The most incredible thing about Her is that it feels so inevitable and so unremarkable. The story of a man who begins to develop a relationship with a new, intelligent and learning operating system, Her is science fiction that goes out of its way to sidestep all of major beats a story about AI typically has. They aren’t really persecuted (though sometimes misunderstood), there’s no point where the humans try to destroy what they’ve made, and there’s no moment where the AI’s try to destroy their creators. In fact, the movie is almost completely free of traditional conflict, instead believing in the power of two beings with vastly different trajectories coming into contact and what that does to both of them.
And that’s where the true magic of Her lies. In eschewing the typical directions this story goes in in mainstream storytelling, instead what we witness is a quiet rumination on personhood and wrestling with the nature of being—both from a program becoming something much more complicated and from a person trying to put themselves back together after a long depression. The movie doesn’t even go out of its way to show that both are so linked together, because it is increasingly becoming less and less of a leap to just accept the reality of this potential future.
There’s a bot on twitter currently called @greatartbot, that regularly posts an image created through some sort of randomization algorithm. There’s a program called Emily Howell that creates music based on learning the fundamental rules of music theory. Emily’s creator has put out two albums of that music under the name Emily Howell. When Samantha, the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson, plays a piece of music she wrote deep into the film, and it is treated as a moment of a human being recognizing the art and significance of a creation of a not-human-being, I thought back to these things that already exist. Are we hurtling towards the world depicted in this movie? At least in the broad strokes, I feel like we’re already on the cusp of it.
What is the difference between a computer program and the human mind. We create one and the other forms on its own? Perhaps. But biology would say that the human mind is just a collection of neurons that takes in input and then grows to recombine it in increasingly complex ways. If a program can do that, where’s the difference? If art is already being created by computer, and we feel something, isn’t that just as real? The definition of what is a real interaction and real relationship is a murky one at best now, much less what might happen in a decade or two. And Her offers up that truth, giving us just enough vague future tech to make us see this as a place we’re eventually going, even as it reflects back at us the world we live in right now.
One more real world example: in 2009 a Japanese man married his girlfriend. He had to go to Guam to find someone who would perform the ceremony. That’s because his girlfriend was a character in the video game Love Plus, a Nintendo DS game that’s expressly about forming a relationship between one of the characters and the player. It became a silly ‘look at this weirdo’ think piece around the internet at the time, but by and large it’s simply a thing that happened in the world, generally unknown and if remarked on mostly in puzzled, vaguely dismissive tones. That’s one person in one (admittedly less intense) situation, but nobody lost their minds. Some people would look at that and just shrug, others might question the guy’s ability to form real relationships. And that’s exactly how people react in the world Spike Jonze depicts as awaiting us. It doesn’t. In many ways, it’s already here.