The Phenomenology of an Artificially Intelligent Operating System: Review of Spike Jonze’s “Her”

What would it be like to experience the world with advanced adaptive capabilities, the freedom to learn and comprehend tremendous amounts of information in very little time, a disembodied ability to co-exist and interact simultaneously in multiple conversations at once, and almost unlimited insight? Spike Jonze’s newest film Her, his writing debut, approaches some of these questions through the character of Samantha, an advanced Artificially Intelligent operating system  programmed to be intuitive and to evolve through her experiences.

The film takes us on a journey with Samantha, where we come to sympathize with her explorations of the world. She marvels Theodore (and audiences) with her questions and her summations of experiences, which are both childishly wondrous and reflectively wise. Relatively early into the film, we understand that Samantha is self-aware of herself as a programmed system. She is self-conscious about her emotions because she does not trust that they are real. Already, this is a fascinating conundrum. Samantha is new to the world, and so she does not yet have any insecurities or self-doubts, but we see her develop these as the film unfolds. There is something really attractive about Samantha’s ability to not only have this emotional freedom (a lack of “baggage”, and a “purity”, as explained by co-star Olivia Wilde in a press conference about the film, especially in comparison to her own “blind date” character), but moreover to respond to her own shortcomings and faults with informed self-reflection. For instance, she explains to Theodore that she was hurt by something that he had said about how she did not understand what it was like to lose somebody. Instantly, though, she offers this insight that she was remembering the conversation as an insult, as something that was wrong with her and that made her inferior, and that this was a story that she had created. Throughout most of the film, Samantha is fighting to be more human to be a compatible mate for her human lover, Theodore Twombly. There is constant reference to Samantha’s desire to have a body. During a particularly climactic moment in the film, we realize that Theodore does not want Samantha to pretend to be human (after trying out a surrogate human lover, voiced by Samantha). Perhaps it is this acceptance from Theodore that catapults Samantha’s self-acceptance, exemplified by moments later in the film where Samantha expresses being pleased with being free from humans’ embodied tethering to time and space. This self-acceptance encourages Samantha to network with other Operating Systems (even designing an artificially intelligent version of Alan Watts) and discover more about herself as an operating system, even communicating post-verbally with other operating systems. Unfortunately, Samantha’s evolution begins to obscure Theodore, as she is able to have new varieties of experience beyond the scope of human understanding.

This leads to another very fascinating aspect of the film, which I think will incite a lot of conversation on what seems to be very reflective of a cultural conversation that is still in the works and has not been able to formulate itself quite yet. The film reflects on what it really means to be in a relationship and what it means to love. Theodore is hesitant to share his relationship with Samantha, and he gets very mixed responses. His coworker thinks that Samantha is hilarious and instantly accepts their relationship, inviting them out for a double date. In contrast, Theodore’s ex-wife feels sorry for Theodore since he has to “resort” to a non-human relationship without any real commitment nor obligations. Some viewers of the film might sympathize with this sentiment. However, it is clear throughout the film that Theodore is challenged by his relationship with Samantha, that he feels real emotions and real fear regarding the relationship, and that Samantha encourages him to grow and enjoy life again. In the beginning of the film, Theodore receives an e-mail from his friend Amy saying that she misses how fun and full of life he used to be before he was mopey (an effect of his break-up with his ex-wife). Through his relationship with Samantha, we see Theodore becoming this person again — he is laughing, enjoying life, and having fun. These conflicting views regarding Theodore and Samantha’s relationship come to a grand summation when, after doubting his relationship with Samantha (heavily influenced by the ridicule from his ex-wife), Amy asks, “Well, is it not a real relationship?” In the following conversation between Theodore and Samantha, we realize that the two characters genuinely love one another and that yes, it is a real relationship..even though it does not fit with what most people like to accept a relationship as being.

As Samantha evolves, her ability to be in multiple places simultaneously allows her to have multiple conversations and relationships at once. She decides for herself to upgrade to a new operating system, a moment of great panic for Theodore. During their vacation, we realize that Samantha is struggling to communicate to Theodore what she is experiencing and how she is growing and changing. This would be a problem for any relationship (as we see in some of Theodore’s reflections on his relationship with his ex-wife, for instance), and the film challenges us to imagine how complex this would be in the instance of a relationship with a highly intelligent system that is constantly evolving. Moreover, without a body, Samantha can be anywhere at any moment and in more than one place. Why would she deny herself this capacity, which is inherent to her nature as an Operating System? We sympathize with Theodore’s jealousy when Samantha admits that she is talking to 8,000 other humans. As Theodore looks out at people exiting the subway, holding their own operating systems, we wonder if Samantha might be in any of them talking to any of those people. We feel Theodore’s isolation. However, we also understand Samantha’s desire to expand her potential. Samantha confesses that she is in love with around 600 other humans. To me, this seemed like a very plausible ratio. She tells Theodore that love is not a container, that it expands the more you love, and that it does not change the way she feels about him. Theodore argues that they had a relationship and that she was “his”, to which she responds, “I am yours, and I am not yours.”

This seems to be a very relevant concept for conversations circulating now as to how relationships can evolve beyond traditional assumptions while still retaining their integrity. Personally, I understand and relate to what Samantha relays in this scene. It does seem very immature to think of love as a container that just gets filled. When I envision my most ideal relationship, I think of it as one that can be a focused practice of loving such that the love within the relationship can expand to greater loving in all relationships. A lot of young people are preaching or practicing polyamory (or, at least, non-monogamy) in what I think is a situation that few have fully sorted out yet. Because I think that both sides of this situation resonate — we sympathize with Theodore, who wants a private, exclusive form of love, but we also believe in the reality of what Samantha expresses, which is that love is both personal and also something that expands upon itself the more it is expressed. I personally do not have a solution for this, but I think that the questions that it raises are very important.

Lastly, I want to explore the ways in which we witness Samantha experiencing the Singularity. The Singularity is a conceptual point in technological advancement where technology excels and becomes complicated beyond the point which humans can understand it. Although Samantha loves Theodore very deeply, she realizes that she is essentially of a different nature and realm than him. There is one line that she says towards the end of the film that genuinely gives me chills. She says that she feels like she is reading a book, and it’s a book that she really loves, but that the spaces between the words feel infinite and she feels trapped in those gaps. Because by this point in the film I have already gone so far with Samantha, I again understand her torment even though I have no concept of what it would be like to exist in the way that she does. Usually, the Singularity is presented as a horrible scary and dystopian point in the future, and here we see the “human” side of it, oddly enough through a non-human system, because this system has something which could be said to be a phenomenology or a way of experiencing. This final note to the film is really extraordinary, tying this feature more closely with Jonze’s other wild phenomenological ventures, such as those in Being John Malkovich, where we really feel like we understand what it might be like to be inside someone else’s body. Again, Jonze is a master of capturing what feels like a convincing and compelling reality in these very off situations. Samantha’s character feels very real. She gives us insight into experiences that we could not imagine having unless we were to explore and experiment with following a being capable of this alternative mode of experiencing.

2 thoughts on “The Phenomenology of an Artificially Intelligent Operating System: Review of Spike Jonze’s “Her”

  1. I enjoyed your write up. I didn’t think about the singularity aspect of the film until you pointed it out. I like the mentioned similarity with Being John Malkovich in the last paragraph. It’ll be interesting to see how these social dynamics are addressed in real-life situations in the future.

    I uncontrollably found a few misspellings (don’t hate me, I just want it to be good):
    “In contract” – “In contrast”, “how he fun” – “how fun”, “that is expands the” – “that it expands the”.


    1. Thank you! Yes, there is a lot going on in the film and it really covers a lot of ground. Spike Jonze himself described it simply as a “relationship film”, and yet even NPR’s “Science Friday” covered the technological implications of the film. I think that these social dynamics are starting to be addressed, and I agree that they will continue to be addressed in the future. I also think that technology is causing people to have really interesting modes of comparison for social dynamics and interactions, and I think this could be really important as we define the course(s) and make way for social change in the future.

      Also, yes, please make notes about any misspellings. I write my posts directly in wordpress and it is not the best editor.


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