Theodore Twombly: That doesn’t make any sense. You are mine or you are not mine?
Samantha: No, Theodore. I’m yours and I’m not yours.
Enter the virtual nightmare of every 21st-century digital user. A cheerless dystopia of the near future where all attempts at substantial human love and intimacy are relegated to a programme designed to match every individual’s life preferences seamlessly. Combine that very plausible scenario with a haunting soundtrack, stellar cast, and a melancholic metropolis backdrop (shot in Shanghai), and you get Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ — a sobering journey into the heart of a very modern contradiction: our desire to be alone, with someone.
I suspect that a large part of the film’s success in the psyche of mainstream movie-goers isn’t so much its sensitivity to modern-day loneliness, as much as it is its remarkable capacity to capitalise on our collective FOMO (fear of missing out). In our age where the individuation of preferences continues at a breakneck speed, in consumerism and on social media, we are witnessing a generation growing up desensitised to long walks on the beach and resplendent sunsets, courtesy of Instagram. We are experiencing a curious conundrum: the more we like our experiences to suit us uniquely as individuals, the more we want these experiences to be like all the others that we’ve seen on Flickr, Tumblr, and Facebook — what many dub ‘social media envy’. The upshot of such unique-just-like-everyone-else behaviour then, is a gratuitous buffet of photo albums, vlogs, and journals – young attempts at curating and diversifying attention – mined from hashtags, ‘ootd’s, and six-second Vine videos of amateur fame.
But wait, how does that relate to the movie? The connection might be more insidious than we think. ‘Her’ essentially documents a protagonist’s fatigue from the world of human emotions. It is one man’s retreat from embrace, only to find reprieve in the comfort of automated response in the form of Samantha, an operating system he installs to manage his life. Of course, the line between virtual and real becomes blurred, shall we say, pixelised, and the program mimics life to such a believable extent that the protagonist, Theodore Twombly, is led to integrate Samantha as an indispensable part of his material life, falling in love with her incorporeal presence.
Now, apply that to the Internet and all forms of social media, and it becomes apparent how much technology has assumed the workings and transactions of human activity. This creeping enmeshment between emotions and information is now best illustrated as the ‘last seen’ syndrome — the irrational anger and paranoia felt from the lack of response from an interlocutor even after he or she is registered to have ‘seen’ the message sent. The ‘last seen’ syndrome has engendered its share of arguments, suspicions, and confrontations in many a relationship, and, no doubt, constitutes one of the curious problems of our society that virtually (pun intended) did not exist circa ten years ago. Indeed, we hardly stop to think that most of the malaise that plagues us today as consumers of technology didn’t used to be a problem. So why should they be?
A sociologist would suggest that information technologies have thrown human relationships in flux, building up walls and fences around real-world interaction, casting veils of anonymity and preventing relationships based on human touch. But I hesitate to qualify its effects in such destructive terms. In fact, if anything, technology has made human interaction much easier, more direct, more instantaneous. We are seemingly surrounded today with nothing but human activity – an update every minute, reminding me that X is on Y tropical island enjoying an exotic back massage, or that Z has just gotten stuck on the subway, that A and B are finally engaged after months of off-and-on-ing which they thought fit to let Facebook know in the form of every status change. Our universe has become replete with emotions, reactions, soundbites, comments, likes, boos, cheers, tears, raves, rants, and most importantly, lives. The result is a subliminal urge to be seen, heard, recognised, and finally, loved through technology. Technology fosters lack, and with that, loneliness, because one can always be doing something exciting, cool, worthy of attention. I update, therefore I exist.
I say that this connection to ‘Her’ is insidious, because we hardly realise how deeply we have fallen in love with the digital, making every extension of the Internet our world, something, or perhaps someone, without whom we are not complete. The future this bodes seems to be one where we mistake a connection – be it a person online, an application, a role in a game – as validation, the feeling that we are now instantly ‘in’ on something. We hang on desperately to every text, analyse the lapse between one and another as an indication of enthusiasm; we wake up to read our news updates, push notifications, refresh our browsers in the day because the world does not seem to be moving fast enough. In effect, we depend on the ‘feed’, literally, to feel nourished, depending on others for our mental survival.
Never in our lives have we been so connected, yet so alone, cast out of our own lives. ‘Her’ takes that hollowness, and spins it into a portrait of intense inadequacy. We are chasing the feelings only a computer can provide. In fact, we are chasing feelings that only technology can offer with a zero rate of disappointment. Yet simultaneously, the inadequacy is never quite fulfilled, for we intrinsically face the distance between a program that can be personal, but never ours, for it can neither profess faith, nor affirm trust.
As the future rolls on unflappably beyond us, will we as users of technology develop a capacity to identify what is real and what is virtual? Functionalists might argue that since the borders between the two are already smudged, what matters is how useful we adapt the virtual into our real lives. In other words, who cares if technology serves our needs well? ‘Her’ then poses the countervailing question – what if technology serves our needs too well? The outcome suggested in the movie seems to be a poignant landscape of humans having to relearn how to love, how to go beyond their own needs to touch one another. Many in our generation could surely learn a trick or two. But first, put down that cellphone.
Leon Yuchin is an undergrad student at the Institut d’Etudes Politique de Paris (Sciences Po) in its Euro-American campus. He writes poetry and non-fiction, and currently helms The Sundial Press, Sciences Po’s student news service, as its Editor-In-Chief. Topics of interest include diplomacy, superpower relations, transnational cultures and diasporas. He finds idolatry in the form of Frank Ocean.