One of the less popular films nominated for Best Picture this year was Her. I’m always fascinated by the imagination of the worlds created by director Spike Jones, but as imaginative as the world of Her is, it is very much a reflection of where society is headed (as opposed to society not going anywhere inside John Malkovich’s head).
In Her, a lonely middle-aged man enters into a romantic relationship with his phone’s operating system. In fact, he was lured into this relationship by the phone itself, a super-sophisticated version of Apple’s Siri. As things tend to do in stories, things go awry. The premise of the movie opens up the question about the nature of love from the point of view of where society is at today.
There are already news stories popping up about Japanese inventors working on robotic “girlfriends”, who up until now are very weak substitutes for real relationships! In Her, the relationship almost seems to work, but that says more about our society than it does about anything else. Our society has forgotten how to epitomize love, as we barely know how to separate it from lust.
Modern film’s best portrayal of love is probably the first ten minutes of Up, but it is an illustration and not a didactic explanation to cure modernity’s confusion. A robotic girlfriend can only mimic lust – where one party looks at another party in terms of how the other might satisfy their desires without any care for mutuality. The Japanese “girlfriend” obeys orders to perform simple house tasks and secretarial jobs, and provides a little entertainment through its fascinating artificial intelligence, but this hardly makes one who enlists a robot a “boyfriend” but rather a boss or an owner. A partner reduced to a set of computer instructions cannot be an object of love, because computer programs are driven materially by transistors and wires, and a fairly limited set of instructions ultimately coded by another team of human beings – true love requires the consent of the free will, which can only at best mimicked by clever programming. This is partly why the logical extension of atheism is the abolition of free will, but I digress.
Catholic theology defines clearly that human beings are both body and soul. A loving relationship is the sacrifice of both in service to the good of the other. Even a long distance relationship based mainly on online communication between two human beings cannot be replicated when one half of a pair is an artificial construct. Ultimately, an electronic social network enables an authentic meeting of souls as long as the two communicators at either end are authentic images and likenesses of God.
While Jones’ film does not pronounce judgment on a world where devices can almost be spouses, his society lacks the distinctions needed to allow sufficient critical thinking on the matter. When definitions and distinctions between types of relationships in today’s world are blurred, no wonder it’s hard to know who your friends are.