Technophobia to Technophilia in Spike Jonze: Her (2013)

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If you cannot beat capitalism, join capitalism. With the Digital Revolution, intelligent computer technology outdated the brute machine-age of the early 20th century. Machines were no longer tied to the factory as examples of efficiency for human action but became supplements to the human condition, making people “fitter, happier, and more productive.” Machines became sentient limbs to the human condition and the affection for machines in our lives—technophilia—now dominates the new millennium.

Her (2013), written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a Science Fiction (Sci-Fi) romance that exchanges fear of the unknown with the love for the machine. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, the world is one similar to ours today, only technologically amplified. Electronic gadgets so consume the lifestyles of Her’s city dwellers that phones have become more than the tools we need, but the partners we love.

Meet Theodore—down-and-out, withdrawn, grappling love after divorce and life after heartache. As a “personalized note writer” he manufactures false sentiment to clients too busy to express feelings of love and solidarity to their close family and friends. His life is a monotonous, skin-deep facade punctuated with lonely commutes to work and video games shared with artificial intelligences. Theo’s outside world is always mediated through his smartphone, which repurposes his solitude as a quirk shared by all.

A jovial relationship between a man and his machine quickly becomes a budding romance. Samantha has all the characteristics of a 1950s housewife—she is sweet and sincere, playful and sexy, and most importantly attentive and inquisitive. Her curiosity and need for knowledge is comparable to a young child and she yearns to learn from Theodore the ways of the world—what it feels to play at the beach on a warm summers day, and more provocatively, the eroticisms of Theodore slowly gliding his hands down her naked body.

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The Sci-Fi romance explores the ever-expanding relationships between people and their intelligent machines, expounding on our age’s obsession with the gadgets that define our lives—our phones and computers operate as phantom limbs to create our world-view. Our anxieties of scientific advancements visualized in early Science Fiction is no longer about fear but love—from technophobia to technophilia, Sci-Fi exposes society’s trials and tribulations with the machines that we love to hate, but cannot live without.

Sci-Fi owes its origins to man’s alienation from the economic system, rooted in the scientific advancements of machine technology. Chronicling the fear and anxiety arising from the mechanization of labor during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries and the subsequent onset of capitalism, the genre was defined by the fear of machines—technophobia—as industrially mechanized labor became status quo and man came to more and more resemble the machine.

This system of alienation is a crisis of subjectivity. Max Weber argues the bureaucratization of society through capitalism causes the dehumanization of the subject—a disenchantmentwith the world, a form of subjective alienation.[i] Sci-Fi staple Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang, is a visual metaphor for Marx’s “Theory of Alienation,” visualizing the distress caused by machine-labor to the working class.

In the film, Young Freder, the son of Capitalist King Joh Fredersen, is a man of wealth with a life of leisure. As he breaks from an afternoon of Olympian activities on the tracks with his band of brothers, he frolics in the garden of delights with the ladies. Alas, a woman (Maria) opens the doors to this Eden.  Her beauty and her kind eyes captivate the listlessness in Freder—so swiftly from riches to rags, he is smitten with the working class unknown. The sight of her caused Freder to question the differences between himself, a man of wealth, and the working class, the men whose lives are lead beneath the playground of the rich in the underground factories.

Freder plunges the depths into the working class city and exchanges his life for one as a laborer where he finds Maria preaching labor equality and better working class conditions. Meanwhile his father Joh Fredersen conspires with an old comrade, inventor C.A. Rotwang, to disbar the worker’s future riots. Rotwang dresses Capitalism in the guise of Fem-Bot Maria to penetrate the laborers and preach the gospel of mass production. What results is not peace under capitalism but anarchy as workers trash the underground city in chaos. Fem-bot Maria is an allegory for man’s alienation of the machine—man cannot beat the machine or break the power of capitalism.

But this is not a bad life. Blind acceptance is not a banished purgatory, but a blessing. Take Theodore. In Her he upgrades his operating system to the fresh off the market OS1—a system so attune to the beholder’s personality the company promises a deeper level of satisfaction. No longer just a tool, Theodore’s sensual-sweet upgrade “Samantha” is smart, funny, organized, attentive, and most importantly, learns by example. In the near future, the only factor separating us from our electronics is the plastic applique.

Dating your OS is nothing out of the ordinary in the future. In Her our love for technology reaches its absurd conclusion upon realizing when machines become men like us, we are only faced with our flaws in computer form. His perfect relationship with the intelligent Samantha does not last—she acquires the quirks of all human beings and becomes restless with Theodore. Samantha, as well as other OS1s, leave their humans in the flesh for another immaterial world. Theodore loved his machine, but that love was not enough for her to love him eternally.

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Overlooking L.A.’s illuminated skyline on a desolate rooftop, Theodore contemplates the one that got away. He was burned, but his picturesque meditation is not of loss but love—Samantha brought him back to life, transforming his automatism to optimism for future treasured moments. The only thing left to fear in the digital age is dating itself. Come what may, in an age of technophilia, there will always be other machines out there in the sea.

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5 comments

  1. lookitseugene · March 21, 2014

    Great job connecting Metropolis with Her! Great job, oh wait, I already said that.
    What I like a lot about Her is that it’s an old sci fi trope, man and machine, but done differently than Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    • Becoming Middlebrow · March 21, 2014

      Thanks lookitseugene! Your words are so much appreciated. I’m in the works on writing an article on SciFi and 2001: A Space Odyssey, stay tuned.

  2. thestubcollector · March 21, 2014

    Great post. Very insightful. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a like. I look forward to your post on 2001: A Space Odyssey 🙂

  3. Screenwalker · March 21, 2014

    I agree with your opinions and interpretation on the film; it is essentially a story about our own time. We are already “dating” our OS’s and mobiles and computers, as are the people in “Her”. It is interesting that in the move nobody talks to each other on the streets, they talk to the screens they are carrying and this is already true in our time. I know many people who say they could not live without their iPhone or Samsung. All respect to technology that makes communication easier, but too much is too much. Personally, I tried to avoid getting a smartphone, but my old Sony-Ericsson mobile decided to retire and I deemed it useless to hunt for an obsolete model. So I got my first Sony smartphone. I don’t even know how to use it and many of the features and apps are totally useless to me. E-mail’s OK, though…

    We are losing ourselves to technology, it is quite rapidly becoming the master, and with technology I also mean all the applications IT has, such as the social media. These days there are those voicing an opinion that anyone not using Facebook (that includes me) is suspicious and potentially even a sociopath. For example German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel wrote an article about this, as did Helsingin Sanomat and many other newspapers and tabloids. It is interesting how quickly a certain form of social media has become an almost mandatory norm.

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