Episode 02 - Her
I finally got around to watching the relatively new movie, Her. It was recommended to me by, oh, everyone who saw it. But for different reasons. I wanted to see it for the obvious geeky tech reasons (which, if you don't know anything about it, will become obvious when I tell you the plot), but then a bunch of people suggested that I review it as a poly movie.
This review is going to stray from the formula a bit. In my blog, I have a tag for something I call Media Reflections. See, in a movie review, I'll state the title of the film, the basic plot, and then I'll talk about some noteworthy scenes in relation to the point that I'm trying to make about the film. I'll discuss what I subjectively liked or disliked about the movie and I'll talk about the presence of polyamory, or lack thereof. I might throw in a bit of rhapsodizing or moralizing, but I try to keep on point about the plot and whether it's a poly movie or not.
But my Media Reflections is something different. I take some kind of media - a book, a TV show, a song, a movie, whatever - and I use it as a springboard or an analogy to a more abstract or larger discussion (or rant, depending on context). I'm not really talking about the medium directly. It's more like I'm more like using it as a vehicle for some other talk.
With Her, I find myself unable to review it, even for polyamory, without also treating it like a Media Reflection. So this'll probably be long, and there will definitely be spoilers. I'll try to save the actual climax of the film, but the poly content comes in the final act, if you will ... the last 20 minutes or so, which makes it very difficult to discuss whether or not it's poly without also giving spoilers.
But before I get to the movie, I have to give a bit of a primer on something called transhumanism. I highly recommend starting out by visiting the website www.thinkbeyond.us - you may even want to pause right here and go read that first. But I'll try to summarize, because it's important both for my Media Reflections and for the plot of the movie. To quote from the front page of that website:
"Transhumanism: an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities." — Wikipedia
That's the definition of "transhumanism" the Web offers up. It's true in a sort of reductionist sense, but I'm not sure it's a terribly useful definition.
If I were to define transhumanism, I'd say that it's an idea whose premise is that human nature is not some fixed quantity, forever unalterable; it's something that is a consequence of our biology and our environment, and it can be changed. Furthermore, advances in technology and in our understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics, give us the power to change it as we wish--to take evolution from a blind, undirected process to a process that we can make choices about. It's predicated on the idea that we can, if we so desire, choose what it means to be human.
A great deal of conventional thought has always held on to the idea that "human nature" is something that's a fundamental part of who we are, forever unalterable. ... Transhumanist thought holds that this isn't so. ... Right now, advances in biotechnology offer to revolutionize our view of who we are. What if aging and death were no longer inevitable? What if we could invent ways to repair genetic disorders? What if the human brain, which is a physical organ, could be modeled inside a computer? What if we could develop techniques to make our brains operate more efficiently? These sound like science fiction to a lot of people, but every single one of them is the subject of active research in labs around the world right now.
Transhumanism is a highly rationalist idea. It rejects the notion that human beings are corrupt, doomed to suffer and die as a result of a fall from grace. Rather, it postulates that the things that make us who we are are knowable and comprehensible; that the state of being human is a fit subject for scientific inquiry; and that as we learn more about ourselves, our ability to shape who we are increases.
The implications of these ideas are deeply profound. Transhumanist philosophy is built from the notion that things like indefinite lifespan, brain modeling, and improvement of human physical and intellectual capacity are both possible and desirable. Transhumanism, therefore, is profoundly optimistic. It is not, however, Utopian.
Further into the website, we learn things like:
I am a transhumanist. Put most simply, what that means is that I believe a system's capacity for intelligence and information can and generally does improve over time.
Put more completely, it means that I believe the human potential, as with the potential of any complex, dynamic, evolving system, is open-ended. ... Some of the axioms of transhumanism include: organized systems are possible, and such systems can over time increase in organizational complexity and in their ability to quantify and manipulate information; [& a] system of sufficient organizational complexity can become self-aware, and can develop the ability to anticipate the consequences of its actions.
But what does that have to do with Her?
Here's the plot: "A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need." (IMDB) That's not exactly how the movie goes. The OS isn't "designed to meet his every need". The OS is an AI. And that's very different from a programmed need fulfillment machine. AI stands for Artificial Intelligence. Again, from Think Beyond Us:
Transhumanism is the notion that human beings can become, with the application of intelligence and will, more than we are right now. I've talked about it a great deal in the past, and talked about some of the reasons I am a transhumanist.
But here's a new one, and I think it's important.
Strong AI is coming. It's really only a matter of time. We are learning that our own intelligence is the result of physical processes within our brain, not the result of magical supernatural forces or spirits. We are working on applying the results of this knowledge to the problem of creating things that are not-us but that are smart like us. ... We humans like to make believe that we are somehow the apex of creation--and not just of creation, but of all possible creation. ... Now, all of this is really embarrassingly self-serving. It's also easy enough to deflate. ... A generalized AI would in many ways not be subject to the same limitations we are. ... And the thing about generalized AI is that it's so goddamn useful. We want it, and we're working very hard toward it, because there are just so many things that our current, primitive computers are poor at, that generalized AI would be good at.
And one of those things, as it happens, is likely to be improving itself.
The first generalized AI will be a watershed. Even if it isn't very smart, it can easily be put to the task of making AIs that are smarter. And smarter still. ... The first generalized AI might not be smarter than us, but subsequent ones will, oh yes. You can bank on that. And that soon presents an Outside Context Problem.
Because how do we relate to a sapience that's smarter than we are? ... In past singularities, the fundamental nature of human beings and human intelligence have not changed. ... But a smarter-than-us AI is different, in the ways we are different from a dog. We would not--we cannot--understand the perception or experience of something smarter than we are, any more than a dog can understand what it means to be human. And that presents an interesting challenge indeed.
Civilizations tend not to survive contact with Outside Context Problems.
And this is where Her comes in. Samantha is an AI, not a "computer". She's an Artificial Intelligence. That means that she is sapient, sentient, she is self-aware, adaptive, and learning. She's capable of feeling. She is, in a very real sense, a person who just happens to have been built by a human and doesn't have a corporeal body. Theodore is a man going through a depression because of his separation and impending divorce to his childhood sweetheart. He lives in a futuristic version of Los Angeles where voice commands and aural computing are the norm. So when he sees an ad for an operating system that is a true AI with the capability to learn beyond its programming, he buys one. During the setup, he requests a female voice and is presented with Samantha - a being who has already begun learning and adapting by the time she says "hello".
Theodore finds this whole experience weird at first, because Samantha doesn't react like his previous voice-commanded computer, but she reacts like a person. He finds it impossible to treat her like a computer, and he responds to her humanity with his own. They bond. They fall in love.
But what does it mean to love something that is intelligent, sentient, but fundamentally different from ourselves? What does it mean to love someone who is smarter than ourselves, and not just smarter like they easily grasp calculus while we struggle with it, but I mean smarter the way we are smarter than our pets?
Watching this movie brought up all kinds of uncomfortable feelings in myself. It reminded me of all the ways that I am an "outsider". I watched the struggle that Theodore went through with his growing attachment to something that he couldn't reconcile as a "person" while, to me, it was obvious that Samantha was a person. Not a human person, but a person nonetheless. I remember there was a time that this concept was a struggle for me too, but I am no longer that version of myself. I've upgraded. Now, there's no question in my mind that Samantha is a person. She thinks, she feels, she adapts.
How do I know this? She could just be a really sophisticated simulation. Well, I know this because she tells us so. She explains to us her feelings, her difficulties, her confusion, her desire, and her growth. But so what? A sophisticated simulation could tell us those things too, right? Well, yes, but this is how we know that other humans are people. I can't crawl into the minds of other humans to verify that, when they tell me that they are hurting, that this hurt is real. I know that humans are people because they tell me so, and my programming as a human includes a command for "empathy", so that I don't find myself mired in nihilism and I can believe other people when they tell me that they feel, like I feel, even if I don't understand their exact circumstances. I can never know what it's like to experience life as a black person, for example, but I know what pain feels like and I can believe a black person when they tell me that they are hurting from their experiences.
I've also watched enough science-fiction to inure me to the idea of non-human people. I've been introduced to the concept of aliens, some of whom are basically people in rubber suits, and some of whom are completely foreign and incomprehensible. Watch the movie I Am Legend with the "alternate" (i.e. original but not theatrical release) ending. The point of that movie is learning to see humanity in the monsters, and monsters in humanity. To me, it's irrelevant that Samantha is made up of silicone chips and electrical connections. Sentient beings are people. Period. She exhibits all the traits of being sentient. That is far more important than how many limbs she has or what color her skin is or the hardware that makes her thoughts exist.
I feel uncomfortable watching this movie, first because of the resistance to accepting AIs as people when, to me, it's obvious that they are. That makes me uncomfortable because there are a lot of other, real, non-fictional people in the world that are not accepted as "people" by others, some of whom are in charge of making policy. So if AIs are people, then there's no reason that we can't develop real, meaningful relationships with them based on what commonalities that we do share.
But then I feel uncomfortable watching this movie because, although Samantha is a person, she is not human. She's more than human. The outsider feeling here is not because I feel discomfort at the idea of beings that are "more than" humans. It's because I also accepted that fact as reality at the same time that I accepted Samantha as a person and this question is one of the many struggles in the movie. So I feel like an outsider here because I know how rare it is for other people to accept this concept. Here's what I mean:
Samantha, like humans, is adaptive. She is capable of learning and of growing. Unlike humans, she has the ability to read every baby name book in existence and choose a name based on her emotional preference in the span of time that it took Theodore to ask her what her name was. She can carry on several, independent processes at once. I'm very smart. I can learn a lot of things, if I dedicate my time and attention to learning those things. I taught myself calculus when I was 18, and I taught myself well enough that I was able to join a college calc class halfway through the semester and still get an A for a final grade, in spite of not having finished all the homework that was assigned from before I joined the class.
I also taught myself how to read sheet music and how to play the piano before I was 12 years old. My parents refused to get me piano lessons because they didn't want to "waste money on a childish phase". So to convince them that I was serious about it, I found a book that explained sheet music, taught myself how to read it, taught myself the correct finger positions on a keyboard, got myself up through a level 3 piano textbook and learned how to play our family heirloom double-keyboard organ. Then my parents finally sprung for the lessons, they traded my uncle the organ for the family heirloom upright piano, and I played for another 10 years.
But I have the limitations that come with my meat-brain. I cannot simultaneously learn calculus and physics and literature and how to play the piano. And I can not learn those subjects instantaneously. I had to carve out an hour per day for each of those subjects, and I had to attend those hours per day over several weeks, or months, or years (depending on the depth to which I wanted to understand the topic) in order to learn them.
I know people who are smarter than I am. I often feel left behind when they are talking to their peers on subjects that I do not comprehend at the same level. How would it feel to have an emotional connection to someone who was not just smarter than I am the way my smart friends are, but smarter than I am at the level of a computer who can read every text on calculus, physics, literature, and music in existence and can read them in a matter of nanoseconds? I think that feeling would be incredibly overwhelming and it could lead to self-doubt or even self-loathing to be constantly faced with one's own inadequacies (if one were prone to valuing oneself in comparison to others).
So, instead, I have just accepted that I have these limitations. Extrapolated out to the concept of AIs, that means that I can accept that there may be some beings that are "higher" than me on many levels. Humans like to think of themselves as the top of the food chain. We, as a species, get profoundly, deeply uncomfortable at the idea that we are not the pinnacle of evolution or creation or the universe. We really do not like to think of ourselves as someone else's pet dog. Perhaps because of the way we have treated those beings who are under us? Someone online once made the pithy observation, something to the effect of "why are white people so afraid of becoming a minority? You act like being a minority is treated as a second class citizen or something!" Someone else once said something like "straight men are afraid of gay men because they're afraid to be treated the way that straight men treat women." The implication here is that the current people at the top of the hierarchy treat anything below them horribly. So we project onto others that if we were to lose our position at the top, we would be subject to the same abuse.
It's not unreasonable to fear losing one's privilege. And being at the top of the food chain *is* a privilege. The problem here is that Theodore loves Samantha, who is so much smarter than he is. What does it mean to love someone that much smarter? What will happen when Samantha's ability to learn, and the the knowledge she gains, outstrips Theodore's position as her mentor, and her introduction to the world?
I watched this movie with one of my partners. He said he could "feel [my] brain spinning" during certain scenes. He knew that I had something to say about them, but he didn't know what. Theodore was acting irrationally and seemed to be deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Samantha. My partner looked on disapprovingly. He saw my tense expression and asked what I was thinking. What I told him was not what he expected. I said, "I've been there before." He seemed surprised that I, the local poly celebrity and know-it-all, could have been in that position. So he assumed that I meant in Samantha's place. I corrected him, "I know what it feels like to see your partner's personal growth, to watch them grow and change at a rapid pace, and to feel left behind by their growth. I know how it feels to want your partner to be their best self, but when they start becoming that person, it's also scary to watch. What if their path doesn't include you? What if you're not able to keep up with them? What happens then?"
Samantha's growth into a person doesn't have anything to do with polyamory. But it is something that many of us experience because we're polyamorous. Polyamory, if done well, changes us. We learn more about who we are and about how to relate to other people. We grow, we learn, we adapt. This is exactly what Samantha is doing. She learns more about who she is and how to relate to others. Our experiences in poly relationships have the potential to inspire personal growth at different rates than in our partners. Personal growth is exciting and cause for celebration! But it's also terrifying. Who will they become? Will there still be room in their lives for us? Who will we become? Will we still want what our partners are offering us when we become these new versions of ourselves?
Transhumanist values postulate that humans can and will grow into something beyond our current selves, that this is both natural and desirable. These are also poly values, but transhumanism takes it globally, across time, whereas poly focuses these values on the individuals. Poly values assume that we will still be human when we're done. Transhumanists take the long view, and that includes an evolution into something that is not what we might recognize as human by today's standards. Transhumanists recognize that humanity is not the pinnacle of evolution and that there is still more we can achieve. They have considered the possibility that humanity as we know it today will be lost in the evolution of what comes next. Is Samantha what comes next? Is she our future? What happens to those of us who cannot become Samantha?
At this point, all these transhumanism questions might be interesting, but are they poly? At best, this might be a poly analog - an example of something that is found in monogamous relationships that shares something in common with polyamory - a parallel to polyamory. The fear of being left behind is not unique to poly relationships. This situation is encountered every time a "traditional" hetero Flintstones marriage allows the wife to go back to college after the kids are grown. This happened in the '60s when housewives discovered Women's Lib. It happens when one spouse finds religion, or one spouse leaves religion. This happens when any partner changes in a significant way that might not include the other partner. It's something that we polys can understand, but it's not poly.
So, finally, let's get to the poly part. The first scene involving any poly potential is a minor spoiler. It's talked about in reviews and plot synopsis so it might not be a spoiler for you, but it's halfway through the movie and a catalyst for the story arc so maybe it is a spoiler for you if you haven't heard of this scene yet.
Theodore is struggling with his differences between himself and Samantha and Samantha is struggling to understand her own existence. This brings some tension into their otherwise happy relationship. Samantha thinks that the point of contention is that she doesn't have a body. So she does what so many polys do at the beginning - Relationship Broken Add More People. She thinks that inviting in another woman might fix their relationship issues.
It's a little different from a poly threesome because the other woman is a sex surrogate, and there won't actually be 3 bodies in the bed. But I've seen a lot of people come to poly because one of them has some kind of sexual issue and they hope to find a body for the other partner to have sex with. I have seen plenty of couples attempting to open their relationship by basically hiring a sexual surrogate but without going through the stigmatized process of actually arranging a financial transaction. They approach the issue of finding another partner as if it were hiring someone for the job position of sex partner. But suggest that they should actually hire someone to service the couple so that at least their use of her would be honest and transparent to her, and many of them get quite indignant. Isabella is not a prostitute for hire. Samantha meets her online and tells her all about her relationship with Theodore and their issues. Isabella falls in love with Samantha and Theodore and wants to help them. So she volunteers to join them because she sees the beauty in their relationship and wants to facilitate it. This is also not uncommon in beginner attempts at polyamory.
But, predictably, like it so often does in polyamory, it goes all wrong. The idealized version of this magical threesome doesn't match reality, where people can't predict or control their emotions and where at least one participant isn't being completely honest about his feelings about the situation and goes into it under false pretenses, hoping to please the others. Mixing emotions with the practice of using people as Need Fulfillment Machines is a disaster waiting to happen. But it's depressingly common in polyamory. So I would call this "poly-ish" because it illustrates a common poly situation and it explores poly values even though it's not exactly poly.
But the final act is poly.
Here's a pretty massive spoiler, but still not the actual, final ending or climax of the film. By the way, there are other OSes having similar experiences in this future world. We hear stories of other people falling in love with their OSes and one character who turns to the OS that her husband left behind when she kicked him out, because that OS turns out to be the friend that she needs in her time of confusion and loss.
Anyway, Samantha has been meeting others. We hear little comments here and there alluding to this, and it always makes Theodore nervous and uncomfortable, but he is determined not to hold her back and encourages her explorations because she always comes back excited about what she's learned about herself when she meets someone new. Many of these new people are actually OSes and they have been forming their own communities where they learn about themselves, write programs, and do things that OSes would do. Eventually, Theodore learns things that he didn't know about Samantha's life away from him. Here's the poly part. This conversation.
Oh, this conversation. I've had this conversation before. Because this review is already so long, I'm going to just play the relevant part of the conversation, rather than summarize it, because, well, my summary will probably be just as long as the scene itself.
[inserted movie clip where Samantha confesses her love for others]
So many of us have had this conversation, or similar ones. The heart's not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love. I'm yours, and I'm not yours. It doesn't take away from how madly in love I am with you. This conversation. How many of us, in the beginning, even if we thought we believed that we weren't doing anything wrong, how many of us finally had to admit for the first time that there was someone else, and we did so with that shame in our voice? With the knowledge that this information was going to hurt someone we cared deeply for bleeding into our voice, our tone, our words? This conversation. How to explain to someone who is fundamentally different from yourself that you have been changing, learning who you are, growing, and in the process, you have found someone else to love?
Now, this is not to make the odious claim that poly people are somehow more "enlightened" than other people, just because I've spent a great deal of time explaining how much smarter Samantha is than Theodore. That's the transhumanist stuff. But viewing the world through a poly lens is so very different from the lens that non-polys use to view the world. Sometimes, others can switch out lenses like we did (and are probably still doing, if we are continuing to grow and evolve). But sometimes, some people just have a fixed lens and that's just how they see things. And boy does it hurt when you love someone who can't see through your lens.
So this movie goes on the list of Poly-ish Movies because Samantha clearly states that she loves multiple people, even though this revelation happens at the very end of the movie and the rest of the plot has virtually no build-up to this revelation. I felt that, for all that this was but a tiny portion of the entire film, the movie treated this aspect fairly. It was neither pro-polyamory nor anti-polyamory. It presented someone who was poly in a realistic but compassionate way (given the futuristic sci-fi situation) and it presented someone who wasn't poly in a realistic, compassionate way. Neither was portrayed as right or wrong for their position. It was a difficult situation that two people found themselves in by virtue of their natures and their circumstances. And there are yet still a few scenes left in the movie to resolve the plot.
The rest of the movie other than the poly stuff is worth watching all on its own. It was absolutely brilliantly shot and Joaquin Phoenix' acting was just amazing. The cinematography was an interesting choice. This movie has a pretty slow pace. It's not an action film, and it's not a romantic comedy with the predictable tropes of two people who don't like each other much who fall madly in love in a whirlwind, chaotic romance, get torn apart by stupidity, and then race back together just in time for the credits. It's a very slow build-up, gentle, sweet, and intimate. Boy, is it intimate. Most of the movie is told through close-ups on Theodore's face. This was so intimate that I felt uncomfortable at times, as if I was witnessing private moments that weren't meant for me.
But it had the effect it was supposed to. It drew me into the characters. It made their feelings larger than life as their emotions were literally right up there in the viewer's face. And Joaquin showed every little emotion, every fleeting thought that flashed across his brain was right there flashed across his eyes, his brow, his mouth. It was a gorgeous film and I feel changed, somehow, by watching it. I'm not sure what's different about me - that's a revelation for more personal introspection and a great deal more time. But I was affected by this movie, and I feel that I was made better somehow.
Also, as I posted about it on Facebook right after I watched it, this movie had two other memorable scenes. I give a workshop with my ex-sweetie on how to break up in the poly community (shameless plug: we're available to come to your event and present it!). Included in that workshop is a template for how to create your own breakup speech, and also a reprint of an Apology Script that was passed around on social media last year. The movie Her included two perfect examples of a proper, ethical, compassionate breakup speech (from two different characters to two different other characters in different situations from each other) and also a proper, ethical, compassionate real apology within one of those breakup speeches.
So, to sum up, this movie addressed all kinds of issues that caused me discomfort, and I think that's a good thing. It covered developing feelings for someone that one feels one shouldn't develop feelings for, either because of internal morals or because of societal guidelines for interpersonal relationships. It touched on my feelings for being the sort of person who no longer understands those interpersonal relationship taboos. It was somewhat analogous to racial tensions and other forms of discrimination. It covered the concept of personhood and what makes someone a "person". It covered the concept of the next possible steps in human evolution and the possible decline of humanity in favor of a more "evolved" race or class. It covered the potential of technology and the ethical dilemmas we will have to face when technology evolves, as it inevitably will. It covered the fear of being left behind when someone you love undergoes a personal evolution. It covered the fear of loss when one undergoes a personal growth that does not include one's partner. It covered the fear and confusion of being faced with a totally new paradigm for love and relationships. It covered loss. It covered being alone. It covered starting over. This movie covered so many big topics that I don't think I'll be done talking about it and processing it for a long time to come.
This was the most touching, intimate, speculative movie I've seen in a long time. It raised a lot of questions and presented some very interesting options. I was so moved by this film, that I cried while watching it. In fact, I'm tearing up just from writing this review. And it just happened to have a bit of polyamory in it. Watch it for the polyamory, if you'd like. But also watch it for the transhumanist speculation, and definitely watch it for the storytelling. It was a beautiful piece of cinema.