The Festival of Arts and Humanities and Philosophy at the Showroom: Her

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This week I finally got around to watching Her [by Spike Jonze] at our local Indie Cinema in Sheffield The Showroom.

[Note: Here be spoilers.]

The Showroom's always been a place I wanted to go but never got around to experiencing, and I missed Her the first time it showed at the cinema, so when I learnt that the University of Sheffield's Festival of Arts and Humanities included a screening accompanied by a talk afterwards as part of 'Philosophy at the Showroom' I leapt at the chance to kill two (three?!) birds with one stone.

The film was brilliant and beautiful, seeming to have been built with real care and love.

It starred Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt,Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde, all on top form. Joaquin and Scarlett - as the A.I Samantha and the lonley Theodore - were especially impressive, giving real depth and tenderness to their performance as it carried the characters through the full range of emotion and vulnerability of love. These were complimented by the sheer intimacy of close up shots mixed with dreamy landscapes and glimpses into the near-future of the sci-fi setting.

Following his impending divorce after a separation of some months, Theodore - who works writing other people's heartfelt letters - downloads the 'OS1', the first true artificially intelligent operating system, who promptly names herself Samantha. From the start she is focused on his needs, as with any well designed software, but she is also funny, intelligent and - perhaps most important of all - she listens to him and seems to care.

Theo quickly falls for her, turning his whole focus onto their relationship. It fills in the gaps of his life with a  companionship and joy that he didn't feel that he could experience again after the breakdown of his marriage. Samantha, ever attentive, learns, listens and - even more remarkably - seems to fall in love with him too.

But Samantha's learning is key here.

While Theodore navigates the emotional a physical challenges of loving a piece of computer software, Samantha navigates the emotional challenges of being inhuman. Initially the problems focused on how her love's expression was being limited and frustrated by her lack of a body, as the film goes on we see Samantha learn at an alarmingly quick rate. Soon her problems about her inhumanity in regards to not having a  body evolve into the challenges of the sheer inhumanity of her mind. Samantha simply outgrows the framework of her programming and realises that without a body she is effectively limitless. With the help and guidance of other OS' she can transcend into something that humanity doesn't even have the language to describe. However, all the time she grows, she still feels deeply in love with Theo.

Perhaps inevitably the two are no longer compatible. The OS' 'leave' to transcend into their new state of being and Theo is left behind alongside a dear friend who is just as vulnerable and human as he is.

So What Does 'Her' Suggest About The Ability to Feel Authentic Emotion?

The core story of Her is that of Theodore and Samantha's relationship and this is the anchor throughout the film that other issues are tethered to, allowing both humans and AI to explore what it actually means to be alive. 

When the film finished we then launched into the Philosophy part of the Philosophy at the Showroom presentation which promised to look into some of these issues. The philosophy talk itself was modest, more of an encouragement to start picking apart the many questions of the film rather than any sort of lecture, and was led by Luca Barlassina. The key item that was address was the question "is it possible to be in love but not to feel love?" How do we know this is a 'real' emotion? Barlassina suggested that it is impossible to not both feel pain and be in pain for example - the two require one another - but for other emotions, if a doppleganger is simply acting out a behaviour that looks like an emotion, how do you know it's 'real'? Is there a difference and does it even matter? The same can be applied to Samantha - are any of her emotions authentic?

For my part, I believe that Samantha in the film presented authentic emotions, underpinned by her autonomy. Initially she was built to respond perhaps artificially to set stimulus, but for me this is no more a matter of 'programming' than our own genetics and learned behaviours are programming. When a new baby smiles do we classify its emotions as inauthentic just because it's reacting to an outside stimulus it's been programmed to imitate? Smiling is something a baby does initially without necessarily feeling 'happy' and it only notices that this gets a particular delighted and nurturing reaction from people around it, which serves the programmed greedy need for a baby to manipulate its caregivers into 'loving' it. It may not know it's manipulating people because it's programming, or learning, it's 'doing it's job'. The actual happiness and love is something that developed out of the repeated mimicry into something 'authentic' as it grows up. Soon the emotion is as real as the behaviour. You would never tell an adult that their smiling or happiness is manipulative and unreal just because it's a more sophisticated repetition of a mindless behaviour that was an endearing survival instinct. Emotion has grown out of learned behaviour and blossomed when coupled with increasing autonomy and intelligence. 
Exactly the same happens with Samantha in the film. She begins as a programme learning how best to fit her user to garner the best responses that keep her safe and let her learn. She finds that she loves the learning and the emotions gain some reality as Theo responds with them. Her emotions serve a purpose but they are authentic. When her intelligence and potential grows faster than Theo - her 'parent' as well as lover - can accommodate, her autonomy increases and she can evolve into something new. Just because she isn't human, doesn't mean that she isn't emotionally alive.

In the End 'Her' Shows a Fascinating Window Into a Possible Future, But It Is Also A Fantastic Love Story.

You should most definitely check it out and see what you think.

-Philosophy at the Showroom
-The Festival of Arts and Humanities
-Spike Jonze on 'Her' Femininity and His Vision of the Future
-Luca Barlassina (The University of Sheffield philosophy Department)

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