Usually, at theaters such as Cinema Carousel, this involves an image of a cinema full of neon-lit cellphones and a dramatic cacophony of ring tones and vibrations that serve as a hyperbole for what annoyances may come if moviegoers don’t silence their devices.
Of course, as a moviegoer, I agree with this policy. Talking, even whispering, is in violation of every patron’s right to fully absorb a film. After all, movie theaters are one of the few places in our society where all forms of communication are strictly prohibited, rightly and refreshingly so.
The irony popped into my mind as I scarfed down popcorn during the opening credits of Spike Jonze’s recent film, "Her." Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and the voice of Scarlet Johansson, "Her" examines the changing nature of relationships with the ever-increasing presence of technology in our lives — especially cellphones.
The story takes place in a pseudo-near future Los Angeles in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character, an introverted writer named Theodore, finds himself alone and empty in the aftermath of a disheveled relationship, with divorce papers awaiting his signature. What replaces the hole in his heart is a fantastical piece of new technology named OS1. The operating system features the first-ever full-blown artificial intelligence.
Theodore’s OS (Johansson), who calls herself Samantha, embodies all you would dream of in an intimate counterpart (except for, of course, an actual body). Physically, she is his phone. Emotionally, she develops a relationship with Theodore, and quickly becomes his companion.
I was startling to discover how lost I became in the love story. Stranger still, the emotional vulnerability and evolving self-discovery of the lover-AI Samantha did not creep me out as much as I had expected it to. Only vaguely did I first realize, and now in greater depth, the intimate role my smartphone (“smart” humanizing the device already), plays in my life.
The film’s reality and our own are comfortably linked.
The term “smartphone” implies that an operating system can think, not feel. But rapidly approaching is a crossroads in an exponential river bend of dramatic change.
Ray Kurzweil — inventor and futurist considered by some to be “the rightful heir to Edison” — believes that, by the year 2050, the human race and information systems will converge in a theory known as singularity. The biological and technological systems that are today interacting harmonically to sustain and improve life will become indistinguishably bound, one and the same. This concept is best articulated through the sci-fi musings over artificial intelligence — the tipping point at which technology levels with, and eventually outsmarts, humanity.
Last spring, I was introduced to the works of cyberpunk novelist William Gibson and his book exploring warfare in cyberspace titled "Neuromancer." In the novel, there are human characters and there are AIs. Within the story, it is often impossible to distinguish between the two. Each is fully capable in thought, will and warfare. The predictions he lays out in his 1984 publication evoke a similar foreshadowing to George Orwell’s ideas of “telescreens” and government surveillance conveyed in his 1948 novel, "1984."
"Her" does not deal in dark matter. The mood and pacing have levity, joy and rich comparatives to today’s modernist, environmentally conscious culture. Sticking with the complexity of human relationships, drawing stark contrast to Gibson’s dark premonition of cyber warfare, Jonze’s film first touches its audience’s heart, then its mind. Samantha grows as an intelligent being, and her advancements conflict with Theodore’s desire to be, simply, happy.
Most science fiction film trailers can begin with the darkly dubbed introduction, “In a world where ...” But not "Her." A world where public places are flocked with people chatting into earpieces? A world where computers are personified by unique names and recognizable vocal patterns? A world where we seek advice from abiotic entities?
Look around. If you haven’t spoken with Apple’s Siri, or held multiple conversations at once with the flick of a thumb across a touchscreen, or posed a question to Ask.com, perhaps you’ve been living in the silence of a movie theater your whole life.
Surely, we’re on our way. My relationship with my phone is intimate. It is, by extension, my relationship with everyone that I know and care about. And, maybe a little naively, I love that.
The film takes the question of our future and presents it in something of an answer — in a familiar, not distal or abstract, time and place.
That future is as close as the phone pressed against the fabric of my pants pocket. Fortunately, for two hours in the theater, I can leave it there and still do some of the processing on my own. But in the real world, devices are a force of not just function, but of feeling, too. And that’s hopeful, because, if they grow to outthink us, for our sake they had better learn compassion.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist