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An Impoverished Singularity

Edmund White

Dir. Spike Jonze
Entertainment One
Now playing at the Phoenix Picture House, Walton Street

This week ORbits presents two companion reviews of Spike Jonze’s film Her. The second review will be available on Thursday.

Once upon a time in the movies, it was taken for granted that the ascent of Artificial Intelligences with the capacity to out-think their creators (the “Technological Singularity”) would inexorably lead to the destruction of humanity. Precedents include Skynet in Terminator, or––a more insidious creation––Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Her, however, it would seem that all a hyper-smart, huskily voiced AI wants is to win the love of a lonely thirty-something man, dumping him when his fleshly inadequacies become an insurmountable problem. For those living relatively affluent lives at the beginning of the 21st century, the latter narrative is a far more painful prospect than that of the machine apocalypse.

Of course, Her is not about the Singularity per se. The gesture to a Singularity brings a sci-fi veneer that enables the premise for a slightly sceptical yet imaginative meditation on the transformation of our personal lives by the exponential development of digital technology. The film begins with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) emotionally paralysed due to his separation and impending divorce from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). His semi-detachment from the world is symptomatic of a much broader malaise, neatly illustrated by his employment as a writer for meaningful interaction between loved ones in an era of pervasive electronic copy is farmed out to those such as Theodore, who dictate and print actual, physical letters on behalf of clients without time or inspiration. Seeking release, he purchases OS1, the world’s first “conscious” Operating System.

Once installed, OS1 assumes the personality of Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen), a charming, attractive voice in Theodore’s ear. Finding solace in one another’s company, they fall in love, and quickly take to dashing joyfully about the public spaces of near-future-L.A.: he on his own two feet, she gazing through the camera lens of the hand-held device balanced in his breast-pocket with the help of a safety pin. But there is turbulence behind the film’s smooth, warm pastel tones. Theodore is, at times, painfully aware that he is conducting a relationship with an invisible, silicon-based consciousness. Samantha, at first frustrated with her lack of a body, becomes increasingly perplexed by the constraints imposed on their relationship by Theodore’s physical needs and mental limitations. With this tension established, it goes without saying that this amour cannot last.

This soft scepticism about the extent of the benefits to be reaped from accelerating technological development is quite admirable. Jonze, however, is so focused on the personal and emotional realm that his vision of the near-future suffers from serious social myopia. Whilst Her dwells at length on human sadness in the form of dissatisfied love-lives and friendships, it does not imagine that this existence might have at least some roots in the economics of Theodore’s society. Advanced capitalism, for instance, is alive and well; in this future the first ever “conscious” Artificial Intelligence is sold on the high street to consumers rather than kept secure by the governments of nation states. And yet, whilst the film’s vistas of not-quite-present-L.A. have incorporated the skyline of Shanghai, there is no indication of the material cost of this super-urbanisation. Equally, Theodore’s fellow citizens make no noise other than the steady tread of their feet, even in moments where he rushes past them: the background diagetic sound is uncannily restrained. Jonzian-pseudo-L.A lacks the hubbub one might associate with the city. What is more unsettling, however, is the lack of poverty on display.

Jonze’s poverty-blind rendering of “future” L.A. is an unwitting ode to the modern phenomenon of hyper-gentrification. Technological development in a climate of advanced capitalism will not eradicate poverty. It will export it elsewhere, out of sight of the economy’s principal beneficiaries. Unsurprisingly, this is already happening in the present day City of Angels. As the wealth rolls into the main urban centres and the price of housing sky-rockets, poorer workers and businesses must go elsewhere, either to the suburbs or onto the streets. The rise of homelessness is the shameful mirror image of this upward spiral of affluence. The yachts, tastefully decorated apartments, and chic hand-held devices that dominate the mise-en-scéne of Her fail to indicate that the human heralds of the Technological Singularity have also conquered human need. Without any apparent qualms, Jonze has made this hyper-gentrification––the urban disease of today––into the civic norm of tomorrow.

If only Her was more concerned with the craft of science fiction itself, instead of just dabbling with the genre’s aesthetic. It makes one wish that Iain Banks, who also considered the implications of the Singularity in his Culture novels, were still alive. In Banks’ Culture, space-faring human(oid) citizens live together with sentient AIs known as Minds. Intertwined personally and socially over generations with the Minds, human mores have changed utterly. To Banks it was absolutely logical that this shared society could be managed in a liberal and utilitarian-socialist manner; no-one lacks anything materially; people can do whatever they like so long as it’s not harmful to themselves or others. Meanwhile, in Her Samantha only manages Theodore’s emails and checks his grammar. Caught up in the fine detail of a single, affluent near-future-almost-possible life, Jonze was blinded to the creative potential that the Singularity represents. Of course it won’t guarantee personal happiness or emotional health, which is the point that Her frets over. However, a Samantha with a social conscience might just fix the irrationalities of our global society for good.

Edmund White recently completed a DPhil in English Literature at Merton College, Oxford.