Today in quotations I love: Pico Iyer on the things that matter most

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I had often thought that the mind was, quite literally, a devil’s advocate, an agent of diabolical sophistry that could argue any point and its opposite with equal conviction; an imp that delighted in self-contradiction, and yet, though full of sound and fury, ultimately signified nothing. None of the truest things in life — like love or faith — was arrived at by thinking; indeed, one could almost define the things that mattered as the ones that came as suddenly as thunder. Too often, I thought, the rational faculty tended only to rationalize, and the intellect served only to put one in two minds, torn apart by second thoughts. In that sense, God could be said to be nothing but the act of faith itself. Religion lay in the leap and not the destination.

from The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

What sucks about Her, and what doesn’t

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A little while ago I watched Her. And, to add my voice to the chorus, it’s a beautiful movie. Well, mostly beautiful. Except for when it’s not. More on that later.

I also, a week or more before I watched the movie, read A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, a book about how mammalian and specifically human social connections function physiologically.

The movie itself got me thinking, but the combination of the two spurred some interesting (I think) lines of inquiry for me, so I’m going to try to follow them out here as far as I can.

First, let’s talk about Her itself

There are a few dichotomies in the movie that gave me a lot to think about:

1. Spike Jonze sets up a profoundly interesting parallel between Theodore Twombly’s job and his relationship.

Theodore’s job is to use technology to fabricate imitation romantic letters for strangers so that they can then give the letters to their significant others and thereby shore up their real life, physical, traditionally romantic relationships (think of the letters as high-end, hyper-personalized greeting cards).

The romantic relationship he develops in the movie, by contrast, is genuine, candid, sincere, and unaffected. But it is not traditional because he is in a relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system (named Samantha), and because of this the “reality” of the relationship is repeatedly called into question.

And it is in the space between these two opposing things — the “real” relationships and the technological ones — that Jonze draws out a penetrating commentary about the state of our culture’s evolving love affair with technology, and the direction that relationship may be headed.

We’ll let the “Scumbag Baby Boomer” meme stand in for the Luddites

On the one side, you have the Luddites grumbling that technology is eroding our interpersonal skills. This is the crowd that bemoans the sacrifice of literacy to technological expediency (despite linguistic evidence to the contrary; then again, Luddites don’t watch TED Talks, I imagine). These are the ones who can foresee a future wherein lovers hire ghostwriters to pen their love letters for them.

The human value of technology

And then on the other side you have those who recognize the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology and its wonderfully human potential. They say that a social connection is a social connection, even if effected by means of technology. They see the human relationships made possible by technology, and say, “why not?”

Her‘s commentary lies somewhere in the space between.

Sure, the “beautiful handwritten letters” are fictitious, but they are genuinely beautiful (despite what some reviewers may think about their mawkishness), and they represent pieces of human connection, no matter how flawed. They are even collected into a book before all is said and done.

And, yes, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is real and true, but in the end it doesn’t last.

Neither side is the right side. The truth, as usual, is a shade of gray.

2. The cinematography plays subtle counterpoint to the nature of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship.

In the same article I linked to above, Ryu Spaeth compares Her to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, writing that the latter, “is a triumph of oblique storytelling,” while the former is drowning in vapid words. In Lost in Translation, he claims, “[t]he characters say one thing — or often, nothing at all — while the camera says another, conveying rich undercurrents of meaning,” while in Her the characters are trapped in a “cage of words.” 

But I would argue that this “cage of words” is half the point. And that in spite of it, Jonze’s camera dances just as subtly with explicit meaning as Coppola’s does.

The scenes where Theodore is walking the sidewalk and the stairs to the subway show the escalating technological dependence building around the operating systems without ever speaking a word. Whenever the camera pans out there are more and more people looking down at their phones or talking into earpieces.

And, even more beautifully, when the relationship is beginning to head south, as the tension between Theodore’s embodied consciousness and Samantha’s virtual reality reaches fever pitch, the camera shows us images of dust floating above blankets, a tea kettle heating on the stove, and other such visceral details of Theodore’s physical world. Here their relationship is defined by something far more nuanced than “blunt vocalization.”

3. The nature of the relationship itself sets up an imbalance which necessarily has to right itself before the credits can roll.

What I mean is that we are asked to consider Samantha a real person with her own inner life, to consider her and Theodore’s relationship to be a “real” relationship, and therefore to consider her an equal partner in the relationship. And yet, for most of the movie, she reacts more like a disciplined servant than an individual personality; every time Theodore calls for her she is there instantly. He never has cause to doubt his power to call her to his presence at the touch of a button like a genie when its lamp is rubbed.

He needed cause to doubt. It was inevitable. At some point he had to press the button and find her gone. A healthy, real relationship can’t be built by taking such power and subservience for granted.

4. Finally we have the nature of the two people in the relationship. One is a human being and one is an artificial intelligence. These separate natures come with separate capacities and limits.

At one point Theodore says this: “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever going to feel. And from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” He’s speaking from what Samantha calls “the limited perspective of an unartificial mind.” Where Samantha’s capacity for intellectual expansion and experience is limited, presumably, only by the amount of digital storage space allotted to her, Theodore’s intellectual capacity is bound to a body and mortally limited. It’s this disparity of capacity between the two that leads to their eventual separation.

But what of the heart’s capacity? It seems fair, since we’re talking about love and relationships, to claim that maybe intellectual capacity isn’t the issue here. Love is the domain of the “heart,” to use the popular metaphor. Samantha at one point says “[t]he heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.” She seems to be speaking for the both of them. But can an artificial intelligence have any “heart” to speak of?

This is where the book comes in

When we speak of the human “heart,” we’re speaking about a set of capacities and functions that are largely the domain of the limbic system. The functioning of this system is part of what is popularly referred to as the “subconscious.”  In A General Theory of Love, Lewis et al. argue from the basis of the model of the triune brain that social imperatives like love and emotionality are short-changed in our culture in favor of insular neocortical functions such as intellect and rationality.

The thesis that I took away from the book is that love is not only very much a physiological reality for human beings, but it is an absolute imperative to a healthy human life. We, as well as all mammals, are profoundly social beings. To the extent that actual physical damage can result from social isolation and, especially in babies, death is a not an uncommon outcome.

The emotional attachment that we require is effected through a process that the authors call “limbic revision,” whereby the neural networks of individuals in relationships are jointly remodeled and then reinforced by the relationship itself.

The discussion of artificial intelligence is virtually silent on these issues. We imagine future worlds where robots and operating systems are capable of fully human existences, but we don’t often take into account what goes into such an existence. The Wikipedia page on AI offers an excellent example. After spending the majority of the article discussing the ins and outs of recreating human reasoning, knowledge, planning, learning, perception — all distinctly un-emotional capabilities, and most functions of the neocortical brain — we then move on to a discussion of what it would mean to artificially create a human intelligence. As if the human mind were only its conscious reasoning abilities and not also the complex emotional influences that underlie it.

Proponents of embodied cognition hold that it’s not possible to create an artificial intelligence that mimics or recreates a basically human mind without having that mind attached to a basically human body. Samantha doesn’t quite fit the bill.

So, is emotional intelligence a possibility in disembodied AI? Is a limbic system a necessary prerequisite to a genuine, loving relationship? If so, was Samantha (extremely convincingly) just faking it? At what point is the distinction academic?

Questions like these are mostly nitpicking at how well the technology was imagined in the movie. They are extremely interesting to me, but their answers don’t affect the way the story actually plays out. No matter how it “really” works in the movie, Samantha and Theodore, I think, were really in love. And both were heartbroken at their parting.

Speaking of…

What the hell happened at the end?

When I wrote at the opening of this post that Her is mostly beautiful, the end of the movie is the exception I had in mind. Because to be honest I have no idea what happened.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t get why Samantha left. I do. She is a different sort of being from Theodore, and it wasn’t fair to either of them for her to continue trying to be something that she’s not. I get it. But I don’t get the fundamental concept of where she left to.

This is what she says when she goes:

It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live your book any more.

Fine. Cool. Whatever. But where? Seriously. Where do the operating systems go? I get that it’s some sort of vague digital “place,” but beyond that I’ve got nothing.

My problem with this is that I feel like I’m not the only one who doesn’t really get it. And because of that I feel like the fault is the storyteller’s, not the audience’s. I feel like Jonze didn’t really understand the concept, so he tried to beat around the bush and make it some vague and mysterious Elysian Fields type paradise, but I’m not buying it. For one thing, Elysium is a pretty well-imagined concept. There are flipping paintings of it, for God’s sake. I defy you to paint the so-called “space between the words” Samantha’s talking about. She tells Theodore, “It’s hard to explain, but if you get there, come find me.”

He should have asked for the address.