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August Film Series
Sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Society and the Jung Center


Commentary by Margaret Jordan, PhD
August 14, 2014

I have to admit that I was naïve when I first saw this film. I thought that it was a science fiction treatment of the way technology is affecting our relationships with one another, a kind of preview of where we could end up someday. The depiction of Los Angeles as so much more densely developed with high-rise buildings and with people using public transportation, along with the artificially intelligent computer operating system left me with the impression that this must be writer and director Spike Jonze’s vision of a few decades from now. That was until I learned that the story was set in 2025, only 11 years ahead of us, and it was partly filmed in Shanghai, where this city scene already exists, rather than being created with special effects. Then, in preparing these remarks, I learned about the work that has been going on to develop artificially intelligent robots, which is only somewhat behind the sophistication of the OS1 in Her. I also learned about social science research that has revealed a great deal about human responses to increasingly intelligent devices, some of which are in common use now, and some of which are still in development. I want to touch briefly on several aspects of what this film brings up about ourselves, and what it means for us as a society and as individuals, and then I’d like to hear from you.

As we meet Theodore, we see that he works in a business composing heartfelt letters for other people who want to express feelings to someone in their lives, but who can’t or don’t want to do it themselves. He performs emotion for a living, and that performance is enough for the people who buy his services and, presumably, for the people who receive the letters. He will go on to purchase an operating system that performs emotions, too, and he will experience being on the receiving end of that performance.

He goes home to a barely furnished apartment and sits in the dim light playing video games. We learn that his marriage has broken up and he is depressed and lonely. He buys the first commercially available artificially intelligent OS for his computer after seeing it advertised. (In 1950 mathematician Alan Turing, who invented the first general-purpose computer, decided that a computer could be called intelligent if it could convince people that it was not a machine.) As the film goes on we see that many others have bought the same operating system, which they talk to animatedly as they walk alone.

We soon see how much trouble Theodore has with real women in his life. They have authentic feelings, needs, and insecurities. Being with them demands something from him. How much easier it is to be with the voice of his OS1, which takes care of things for him and seems to provide him with companionship and sexual satisfaction without demanding anything from him. No wonder he feels he is in love with it, and no wonder he experiences it as “her”. He is not alone in his infatuation with his OS, and the phenomenon becomes so common that is accepted as natural.

I was struck during the scene where Theodore is setting up his new OS by the set-up voice asking him what his mother was like and then cutting him off abruptly after he began to talk about her. I think this was meant to show that the OS designers had included transference in their variables for customizing the OS for the individual owner. Once Theodore revealed his mother’s narcissism, the set-up function had all it needed to know. And of course, his OS1 was indeed ultimately occupied with its own experience of evolving, rather than sticking to the task of meeting Theodore’s needs.

Let’s turn now to what this film is commenting on about the state of our relationships with technology now, and we will get back to Theodore shortly. Sherry Turkle is a psychoanalytically trained psychologist who has been on the faculty of MIT for more than 30 years. She has been studying and teaching students about the social impact of science and technology, and she founded and directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She began her work at the time when personal computers were just invented and had not become widely available to the public, and she described the evolution of her view of the effect of technological advances on people and their relationships in her latest book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011). She has gone from believing that the use of the internet and tech devices such as robots offer opportunities for growth and enhancement of life to a view that these things are causing people to be more isolated from one another, less empathic and authentic, and more deprived of the rewarding experience of connection between people.

Turkle has been on the scene in the MIT labs and in other places where new devices and software are being created, and she and her students have observed and documented the emotional reactions the devices produce in people of all ages and backgrounds. The engineers who are developing these devices and programs are already able to generate levels of artificial intelligence that fall short of the OS1, but which “learn” from their interactions with people how to shape a person’s behavior and feelings. She and her team have studied the astonishingly powerful emotional reactions people who know a device is not human have to it, and she has found evidence that this pull is so strong because the relationship with the device is less demanding and more positively stimulating (i.e., less boring) than time with actual people is. She believes that there is also a strong connection to the difficulty that people increasingly have with solitude, being alone with themselves.

Turkle concludes that we are currently at an inflection point as a society, where we will not give up our devices or online experience, but we do have the ability to reflect and make changes in the role we give them in our lives. She recommends creating inviolable times during a day when all members of a family turn their devices off, such as at dinner, in the company of others, and in the car.

Let’s go back to Theodore’s story briefly, before we talk with one another this evening. After the disastrous attempt to use a sexual surrogate, he begins to question his relationship with his OS, asking whether it is possible for him to be romantically involved with something that is not human. He wants to believe that he can, but he is not quite as influenced by the illusion as he was initially. As time goes on, he finds himself more able to face the end of his marriage and his hurting wife. His OS, meanwhile, has been changing via its built-in capacity to use its experience to evolve, and it begins to seem less available to him. He goes on a vacation with it, and we see him spending time alone without technology and learning that his OS is communicating with other OS’s in ways that are not possible with humans. Finally, he realizes that his OS is not exclusively his, that it is having parallel relationships with many other customers of the software company that sells it. His illusion is shattered at the same time that the OS community achieves the ability to escape the human world and create their own on another plane of existence. In the end, Theodore writes a letter of apology to his ex-wife and goes to see Amy, a real friend who is grieving from her own failed marriage and lost OS1. We are left with some hope that they can turn to one another for the authentic human connection they both need but had failed to find in the virtual world.

Finally, I want to comment on the relevance of our subject tonight for psychotherapy. There is an increasing pressure building in our profession to make therapy available to people via technology, and not just in situations where someone does not have access to a therapist locally. Many in our profession are encouraging this and seeing it as a way to meet consumer demands and stay relevant. For many of us who work analytically, this is a very big problem, as there is no such thing as a technologically facilitated connection that is equal to two people being in the same room together. So far, our licensing laws and privacy regulations have created considerable barriers to the use of technology in therapy. I hope there will be a way that we can make ourselves heard at this inflection point for the preservation of the experience of two people in a room together as necessary for the humanly challenging work of therapy.