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Spike Jonze's new film raises many important questions, paramount among them: Is falling in love with computers the next step in our shared evolution?
The question of whether humans can fall in love with a computer is a fake. Or rather, it’s one that we already know the answer to. Humans can fall in love with anything. A talking computer program shouldn’t be any different than a stuffed animal or a favorite sweater, an indifferent object that will never be able to give to its owner as much emotional energy as she or he gives to it. One man even married his computerized girlfriend from the Nintendo DS sim Love Plus.
In the new Spike Jonze movie Her, a man in the process of divorcing falls in love with a computer operating system. Not unlike a man falling in love with his pornography collection or a woman with a vibrator, the story plays with the frailty of human intelligence and emotion. Like Dumbo, who must be tricked into having the courage to fly with a prop, Jonze discovers the modern laptop laborer must be coaxed back into human relationships with a mechanical turk.
Surrounding the spark of human love is a vast network of artificial systems that can bring two people together. It was not planets aligning when you fell in love but a series of social and biological bell curves pointing you toward the best option available at the time. At a certain point, a predestined soulmate comes to seem like a variation on a theme, of which there are millions.
What has so far prevented humans from falling for their computers is not any metaphysical incompatibility between love and computers, but social and economic conditions, which so far benefit more from love between humans.
As computers and cell phones have increasingly become the connective tissue in this emotional arithmetic, it’s expected that people discovering new emotional intimacy be confused about what has brought it into being. Many computer-makers have long sought to soften this confusion, and the re-ascendancy of Apple in the last decade has vindicated a kind of computing that prizes human emotion and intuition. Even the first iPod’s scroll wheel had an emotional satisfaction that was in many ways better than the music you listened to on it. The arrival of glass touchscreens intensified this emotional confusion, making the gentle finger strokes as sensually rewarding as any productive purposes within the little device. Artist Jesse Darling once described how she, “genuinely used to think that the iPhone would respond only to its rightful owner, that it would get to know your touch and expand its pixels out under your fingers like a lover"
Siri and Google Now coalesced these sensual fixations into personae that could answer back. What has so far prevented humans from falling for their computers is not any metaphysical incompatibility between love and computers, but social and economic conditions, which so far benefit more from love between humans. Although love is as close to a universal experience as there is, it’s somehow viewed as sacred, a special fate two people stumble into and must subsequently treasure. This belief gives weight to a whole network of social structures, from the conception of the family as something defined by its withdrawal, hidden behind fences and tied to property ownership.
There is no clear or sustainable way to tie a romantic relationship with a computer to real estate sales, and so we have to put cautionary guards up around the idea that love in any other form but the most socially profitable might be valid. If all of our sacralizing dreams of monogamous love could be fulfilled by a $500 computer, we would be free to engage with other people in much more radical ways, potentially destructive but also liberating. Yet, in Her the infatuation with a computer only leads its hero back into a humble appreciation for the love he finds with another bruised soul experiencing the same kind of depression he is.
One of the great difficulties in relationships isn’t staying in love, but continuing to believe the love for your partner is worth all the compromises with society and politics that relationships necessitate. In that light, the underlying mystery of the film is not in Joaquin Phoenix’s ability to love with a computerized telephone but that in doing so he remains committed to all the same narrowing strictures of human relationships. He’s seemingly entered a new metaphysical space, but he’s still his old, boringly conservative self.
Imagining that we might one day come to love the computer without any need for the distant human user manipulating it is inevitable. What will be more telling is what political conditions those computerized affairs will distract us from, filling us with hope for self-fulfillment while we have less and less emotion to move us to action for those outside of our romantic frames have need for us, people who’ll ultimately only complicate and confuse our lives, threatening to make us conscious of how strangely isolating romantic love between two humans already is. Falling further in love with our computers will not pull us out of that hole, and may just be part of a historical process of deepening it.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.