For a while I worried that my father was having a thing with his GPS.
He seldom referred to the navigational instrument, which issued instructions in a feminine monotone, as “it.” He said “she” and “her.” He got a kick out of predicting exactly when she’d pipe up and what her advice would be, and he alternately complimented himself on his obedience and crowed over his defiance.
“She’s not going to like this,” he’d trumpet as he played the rebel, going straight instead of left.
“Recalculating,” she’d sigh, and he’d laugh mischievously.
I thought of them when I saw “Her,” a new movie that opens in major cities next week.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man in love with the operating system for his smartphone-esque device, a sexy Siri that — or should I say who? — tells him not only when he has mail but what a terrific male he is, and does this in Scarlett Johansson’s come-hither coo. There was much fuss recently over the decision that Johansson was ineligible for the Golden Globes: Should a disembodied voice’s contribution be regarded as any less real than a visible, palpable person’s? The debate echoed questions in the movie itself, which was written and directed by Spike Jonze and was just named the best picture of 2013 by both the National Board of Review and (in a tie with “Gravity”) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
“Her” is sure to be a talker. Set perhaps a few decades from now, when Los Angeles has sprouted so many skyscrapers that it resembles Shanghai, the story is in one sense absurdist. Man and operating system spend a warm day at the beach. Man and operating system spend a hot night in bed.
But it simultaneously feels like the logical extrapolation of the way we log in now, and it’s an all-you-can-eat allegory buffet. Choose your metaphor or cautionary tale — about the seductions of cyberspace; about how physically disconnected we are; about the shifting terms of intimacy — and it’s here in abundance, first and second and third helpings of it.
I savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone.
You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions. You can revel in the anecdotes that affirm your cynicism or articulate your fantasies, gullibly believing what’s actually performance art, like a young television producer’s tweet-by-tweet account of his smackdown of an annoying fellow passenger on a Thanksgiving flight. He was briefly a hero, his valor gone viral, until he revealed that he’d made the whole thing up.
In “Her,” the very nature of Johansson’s operating system is to adapt to and evolve from her interactions with Phoenix. She’s a projection of his needs. She blooms in accordance with his wants (and has an aurally explosive orgasm on cue). He needn’t doubt himself, compromise or color outside the lines. “Her” takes what’s happening in American politics and so much of American culture and transfers it to the realm of romance.
It’s a parable of narcissism in the digital world, which lets you sprint to the foreground of everything, giving you an audience or the illusion of one. To monitor Facebook or Twitter right after Nelson Mandela’s death last week was to be struck by how many people weren’t so much passing along the news as laying claim to it: Here’s what I thought of him. Here’s when I intersected with him. Here’s the personal reverberation.
But “Her” also traces the flip side of the coin — that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete. Around the same time that I saw the movie, Jeff Bezos sketched out his plans for delivery by drone. The New York Times published a front-page account of Google’s grand designs for robots in manufacturing and shipping. And a video producer I know returned from a shoot at a food production plant shocked that she hadn’t laid eyes on many people. Just a small posse of engineers and a slew of machines.
Economists have sounded the alarm about what this could mean for employment and the distribution of wealth. It falls to artists to contemplate what this could mean for psyches and souls, and “Her” imagines a society in which human beings are so thoroughly marginalized that they’re being edited out of courtship and companionship, because they’re superfluous, messy. It’s a love story as horror story. If we no longer need anyone in the passenger seat, do we need anyone at all?
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.MORE IN Election Letters
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