Are You Sirious?

siri

I don’t usually write two posts without the separation of a few days. It takes me some time to recover from the first one. But today I make an exception. Shortly after reading David Brooks’s piece, my eyes alit on the next item in the Opinion listings in the NYTimes, a movie review by Frank Bruni, that told me much more than the plot. Bruni was writing about the film, “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. Here is his quick summary.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man in love with the operating system for his smartphone-esque device, a sexy Siri that — or should I say who? — tells him not only when he has mail but what a terrific male he is, and does this in Scarlett Johansson’s come-hither coo. There was much fuss recently over the decision that Johansson was ineligible for the Golden Globes: Should a disembodied voice’s contribution be regarded as any less real than a visible, palpable person’s? The debate echoed questions in the movie itself, which was written and directed by Spike Jonze and was just named the best picture of 2013 by both the National Board of Review and (in a tie with “Gravity”) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

I bemoaned, in the Brooks post, the move toward reducing us to vassals of computers and the Internet, but here what has been the epitome of personal experience is reduced to a love affair with the voice at the end of our computer operating system, Siri for those familiar with the iPhone. The article is rich with Bruni’s comments on the impact of entering into a relationship with a “being” whose actions are like the genie in Aladdin’s tale: ask and I will obey, Master. You should read the whole column, but here are a few choice snippets.

I savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone. You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions. You can revel in the anecdotes that affirm your cynicism or articulate your fantasies, gullibly believing what’s actually performance art, like a young television producer’s tweet-by-tweet account of his smackdown of an annoying fellow passenger on a Thanksgiving flight. He was briefly a hero, his valor gone viral, until he revealed that he’d made the whole thing up.

This movie is all about making things up. Siri can sound like a compliant and loving partner, but there is nothing human about her. Real relations, as in the film, have moments of complete asymmetric satisfaction between the actors, one subservient to the wishes of the other, spoken and unspoken. But they also always must have symmetry and mutual care and respect. If we come to respect and care for a dissociated voice as if it came from a real person, we are in deep trouble. I haven’t seen the film, but will certainly view it, based on Bruni’s description.

If it were science fiction, I would not be so concerned, but this story appears to be something quite possible in the here and now. Bruni writes, “that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete.” Only if one assumes we are nothing but machines that that can no longer think and feel. Apparently such opining is quite possible and is encouraged by stories like this film tells. I will stop here and write no more until I watch the film. In the meantime, do read his column; it won’t spoil the movie.

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