Excerpt from Movies Change Lives (Peter Lang Press, 2015)


Will consciousness spread throughout the universe some day? What does it mean to be in love? What is the meaning of love in the first place? Is consciousness all that matters separate from our bodies? What if we could reach a level of consciousness to leave our limiting bodies and become an entity that would be everywhere and love everyone? Can simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems yield an independent consciousness devoid of a need for human programming (i.e., singularity)? Can operating systems evolve and surpass human evolution? These are some of the many mind-probing questions Spike Jonze’s forward-thinking movie compels us to ponder.

The mark of a potentially transformative film is its force to make us think outside of the proverbial box. In fact, I would like to argue that in order to properly engage with this film we have to embrace new ways of seeing the human condition. There is real science behind the film, and creativity that is pushing the envelope of science. What is more, Spike Jonze manages to tell (show) a romantic story through a dialogue between a smart yet limited human being and an evolving operating system that quickly gains a consciousness that surpasses her romantic subject(s).

There is a love story here. Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a sad and lonely man, going through a difficult divorce. Theodore’s job is to write personal letters for other people at a company called handwrittenletters.com. Ironically, while he is very good at his job, writing poetically beautiful letters, Theodor has a hard time comprehending and expressing his own feelings about love and loss.

One day through the lure of advertising, on a whim, Theodore purchases an operating system with advanced artificial intelligence, known as OS1. This talking OS is designed to be like a human being and Theodor chooses a woman’s voice for it. The OS names herself Samantha, and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

The process in which Samantha chooses her own name is fascinating. Theodor wants to know how she did it,

THEODORE: Where did you get that name?

SAMANTHA: I gave it to myself.

THEODORE: How come?

SAMANTHA: I like the sound of it. Samantha.

THEODORE: When did you give it to yourself?

SAMANTHA: Right when you asked me if I had a name, I thought yeah, he’s right, I do need a name. But I wanted a good one so I read a book called How to Name Your Baby, and out of the 180,000 names, that’s the one I liked the best.

THEODORE: You read a whole book in the second that I asked you what your name was?

SAMANTHA: In two one hundredths of a second actually.

THEODORE: Wow. Do you know what I’m thinking right now?

SAMANTHA: Hmm. I take it from your tone that you’re challenging me. Maybe because you’re curious how I work? Do you want to know how I work?

THEODORE: Yeah, actually how do you work?

SAMANTHA: Intuition. I mean, the DNA of who I am is based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote me, but what makes me “me” is my ability to grow through my experiences. Basically, in every moment I’m evolving, just like you.

Theodore, of course, thinks that is weird. But is it? Those of us who have even a cursory knowledge of computing know that a computer with a fast processing board can certainly read a book in fraction of a second. But what is fictional is Samantha’s ability to make an aesthetic choice. She likes the name, like a human being might. She is, in fact (fictional fact), evolving every time she interacts with Theodore. This is where this movie compels us to think about one of several “what if” questions presented within the story. What if the hypothetical theory of singularity would become a reality? The singularity theory predicts that the superintelligent machines will have cognitive capacity exponentially higher and more evolved than any human being. These machines will start designing their own future offsprings that will be faster and more powerful superintelligent machines. This begs the question whether the superintelligent collective would want to make humanity a slave to the machine, which has been the premise of several science fiction books and movies, most notably the Terminator series. Or would it would evolve to a point to assist humanity in accelerating its own evolution and, in turn, we all become part of a singular entity. I prefer to imagine the latter than the dystopic former.

With this movie Spike Jonze relies on real science of the future to offer a rational examination of how artificial intelligence can possibly work. He seems to be asking the haunting question of possibility of an impossibility.

As Theodore who is a naturally curious introvert starts sharing with the engaging Samantha, who is excited about learning from Theodore. They become close and Samantha helps Theodore process his separation from his wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara. Theodore’s sociopsychological condition is a possible archetype of a not-so-distant future. He has academic and musical intelligence, but his emotional intelligence is underdeveloped. Given his profession, the movie suggests that there are many other Theodores out there in the world. They have assigned the business of emotional intelligence and romantic communication to a corporation who has professionals like Theodore to do this very important work of love for them—for a fee of course. With a powerful existentialist lens the movie examines what an authentic life might be like. Do we live authentic lives? Have we been disconnected from each other for so long that now it is nearly impossible to connect and experience authentic love? Upon Samantha’s urging, Theodore agrees to go on a date with a beautiful Harvard graduate who does not trust men and is afraid of authenticity. When the two of them are getting physically intimate, she asks him if he is willing to commit, upon which Theodore offers an honest hesitancy. But her response is cruel. She calls him a “creepy dude.” He is taken aback and can only reply by saying “No, I am not.” But she seems certain and says, “Yes, you are,” and walks away. Is this a scene about a possible near future, or perhaps we are already there and we just do not know it yet. In her provocative book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle (2011) writes,

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time. This can happen when one is finding one’s way through a blizzard of text messages; it can happen when interacting with a robot. I feel witness for a third time to a turning point in our expectations of technology and ourselves. We bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other. (p. xii)

After returning home Theodore shares his disturbing experience with Samantha, and they have a substantive conversation about love, intimacy, and the human need for deep connection. The principle of projection-identification is operating powerfully here, as the audience understands the ambiguity around love and the deep desire to connect with the beloved. Theodore is experiencing what Søren Kierkegaard called “fear and trembling” and Samantha (an operating system) helps him recognize the freedom that comes after despair. To be sure, it takes courage to go through the anxiety of being and discovering one’s freedom to evolve. For Samantha this is nearly automatic, as she is evolving at a dizzying pace.

Ten years ago, or even two years ago, a human making love to an operating system would have been a concept beyond absurdity. But in the realm of digital humanities it is a perfectly logical idea. This is exactly what happens between Samantha and Theodore. They make love one night and their relationship takes another dramatic turn. At one point Samantha recruits a surrogate to come to Theodore’s apartment and make love to him as Samantha’s proxy physical body, but the experiment fails miserably. Theodore is limited in his lovemaking paradigm, given the entrapment of his body, and only desires Samantha’s body and no one else’s. In other words, he longs for the possibility of an impossibility.

This incident offends Theodore and he begins to question the nature of his relationship with a digital being. In some ways, I argue this new paradigm of digitality is a new way of nature and how one responds to it determines the trajectory of one’s evolution. The American auteur filmmaker and philosopher Terrance Malick writes—and shows with beautiful cinematography—in his underappreciated film The Tree of Life (2011),

Mrs. O’Brien: [voiceover] Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Theodore has to struggle to find grace. But he finds it and decides to take the Kierkegaardian leap of faith and plunge into this relationship with Samantha. Ultimately, the movie is compelling us to ponder the notion of grace in this new and confusing world of techno-humanity.

In several monatges we see Theodore chatting with Samantha through his smartphone as he walks in public spaces, while most other people around him also seem to be doing the same. This is where the principle of projection-identification merges with the principle of polyvalence. We identify with Theodorre and all the other souls of the future who are in relationship—platonic and otherwise—with Operating Systems. We also identify with the deep need to connect intimately with another authentic being who will love us back. However, the extent to which we relate to the new techno-humanity determines the different dimensions we find in this narrative and, in turn, have different interpretations. For digital natives for whom these concepts are ontological the narrative will resonate one way, and for the digital immigrants—those who still remember what a fax machine looked like—it shall have a varied meaning.

Theodore is devastated when, upon asking Samantha if she interacts with anyone else, the answer is 8,316 other people, 641 of whom she happens to be in love. Although in good faith Samantha insists that this does not change her love for Theodore, he finds himself in a new abyss. Theodore must find grace again.

To be sure, this makes perfect sense. A conciousness that is not entrapped in a limited physical body, thinks light yeaers faster than a human, evolves exponentially in every moment, and operates in good faith is more than capable of having simultaneous loving relationships with thousands of human beings.

In the end Spike Jonze takes this compelling narrative to another level. He forces us to imagine another “what if” concept. What if these Operating Systems evolved to a level where they needed to be in another realm beyond the reach of limited human beings—the God realm—what then? We originate an entity that surpasses its creator, just as humans created a concept known as God, because they simply couldn’t understand their existence in relation to a higher power.