Hearing Her

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[**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.

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