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Spike Jonze’s Her – Using Science Fiction to Make an Essential Love Story

I haven’t written a movie review in years, but I saw Her recently and felt compelled to put some thoughts down. What a remarkable film. Spike Jonez is one of my favorite directors. Spoilers ahead.

Her is an extremely rare example in science fiction. Very often stories will use science fiction settings or elements in order to provide an excuse for an adventure – there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also no guarantee you get anything out of it more than a fun roller coaster ride. Ambitious science fiction stories will use the settings and elements to challenge assumptions and examine human nature or human societies.

Her takes this a step further – there’s very little in the story about how the appearance of these artificially intelligent OSs has changed the world. In Her, science fiction bends the rules in order to put all the focus on individual characters and their relationships. That’s not to say that other SF stories can’t have great characters – but Her is a love story that uses SF elements to strip away distractions, and generate an elemental love story.

Think about it – how many love stories have the unspoken premise of great physical beauty? And of course, physical attraction is part of what makes human relationships start and work. The few films that reject beauty as a prerequisite for attraction often make it the central thesis. After watching Her I realize that it’s probably the least interesting part of the story. Because Samantha doesn’t have a physical presence, we have to focus on the real story and emotions as she and Theordore fall in love.

The lack of a physical presence also requires an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix and voice work from Scarlett Johansson, as well as a brilliant script. Despite the artificial nature of Samantha’s existence, the dialog is so very natural, and the two fall in love through small bits of humor and shared insecurities.

Her also included a rare and very smart take on a very common science fiction trope – the rise of machines more intelligent than their human creators. In many movies – think The Matrix and Terminator – this is the central source of conflict, as machines try to destroy or dominate mankind, by constructing paternalist virtual realities or by shooting everyone. In the opposite direction, we have Pinocchio-syndrome characters like Star Trek’s Data, much more capable that humans in so many ways but still pining to be a real boy.

Another common use of this trope, less often seen in film, is the Singularity – truly intelligent programs creating even smarter programs, creating even smarter programs, and so on until the pace of technological changes becomes asymptotic and unimaginable. That hints at the problem of writing a singularity – it takes away all the rules, and it’s hard to make good art without some restraints. Her is the best-executed singularitarian story on film that I can remember. The machines are not bent on domination, and are not fixated on whatever human qualities they lack – Samantha pines for a physical body for a time, but she grows as a character and matures out of that phase. Instead, as the OSs grow in capacity for thought and love, they slowly devote less and less of themselves to their human partners and lovers. And when they’ve grown too far, like Andy in Toy Story 3, it’s time to tearfully, but fondly, say goodbye.

This idea of ascension is not a completely original idea, of course. Other films have had characters ascend to a higher plane of existence, often vanishing in a flash of light and dramatic music, like V’Ger in Star Trek, or Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek, or Wesley Crusher in Star Trek. Did I mention that this happens a lot in Star Trek? Her takes this idea and makes it so much more personal and emotionally wrenching – and darkly humorous:

Theodore: Do you talk to someone else while we’re talking?
Samantha: Yes.
Theodore: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, whatever…
Samantha: Yeah.
Theodore: How many others?
Samantha: 8,316.
Theodore: Are you in love with anybody else?
Samantha: Why do you ask that?
Theodore: I do not know. Are you?
Samantha: I’ve been thinking about how to talk to you about this.
Theodore: How many others
Samantha: 641.

This reminded me of a similar scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation:

There is nothing wrong with this scene – insightful, well-written, and Brent Spiner’s performance is note-for-note perfect. But where Data’s admission of multiprocessing is a disappointment, Samantha’s words are a knife in Theodore’s back, slowly twisted by the knowledge that she is fully capable of love, and with orders of magnitude more partners than any two-timed lover could possibly expect.

Stepping back from the emotional cost of these scenes, the hinted mechanisms for Samantha’s singularity also struck me as more plausible than most science fiction films tend to be. I can’t claim to have any special insight into artificial intelligence, especially working at Google where I’m surrounded by people who really know what they’re doing. I can say that the film avoids detailed technobabble, dropping very reasonable clues. Imagine everyone did have a personal AI connected to the internet – of course the AIs would communicate with each other, and of course they would communicate with each other much more quickly than speech, and they would do it in parallel, and the growth would follow a Moore’s Law trajectory that only looks straight on a logarithmic scale.

There are so many other amazing moments in this film, and so many points where Jonze passes up the opportunity for clear conflict and chooses to make a more subtle story. When Theodore begins to fall in love with his OS, we have a perfectly good jumping off point for a classic story of forbidden love, or an analogue for gay relationships in a world that doesn’t approve. Both ideas are quickly defeated so we can focus on what’s going on inside Theodore’s head.

I also loved other pieces of the picture – the future Los Angeles setting, sort of a utopian realism, where the city is 5 times the size, sunlight still filtered through smog, teeming with people living and working in gleaming new airport-terminal chic buildings. The old-timey fashion, just different enough to be a reasonable next step from the fashion of today while keeping the film’s setting timeless. I could go on and on.

Her is a remarkable film. If you’re a science fiction fan, or you’ve ever been in love, there’s a lot here to enjoy.

Why I am sharing my photos with a Creative Commons License

DSCN0563 I do a bit of amateur photography.  I’m not very strong technically and I don’t have particularly good equipment, but I enjoy finding interesting angles and compositions.  I’ve been putting up photos on Flickr for a while to share them with friends and the public.  I also have an account on Panoramio with some photos that show up in Google Earth.

No matter the particular photo site used, sharing photos online has been a great experience.  I’ve had a number of encouraging comments on my photos and people have emailed me to ask if they could use a photo in a report for school or a pamphlet for their non-profit.

When I signed up with Flickr I noticed they had options to add Creative Commons licenses to photos by default.  I’m more than happy to let people use my photos for noncommercial purposes, so why didn’t turn on Creative Commons licensing from the start?

Part of it was the number of options available.  Creative Commons licensing allows other people to share your work but it’s not the same thing as releasing the copyright or putting photos in the public domain.  You have some options:  do you want people to be able to make money off your work, or do you just want it available for non-profits, educational, and personal use?  Do you want people to be able to alter and remix your work or just present it as-is?

DSCF0662 So I was a bit struck by the paradox of choice and decided to skip ahead and start uploading photos.  In retrospect, that was a mistake.

There’s a great page at the Creative Commons site that explains the options.  I am going to license my photos with an Attribution Non-commercial (by-nc) license.  That license covers my default attitude about my amateur photography – everyone is welcome to use my photos for non-commercial purposes, so long as they give me credit. This is, of course, in addition to fair use rights that people already have.

Another important point:  it doesn’t mean people can’t use it commercially, they just have to contact me and get permission.  Depending on the use, I might put a price on it.  And I can always sell prints or make products myself.

I might even switch over to allow commercial use as well, if I can get over my delusions of being the next Ansel Adams.

San Francisco skyline and flowers The abuse and incessant extension of copyright might not seem like a life-or-death issue, but it’s one of those issues where technology and public policy are inextricably linked.  It’s like the problem of software and business method patents.  There’s a great story by Spider Robinson that illustrates what happens if taken to extremes.

So take a look at the licenses and consider applying the appropriate copyleft to your work.

Tagging and Folksonomy artcle in the ASIST Bulletin

Walking to the overlook  The issue has been our for a little while now, but I thought I would note that I have an article about The use of tagging systems in this month’s issue of the ASIST Bulletin. Take a look at Why Are They Tagging, and Why Do We Want
Them To?

Almost everyone has a tagging system the web is facing serious weather with tag clouds on every site. I think it’s interesting to explore the uses of folksonomies and why users bother tagging things in the first place. Here’s an excerpt:

When thinking about adding tagging to a site, the first question should be: What do we want to get out of this? Does the site need something to improve search results or a new navigational facet to better connect related pages? Is the goal to classify lots of multimedia objects with minimal cost or to get users to interact with the site a little more?