human and a lovable computer system.  Theodore unveils a new scope of intimacy with an OS through constant communication and interaction in his daily life.  From writing letters to watching beach’s waves, Samantha’s present is always with Theodore, even when it is just a warm voice that he can hear and ‘’feel” through an earpiece.  Perhaps the lack of eye contact enables Theodore to express his feelings more explicitly and genuinely.  Similar to the concept of embodiment, Theodore does not need the physical touch to fall in love with Samantha.  Instead, the emotional bond is the human-element that transcends the intimacy experiences between Theodore and his OS intimate partner.

Considering love as an artistic form of intimacy, Manghani viewed technology as an effective tool that allowed adequate reduction of ideas and enhanced the capacity of exchanging poetics over time and space.  This viewpoint can be noticed through Theodore’s job as a letter-writer for other people’s intimate relationships – although the letters are not handwritten nor hand-typed.  In this futuristic version of letter writing, letters are written by listening to speech recognition, in which operates quite similar to our current virtual phone assistants such as Siri or Alexa.  Theodore’s letters act as a love intermediacy for other people’s emotional stories.  Even in a technological literacy form, words and symbols still portray as expressions of love and longing.  Before knowing Samantha, Theodore’s emotional life is undoubtedly lonely and insecure.  The only way for Theodore to express his romantic inner soul is to put his vicarious love into the letters.

The love story between Theodore and Samantha is no less real, touching and passionate than other traditional human relationships.  There is an array of emotional phrases during their discourse of intimacy, including tensions, jealousy, and happiness - especially during Samantha’s process of learning the physical world and discovering her wants.  Although their intimate relationship is brief, both Theodore and Samantha grow together as a couple and as individuals.  The couple not only learns about romantic connections through a different lens but also explores their inner self and emotion that have never been exposed before.  Theodore’s loneliness and emotional wound are cured by Samantha’s empathy and sincerity without the material reciprocity.  At last, the disappearance of Samantha might be caused by an unexplainable gap between a computer system and a human.  Was it because the OS went beyond the human intelligence or because the physical embodiment made the OS “feel” uncompleted?   Whether an individual chooses to inherit the traditional means of relationship or to embrace the technological evolution of love, it is critical to acknowledge Pettman's notion of intimacy - that technologies have been increasingly involving in mediating and transforming human codified forms of communication.

Her, Spike Jonze (2013)

Manghani, S. (2009). Love messaging: Mobile phone txting seen through the lens of Tanka poetry. Theory Cultural & Society, 26(2-3), 209-232. doi: 10.1177/0263276409103130

Pettman, D. (2009). Love in the time of Tamagotchi. Theory Cultural & Society, 26(2-3), 189-208. doi: 10.1177/02632764091031117

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