Her, Spike Jonze’s new movie, is at once unique… and not. Which seems to be an odd thing to say regarding a movie about a man who falls in love with his computer. But the seemingly strange relationship is not nearly as original as it might seem. Because, if you think about it, you’ll realize that movies, books, plays and who knows how many other forms of media have gotten a lot of mileage out of portraying the unlikely couple, the kids from opposite sides of the tracks: The Black man and the White woman; the Bronx kid and the Puerto Rican immigrant; the poor American artist and the rich French girl; the Beauty and the Beast; the Princess and the Vagabond; the King and the Teacher; even the girl and the robot servant (yes, Bicentennial Man, the only movie in this list that, I hope, needs direct referencing; as well as my own novel, Sarcology). So, the guy and the computer shouldn’t seem like that much of a stretch after all.
It seems to be part of human nature for like-minded people to draw together, and to distrust or shun those outside of their established social group. This extends to relationships, and creates schisms between people of different groups that want to come together. Some of our greatest myths and stories have come from couples that, despite incredible pressure from their peers to shun or even kill each other, resist the social pressures and prevail in love; and some of our most painful stories have come from those whose love could not overcome those pressures. There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet, and for that matter, West Side Story, aren’t known just for their balcony scenes.
But stories like these, and like Her, are good reminders for us that we, whether Black or White or Brown or Yellow, Jewish or Muslim, young or old, beauty or beast, American or European, rich or poor, aren’t as different as we may think we are. We often see each other through the colored glasses of distrust, ignorance or fear; these stories show us how to remove those glasses and extend our hands, to show the best of ourselves in being willing to offer our trust, to set aside our fears and prejudices, and let new people into our worlds. They also teach us to refrain from judging others who are not like us, who have a different perspective or point of view, and who may be open to happiness from sources we would not have considered.
I don’t know if this particular movie will have the enduring strength of a West Side Story or a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? But there’s no reason it shouldn’t. As we come ever so much closer to creating truly intelligent computer systems, and begin to break down the walls surrounding the concepts of machine consciousness, human emotions and drives, it should come as no surprise that we would soon be looking at the possibilities of a true human-computer relationship. The relationship in Her is admittedly stranger than most, if only because there is no real physical form for the computer to take… but as so many delight in pointing out, love is more than a physical relationship; so why not this?
It’s still too early to tell what kind of relationships we’ll have with our computers in the long run—tools, acquaintances, partners, friends, servants, masters or pets—but Her will serve as good as any other jumping off point to begin to figure it out.