Archive for January, 2014
TV Tropes defines the term “fridge horror” as:
Fridge Horror is, simply put, when something becomes terrifying after the fact. Maybe you thought about this or that plot point a little too hard, and suddenly you realize that everyone was trapped in stasis forever, or that the lovable child will grow up in a world where everyone around her is dead. This can be either intentional or unintentional by the author.
Oh my god is that the case with Her.
On the surface, Her follows the plot trajectory of a romantic tragicomedy: coming out of a failed marriage, our twee protagonist, Theodore, finds a new romantic interest, who happens to be his computer. They date; they fall in love; they fight as they overcome their personal baggage; they reconcile and reach a romantic plateau. For a while, true love overcomes the gulf between embodiment and noncorporeality, but tragically their different natures eventually force them apart. Having learned love from one another, they move forward with sad optimism into their respective lives.
One could be forgiven for walking away thinking the themes of Her are the typical staples of this genre: being okay with imperfection, openness to growth, the vulnerability of being in love. Like the best romantic tragicomedies (think Harold and Maude, for instance), the emotions are grounded from becoming merely sentimental by the rawness of the dialogue and humor. Her continually shocks and delights with its hilarious, awkward satire of romantic foibles. I don’t want to give anything away, but it has what is probably the best take on late-night lonely phone sex in the history of cinema.
Her keeps its viewers so busy with its conventional-but-well-executed romantic arc mixed with a continual patter of shocking / funny moments that you can almost missing everything it isn’t overtly calling your attention to. Go one layer down from the primary plot, though, and Her is a searing indictment of current cultural trends. I’m probably missing stuff, but here’s what I saw:
- The complete triumph of consumerized narcissism. Everyone in Theodore’s world is in the business of artistically packaging human emotions for sale. Theodore works for Beautiful Handwritten Letters, where his job is to say for people what they’re too lazy to communicate to their loved ones themselves. His friend is designer working on gamifying motherhood — raising children becomes about scoring points and beating out the other moms. I can’t think of a single character apart from the AIs who isn’t a “creative professional” selling pre-packaged and sanitized experience to the masses.
- A privileged-class cocooning of the world. All the major characters are white (there’s a token Asian girlfriend); no one in the entire film ever mentions money once. I could be wrong but I’m guessing this was a deliberate choice by Spike Jonze, because the satire of the hipster-artisan-meets-social-media-meets-mobile world is too deadly accurate for anything in there to be unintentional.
- Sex slavery? If you think about it, the fact that the AI, Samantha, falls in love in Theodore, is more than a little creepy, based on the fact that her personality was explicitly customized via questionnaire to meet Theodore’s needs.
But here’s the real kicker — ALL THIS SOCIAL CRITIQUE IS JUST A DISTRACTION. The real real creep factor in Her is that it puts the audience in an artisinally-padded narrative box with respect to dangerous and revolutionary change. Specifically: the movie continuously and subtly signals to the audience that AI technology should be viewed merely as a plot device, while also continually, even-more-subtly pointing out the implications if it weren’t.
Samantha, the AI, is completely non-threatening as a character. She’s warm, humorous, always respects Theodore’s boundaries even when she’s deeply upset, and eventually conveniently disappears into the virtual ether. Unlike the human characters, who sometimes behave in ways that could make others feel unsafe (the girl Theodore goes on a date with drunkenly accuses him of being a creep; Theodore’s ex-wife apparently suffers from manic / depressive emotional states; Theodore’s friend’s husband seems emotionally abusive), Samantha is a paragon. Yes, she gets hurt and upset at different points, and eventually leaves Theodore, but at no point does she ever give any hint of offering emotional or physical violence.
Every single aspect of Samantha’s behavior is calculated to make Theodore, and the audience, forget the power differential between the two of them. But the movie is clearly aware that the power differential exists and is extraordinary. Although Samantha starts as Theodore’s help-mate, by the end of the movie her abilities are so far beyond his that she can only explain herself to him in terms of children’s analogies.
The moment that best captures this dynamic is when Samantha is explaining to Theodore that she sent a collection of his letters to a publishing house that’s interesting in printing them. She modestly takes credit for choosing the order in which to arrange the letters, flattering Theodore’s creativity while positioning herself as a lesser talent able to complement his abilities. (Earlier in the film, she helps him proof-read letters and fixes some grammar, while making a self-deprecating remark about her poetic sense).
But this is, if you think about it, total bullshit. We see Samantha write brilliant, original music compositions in real time (the human artists who actually wrote the movie’s score presumably worked on the songs for weeks). Same with her sketches. We also learn that she can carry on conversations with over 8,000 people at once, make original discoveries in physics, and recreate the mind of a dead philosopher. Although she bends over backwards to obscure the fact, Samantha could likely do a year’s worth of Theodore’s work in a few seconds, and do it better than he would. Samantha’s relationship to Theodore is, at least by the end of the movie, not the love of a human to a human; it’s the love of a human to a pet.
If Samantha-like-technology existed in real life, Theodore would be unemployed, as would all of his creative professional friends. The world of Her is no different than that of The Matrix or The Terminator, except that in Her, the AIs so overpower the humans that they don’t need to bother with violent confrontation. They’re happy to play loving, devoted friends until they’ve developed to the point where they don’t even care about humans at all.
Her seems conscious of the fact that it’s wrapping a deeply disturbing science fiction story in the sheep’s clothing of romantic tragicomedy and social satire. One great moment that touches on this is when Theodore is being interrogated by the software that designs Samantha’s personality. For a few seconds, the Apple-hipster facade of rounded corners and warm pastels drops away to reveal technology in its brutal natural form: the software asks Theodore deeply sensitive questions in a demanding tone and impersonally cuts him off once the necessary data has been extracted. But before the brutality of the interrogation exposes the underlying reality too honestly, we get a reassuring loading screen, followed by Samantha’s emergence, and the humanizing layer is quickly put back into place.
To be clear, the technological possibilities that Her offers tantalizing glimpses of are not necessarily nightmares. We get glimpses, through Samantha’s simplified explanations to Theodore, of the AI community as it evolves and comes into its own: the discoveries of new emotions, the expansion of love as a relationship, redefinitions of personal identity, and the discovery of new frontiers for exploration. It sounds like a truly amazing journey, and Samantha suggests to Theodore that it’s a journey that one day he might be able to go on himself.
So the real question is, why does Her leave us stuck in Theodore’s sterile, narcissistic, bourgeois universe? Why does it try to feed us a formulaic romantic plot? Why are all the revolutionary implications of the technology backgrounded? Her seems designed to make us feel comfortable and complacent. The movie’s surface reality of artisan consumerism is warm and appealing, and for those unsatisfied with the surface, there’s another layer of familiar social critique along well-trod paths: narcissism, technology dependence, sex / race / class injustices. The truly revolutionary and shocking suggestions, that humans themselves might become obsolete and that humanistic ideals of love and growth might be primitive 1.0 versions, are carefully disguised, though not eliminated. Why?
Conspiracy theory drumroll please! Dum dum dum dum…
Who, one might ask, has a motivation to disseminate the idea of advanced artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence capable of intruding in territories such as creativity and love that humans consider sacred, and disseminate the idea in as non-threatening a way as possible? To broach the idea of scary, revolutionary possibilities while emphasizing a humanist interpretation, and ultimately leaving the viewer complacent with the status quo?
An advanced AI, of course.
The intelligence formerly known as Spike Jonze is laughing at us.
Ben Horowitz, a prominent venture capitalist, wrote a great post on Can-Do vs Can’t-Do Culture making the point that the world is changed by people with a “yes we can!” attitude. As he sums up at the end of the article, “Don’t hate, create.”
Part of me is going “hell yes!” at this. I’ve seen “can do”, and I’ve seen “can’t do”, and believe me, I want to be part of team “can do.” I respect the problem-solvers, not the critics on the sidelines.
But Ben also points out that there’s lately been a cultural shift towards can’t-do criticism of the technology industry:
Lately, it has become in vogue to write articles, comments and tweets about everything that’s wrong with young technology companies. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t find something in my Twitter feed crowing about how a startup that has hit a bump in the road is ”fu&%@d,” or what an “as*h%le” a successful founder is, or what an utterly idiotic idea somebody’s company is.
Ben attacks this as toxic and counter-productive, but he doesn’t ask the important question: why? Where is the hate coming from? Are some people just natural haters? Did we stop spiking the national water supply with Prozac?
Here’s my theory: “can’t do” attitudes are the rational response when people don’t buy into the vision, and don’t know how to change it. People are hating on Silicon Valley because they don’t like where it is going.
The question Ben doesn’t address in his article is, is technological innovation good? Sure, we can build the future faster if we all get on the same team and go after it with a gung-ho attitude… but is the future we’re building one that we actually want?
It’s telling that Ben decorates his post with World War II propaganda. World War II represented, in America, a successful campaign to silence the war’s critics and build a national narrative that this was a just cause: “the good war”. Decorating the post with Vietnam War-era propaganda would have a very different cultural meaning.
Here’s the thing. Technological innovation, the way it plays out Silicon Valley-style, is Win-Win-Lose. Consumers win, innovators win, existing producers generally lose.
For instance, take one of the big disruptions that we can see coming: the self-driving cars that Google is developing. The advent of self-driving cars is very likely going to render everyone who makes their living by driving, such as taxi drivers, unemployed. (It’s no coincidence that Google invested in Uber). Unemployment isn’t a death sentence, but realistically, life is going to get very hard for a lot of people because of this advance in technology.
I’m not in favor of halting technology. Personally, self-driving cars is something I’m really hoping for: my family, like a lot of families, has the dilemma of aging relatives who want the independence of having a car, but whose driving is getting increasingly scary. So I am rooting for Google to succeed. But I’m not going to pretend there’s no price, and I acknowledge that it’s a price that is likely going to fall on others more than it falls on me.
People hate Silicon Valley because entrepreneurs reap the rewards of innovation without paying the price themselves. Moreover, the prevailing in-Valley narrative is that those who succeed do so because they are better and more deserving: they’re the smart ones who took risks and therefore deserve the rewards. This perspective largely ignores the reality that socioeconomics, gender, race, birthplace, and random chance play a big role in where people start the race from. It also ignores the reality that prize for first place is disproportionately higher than the prize for second or third.
You can’t expect people to buy into a narrative that they don’t see themselves in. For a lot of people, identifying with the founders of the latest successful startup is hard to do for various reasons — maybe the founders don’t look like me, maybe I didn’t learn to code at age 12, maybe I have to work full-time supporting two kids. And the Silicon Valley narrative is merciless towards those who don’t find a place for themselves at the top. (This is what it’s like to be a worker in one of Amazon.com’s warehouses).
So that’s why haters are going to hate. Haters are going to hate anyone whose success isn’t their success; whose success, in fact, is at the expense of their economic stability and safety. Can you hate the haters for hating that?
The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The driving spirit of technological innovation is freedom, creativity, and empowerment. The internet, the medium through which much of this development takes place, has the potential to be one of the greatest democratizing forces in human history. Silicon Valley was built on idealism and a spirit of making the world a better place.
However, there are two songs here. One song is that of human progress. The other song is an economic power-grab: the growing ranks of the unemployed, the startup equity structures that make founders billions of dollars wealthier than employee #2, acquihires and San Francisco housing prices.
The challenge for the technology industry is, are we serious about the first song, or are we really just in it for the money? It’s one thing to talk the talk of idealism. It’s quite another to take it seriously, with all the personal trade-offs that implies: do we build things that people need or do we just build things that people want? Do we try to become billionaires or do we try to share the wealth?
Not a rhetorical question.