Last night my wonderful wife and I joined some good friends in Washington DC and saw the movie “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams. The movie, as far as the story itself goes, was really good. It is a good and touching love story. But if you just leave it at that you are missing a huge message, or actually a multitude of huge messages, that the movie conveys. It is about a man, Theodore (Phoenix), who is going through a divorce and cannot come to grips with it. He is lonely, reclusive, and withdrawn from others and seems to live vicariously through the lives of the people who he writes personal letters for. Aside from those whom he works with, his only real human companion is Amy (Adams) and that is mostly through passing situations in elevators of their high rise apartment building. So one day he is on his way to work and he passes a display for a brand new operating system (OS) that features an artificially intelligent user interface, and he purchases it and installs it when he gets home. After a few questions that the company that manufactured the OS asks to get a feel for Theodore’s personality, and after he chooses the OS to be female, “Samantha” (Johansson) is “born.”
The relationship they build is a wonderful one and, as stated earlier, presents are really great and tragic love story. They are able to go on “dates” through the use of an ear piece, which is how “Samantha” is able to talk to Theodore, and the camera on Theodore’s phone. Through these dates, “Samantha” is able to grow emotionally as an IA entity, but because of this emotional growth, she becomes desirous of more and more. (I will leave it at that on the chance that some of you want to actually see the movie and do not want to have it spoiled.) But that love story between Theodore and “Samantha” is merely the surface of the movie, and it is a really thin surface to be sure.
While watching the movie I began to think back to the society that Mark Steyn describes in America Alone in Japan. The society in Steyn’s book depicts one where the youth in Japan would rather be connected to humanity through the use of technology than they would by actually interacting with other humans. Through chat mechanisms on games and various forms of social media, these youths have become diagnosed with hikikomori which is Japanese for “social withdrawal.” Theodore suffers from the same ailment, though not to the extreme that many cases have depicted. And to me this is what made “Her” feel rather depressing (do not worry though, the movie has a rather happy ending).
Watching Theodore become more and more engrossed with an AI operating system on his computer that had a female voice–because in the end that is what was going on–was really depressing to see. What makes people NOT want to have any contact to the human world? Of course there are many different psychological explanations for such phenomenon, but Theodore, aside from the devastation that his divorce caused him, does not exhibit any signs of these psychoses. Could it be that, no matter how technologically advanced humans become and no matter how much of that technology we put into designing humanoids, having relationships with synthetic things is just easier? Have we as a species, or at least the portion of the species that lives in the developed world, evolved so far that we have actually devolved to the point where we can no longer have sustained, meaningful relationships with other humans?
We can see examples of these questions everywhere we go in society, particularly large cities. I am sure that many of you have seen the person walking along at a brisk pace through crowded areas with their faces entranced by their smart phones. If not for other passers-by paying attention, they would walk right into the other people. It seems as though it is the responsibility of others to ensure that these technologically connected/humanity disconnected individuals get to where they need to go without an incident. In Washington DC most people here are politically on the Left, and this disconnection from other people seems to be an explanation for their rabid support for more and more government and why they are able to demonize those of us who are not ready to cede all facets of society to government. They are already at a place where other humans are a hindrance, so why would they be sympathetic to the pleas of Christian business owners who feel as though they have a right not to serve homosexual marriages?
Detachment from humanity makes it very easy for the detached to view other humans as “the other.” When an individual can do that the possibilities of further detachment grow exponentially. This is what enabled Hitler to cast Jews as the scourge of humanity leading to the deaths of millions. This is what enabled Mao, Stalin, Guevara and other communists to slaughter millions in their own society. “The other,” when they begin to stand in the way of what the individual wants, then they must be disposed of. In a society that is filled beyond capacity with artificial connections, either to other people or to humanoids with “human emotions,” disposing of “the other” becomes as easy as throwing away soiled tissue.
Theodore, as alluded to earlier, has a somewhat happy ending. His experience with “Samantha,” as touching as it is, was shown to be just as artificial as “Samantha’s” ability relate to Theodore as a human being. In our society, more and more people are beginning to prefer artificial relationships over relationships with other humans. In Hollywood this type of arrangement can end in an uplifting way, but in reality, the deprivation of human contact from yourself is more likely to cause untold harm to you psychologically and cause you to think everything is simply, well, artificial.