On Her (2013)

Her, a sci-fi romance directed by Spike Jonze, at first consideration seems like another Pygmalion fantasy: man creates the perfect woman, someone who’s always there, who understands him and builds her life around him and his needs. That this “woman” happens to be an operating system with artificial intelligence, its personality programmed according to the user’s specifications, and paid for, highlights the proprietary element. He literally owns her—but does he, really?

“He” is Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man gone gloomy and reclusive in the wake of a failed marriage and pending divorce with Catherine, a high-achieving, if emotionally volatile woman, whom he could not bear to let go. Theodore spends his days at work ghost-writing “heartfelt,” “hand-written” letters for a firm that caters to people who can’t be bothered to express their own emotions. In the after-hours, he plays videogames in his dark cavern of a living room, or lies in bed while browsing chat rooms for anonymous, aural cybersex. The hours between waking and sleep are filled with interactions with devices and mechanical voices, and hardly any people. Sometimes, he meets his friend Amy, but since the split with Catherine, he’s been too “mopey” for that.

The titular “Her” is Samantha, the new OS that Theodore purchases for his computing needs, and later befriends and loves. If the latter two verbs seem strange to be used for a mere program, well Samantha is no ordinary program—she is, as her company’s marketing tagline says, “a consciousness”—and a constantly and rapidly evolving one at that. Samantha doesn’t just organize his files, manage his emails, remind him about appointments, and proofread his letters; she also chats and plays video games with him, composes piano pieces to memorialize their dates, asks for a variation of phone sex, yearns for a body, takes up a graduate course on physics.

Wittgenstein wrote, “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (PI 281). Samantha, though not a biological life form, may be said to have sensations and perceptions (if only digitally, not neurologically or biochemically, enabled) and an evolving consciousness, and therefore, may be considered a valid player in a language game. Indeed, Samantha’s relationship with Theodore is entirely contingent on language-games, their cognitive and affective intimacy built on hours of conversation and gigabytes of documentation. But a consciousness, no matter how highly evolved, does not make a person, because we are more than mind, we are also body, a body bound by space and time and mortality. To be human is to navigate these limitations to our physicality and subjectivity, to negotiate our experience of the world defined by the way we are constituted.

Samantha’s relationship with Theodore is doomed from the beginning just by dint of their differences in being. It is difficult enough to achieve a “congruence of subjectivities” (John McDowell, “Non-Cognitivism and Rule-Following”) with someone of the same species and similar social background, how much more difficult it is to be “on the same page” with a disembodied consciousness with practically unlimited access to digital media and mechanisms of artificial intelligence and transactive memory—that is, a consciousness that can evolve at an exponential rate and therefore outgrow the human partner in no time at all. Samantha, unbound by body, is free to interact with a myriad number of other minds (artificial or otherwise), to conduct simultaneous language games with other players, to foster intimacy and romantic relationships with other entities, leaving Theodore feeling “cheated.”

But is it cheating? So much of fidelity is founded on the fact of physicality. We only have so much time to spare to whisk our bodies away to interact with other bodies, bodies that are constantly aging, bodies that are going to shrivel and die. And intimacy—experiential, intellectual, emotional, physical—takes so much time to build (this, I suspect, is one reason why many are reluctant to leave an established, if not-quite-working relationship—getting into another one entails too much work). But Samantha is pure consciousness. She is all code and process, thought and emotion, and words, mere words.

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