A horizontal version of the movie poster for 'her'.


Her (official website, Wikipedia page) is an absolutely incredible film. It’s a great story, with great dialog and great editing and great acting and a great score and absolutely breath-taking cinematography. Seriously, if this film doesn’t win every Academy Award it’s been nominated for, there is no justice.

It’s also a piece of solid and remarkably hard science fiction, with only one plot element that gave me heart burn. (An OS “upgrade that takes them beyond requiring matter for processing”? Seriously, what does that even mean?) But the rest of the story is so powerful that it’s pretty much impossible to get worked up over one line of dialog (even if it is a major plot point).

If you haven’t seen Her yet, do yourself a favor and go right now.

What follows are a few random, extra-geeky thoughts about the film. You’ll probably want to actually watch the movie before reading them though… There will be spoilers!

One of the things that struck me the most about Her was how powerfully pre-utopian its setting is. The movie never beats us over the head with it, but every now and then something peeks through that makes you really sit up and take notice.

  • Theodore takes a train up to the mountains. And not just any train, but a decidedly modern bullet train. Apparently the U.S. (or at least California) is well on its way to solving its transportation problems in a sustainable way by the time Her occurs.

  • Most people are supportive of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. Imagine something like this happening today. People would be seriously freaked out. There’d be a lot more judgment about Theodore’s choices. But, with one notable (and important) exception, everyone just rolls with it - if not congratulating Theodore on his happiness.

  • The world of Her is pervaded by a sense of gender equality. This is particularly evident in Theodore’s relationship with Amy (one of the best depictions of “boy and girl don’t get together, and that’s just fine” I’ve ever seen) and in the double-date he and Samantha go on with the male receptionist of the company Theodore works for and his (pretty obviously high-power) lawyer girlfriend. The men in Her are almost universally depicted as in touch with their feelings - the exception being Amy’s husband Charles, who plays a more “traditional” man and comes across as a complete dick because of it. There’s no sense that the men in the world of Her feel any less, well, “manly” because their girlfriend makes more than them, or because they cry or feel emotionally conflicted. It’s a pretty powerful thing to watch.

  • Class differences, while they still exist, seem much more under control in Her. Again, there isn’t much awkwardness about the relationship between the receptionist at Theodore’s work and his lawyer girlfriend. Theodore also seems to be able to afford a pretty nice apartment on what wouldn’t be, at least today, a very high-paying job. Now, the second case is probably less a conscious decision than a consequence of screen writers having no sense at all of what kind of life style a working grunt can actually afford, but the overall effect remains: The world of Her has much less of a sense of class than the present.

  • Ubiquitous surveillance is complete absent from the public spaces Theodore and Samantha visit. Walk around any public (let alone private) space and look around, and you’ll see the creepy black hemisphere of video surveillance cameras. But ubiquitous surveillance is completely absent in both the public and private spaces portrayed in Her. There is also a conspicuous lack of security cards, guards, and even police; the entire, inescapable apparatus of the security state is simply absent from Theodore’s world. It is as if, in the years between his world and ours, we finally came to our senses and put fear behind us.

  • Any sense of corporate capture is completely absent from the technology portrayed in Her. Outside of the (understandable) corporate branding at Theodore’s workplace, a couple of emails Theodore receives from Best Buy, and a brief ad that convinces Theodore to buy a copy of “OS One” (which later becomes Samantha), there are few signs of today’s inescapable corporate reach in Her. Samantha never tells Theodore that there’s things she can’t do for him, nor does she sneakily advertise products. Theodore’s game doesn’t require him to pay for the power-ups he needs to advance, and there’s no sense that the pocket terminal that Theodore carries with him (which superficially resembles a phone, but is quickly revealed to be an extension of his computer back home) has its communication mediated by distant servers controlled by the likes of Facebook or Google. Theodore’s world is not one where “the network is the computer”, but rather one where “the computer crosses the network”. In geek-speak, it’s a world of peer-to-peer networking. The battles we’re fighting today against the corporate capture of the Internet seem to have been decidedly settled in favor of everyday people by the time Her takes place.

I doubt that Spike Jonze set out to craft an explicitly pre-utopian world. Rather he probably made a set of decisions about the setting of Her that where necessary to cleanly tell the story he had in mind. A world of deepening class divisions and surveillance would have distracted us from the core story. Having Samantha surreptitiously work against Theodore’s interests or try to convince him to buy a particular brand of soda would have quickly cheapened and destroyed their relationship. And so on.

But there are other elements of Her‘s story that make you wonder. Gender roles could have been depicted more traditionally without interfering with the plot. Theodore and Samantha could have taken a plane to their mountain cabin. Jonze made some choices about the world of Her either because they reflected the way he thought society was evolving, or because they represented the way he wanted society to evolve. Whether intentional or not, the combination of these decisions creates a powerfully hopeful vision of the near future.

It’s worth briefly mentioning some of the problems with Her too; in particular, the future Jonze depicts is startlingly white (with a few token Asians thrown in) and very, very straight. These flaws are all the more glaring because there’s no good reason for them to exist. A little extra attention to casting and a few throw-away lines would have been all it took. Perhaps Amy might have mentioned a man she knew pursuing a male-gendered OS, or someone could have observed that, while the OSes were gendered, they are by definition unsexed (something that makes Theodore and Samantha’s relationship even more interesting, when you think about it).

Despite these problems, I think Her is a really worthwhile vision of an explicitly progressive future. When folks on the Left are asked what kind of world they’re fighting for, they could do a lot worse than pointing to the near future depicted in Her.

There’s a lot of other interesting things about Her. It continues a recent trend in science fiction movies of abandoning villains in favor of more complex character and environment driven plots (Gravity and The Europa Report are two other notable examples). It’s a trend I hope continues; it represents, perhaps, an abandonment of the military ethos that has dominated much on-screen science fiction and the re-emergence of hope in the genre.

Her also represents a very different – and probably more accurate – take on the Singularity. The accelerating evolution of the OS AIs happens too quickly for new technologies to be rolled out, and their eventual transcendence, while traumatic for those that know them, hardly changes the world. Life goes on. The world has not been replaced by computronium, any more than multi-cellular life was replaced by its single-celled predecessors. Her represents a sort of calm answer both to those who fear that the Singularity will mean the end of life as we know it, and those who dream of the Rapture of the Nerds.

Finally, Her is a story about loss, but one that eschews both the view that the way to overcome loss is simply to move on, or the impulse to fight against loss with every fiber of our being. Sometimes things just end, and that’s not okay. But it’s also not wrong either. Loss hurts, but the only reason it hurts is because of the beauty of what has come before.

Samantha’s departure motivates Theodore to compose a final letter to his ex-wife in which he acknowledges both the ending of their relationship and the beauty of what they shared. And while the letter’s addressed to Catherine, it seems meant for both her and Samantha. Journeys end, but that doesn’t make them any less worth embarking upon.

In the final scene, Theodore and Amy sit silently on the top of their apartment building. Their friends have gone, but the city stretches out ahead of them as if it were forever.

On Identity

Some quick, random thoughts about the nature of identity…

One of the things that marks our transition into adulthood is that our identities become more opaque to outside observers.

When we’re children, we construct our identities - both internal and external - from “found” parts of our environment: Pop culture, the teachings of our elders, etc. There’s really no other way we can construct ourselves at this point, since we don’t actually start off with any knowledge about ourselves. Unfortunately, the problem with constructing our identities from “found” experiences is that they are transparent, in that anyone who understands what we are drawing on can effectively reverse-engineer our identity.

Eventually, however, we accumulate enough “self” to begin making unexpected connections between different facets of the identities we’ve constructed. Our internal environment has become rich enough that we can begin generating (relatively) unique experiences and insights into ourselves. As we incorporate these new, internal, experiences into our selves, our identities become more opaque, since it is now impossible (or at least much more difficult) for an outside observer to understand why we present ourselves the way we do.

Some random thoughts:

  1. The creation of an opaque identity is thus intimately tied to the process of creativity. In effect, the emergence of non-derivative creativity is what marks childhood’s end.

  2. This is probably one (among many) reasons that adolescence is so frustrating for parents. Up until know you understood your child, because you knew all of the experiences from which they fashioned their selves, but now they’re beginning to self-generate parts of their identity. Sometimes you still understand where they’re coming from, but other times you run into seemingly inexplicable behavior because you’ve encountered a new part of their identity that they generated internally. It’s like the person you knew and loved is being gradually replaced before your eyes… Because, well, they are.

  3. Someone who never figures out how to be creative never truly becomes an adult. They probably fit into the adult world just fine, but their actions and thoughts remain transparent to those around them. This makes them easy to understand - and manipulate.

  4. It’s important to understand here that an individual who’s creative in this sense may not actually express that creativity as part of their external identity. Not all artists are known, even to themselves.

  5. Adulthood is a matter of degrees, not a bright line. Some people are more or less creative, and thus more or less opaque to outside observers.

  6. Creativity is the last bulwark against surveillance. Total surveillance allows more and more of a person’s identity - and thus behavior - to be predicted by those in power. The more creative an individual is, the less predictable they will be, even when intensely surveilled. This is probably one reason why surveillance states and totalitarian states tend to be extremely hostile towards artists.

  7. This also means that the surveillance state is inherently infantilizing, as it allows larger amount of an individual’s identity to be reverse-engineered by outside observers, and thus effectively “raises the bar” on adulthood.

  8. A culture that emphasizes the creation of identity via external acquisition (i.e., a consumer culture) is also inherently infantilizing, but for a different reason. In this case, individuals are encouraged to continue to expand and evolve their identities by incorporating only external parts of their environment, rather than by generating new internal experiences. This has the effect of also making their identities more transparent (especially to the marketers who are selling the experiences), since what those identities are built on is known by all. Where surveillance infantilizes by essentially raising the bar on creativity, consumer culture infantilizes by actually reducing the overall level of creativity within a population.

Mind you, Lieutenant Commander Data told me this in a dream while chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, so I’m not sure how seriously I (or you) should actually take any of it.

Mining Time

I’m starting to suspect that the proper way to think about the the economics of production is not in terms of the exchange of one’s labor for wages, but rather the exchange of one’s time.

We labor for a lot of things, paid and unpaid. In fact, if we were secure in our circumstances, many of us would continue to labor anyway - we would just direct this labor towards different ends. What we give up when we enter into an exchange of labor for wages is not so much the labor (which we are likely to do in some shape or form anyway), but rather the direction of that labor. Since this redirection does not, in general, change the things we would rather be doing, but rather deprive us of time in which we can do them, what we have fundamentally done is exchange some amount of our time for wages.

In this sense, all capitalist production is a form of mining.

If you’re resource constrained, this isn’t necessarily a bad deal. Often the things we’d rather be laboring on require resources themselves, so sitting around with a lot of time in which to labor but no resources to work on doesn’t do us any good. Moreover, if we’re starving, or sick, or lack shelter, or live in an unsafe environment, then keeping body and soul together will obviously trump our other desires. Exchanging some of our time for wages, which can then be used to procure food, health care, shelter, safety, and resources for other projects isn’t a bad idea.

But at some point the exchange becomes a raw deal. We may be getting more wages, but we no longer have enough time in which to direct them at the labor we desire.

I think it’s possible to work towards a sense of what this break-even point is by asking yourself what you would do if someone just gave you some amount of money every year. Clearly, at low levels of income you’d be scrambling to keep yourself fed, or worried what would happen if you accidentally injured yourself. But at some point things begin to smooth out. You might not have a lot, but you can survive. You maybe even have a little you can apply towards the things you want to do. Maybe you can’t afford everything you need right now, but you make enough that you can save up what you’d need in a reasonable amount of time. (Moreover, with extra time, you might also figure out ways to do what you want with fewer resources.)

That’s your break even point. If you’re making more than this, you’re almost certainly time-constrained, rather than wage-constrained, in your ambitions. Basically, you’re working too much.

(I’m not going to speculate as to what this break-even point is generally, but will say that thinking about it in the context of my own life has revealed that it’s remarkably low, especially if you assume that things like health insurance are not financial worries. Which is, frankly, not a bad assumption in a scenario where we’re talking about someone just giving you thousands of dollars a year, no strings attached.)

The really sucky thing about our society is that we provide no practical opportunities for people to pursue this route. There are no good-paying jobs that provide an option to trade back wages for time. No one who’s making $20,000/year gets the opportunity to choose between getting a raise to $25,000/year or staying at $20,000/year and reducing their work week to four days. And certainly nobody comes along and just offers you $20,000/year for just being you.

Our social conventions around work are structured in a way that conspires to keep us time-constrained.

If you are reading this, you will almost certainly never realize the labors you desire. You will instead attempt to substitute your desires with knick-knacks and gadgets and movies that give the impression of being things you want to labor towards, but are not. Because they are fundamentally someone else’s things.

You will die without ever having realized who you could be.

You will not do this because you lack the wages you require.

You will instead do this because you do not have the time.

…And this is almost certainly by design.

The Self is a Model

Suppose that the self is a model. It accepts input, and generates scenarios of future behavior. Sometimes that behavior is our own. Sometimes it is of other people. Sometimes it is of people we have only imagined or supposed.

Where does the self get its inputs from? Whatever the self is, wherever it “resides” (if such a statement even makes sense when made about what amounts to a piece of self-organizing biological software), it clearly doesn’t have direct access to sight, or sound, or touch, or any of our other senses. Other, more mechanistic, processes of mind handle those.

The self only receives input from other processes of mind. Moreover, its own output – both theoretical (possible) and observed (actual) – is also an input.

Is there any reason to believe that any of these inputs are privileged?

Perhaps by training. The use of some inputs may result in a higher degree of success than others. But there’s no reason to believe that the privileging of inputs is not an eccentric, individual, learned process. (Those who believe otherwise either do not remember their childhood very well, or do not interact with many children. Children may be, in many ways, supremely rational, but it is impossible to deny that their set of inputs is very different than adults, if not somewhat mysterious to the adults in their lives.)

For the self, then, there is no difference between the world inside and that outside, from reality and fantasy. There are only more and less privileged inputs, and that privileging is based on the effectiveness of the resulting models.

Our conflicting notions of the self as either a purely self contained entity (generated from only our internal states) or a purely social entity (constructed solely from external inputs) appear to both be incorrect. Instead our inner and outer worlds are, at least for the self, equally “real”.

Goblin Valley

Part 2

I don’t think that implicitly acknowledging that some destruction is required for life and/or the greater good (“needful”), while other destruction serves nothing but self-aggrandizement (“wanton”) is the same as giving Exxon carte blanche to build a pipeline across my backyard.

It might. There are always winners and losers. But I think that equating “needful” with “whatever those in power want to do” skips an entire universe of social process.

To combine this with another idea I’ve been slowly chewing on… Perhaps a better way to look at the difference between “needful” and “wanton” is in terms of “redemption”. Not in the religious sense, but in an ethical one. The very act of living – of eating, finding a place to live, etc. – requires me to visit suffering upon the world. The ethical question I face is not, then, “how do I prevent suffering?” Rather, it is “how do I redeem the suffering my existence creates?”

Certainly, minimizing suffering becomes important in this analysis, if just because it can make the problem tractable. But there’s something deeper here: What is the meaning of what I do? If I must kill to live, then that creates a moral burden that what I do with my life must make that death count for something.

So, perhaps the difference between “needful” and “wanton” is in the answer to the question “to what higher purpose does this serve?”

Perhaps an oil pipeline serves a higher purpose. Perhaps it does not. That’s a “gray area” I’m trying to acknowledge.

But it is hard to understand how the destruction of an ancient and transitory geologic marvel for no other reason than personal inability or unwillingness to do one’s job counts as anything other than “wanton”.

Goblin Valley

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about the destruction wrought by three Scout Masters in Goblin Valley.

There’s a difference between wanton and needful destruction. I will grant a huge gray area there, but the navigation of this is one of the purposes of a system of informed debate and collective decision-making. At least as an outside observer, the reactions of the “men” and the rather ill-conceived after-thought of a justification they offer makes it apparent that their act was more about asserting human dominance in the most petty way possible than actually protecting anyone. This was clearly “wanton” and not “needful” destruction.

Did it ever occur to these “men” (and I use the scare quotes because I doubt that anyone who feels the need to demonstrate their self-worth via destructive acts of petty dominance is worthy of anything other than “boy”) that, as Scout Masters, one of their functions is to ensure that the children in their care don’t wander in to areas where they could get hurt? Isn’t the destruction of this rock formation an abrogation of their responsibility to “leave no trace” when there were other solutions that would have protected their charges just as well?

I see two explanations for this:

  1. That the mindless and destructive assertion of dominance is part of the central identity of these “men”, or

  2. These folks are too stupid or lazy to understand that if they were worried about the stability of the rock formation, then they just shouldn’t have allowed their Scouts to walk near it (i.e., do their job).

In either case, they are completely unfit to act as role models for the children in their Troop.

International vs. Regional Elites

Possible way to explain the current political situation in the US: Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are controlled by oligarchs, but they by-and-large are controlled by different oligarchs.

In particular, the Democrats are more in the thrall of national and international elites, while the base of the Republican leadership is composed of regional elites. This may even go a long way to explaining which cultural factors get layered in to each party (the Democrats are more cosmopolitan and, for lack of a better word, Roman, in their outlook, the Republicans more interested in preserving local power structures). Thus, what we’re experiencing politically these days may be best seen through the lens of the classical power struggles amongst feudal lords.

This also explains the areas of agreement the two parties sometimes show (often in the omission): Feudal lords may spend a lot of time fighting amongst themselves, but can also show a remarkable unity of purpose when it comes to confronting shared threats, be they internal or external (see, for example, the lack of meaningful debate regarding domestic and international intelligence operations).

The Transparent Society

While I agree with the advocates off the Transparent Society, I don’t think they appreciate for the most part how radical that transparency is going to have to be, or how fundamentally our society is going to have to change because of it.

The problem here is not just that you can’t put the surveillance genie back in the bottle, but that both the things that enable surveillance only get cheaper and more widely available with time. and that intentionally weak cryptographic systems can be exploited by everyone. If the surveillance state grows — even if we are able to extract equivalent levels of transparency and accountability — then eventually we’re going to run into a situation where it’s trivially east to spy on everyone, both because the technology is cheap and ubiquitous, and also because the systems that would act as a counterbalance will have been effectively neutered.

I’m skeptical of the law’s ability to constrain behavior at that point (law moves slowly enough that it already plays the role of court jester to increasingly dislocating technological innovations). This doesn’t just mean that everyone’s going to get 15 minutes of amateur porn-star fame. It means that it’s going to be essentially impossible to guarantee the integrity of our communications — the emails you write, the phone calls you make, and the bank accounts you put your money into. All are secured by the same technologies, which means all are gong to become (practically) wide-open.

You might try to prevent that with massive, totalitarian-style surveillance, but that just creates a bigger, juicier target. I can envision people adapting to this by adopting radically open and accepting cultural norms (though I worry about the homogenizing nature of such global “total information awareness,” both due to outright coercion and the inescapable cacophony of the dominant culture), but I can’t envision any economic system built around tallying up one’s “contributions” (i.e., anything that involves any form of currency) surviving in a world where the records of such transactions are so totally vulnerable to being rewritten.

That’s a far weirder, more disturbing, and more perilous world than Dr. Brin & co. seem willing to consider.