The most thought-provoking parts of Spike Jonze’s Her is also the weirdest. And know that this being a movie about a man who falls in love with an operating system, the bar for weird is pretty high. It’s strange, though, not in its content but because of its implications. Stranger than that, however, is that it might have been purely coincidental.
(First off, you should go watch Her. There aren’t any spoilers involved in this piece, but I just really think you should watch it. Besides, it will help illuminate some of the more specific references I make to the actual film.)
I mentioned it in the review, but I’m going to bring it up again because it’s central to the point I’m trying to make. In computer science, there’s this notion of a finite-state machine. This machine (in most cases, a computer) can only be in one state at a time, and given an input, goes to another state. Basically, for every “if,” there is a discrete and predictable “then.”
Even random numbers from computers are only pseudorandom; they are generated by an equation based on a seed number. If you ever play a game that procedurally generates its levels or enemies or whatever and it asks if you’d like to supply a seed number, that’s what’s going on. It’s asking you for the genesis for all its randomized elements. A discrete and predictable output.
Save for cutting edge technologies like quantum-based devices, all computers operate as finite-state machines. We tell a computer what to do and it does it, but more importantly, we know what it will do and how it will do it because we can trace it as it goes from state to state. It’s like watching a much more elaborate and cerebral series of dominoes being tipped over.
It’s also one of the reasons why we’ve yet to properly emulate the human brain with the computers we have today. In terms of computation, the single most defining element to humanity is that we are (or at least bear the potential to be) irrational. Put quite simply, we make no sense.
That is the basis for many relationships, or at least the seed for it. Love is an immensely irrational act. Amy Adams’ character in Her puts it like this: “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.” And she’s not wrong. Crushing on someone is chemically identical to a psychological obsession.
And truly, how many relationships do you know of that make sense? Superficially they may seem logical; two of your friends end up dating and getting married. They’re both smart, attractive, and charming. They share interests, they share ideals, and they share the capacity to love someone who isn’t him or herself.
But that’s all gravy. That’s just a handful of cherries on top of two scoops of Neapolitan nonsense. It’s much more important that somewhere along the line, they both had succumbed to some illogical jump from not loving this person to loving them. All that talk about finite-state machines? None of that here.
That makes Her so interesting to think about. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly falls for Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha. It doesn’t make sense in many ways: she has no body, she’s a collection of artificial intelligence subroutines from innumerable programmers, and she is legally not even a proper entity. (Philosophically, that’s another question; who are we to judge who falls in love with what or who?)
More notably, however, is the fact that his love is based on irrationality, and though we don’t know exactly what kind of computer Samantha is—obviously far more advanced than anything we have now—it still brings up the idea of the contrast that she is based on logic. Her affection for Theodore can be traced from beginning to end. From soup to nuts, we can see the inputs she takes in from the world’s collection of knowledge in combination with his actions and speech and see how Samantha arrived at loving Theodore.
It brings some interesting considerations in that light: at what point does love truly blossom? Is love inherent in a paired interaction or is it concocted through a combined, running total of meaningful exchanges? Really, this is a question of fate. Is there absolutely someone out there for each and every one of us or is the idea of “making something work” a viable one?
It’s such an amazingly complex and layered question to ask, and in Her, it’s mostly an ancillary one. For the most part, I think it’s an examination of the validation of relationships based on electronic interactions like texting, Snapchat, MMO chatrooms, and, if you’re old-fashioned, e-mail. But there’s something else happening in Her that deserves consideration and it might not have even been entirely intentional.
I mean, Jonze doesn’t have a computer science degree, but the comprehension of the limitations of computers isn’t too hard to grasp or even discern on your own. That accessibility, though, lends itself to this thought experiment. The idea of what a computer can and can’t do is so easy to grok, but the concept of love is so incredibly vast and impossible to put properly into exhaustive words. That contrast forms the core of Her‘s most interesting question: is love discovered by a lonely, heartbroken man who writes letters for a living or created by an office building full of programmers and an internet connection?