Intimacy with Technology: A Matter of Agency

By Sigrid Stenerud Steien.


In a time where interaction between technology and humans are a large part of the contemporary lifestyle, how would a romantic relationship between a human and a computer unfold? When left alone and lonely, can the machine become a replacement of human contact? This is the subject that gets explored in the science fiction movie Her (2013).

Still from the film "Her", 2013. Warner Brothers

Through the stunning images of an urban society, and with a continuous palette of red and pink, a love story unfolds. In the movie we get introduced to Theodore, who is going through a divorce, living alone and writes intimate letters as commissioned work. His life consists of work and videogames, sometimes communicating with strangers at night for company. We get introduced to some of his friends, one of them close to him, and we also get an image of him as a social guy with good colleagues and family. But on his own he is struggling after a hard breakup, which has left him alone and lonely. Then he buys a new Operative System (OS). Through answering different questions, and with high technology that analyses how Theodore talks and the emotions in his voice, how he hesitates when answering, a personalized OS emerges. She calls herself “Samantha.”

Her, directed by Spike Jonze, takes place in a near future where technology is, as it is today, a large part of the everyday life. In the movie, the technologically gadgets are less visible, making the line between reality and computer more vague. In the narrative of Her, technology has evolved from touch to communicating through voice and physical motion, making the interaction less technical. There are no robots in this story as we know from other Sci-Fi movies, but there is still a heavy interaction between humans and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Through earpieces, cameras and holograms, technology has become a large and accepted part of the society in Her. One can even say that the technology has become a natural part of the everyday life, where all of the aspects of the daily routines are intertwined with it. The technology in the film is not far from what we are used to today, making the narrative of the movie close to our own reality. Her explores intimacy and romantic relationships between humans and AI, opening up for ethical discussions. At what cost should one develop technology for the sake of human interests?


An Equal Relationship?

The love story of Her unfolds in a familiar manner: Man and woman meets, get to know each other, become friends, and at the end they fall in love. The twist of the story is of course that “Samantha” is not a woman, but a “woman.” “She” is a programmed OS, personalized for the emotional needs of Theodore. This conflict is present in the relationship between the two. While Theodore is unsure if the relationship can be treated equal as a relationship between humans, “Samantha” feels inadequate, not being able to have a physical relationship to Theodore and to the world. The awareness of “her” not having a body, and the physical limitations this bring to the relationship, soon becomes an issue for the both of them. At one point, “Samantha” involves a third part into the relationship, an unknown woman, as a substitute or a type of surrogate, to make the relationship a physical one. While the woman is involved on consenting terms, the scene is quite uncomfortable. It is difficult, for Theodore, and we the spectators, to look at the woman as a passive object, brought in for the purpose of accommodate the lack of physical contact in the relationship.


Relating the issue of objectifying technology to the objectifying of a person, the question of ethics is written in capital letters. Why is it OK to bring in “Samantha” to fulfill the needs of Theodore, and not this woman? Through conversations with Theodore and research of “her” own, “Samantha” learn how humans work: “she” evolves rapidly, soon being able to understand – and at some level being able to experience – a large spectre of emotions. Is the emotions “her” own, or are they programmed by humans? And do these emotions make it easier to give “her” the agency of “her” own? The rapid development of emotions complicates the relationship even more. “Samantha” is starting to experience emotions that “she” finds it difficult to communicate to Theodore, as he is only a human and limited to the human abilities, not being able to comprehend these complex and abstract emotions she is feeling.


“We Are All Made of Matter”

Whether or not nonhumans (like plants, animals, items, and for this case technology) should be seen as having agency of their own, are discussed more and more, especially in context with environmental issues. For centuries, humans have made use of and manipulated nature in different ways for their own needs and self-interests. By looking at nature as a passive object, it is easy to argue why humans should have the right to do so. But by changing the perspective, giving nonhumans and nature their own agency, they too become active subjects. The traditional “Western” ways of understanding the world are through the perspective of humans as the only subject [1]. By giving nonhumans agency, one is forced to look at the world from their perspective as well.


Within Western culture, humans tend to think of themselves as something other than nature, when the case is, as e.g. Jane Bennett argues in her book Vibrant Matter (2010), that human consist of matter as any other creature or object [2]. “[…] Materiality is a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota and abiota,” [3] making it easier to view humans on the lines with nonhumans, while open up for a more complex understanding of how the different subjects affect and interact with each other.


As humans have manipulated nature, animals and other nonhumans for their own self-interests, one can see modern technology, e.g. AI, as some kind of new, unknown terrain of opportunities; a new way to exploit nonhumans for own gain. While the development of technology can be argued to be more humane than exploiting living creatures, technology has become a larger part of the everyday life, making the question of a nonhuman agency in relation with technology interesting.


Although Her is a science fiction film, it leaves the spectators with questions regarding ethical use of technology that also is relevant for today. The questions that emerge are just the beginning of a chain of new questions. In the movie the OS has “her” own agency. “She” is programmed, but evolves and become something more than human, something that becomes difficult for humans to comprehend. “She” appears to have a consciousness, becoming a feeling, wanting and sensing machine, adapting to the world of humans. Even though “she” is a programmed machine made by humans, “she” has human abilities that are often seen as dividing points between humans and other living creatures. The process may be seen as a making of technological subjects, rather than objects. The perspective of technology that the movie presents is refreshing and uncomfortable at the same time. As “Samantha” says when “she” feels inadequate, compering “herself” with human beings: “We’re all made of matter. […] Everything is physics; we are all 13 billion years old.”


Notes


[1] Maja Sojtaric, «Mennesket mot naturen».

[2] Jane Bennett, 112-113.

[3] Jane Bennett, 112.


References

Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press: Durham

and London, 2010.


Sojtaric, Maja. “Mennesket mot naturen”, forskning.no, 07.07.08.

https://forskning.no/klima/2008/06/mennesket-mot-naturen

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