This weekend, I went to see Spike Jonze’s new film, Her. It is probably dramatically unsurprising for you to discover that I rather loved it, given that Spike Jonze is one of my favourite storytellers (and I may never be over the magic of Where The Wild Things Are) - and I will be continuing to petition whoever one has to petition to get the soundtrack, because it is ge-orgeous.
I don’t want to talk about the relationship stuff in the movie bascially because I have nothing to add to what Alyssa Rosenberg has already written:
What makes it a remarkable, lovely movie, is that the conceit both matters and it doesn’t. Her is a movie about whether or not digital relationships count. But the relationship between a human and a program at the center of Her raises much larger questions about the intellectual and emotional capacities we bring to our relationships, our abilities to meet each other’s needs, and our conflicting memories of relationships after they’re over.
I think that her discussion, though, takes you to an interesting place, if you’re think about moving towards a future that is hitting the singularity or become Culture-esque - where there are AIs and humans, who interact, but where there is a permanent awareness of the difference between the two, and a complicated trust-mistrust relation - because Her notices that gap and explores it.
Interestingly, when I saw it, Her was paired with the first trailer of *Transcendence, Wally Pfister’s upcoming film (Pfister’s Christopher Nolan’s DP, so you know it’s going to look gorgeous and probably have some intereting things in it, up front), the plot of which is apparently:
A terminally ill scientist downloads his mind into a computer. This grants him power beyond his wildest dreams, and soon he becomes unstoppable.
(and, indeed, this is what the trailer suggests).
There’s a potentially intriguing double bill in the making here - with two very different pictures of the near future, and very different understandings of what increasing AI might bring: one mostly optimistic and one, not.
The differences might say something about Jonze and Pfister’s approaches to the world - Jonze has gone digital, Pfister is one of the few remaining cinematographers shooting on film, which does not necessarily make him a luddite, but suggests that he is less likely to be keen on the coming of the singularity than Jonze.
But… Technology (such as AI) is, in and of itself, not a negative or a positive - it, its place in our future, and our future overall, will depend on what we do with it. And what we do with it will depend, in part, on what we imagine doing with it, and - given that our perceptions of things are fired by our cultural surroundings - on what other people imagine we will do with it.
So here’s a question: are we more likely to be better at engaging with technology and using it well if our imaginations and views are fired by Her, or by the picture that Transcendence seems to be going for? What is likely to happen if we ask ourselves deep questions about our engagement and relationships with AI, and what that means for our humanity, as Her does - especially in the conversations Theodore has with Amy? And what is likely to happen if we portray the singularity as a terrifying moment that might wipe out humanity as we currently understand it, as Transcendence looks set to do?
I want to see Transcendence, and I imagine that it will be terribly exciting and will play with some big ideas - but how? I don’t want to run scared of this kind of technology - I don’t want to be encouraged to run scared of it, or, frankly, to have conversations with people about it whose primary frame of reference to it, culturally, is one where it is seen as a threat (because Transcendence is a big film that is going to be seen by more people than Her). I want to think about it with humour and affection, and a willingness to deal with humanity being complicated. I think it might be better for us.
Samantha: Is that weird? You think I’m weird? Theodore: Kind of. Samantha: Why? Theodore: Well, you seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer. Samantha: I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it. [Theodore laughs] Samantha: Was that funny? Theodore: Yeah. Samantha: Oh good, I’m funny!