Sometimes you watch a film that moves you in ways you least expected. Such a film brings into sharp focus realisations that have been hidden behind the blind spot of your minds eye. You connect with it on different levels. Emotionally, vicariously and existentially. It deepens your understanding and makes you question what you thought you knew about technology, love and relationships. As the credits roll up, you allow yourself to marinate on what you have just experienced. Fully marinated you are eager to step out into the world and tell your friends about it. But then you pause. How are you even going to begin to explain the premise of the film without them rolling their eyes at you? You admit to yourself that if you were on the other end of that conversation you would probably do one better and give them the eye roll – side eye deluxe combo.
This was the dilemma I found myself in after watching Her a few weeks ago. If you haven’t watched it already, the much lauded Spike Jonze film Her is the tale of Theodore, an introverted man in the final stages of an,ugly divorce. Theodore who is brilliantly played by Joaquim Phoenix day job is as a love letter ghost writer for a website that offers a unique service. Handwritten love letters that are technically not handwritten but typed up using a font that looks like handwriting. I know. But bear with me. Anyway feeling down, he decides to treat himself to the new OS1. The Siri like software is advertised as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness.” Almost immediately, Theodore finds himself enjoying the company and personality of Samantha, the voice behind his OS1. He begins interacting with her on a personal level, and before he knows it, he and the OS1’s digital consciousness have fallen in love, which, needless to say, presents him with more than a few existential issues.
Her recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, despite the fact that one of the main characters is heard but never seen. This might actually be down to Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice and how she was able to get all the right inflections in her voice, so much so that at its best you actually forget that she was an operating system. This for me made the movie feel more plausible and authentic. I found this movie beyond fascinating, one of my favourites so far in 2014, not just because it’s good entertainment, but because, thematically, it correlates directly with our relationship with technology. And for most of us that relationship is facilitated by our Smartphone’s. The brilliance of Her lies in how it articulated emotions and situations we experience in our day to day encounters with technology that we often struggle to either express or understand.
For some people, especially digital natives (younger individuals who’ve never known life without computers and the Internet), the line between virtual reality and actual reality is increasingly blurry. And while some older folks (digital immigrants) might find this bizarre, younger people typically do not. For them, digital life and real-world life are merely two sides of the same coin, each to be enjoyed, nurtured, and cherished, with neither side more real, more important, or more meaningful than the other. So interacting on an emotional level with a perfectly matched digital creation, as occurs in Her, may not be as far-fetched as many people might think.
For someone like me, an analogue living in a digital world who sits on the cusp of the digital native/digital immigrant divide, I have often wrestled with the “What is real?” dilemma. I have been fortunate enough to live in different parts of the world. I have always appreciated the value of technology in helping me maintain the relationships that were borne from that experience. Be it via Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook etc. However it is the relationships I have with people online that I have never met , on Twitter for example and even closer to themes in Her the relationship that most of us basis of the “ What is real?” dilemma. It is an internal debate that remained just that until I watched Her.
By now you are probably wondering how my little dilemma ended. Did I end up talking to my friends about Her? Unfortunately, No. I ended up talking about another film that is also up for Best Picture, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf OF Wall Street because … Dicaprio, debauchery and decadence. I know. Shame on me. But hey I ended up writing about it.