Hearing Her


[**Spoiler Alert**]

The more I hear people talk about Spike Jonze’s Her, the more I start to think about talking. Many responses to the film focus on what or who the protagonist, Ted, is talking and falling and love with. “She” —Samantha— is a virtual persona with artificial intelligence. Another big question, however, is how he falls in love. Fundamentally, is talk enough to be the basis of a romantic relationship?

I love talking with people I love, but my first reaction to the premise of Her is that I can’t imagine a romantic relationship that was based solely on conversation, with no physical or even visual contact. I could never find the words to describe my emotions fully and adequately, and I could never be sure enough that my partner interpreted those words as I intended. Watching the film, however, reminded me that talking is more than exchanging words, and that a voice is more than the language it speaks. Ted calls Samantha out on one of her signature tics. She inhales sharply before she starts a sentence. Why does she do that, he asks? She doesn’t need oxygen. It’s a funny and clever moment in the film, but it also says suggests something more about the bond that is forming. That breath, and those unique patterns –-albeit artificial ones—are part of what makes the vibrations in Ted’s ear into a being he loves.

Samantha suggests that maybe she picked up quirks like her habit of sharp inhalations from Ted, which calls up one of the easy indictments of this man who falls for his virtual assistant —Samantha’s voice is really a reflection of Ted’s desires, and in the end, this partnership is all in his head.

If the exchange basically is just the product of Ted’s mind, would that mean the relationship isn’t real? Further complicating my thinking here is documentation that the voices in our heads are indeed physically measurable phenomena. Scientists discovered years ago that “covert speech” actually manifests as impulses in the vocal cords. A new e-tattoo patent promises to take those impulses into the outside world, translating them into smartphone commands through a tattoo sensor on the user’s throat. Rather than speaking into the sky as  Bluetooth or GoogleGlass wearers do, someone with this new device could simply think, “I want to check my messages,” and voicemails would play through the earpiece, on cue.

With the aid of a digital translator, intentions could become commands. As Her suggests, a “smart” enough operating system could translate romantic desires to fulfilling responses. The prospect makes me nervous, although it’s hard to pinpoint why. In my experience, quick decisions aren’t always good decisions. And if my ideas can become a physical reality within milliseconds, then mistakes can escape the confines of my mind, and perhaps affect other people, too.  Do I really want my new music playlist to start when my friend launches into a long story about her conference call at work? Instant gratification and instant distraction might not be a good thing for me, or for the people I care about, and I could fall into before I had a chance to give it a second thought.

In the end of the movie, Ted and Samantha are allowed second thoughts. They experience pain at the end of their partnership, but they have the option to retreat to the comfort of other companions —he to his flesh-and-blood neighbor and she to the communal artificial consciousness that she shares with “other operating systems.” Still there’s a suggestion of the danger that was nearly averted, that Ted’s retreat to his friend’s arms and to the rooftop of the apartment building represents a narrow escape from virtual, romantic entrapment.

The theater was remarkably silent at as the screen faded to black, quiet enough that I think my ears caught a quick, sharp breath before the credits rolled. Maybe it was on the soundtrack —one last message from Samantha. Maybe it was a collective sigh in the audience, relieved that our smartphones couldn’t hear us. Maybe it was only in my head.


Peace 2.0


Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success…Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, 12/11/1964

It has proven true that seemingly “unlimited” progress has continued to spring forth in the fifty years since his Nobel Lecture. I’m inspired when I think about what technical ingenuity has accomplished since 1964. I’m disappointed, however, that injustice and violence continue despite that development. While we continue to make “spectacular strides,” humanity also continues to suffer a “poverty of spirit.”

Dr. King said that our ability to “bridge the gulf of the haves and the have nots” of the world was “dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony.” “Squaring” suggests that the two lines of development run on parallel tracks, but I wonder if that is necessarily true. Can scientific progress be an engine for moral progress?

One common line of argument suggests the opposite; that technology enables violence, greed, ecological destruction. Those sinister applications must be cut short, but it would be wrong to overlook the opportunity to harness the energy and genius that is behind scientific innovation.

As just one example of how human capacity is enhanced by technology, a recent piece by Tim Wu in the New Yorker makes a thoughtful case that smartphones make humans smarter, by making resources and processing easier and faster so we can solve problems more readily. Access to physical stuff —not just ideas— is becoming nearly instantaneous, too; Amazon says that customers could opt for thirty-minute aerial delivery  as soon as 2015. And for those occasions on which virtual fact-finding or remote retrieval isn’t enough, the latest reports from the 2014 Detroit Auto Show offer hope that soon our cars will be able to drive us wherever we need to go .

21st century citizens are endowed with a lot of potential to communicate, collaborate and change. The important issue, however, —the one that perhaps Dr. King was most concerned with— is how humans use that potential.

Some concepts out there are intended to directly address the problem of potential. Some biologists and ethicists have explored the concept of an “altruism pill” that would manipulate brain function and hormones to promote goodwill and reduce competition amongst people. In a 2012 ethics paper “Human Engineering and Climate Change” (Paper for Ethics, Policy and the Environment. 2012. See p. 10 in pre-publication version. Also includes citations for more info.) authors S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache pose a possible case for the pharmaceutical approach. “If people were generally more willing to act as a group, and could be confident that others would do the same, we may be able to enjoy the sort of benefits that arise only when large numbers of people act together. Increasing altruism and empathy may help increase the chances of this occurring.”

Even if it technically worked, would the altruism pill be good for society? I’m inclined to use Dr. King’s criteria as a measure. In his Nobel lecture, he argued that nonviolent resistance is the ideal weapon because it “cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.” Perhaps by making generosity and sacrifice less difficult, a pharmaceutical could cut through inequity without wounding one’s pride or self-satisfaction. But I’m not sure that an altruism pill has the crucial “ennobling” power.

The ennobling part of nonviolence is in fully feeling and knowing one’s power but at the same time, refusing to use that power to harm others. Dr.  King suggested that he and his allies were surmounting hills and mountains of resistance and wore down opposition “until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity.” That force is lost in the relatively instantaneous act of taking a [hypothetical] altruism pill. The pharmaceutical approach is more like taking a gondola to the top of the mountain and less like wearing a path up and over, with the patient pressure that Dr. King evoked. The pill would promote compliance and conformity, without leveraging the energy that is needed to drive real change.

Dr. King did not swear off technological advances, and neither do I.  My point is that we should not to take for granted that technical “progress” must be aimed at domination, speed and acquisition. Human ingenuity could help to conjure a truly livable and peaceful world if the goals of invention include the principles of making peace —bridging the gap between the haves and the have nots; pursuing patient, steady change. For my part, I’ll try to be more conscious of using the tools at my disposal in a way that brings me closer to other people and their needs. I hope that typing these words for you to read might represent a tiny step in that direction.

America’s Hottest Celebrity


…is the weather. Or more accurately, this week weather was the coldest celebrity in America. Har. Har. Brrr.

I honestly think if I couldn’t talk about what the sky looks like or what’s messing up the sidewalks, or how bad and in what bad way it feels to be standing at the bus stop, I would have no means of initiating conversation with strangers, and even some of my acquaintances. I know I’m not alone in this, because if I don’t bring up Mother Nature’s latest outfit (or conniption fit, as it were) the person standing beside me inevitably does.

Why do we talk about the weather so much?

Sometimes, I think I’m fascinated with the weather in the same way that I’m fascinated with some celebrities, because they seem to be completely out of control. Did no one tell the star “Hey, maybe don’t go ahead with that last bottle of champagne/scanty outfit/plane ticket to North Korea?” Similarly, where the weather is concerned, there’s no stopping her. Sure we have fire and irrigation pumps, refrigerators and Polar Fleece, but when ice and wind tear down the powerlines, or a heat wave sucks up the water supply, I have to acknowledge that nature’s behavior is beyond our grasp.

The fascination only ramps up when I see a breakdown on the horizon. Where weather is concerned, the breakdown could be climate change. (Here I should repeat the atmospheric scientists’ refrain: Weather is not climate. See NASA for more.)  Like a breakdown, it’s hard to pinpoint a start, an end, or make a clear connection between the possible symptoms of climate change and the trends that seem to cause it. How many drinks does it take to make a blackout? How hard do you have to party before it becomes a problem? How much carbon dioxide has to be emitted to push surface temperatures higher? How high can temperatures climb before one can say the climate is changing? Even those closest to the problem, like the many atmospheric scientists who were consulted on the latest polar vortex, say they can’t label causes and effects with certainty. If anything, they are quicker than others to acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

The breakdown that is climate change is also serious and potentially tragic, just like the binges, flings and erratic behaviors I gawk at in the tabloids.

For some celebrities who are on the brink, the answer is intervention (occasionally courtesy of VH1). And intervention might be an option for the weather, too. Some scientists are researching options for geoengineering, by either removing carbon from the air —targeting the source of climate change— and/or reducing surface temperatures —targeting the effects of climate change. The strategies are somewhat straightforward, but it’s not clear what the side effects might be. Managing those may be as challenging or more so than confronting climate change itself.

When I see a celebrity tailspin swirling, my first thought is, “Slow down.” It’s counter to western culture and human inclinations to step back in the face of a problem. But slowing down is a strategy that seems to work in a lot of other situations. I think about it as I skitter along my favorite path in the winter, making better time than I ever do in the sunny months. I’m rushing, but everything around me —the squirrels, the birds, the trees, and the river— is slowing down. Even steam clouds puffing from the nearby stacks look fatter and lazier in the cold.

So maybe the best way to keep up with wild Mother Nature is to match her mellow pace. One option is to keep the wild pace, try fighting the carbon hangover with an aerosol bender, or another possibility is to cool the jets for a bit, and take time for some careful measurements and observations before launching the next scheme.

I resolve to keep my eyes on the clouds today, and the bigger ones on the horizon. I’ll also keep in mind that I might see both best if I’m standing still for a while. If I see you waiting there, too, I know what we can talk about…



Ringing in the New Year


sound (image from ducksters.com)

January is a time for list-making and taking stock. The folks at Mental Floss have a creative angle, cataloguing change in the audio realm with “11 Sounds Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard.”

As a cusp child of the Millennial Generation, I can recall all of the clicks and squeals on the list, but most were phased out of my life before I really noticed, either. One loss I have noted is the whirr and crackle of a real film projector at the movie theater. Now when the show starts on the big screen, I’m blown away by boom of the digital surround sound. The blaring fanfare seems unnecessary until I tune in to the orchestra of beeps and jingles that plays under it as moviegoers fiddle with their phones through the previews. Makes me think that modern soundtracks really do need to holler to get our attention.

So while I’m pondering the sounds my kids will never hear, I also wonder whether their ears will ever get a break. How often do today’s young people encounter silence?

Whether or not most people require Dolby Digital, it seems we prefer it. Almost all of my fellow commuters have miniature speakers on or in their ears for the duration of the bus or train ride. It’s understandable they might prefer their own soundtracks to the grunt of a diesel engine or the squeal of metal breaks. But that hypothesis doesn’t hold up in quieter places and times. My local library is always abuzz with clattering keyboards, beeping and chirping devices in the hands of patrons of all ages. This isn’t a regional or urban phenomenon, either. After a recent visit to a fiber-optically challenged county in Maine, I can say for certain that teenagers have portables in their parkas and buds buried in their earmuffs. Specialized pockets and loops have made their ways into standard winter gear, and if the mobile providers have their way, even the most intrepid trekkers will never wander into a dead zone on the map. Noise is cultural now.

I observe, but I’m not exempt. I had the TV on when I read that article, and when I started to type this piece. I like to turn on mindless programs when I work late, just to have the camaraderie of other voices in the room.

“Silence is Golden” is oft-repeated, if not heeded. (I want to say,“like a broken record,” which I guess makes me old. See above.) But maybe as quiet becomes scarce, people won’t need silence. That would be the sort of Darwinian model, and it’s borne out by real trends: Some bird species are getting attuned to city life, have adapted their calls to ambient noise. (Read more from George Mason University and Animal Behaviour ) Or, maybe the old adage is true, and silence acts like gold: It’s more valuable when there’s less to go around.

When I try to measure the benefits of silence, I encounter a paradox. I know the value of quiet only because of the sounds it reveals to me. Last weekend in Maine, I slept without stirring for eight hours straight. I woke to ice tinkling as it melted from tree boughs; I heard the sun shining before I saw it. Back home, in the quiet study corner of the library, an old man chuckles at a headline in his newspaper.

I associate silence with solitude, but it opens my ears to close connections I might otherwise forget — with the trees, with my neighbors, with the Jiminy Cricket conscience that chirps at me when it’s time to stop and listen.

What does silence mean to you? What do you hear when you open your ears?