In my new piece at H+ Magazine, I provide not so much a review of the movie Her as an exploration of the one of the bigger issues it raises, an issue that I don’t think is getting as much attention as it deserves.
Some take the film to be a biting commentary on the state of personal relationships in our technology-fueled age. Others take it to be a straight-up love story about a man and a machine. I think both of those interpretations are valid, but that the question that Her is primarily concerned with is a more fundamental one: What is real?
Moreover, I think the movie asks an even more challenging follow-up question: Does it matter?
Of course, we all already know the answer to that question. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Reality is all we’ve got. It matters. What else could possibly matter more?
And yet we value the non-real, whether we find it in the form of novels or movies or online games. Most of us would say we like it as long as the lines don’t get blurred; as long we aren’t mistaking the non-real for the real. But of course, that assumes that we aren’t doing that, that we aren’t fundamentally deluded (or just mistaken) about the facts that constitute our real lives. Telling in that regard is research showing that we sometimes duck the information we need that would give us a more accurate picture of our own lives. Whether we do it just a little or lot, we all filter and edit the facts of our existence to make for a more palatable, and ultimately livable, version of our lives.
And then there is the blurring we do more deliberately. To quote myself:
The choice between living in the real world and living in a world of our own design (or a world that someone else has designed) is not a new one. What is new is that technology promises many more options than we have ever had before, many of them much more vivid and compelling than the options we had in the past. Technology promises to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s not real in ways we have never expected. And it isn’t just illusion that technology can provide; it is likely to offer us an almost endless array of real experiences, as well as those puzzling hybrids where the experience is simulated, but the response is real.
What, for example is going on here?
A massive battle involving more than 2,200 players in main battle is underway in CCP’s massively multiplayer online game Eve Online, easily the largest battle in the game’s decade-long history, according to Alexander “The Mittani” Gianturco, the CEO of Goonswarm Federation.
Well, obviously it’s just a game. It’s not reality. There are no actual spaceships blowing up other spaceships. And yet, current estimates show the total financial damage from the battle to be somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000. That’s the cost in real money, as converted from the game’s internal currency. Thousands upon thousands of player development hours have gone into building virtual ships which have been destroyed. That loss of time is real even if you can’t get your head around a currency that trades back and forth between the real world and a game. And the scheming, the rivalries, and the grudges that drive behavior within the game appear to be very real.
One interpretation of Her is that it is about extending this willing suspension of reality into the area of personal, even intimate, relationships. It all comes down to whether the Scarlett Johansson character is a real person or not. Which would you rather have, a potentially prickly and sometimes unsatisfying relationship with someone in the real world, or the most blissful and satisfying relationship you can imagine…with someone who doesn’t exist?
We all know what the right answer to that question is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. But then, that is only one possible framing of the question. What if it comes down to a blissful relationship with a computer program versus no relationship at all? (There are a lot of lonely people out there, after all.) Or what if it’s a choice between a painful and abusive real-life relationship and a happy and satisfying artificial one?
As long as the relationship brings happiness, does it matter if it’s real? Again, we all know what the answer is supposed to be. But let’s not be too terribly surprised when, in the near future, a lot of people start to choose this particular form of non-reality over reality.
Here are the two recent editions of The World Transformed wherein Stephen Gordon and I tackled these topics.