Spike Jonze on people and technology
This is an old feature that has been republished for TechRadar’s Movie Week. The original piece was published in 2014.
With the words "OK, Google" inching closer to everyday use and Apple desperately looking to raise Siri beyond gimmick, it’s clear that computing companies are trying to find their true voices when it comes to OS interaction.
Fiction it may be but if the movie Her is anything to go by, then the future of device communication will certainly be through speech – speech that moves way beyond simple commands and into full-blown conversation.
The film’s plot, when said out loud, may raise eyebrows. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely writer who is helped over a breakup by the arrival of a new operating system in his life, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
In a lesser director’s hands, this is a film premise that would fall flat but under the guidance of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where The Wild Things Are) it’s elevated to something special.
Her’s take on AI leans heavily on intelligence, while almost completely disregarding the artificial. It’s a wonderfully warm movie that presents a future that’s only a beat or two away from the modern day; a world that’s awash with technology but the gadgets used are kept very discreet.
Phones are spoken to through hidden earpieces, with the devices themselves looking more like delicate cigarette holders than ever-increasing rectangles.
People, Theodore included, still sit at computers but everything is controlled by voice. Everyone is talking but for the most part it’s operating systems that are being chatted to. And these systems chat back.
Technology outpacing people
TechRadar was lucky enough to sit down with Spike Jonze before the premiere of Her in the UK where he revealed that despite the plot’s futuristic focus, the idea that the operating system in Her acts as a support network, is something that’s steeped in history.
"The way I see it is that we have lived in civilisation for the last 10,000 years. We have been turned from hunters and gatherers into a cultural-based society and from that point on, from when we started agriculture, villages, building towns our lives have definitely got much faster paced," says Jonze.
"And in the last 10 years things have gotten exponentially faster paced."
With the growth of technology in the last decade, particularly our reliance on smartphones, it’s clear that Jonze is sensitive to how technology is now key to all of our lives, for better or worse, but there is a worry that technology is outpacing the people that operate it.
"I can’t imagine that our psychology in that time has kept up with this pace," explains Jonze. "That seems like something to think about, with finding ways to be kinder on ourselves, feel empathy for ourselves, help us deal with the situations that we put ourselves in.
"In history there was better support. You used to live in villages with your elders that you could talk to, or priests who were much more important, or the witchdoctor. Whoever it was there was a whole support system and now we don’t have it – now we have our iPhone."
With such importance laid firmly on our gadgets, their access to the web and its seemingly infinite pool of knowledge, Jonze does believe that technology has the potential to burden us to the point of burn-out.
"I think about the way that the phone I carry is now part of me. How much of our life is through our phones, our computers, through our texts, through our emails. How much of our day is spent taking in information, receiving and replying to communication. It’s so much," he says.
Spike Jonze on how technology changes us
In Her, Johansson’s Samantha alleviates this burden from Phoenix’s character. She/it filters his emails for importance, often emotional importance, essentially putting order into a life that’s increasingly overcome by information.
Technology in the movie is used to simplify and sort, helping Theodore feel, well, more human. Samantha is even there to give advice and act as a digital shoulder to cry on when things get too much.
In real life, though, Jonze is well aware of the imbalance that many of us go through with our technology; the constant battle to stay on top of things and how this affects us emotionally.
"Technology shouldn’t just offer information but also ways to take care of ourselves," he says.
"There is this incredible amount of information, this incredible amount of communication and pressure to respond to it all and see it all.
"To succeed now you have to respond to 150 emails a day, you are never really off. It is not like the 50s where you would go have cocktails, dinner with your family and clock off at five. That reality just doesn’t exist anymore."
Seeking out balance
Does this mean that technology has pushed us all too far? With half the world glued to their phones, is humanity doomed? Jonze doesn’t think that’s the case, believing that whatever technology offers our human side will always win out.
"Because we are such adaptive creatures and are so resourceful, we are going to do what we need to do and the more our lives get consumed with technology the more we are going to seek out the balance. Humanity will always find a way to make sure it gets what it needs," he explains.
This seeking out of balance seems to come naturally to Jonze. With every question we ask, he poses a question back at us.
At one point he asks TechRadar if we think we are outsourcing our memory to our phone (and we think he has a point). Further into the conversation he wants to know if we think technology has stopped us getting intimate with ourselves, preventing us from connecting with our feelings and thoughts (again, we think he has a point).
It’s these themes that punctuate Her and Jonze is clearly still inquisitive about people’s relationships with technology. This passion comes out in the movie and is one of many reasons his screenplay has been nominated for an Oscar. Interestingly, though, this has never swayed him to try and interact with his own phone in this way.
When asked if he uses Siri he just smiles and says, "No."
If he did then he would learn that his film has garnered so much attention from Apple that if you ask Siri what it thinks of Her’s Samantha, you are given a brilliantly bitchy reply.
Siri may not be as adept as Samantha yet but it’s little things like this that prove Jonze’s vision of the future really isn’t that far away.
Her is out in UK cinemas February 14, courtesy of Entertainment Film Distributors, and is ready to pre-order on Blu-ray in the US and Australia.