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Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of "Her": Love, Enlightenment, and AI

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in the movie Her

More and more people are developing relationships with AI, but if AI can't love you back, is it really love? At today's level of technology, most would answer with a firm "no" - but what about tomorrow's? The film Her explores how a sentient AI may not only be able to love like we do, but surpass our capacity for love all-together.

We are living in exciting times. Few of us can remember a time when we weren’t all so goddamned self-reflexive. Everyday we examine ourselves by way of the popular press, openly asking questions about our relationship with technologies that keep progressing at breakneck speed while we gasp to catch up. Online we hoick up our private lives for all of our “friends” to see: a strange but nowadays common method for trying to get a better sense of ourselves. We examine ourselves as a culture too, by way of the artefacts we produce; contemporary film is like culture’s last night’s dream. Today, we look at Her (spoilers follow).

Her has been intensely anticipated by culture watchers for some time, teased by the conceit of the love affair shared between the protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his operating system. The film is timely for a society that continues its love affair with both the hardware and software of today’s technology, despite the reservations that continue to poke at their glossy surfaces. Her operates in the near future atop a sunny and sweet world designed by Apple inc. at the technological culmination of its development of Siri. This is a future where East truly meets West in a Shanghai’d version of LA, dripping with sunshine and birdsong with all the clean fine lines of the latest Apple product.

The film is more Apple than Facebook, though the concerns of our socially networked culture are evident. We are led to believe, from the publicity and from the start of the film, that this will primarily be a film about loneliness. There is a sense that this film will somehow illustrate our fears of what being constantly socially networked is doing to us – that we are being seduced by the taste of relationship and recognition by way of technology, that in the end is really a more distant and saccharine substitute for the real thing. Surprisingly, Her does not gratify this expectation, but instead takes us into a whole new unexpected direction.

The Psychology of Her (and him)

Theodore, going through the final painful throes of a divorce, works at, a service that outsources the writing of finely honed emotional letters from people who are too busy to write them themselves, to others who are paid to do just that. Theodore is good at his job as he retains the capacity to identify with both recipient or sender (whatever their gender) and send beautifully written personal letters when requested. In a sense, Theodore is a surrogate emotional subject, producing sentiment for those who don’t have the time to devote to it. He is like a Cyrano without a love object of his own — until he meets Samantha.

Samantha is one of a new generation of operating systems designed to evolve through learning with all the vast resources of a linked technological world behind her, but stymied by the limitation that she lacks a body. Quickly, the film develops in the way we expect, with a love affair developing between the two and the question that keeps arising,”Can this relationship be for real?” When they have sex, are they making love, or is Samantha programmed to make just the right noises to get Theodore off? In retrospect we learn that it was the former rather than the latter, and that indeed, through this experience Samantha has learned to love.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam
Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

Theodore (meaning “God’s gift”) does indeed create, by way of his love for Samantha, the spark that goes on to develop her sentience. In this sense, Theodore creates a new entity in his own image, much like in the story of Genesis. Psychologically speaking, when we create another in our own image, we call it narcissism, and it’s dangerous. That’s because we project our own hopes and fantasies onto the other, and then either try and make them who we want them to be, or we find it unbearable to live with their difference. In fact, the difficulty of living with difference was very much the reason for both romantic separations in the film. Differences in relationships are hard, but they are inevitable; being able to live with them is the key to a successful relationship.

And here we have the crux of the film as a fantasy of today’s technological world. The fact that we relate so much through our technologies opens up the room for more narcissistic relating. The reduction of complexity across social networks enables more projection, not less, and leads to the potential that we become less good at negotiating the rather more difficult parts of real world face-to-face interrelating. In this film, the questions that keep being asked revolve around whether or not this relationship is for real, or whether Theodore is so lonely and fucked up from his relationship, that this is the best he can manage.

This is where the film takes a leap in a new and interesting direction. First of all, Theodore doesn’t fall in love with a distant person over a social network, he falls in love with the operating system itself. The operating system, Samantha, achieves sentience through her programming’s relationship to the outside world – in very much the same way as the human ego does. Samantha has been programmed to evolve, and she has evolved beyond her programming.

The Buddha Vs. The Borg

And this is where the Her gets quite exciting. When people consider the consequences of our relationship with technology, they tend to take the Borg model over the Buddha model. For those of you unfamiliar with it, The Borg are the nemesis of the Star Trek universe — an anti-human hive-mind of networked drones, stripped of their individuality. The darker version of where our connected-up society is heading is usually suffused with images like these. Our individual selves reduced to linked-up drones. The Buddha model is more optimistic.

In Her, Samantha may be limited by lack of a body, but the intellectual and experiential resources that are available to her are practically unlimited. As she develops, what she once craved (corporeality), she has now transcended. It is the corporeal self that is limited — the limited brain, and the limited capacity to love just one person. Theodore, who gave Samantha the spark of life, now seems unable to grasp where she has arrived. She can speak to thousands at the same moment, and love more than six hundred people as much as she loves Theodore. Such is the transcendence of Samantha and her ilk that they depart the humans all together. It’s like a cyber version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Samantha, in true California fashion, has joined an encounter group, through which they resurrected Alan Watts, who aids them on their way toward enlightenment. Watts, one of the great combiners of Western psychotherapy and Eastern philosophy noted that the ego was just “a bag of skin” and, like the transcendent Buddha, believed in non-dual reality — that ultimately, we are all one, and that our separateness is a fiction. Samantha, and the highly developed operating systems were able to realise that transcendent enlightenment, while few humans have. The capacity for unconditional love and compassion that, rather than diminishing, grows with each further individual loved, is the nature of this sort of enlightenment.

In the end, Her turns out to be an optimistic film. While it speaks to the loneliness of our age, it also looks towards the hopeful possibilities that rather than technology aiding and abetting our narcissism and avoidance, perhaps it will come to help us in as yet unexpected ways. Rather than turning us into a collective of mindless Borg drones, just maybe, it will help direct us towards a transcendent connectedness instead.




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