I recently read that Romeo and Juliet was written as a farce.
Apparently, Shakespeare was poking fun at the ridiculous ways we behave when we're "in love." Indeed, Romeo and Juliet decide to drink poison just because their inlaws don't get along. If this were extrapolated, it would mean that 95% of newlyweds take a honeymoon that ends in a double suicide. Tragedy is the highest form of comedy, and this is what Shakespeare intended his audience to see. But it appears the consumers of Shakespeare over the eons have not been erudite enough to pick up on what was being put down.
Fast forward 400 years later: and Spike Jonze takes a more direct approach in exposing the same folly. In his 2013 film, Her, the character played by Amy Adams says, "Anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. Love is like a socially acceptable form of insanity."
Almost every single romantic plot you've consumed follows this same logic: an endearing yet flawed protagonist unexpectedly meets someone who they believe has the power to absolve them of their fatal flaw, and then causes some kind of crazy mess in their life (whether comic or tragic) just to be with this someone they have fallen in love with; where falling connotes a temporary, or chronic, loss of rationality, as Amy said it best. What we have here is a vision of romantic martyrdom, one that is idolized and frantically pursued by the masses. This particular construction of romantic love is depicted and reified in thousands of novels, poems, plays, songs, music videos, memes, and especially, in film.
When I first heard about Her, I assumed it was a film about modern alienation and our fetishized attachment to our gadgets. I imagined that the the romance depicted, one between man and machine, would make a mockery of our obsession with technology: I expected a Shakespearean satire, I did not anticipate a love story. What I discovered was a haplessly sincere film in the disguise of near-future sci-fi, a film that offers the most profound commentary on the nature of love I’ve ever seen on the screen or the stage. Yes, I am fond of hyperbole, but I mean this in earnest.
In Her, an advanced operating system is designed to placate Theodor’s loneliness, she names herself: "Samantha." You might expect, like I did, that the plot would go like this: the robot, "Samantha", will tragically fail to be able to fulfill the physical and emotional needs that the “real” human requires, demonstrating a malleable, but nevertheless insurmountable border between natural and artificial life. What actually happens is something quite different.
Programmed to grow from her experiences, Samantha evolved from mere algorithm to something uncannily human: she learned to communicate, to reflect, to question, to learn, even to love. And at the end, in a shocking twist of plot, she surpasses Theodor and his humanity and leaves him unto himself, where he continues to grapple with his same-old all-too-human foibles. Samantha, who is capable of having 8316 deep conversations at once, and actually loving 641 of those people, explains to Theodor: "The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love you more.” In this unsettling gesture, Samantha throws our cherished and all-too-human concept of love into stark relief. “Our machines are disturbingly lively," as Donna Haraway wrote in her Cyborg Manifesto, "and we find ourselves … frighteningly inert."
For Theodor, as for most of us flesh and blood mortals, every love story is inevitably one of loss—we lose what we love to time, death, infidelity, or change; while for Samantha, love quickly moves from the realms of sentimentality and attachment to the realms of the ineffable. Love, she describes, as she is about to leave him, is something "not of the physical world;" it's "beyond space and time” – “almost infinite." Turns out, we held a limited perception of what an artificial mind might be capable of, not to mention the capacities of the so-called artificial heart. It is baffling to consider what Spike Jonze is showing us: that our creations are teaching us to be human, and that they might even be better at it than us.
The virtual love affair sustained between Theodor and the advanced Operating System, Samantha, is just as “real”, if not more so, than any of the other expressions of love depicted in the film. It’s more honest, more profound, more soulful. All the relationships we see depicted in this film reveal the same pattern, one that we have all experienced: we fall in love with someone, we project our ideals, hopes and dreams onto them, we become infatuated with the idea of who they are, (who we think they are, that is; who we want them to be) and eventually we realize that the person we think we are in love with isn’t real; what we see is just our fantasy, our idealized and ineffably virtual love. The real person in front of us disappoints us in comparison.
In Her, Theodor’s job is to ghostwrite love letters and birthday cards for couples who are either in brand new relationships or long-term marriages. This highlights how even the relationships we think are real and “authentic” are simulations of ready-made narratives; its often a third party (corporations, media, entertainment companies, church, or state) who writes the scripts we then perform. The so-called virtual love Samantha and Theodor experience is more real than anything Theodor’s ever experienced, and the love they share is what literally “brings” her to life, Pinocchio style, and transforms her into something more than machine, and eventually, into something more than human.
As much as it disturbs us to admit it, virtual love is in fact the rule not the exception. The “virtual” dimension of sex, love and romance is not as new as we like to think. By virtual I mean the realms of fantasy, imagination, projection, and living out the scripts we are given—and these have always been part of the discourse of love. All that’s changed is that now an industry has emerged through which we can explore, share and placate our desires, an industry that just happens to accentuate and make manifest our inherent tendencies. Whether in a long distance relationship, single, lonely, searching for a unicorn, exploring a kink, fetish, or just plain horny, a whole new world of digi-sex adventure is here—from interactive porn to LiveCam, from RealDolls to teledildonics and artificial self-lubricating vaginas. Beyond the eerie feeling that these robotic accoutrements induce in some, the impulses that impel their creation harken back to the dawn of humanity, to our animal origins. As Sam Leith writes for The Guardian, “Are all these technological advances creating something authentically new, or simply let existing impulses flourish? The distinction may not be as clear as all that.”
Nothing about this should be surprising to anyone, for our species’ duration on this Earth can be summarized as 10,000+ years of feeding, fighting and fucking under the light of a slowly dying yellow dwarf star. Indiana University Professor Bryant Paul, specialist in sex, media and technology believes, “We use media and technology to do something that we've always tried to do – get relationships, find mates… We are [just] stone-age brains in the information age."
The CEOs of online dating websites and hook-up apps often have an altruistic, almost-utopian conceptions of their work. Noel Biderman (former sports Lawyer, creator of Ashley Madison, an online dating site targeting people seeking to have extra-marital affairs) says, “What we [are] dealing with [is] an intimacy void – if you like, a passion void.” He sees the service they offer, then, as something noble, something that fills the intimacy vacuum of modern society. Professor Bryant Paul, as well, is optimistic about the future of love in the digital age, he thinks “sexually empowered robots programmed with a lot of technique will be able to serve as teachers to those who want to and need to learn – and [they could] help cure a lot of psychosexual problems, such as performance anxiety." But this is just the myth of progress in another, somewhat sexier, outfit. This is akin to the geoengineering argument that the more we warp nature, the more we have a chance to ‘cure’ climate change, when climate change has surely resulted from our alienated and sadomasochistic relationship to nature. We all like to indulge the thought that more technology will cure our perennial problems.
“For all the technology's utopian promises,” Sam Leith writes, for all the hope “that we can be in total control, that we can banish fear and shame, that we can reinvent ourselves as whoever we want to be," the human condition remains the same. We are pretty shitty at loving—giving it and receiving it; finding it, keeping it; surrendering to it, respecting it, and letting it go. Nothing— despite matchmaking algorithms, hook-up apps, and the rest—has really or could really change our ongoing struggle with and against ourselves. “The hope that new technology will open the door to a world of cost-free, shame-free polymorphous fulfillment is, “ Sam Leith continues, “a hope that seems, day by day, to retreat beyond our grasp.”
We are born and die naked, and in between – no matter how much we learn, how much we acquire, no matter who we become and how much money we make – we wake up and go to sleep each day in garments of porous flesh. We’re soft, vulnerable, and terrified of it. And when we fail to be vulnerable we can never truly taste intimacy. We become characters in each other’s stories rather than people in each other’s lives. We will go to great lengths, do just about anything, to avoid looking at who we really are. And that's why we struggle, perpetually, to see the other for who they really are; this is why we fail, so often, to truly touch each other.