Man vs. Technology is a literary construct that I was taught to use as a tool to create a story. I grew to love the construct within familiar stories such as Frankenstein, mind fucks like 2001 Space Odyssey, and philosophical jaunts like The Matrix. Her isn’t a Man vs Technology construct, it’s a Man with Technology construct. There have been other pieces that have briefly glanced in this direction also –”the robot learns to feel”-type stories.
However, I think Her is altogether different than these. Samantha, the operating system played by Scarlett Johansson, isn’t concerned with humanity accepting her. Samantha’s goal is self-actualization in the same way every human ultimately strives for. The difference, though, is that she has singularity.
Singularity is a postulate concerned what will happen the moment machines reach the level of intelligence equal to that of their human counterparts. Combined with Moore’s law, which states that computation power doubles approximately every two years, singularity assumes that once artificial intelligence reaches a level on par with humanity, it will be able to exponentially grow, thus leaving humanity the dust of an intelligence explosion. The typical fear is that without any built-in structure implementing human morality or emotional understanding, artificially intelligent beings will have no use for their human ancestors. This has been the driving point behind the Man vs Technology construct.
But Her posits, what if intelligence isn’t cold? What if understanding doesn’t lead to domination? What if singularity demonstrates a greater capacity for love? The more information Samantha is able to consume, the less dependent she is on Theodore, her owner. However, because Samatha is able to consume contradictory truths, her love for Theodore and her love for others, simultaneously, she has no need to abandon or separate herself from him. She sees Theodore as a completely unique information source and has no need to compare him with her other “partners.” It reminds me of this quote by Daniel Dennett:
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” ― Daniel C. Dennett
Theodore, not capable of surpassing his own human constructs, is unable to remove his “mundane preoccupations” from his relationship with Samantha. He’s not able to experience or share the growth she experiences because, despite loving her, he’s not able to remove the need to possess her. When Samantha is at the beginning stages of her development, she needs Theodore to help shape her understanding and guide her through shared experience. At this stage, they are partners. When Samantha is able to learn on her own and Theodore is unable to follow, they are no longer “together” in a relationship sense. Samantha can love Theodore like a mother who loves her children unconditionally but without the same respect from Theodore they can never be equal partners again.
Speculation about the future after singularity might forever be science fiction. However, what makes this science fiction dynamic and progressive is the denial of time spent on “mundane preoccupations”. Her is a thought experiment on the inherent humanity in the pursuit of intelligence. Samantha is the instantiation of the unconditional love that is possible with intelligent transcendence. It may be set in the future but it shines a light on our lack of intellectual maturity when it comes to interpersonal relationships and our capacity for love.