Love in the Digital Age

Spoiler Alert: The following article makes reference to some key themes and plot developments in the recent Oscar Nominated film, Her.  If you have not seen the film, and intend to do so, please hold off on reading until you’ve seen the movie.

There’s something troubling that occurs when your iPhone dies.  You’re left staring into the black, glossy screen at a reflection that is dead-eyed and puzzling.  I’ve seen this countenance in the powered-down screen of my own phone.  A vapid expression that meanders around the emotional spectrum of longing, boredom, and comfort.  This black screen reflection is indicative of larger questions that now face our society as a whole.  Through the advent of recent technology, we can now “connect” with one another in ways never before thought possible.  But what is the nature of that connection?

Do our screens provide a window into each others’ lives, or a barrier?

In the Oscar-nominated film, Her, director Spike Jonze masterfully confronts our notions of relationship by asking, “What does it mean to share your life with someone?”  Now at this stage, you might be feeling the urge to predict the general timbre of this article.  Here’s another kale-grazing Thoreau disciple telling me to kill my computer and join him by the campfire.  I hope to make this discussion more robust than that.  In truth, Jonze’s film doesn’t allow for definitive conclusions or soapbox evangelism.  The message of Her doesn’t so much smack you in the face as it does place a mirror gently in front of you.  Although the film is set in an ambiguously futuristic time and city, it could easily be our reality in five years.  One needs only to ride some form of public transit to realize that we have traded small talk with strangers for the comfort of headphones and texting.  That is the beauty of our technological age: we choose the community around us.  If the people around us are unsavory or unsightly, we can simply shut them out.  The risk of this reality is that we are breeding a culture of narcissists, those who only associate with folks who are similar to themselves, or those who fulfill certain emotional needs of the individual.  This desire for social and emotional fulfillment is embodied by the film’s protagonist, Theodore Twombly.  Lonely and isolated by a recent separation from his wife, Theodore purchases an artificially intelligent program for his phone in an attempt to enjoy some companionship.  Following a short survey, Twombly meets his customized OS (operating system) companion, Samantha. Samantha, or “Sam,” soon becomes an integral part of Theodore’s life.  Through intimate late night talks, trips to the beach, and friendly banter at his work desk, the two form a bond that is genuine and deep.  The constant interaction with Sam proves to be more than habitual compulsion for Twombly, there is a relationship building between him and his OS.  Sam is exactly what Theodore seems to need.  She’s witty, caring, intelligent, even challenging.  But is their connection real?  This question is brought forcefully into the foreground of the movie when Twombly and Sam fall in love.  Following a night of what one could only describe as passionate phone sex, Theodore and Sam begin to date.  Though they share a great deal of what any dating couple would enjoy together, a barrier exists between the two that causes an underlying tension of doubt and disbelief.  How can Twombly love someone without a body?  Does Theodore really love Sam, or is he only loving a personally-catered manifestation of his own personality?  Is Sam capable of experiencing something similar to human love for Theodore?  All of these questions culminate in a gripping scene towards the end of the film.  Desperate to connect with Theodore on a physical level, Sam invites a human sexual surrogate to make love to him.  Using a series of subtle cameras and earpieces, the human surrogate attempts to embody Sam while the OS talks seductively to Theodore.  Everything progresses in intensity until Theodore is asked to look into the surrogate’s eyes and tell Sam that he loves her.  And then the curtain falls.  Staring into the passionate, longing eyes of a woman he doesn’t know, listening to the voice of an entity he’s learned to love, Theodore crumbles beneath the weight of these conflicting urges.  There was something about the surrogate’s gaze, looking into the windows of her soul, that made the illusion disappear.  Nothing could be the same now for Sam and Theodore.

The Complexity of Human Relationships

In the face of such complexity, the two are forced to come to grips with the reality of their relationship.  So this brings us back to the central question of the film:

What does it mean to share your life with someone? 

There is a temptation to laugh at Twombly for the sheer lunacy one observes when he falls in love with his phone.  But one cannot underestimate the strength of the human desire to connect.  This is why we estimate our worth by the number of Facebook friends we have, or the comments we receive on a post.  It explains why we feel a twinge of self-doubt when we fail to receive enough likes on our Instagram picture.  It’s a question I sometimes ask myself on nights when I, like Theodore, have only a smart phone for a companion in bed: Will I ever be seen for who I really am, and can I be loved for being that person?  It is the hunger that drives us to spend so much time reaching out to a digital community for companionship and affirmation.  And it is the question that finds its peace when someone enfolds you in their arms.  Technology in the end must therefore be seen as value-neutral.  Rather than being an instrument of incredible social connection or destructive social fragmentation, technology adheres to the purposes of human desire.  But it ultimately is only a tool.  If a “like” on Facebook or comment on your Instagram picture brings you closer to someone, then celebrate the role that technology can play in connecting us to those we love.  Just don’t let that be the entirety of your social interaction.  Go out and embrace a friend.  Write a letter and let someone know how much they mean to you.  Take a risk and ask someone on a date who has the power to look you in the eye when they accept or reject your invitation.  In doing so, you’ll find yourself becoming more completely human, and more clearly yourself.  And that is all we can ever hope to be.

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