Designing for Love in the Age of Spike Jonze’s Her

We pay close attention to movies that have something important to say about love: What it is and what it’s not, how we find love (and avoid losing it) or why we need it in our lives …

Her, a Spike Jonze film, is about a man in a near-future time who falls for an artificially-intelligent operating system. The central characters may be this man and his OS, but the movie asks necessary questions about the complexity of human relationships. It’s a love story (or two) — but it’s also science fiction, delivering a clear point-of-view regarding how we’ll interact with technology in the generations to come. As we imagine what’s next, the challenge for designers and computer scientists is not how to make devices more human or more lovable. The question we should chase is: How do we avoid killing love as we increasingly rely on helpful things like technology?

Spike Jonze’s Her: On Love + Technology

Her, Spike Jonze

Warner Bros. Pictures

Her’s main character Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), installs a new operating system after separating from his wife. Before this, he is overcome with loneliness, suffering through recollections of moments tracing their courtship and marriage, from happy to very challenging. We see him at his job, ghostwriting personal letters on a computer by speaking into a microphone. We see him at home, playing a virtual-reality video game using gestures — like those we might conduct with our hands in empty air today via Microsoft Kinect or a Leap MOTION controller. The opening scenes showcase a possible, predictable future.

Once Theodore installs the OS (who names herself “Samantha”), we see a more significant innovation. Samantha speaks to Theodore, and she sounds human despite her lack of a human body. She is self-aware (if not yet self-actualized), and her voice is simultaneously kind, caring, witty and sensuous. (She’s not the Siri who curtly told me, “Sorry, I can’t look for places in Malaysia,” when I asked her for directions to a yoga studio last week.) Theodore falls in love with Samantha (or at least enacts a love story, including the familiar antagonisms of modern human relationships). She appears to fall in love with him, too. They even have (smart)phone sex.

Why does this man-machine coupling succeed when Theodore’s marriage failed? The late relational psychologist Stephen Mitchell wrote, “Sustaining desire for something important from someone important is the central danger of emotional life. What is so dangerous about desiring someone you have is that you can lose him or her.”  In his book Can Love Last? The Fate of Romantic Love Over Time, Dr. Mitchell explains how we kill love. We unnecessarily lose attraction, cheat or turn away from important human beings because the longer we are in love with someone, the more we face the very real risk he or she will leave us. There is an unavoidable potential of death, dementia, infidelity or change of heart.

Virtual Companions and Relationship Risks

We often turn to virtual companions instead of our breathing ones in part because we try to manage the risks of deeper human connection. An OS (coupled with a smartphone or a smart car or your Internet of Things) can help with important tasks — or even trigger an emotional experience — but it can never embody importance. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away any spoilers; but, I will say, Theodore miscalculates his risk of loss.

Human importance starts in the ancient parts of our brains we understand the least. A General Theory of Love, a book published in 2000 by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, introduced the concept of “limbic resonance”. The authors describe a non-verbal exchange that happens between nearby nervous systems. This pairing of our brains makes deep emotional connection among mammals possible.

Unless scientists and engineers eventually create synthetic, capable limbic systems, I doubt we’ll ever build loving devices or truly be in love with them. The machines we own now and the operating systems of the future may call, respond and seem lovable. They will sound realistic, if not exactly like Scarlett Johansson. They are already becoming wearable and tactile. We will need them — especially as we age — but we should never turn away from human love for their consistently available attention.

Only the Lonely

When I arrived a day early for my second year of college 20 years ago, I was the first person to move into a new dormitory. Late that night after unpacking, I sat by the phone in my room and set up voicemail on the university’s new telecom system. A monotone female voice led me through a series of options. She was the first computer who would speak to me more often than I’d hear the voices of my family who lived 300 miles away. Sitting there at night, listening to her first few robotic commands, I remember thinking I had never felt more alone. This disembodied voice — full of promises to help — changed a night of endurable solitude into acute awareness; I was the only beating heart in the building. How could a phone system’s voice prompts make me feel so lonely?

There are moments when you realize you’ve crossed a line. There’s a bifurcation of your life into a before and an after, and you know you’ve shifted to the after. I watched Knight Rider as a kid, but during an era when digital products crudely simulated human connection. Would I have felt less lonely 20 years ago if the voice on the other end was Samantha? Would she would have fooled me into thinking she was human? I doubt it — our brains clock these agents as false stand-ins even as we feel seething anger toward them, or respond politely to their commands.

At the time I was a systems engineering student at the University of Virginia. I would later enroll in Randy Pausch’s Usability Engineering course. Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, began day one of his seminal design class by taking a sledgehammer to a VCR. I was studying how to build products people wouldn’t want to smash into a thousand pieces. But designing for love is a higher bar.

The Future of Love + Devices

The movie Her highlights a promising future for man-machine interfaces, even as it leaves questions open about the future of love. Theodore interacts with Samantha via a small earpiece and a slim, compact folding screen with a panoramic camera. The hardware is not a smartphone into which he constantly stares and types. The inhabitants of Jonze’s future Los Angeles do not stumble into street signs while walking to work; yet, they still remind me of the Bluetooth-headset-wearing folks who leave you wondering, “Is this person schizophrenic or on a conference call?”I was particularly surprised at how often Theodore switched Samantha off completely — much more frequently than we turn off our smartphones.

Today we have instant access to our entire social network and career acquaintances wherever we are, even at dinner with our closest companions. Some of us learn to play the “phone stack” game with friends at restaurants. The first person to check or answer a vibrating phone in the stack picks up the bill. New studies show how the mere visual presence of a phone on a table reduces our ability to fully connect with the person across from us. How do we balance commitment to our virtual friends with the friends, lovers (or even strangers) in a room?

I’m confident we will create more opportunities to validate the people around us and still enjoy the benefits of brilliant, helpful devices. I hope we’ll also increase human love by asking and answering the following questions:

  • How can we create products to sustain and amplify our human relationships rather than to replace, deflect or minimize them?

  • Are we looking for technology to meet our needs – or help us need less?

  • How can we design devices that prompt or coax more good from our brains and our hearts?

Perhaps it’s time, once again, to reach for the sledgehammers …

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