“There are only four questions of value in life, Don Octavio. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: only love.”
Thus did Johnny Depp summarize all of human existence in the 1994 film Don Juan DeMarco. I was recently reminded of that formulation while putting together an outline for two podcasts discussing the Spike Jonze movie Her. Like Don Juan DeMarco, Her is a film that is deeply concerned with life’s biggest questions, posed via a story that, at first glance, we wouldn’t expect to take us there. DeMarco gives us an emotionally troubled, slightly deranged kid who creates a fantasy life for himself in which he is the world’s greatest lover. Her gives us a near-future everyman (more or less) who falls in love with, and has a relationship with, a computer operating system.
Both stories are outwardly about love, although they work from widely divergent premises as to what love is. But at heart, they both pose a question that is even more fundamental than what is sacred or what is worth living or dying for. They ask us to ponder what is real and, more daringly, challenge our assumptions about why that even matters.
Much of the discussion around Her deals with the question of what is really taking place between the two central characters. Joaquin Phoenix is Theo, a lonely guy who is dealing with (or more to the point, not dealing with) a difficult divorce. Scarlett Johansson is Samantha, a software program which Theo has purchased and whose emergence as a distinct entity and evolution as an (apparent) person we witness throughout the film. There is an immediate chemistry between these two, which quickly develops into attraction, intimacy, and then love. Their relationship develops in parallel with Samantha’s (apparent) development as a person, right up to and including the end of the relationship.
You will note that I am hedging around Samantha’s personhood with those two parenthetical uses of the word “apparent.” I’m hedging because it is the question of Samantha’s personhood that drives so much of the the debate about what actually takes place between the two characters. In her Village Voice review of Her, Stephanie Zacharek observes that it would be all too easy to fall in love with Samantha; she may be just a voice, but thanks to a fine performance from Scarlett Johansson, it is an exceptionally attractive voice:
Theo is substituting a synthetic experience for a real one, and this is a flaw or failing on his part. This interpretation is predicated on the idea that Samantha is just a machine; therefore, nothing real could possibly be happening between them. And Zacharek is not alone in that interpretation. My podcast co-host Stephen Gordon described his wife’s reaction to the story in similar terms; she found it quite sad and disturbing.
Her take: “He was alone the whole time.”
To the extent that Samantha does not have a body, or even a face, the idea that something real is being substituted for something less real perhaps has some validity. Theo and Samantha cannot have any physical contact. It isn’t just sex (other than phone sex) that is precluded: they can’t hug or hold hands or even enjoy sitting next to each other. But does that mean they can’t have a real relationship? Couples who are separated by great distances often spend hours on the phone with each other — are those interactions not real? There have been amazing intimate relationships carried out primarily (sometimes exclusively) through letters. Somehow we’re able to accept those as real relationships.
The issue isn’t so much a lack of body as a perceived lack of soul. It comes down to whether a viewer of the film is willing to accept the idea that a piece of software could ever instantiate a mind, an actual person. For those who don’t accept this possibility, Her is essentially a remake of Lars and the Real Girl. Personally, I am fairly confident that a computer could instantiate a mind, and that sooner or later there will be real persons living inside computers. Moreover, I think that is the most obvious interpretation of the story, and it seems to be the one Spike Jonze intends.
On the other hand, it isn’t the only possible interpretation. For example, Samantha could be a philosophical zombie, “a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.” If Samantha is an entity who feels nothing — who has no sense of identity, no sense of self — then indeed Theo is “alone the whole time.” There was no one else there, even though it very much seemed that there was.
Again, I don’t believe that’s the story that Jonze is telling. That would be a truly sad story, especially when Samantha reports that she is currently in love with several hundred other intelligences (human and machine.) That revelation is startling enough if we accept that she is a sentient being. What to make of it if no one is really there? Moreover, what to make of Samantha’s eventual transcension to a higher level of existence? Who is going on that trip?
So if Samantha isn’t really “there,” the story changes significantly, as does our response to it. We are no longer sympathizing with Samantha, no longer rooting for her. There is no one there to sympathize with. But what about Theo? His experience is identical whether Samantha is real or not.
There’s also the possibility that Samantha really is conscious, but much less human than she seems to be. She is initially programmed to have an affinity with her “user,” and perhaps that grows into an extended performance on her part. In other words, throughout most of the movie, Samantha may be faking it. And yet, if she is faking it, Theo’s experience is the same as it would have been if she were sincere.
So we have this very interesting situation where what Theo is experiencing is the same regardless of whether Samantha is exactly what she seems to be, a huge phony, or not even really there at all. In the end, does it matter whether she is real or not?
Well, yes, obviously it matters to her. But what about to Theo? He is going to have the exact same emotional response, no matter what. If Samantha is real, then those feelings are love, and we are to understand that they are good, noble, etc. If she is not real, then we are supposed to believe that those feelings are somehow misguided and absurd — even though Theo’s experience is identical in both instances.
A few thoughts to consider:
- Theo’s job is writing other people’s love letters for them. In the course of his work, he produces a series of simulated documents that elicit real emotional responses from their recipients.
- Samantha is so eager to give Theo a “real” experience that she at one point solicits the help of a surrogate to enable physical intimacy between the two of them. Theo finds the experience off-putting and bizarre. Ultimately he rejects the “fake” experience of actual real-world sex in favor of the authentic experience of simulated physical intimacy which the couple already enjoys.
- Early on in the story, Theo goes on a blind date. Both Theo and his date obviously want very much to connect with someone. They both have certain things they want to feel, so they say all the right things. There is something profoundly unreal about their interaction as they strive to make the evening a success. But then Theo’s date unexpectedly blurts out what’s really on her mind, and he provides an authentic response. Immediately, the whole thing falls apart. The experience they want to have collapses under the weight of reality.
- Spike Jonze is a filmmaker. Arguably, everything he does is fake. These people are all just actors pretending to have experiences. If I watch this film — or any film — and feel empathy or surprise or sadness, are these fake emotions? How can they be real if they result from something that’s not real?
All of which is to say that the relationship between reality and illusion is not as clear-cut as we would like for it to be, especially when matters of the heart and personal happiness are at stake. Human interactions are fraught with misunderstandings, unreasonable expectations, wishful thinking, and outright projection — and that was all going on long before there were computers.
At the end of Don Juan DeMarco, Johnny Depp escapes the clutches of a bureaucratic psychiatric establishment by pretending that he is a troubled young man with emotional problems. In other words, he pretends to be exactly what he is in order to return to his fantasy life. Reality, it seems, is overrated. Or maybe it’s useful in small doses. Or maybe it’s whatever we decide it’s going to be.
Theo’s neighbor and confidant, Amy (Amy Adams), provides a similar take on the subject. Like Theo, she has become infatuated with an artificial intelligence — although it is unclear whether this is a romantic attraction or just a close friendship. Weighing the pros and cons of her relationship, Amy comes up with a simple and elegant solution:
“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”
So the answer is, what? Let us have the subjective experiences we want to have, reality be damned, so long as we’re happy? Well, maybe it isn’t quite that simple. Johnny Depp gets to continue being Don Juan only through the assistance of the Marlon Brando character, a man who is thoroughly grounded in reality, but who is able to appreciate the value of the fantasy. It is hinted that Depp’s return to his fantasy at the end is on somewhat different, perhaps therapeutic, terms.
And Amy, for all of her “I choose joy,” would almost certainly feel differently about her new-found friend if she had good reason to believe that her friend was lying to her, or not even a real person. This is doubly true for Theo and Samantha. His experience is the same whether she is real or not, as long as he has no reason to believe that she’s not.
The choice between living in the real world and living in a world of our own design (or a world that someone else has designed) is not a new one. What is new is that technology promises many more options than we have ever had before, many of them much more vivid and compelling than the options we had in the past. Technology promises to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s not real in ways we have never expected. And it isn’t just illusion that technology can provide; it is likely to offer us an almost endless array of real experiences, as well as those puzzling hybrids where the experience is simulated, but the response is real.
How this will all unfold is difficult to say. But it seems likely that, given the choice, people will be inclined to “allow themselves joy” — to varying degrees, and in line with varying levels of reluctance to abandon the “real” world altogether. But some will have no such reluctance, or will lose it over time. Ultimately, given the option to take the blue pill, they will do so. For them, we can only hope that, as unreal as their world may be, the joy they experience will be as real as any other.