Contributed by:
Frank Pennington
United Church of Christ
Institute Advisory Committee Member

This past January was synonymous with “cabin fever” given the temperature and snow cover. As an antidote I turned to my long standing interest in film, especially since the Academy Awards are looming large. Last week, my good friend (who is a college teacher, a rabbi, and a film buff) and I took in “Her,” a Spike Jonze creation. As a follow-up to the film, we had a short theological discussion.

“Her” takes place in a future L.A. in which populist technology reigns. Everyone has the next generation of super-smart phones and operating systems. A film panorama captures a Bluetooth contagion showing everyone with absorbed smiles as they negotiate their immediate destinations chatting with whoever (or whatever) holds their super smart phone interest.

Everyone is smiling but is it all good? We can become absorbed with what distracts us. Distractions can work as opiates. Most of us welcome an escape now and then, but escaping constantly is called an addiction, with or without smiles. I’ve taken sufficient courses in existentialism to know all about alienation. When we become alienated from the visceral experience of daily life, we often try to cope by using these distractions or self-medication.

I recall the first time I experienced an individual, stylishly dressed and animated , apparently talking to himself! No one else shared his visible space and yet he was excitedly talking away! There is a joke that when we talk with God it is called prayer but when we claim that God talks to us it’s called schizophrenia! What was decidedly weird a few years ago is now commonplace. Bluetooth is no longer cutting edge. People who talk with people are the happiest people in the world, to cop a phrase from a popular Barbra Streisand classic. We no longer have to be in touch physically.

Technology is never self-validating. It is neither good nor bad but reflects our value system; we may not all agree but we decide! A CAT scan is good, usually. I guess drones can be good but they can also be bad depending on how they are applied. In the world of “Her” everyone owns operating systems which open up worlds of distracting games and which introduce relationships with sentient computers with human-like empathy. So, why risk a corrupted human relationship when a computer is programmed to be a perfect foil for a neurosis or a desired sexual fixation? If human relationships are scary and conflicted, just establish an OS “relationship” and jettison the confusing human aspect. Think about it . . . we can program an OS to talk back to us but to tell us only what we want to hear. Perfect!

What happens when evolving technology eliminates the necessity of up front and personal human relationships which are often difficult, unpredictable, and even depressing? How do we react if a computer is so refined that it can be marketed as offering all the qualities of a great friend or lover without the quirky messiness of human finitude—get nude without the finitude! Don’t like the turn on, then just turn it off —literally.

I have nothing against smartphones, with hardware that enables one to stay constantly connected with important email or dating websites which “bring people together.” I am NOT anti-technology; I even text. However, I am pro intimacy which requires risk and vulnerability and courage and is never easily or simply packaged. I don’t have to ache emotionally when I fail a computer or feel shame when I inadvertently turn one off. And there have been plenty of times when I have been face to face with someone about whom I care greatly and would have loved to shut down the conversation with no ambiguity or just press the delete key. Face to face human interaction allows for intimacy and intimacy makes each and every one of us vulnerable. An allowance for vulnerability requires courage and, usually, eye contact.

In the film “Her,” Theodore falls in love with his personal operating system which has been programmed to know his every whim. Narcissism is about feeling that one is at the center of the universe and an attentive smart operating system which eliminates the risk of a finite face to face intimacy would seem to be the perfect distraction. Wouldn’t it be great if we each had a Disney-like fairy tale mirror that would tell us each time we look into it, “You are the fairest of them all?”

We aren’t loved because we are perfect and certainly not because we are at the center of the universe. We are loved even when we are uncertain about this possibility as we will all be at times. “Her” is a fine portrayal of the fact that sophistication can’t buy love and technology, can’t override the risk of intimacy. To be human is to be vulnerable and, however bad this makes us feel at times, this fact reignites the reality that we are not machines. We are not slick “products,” but flawed pilgrims and we arrive anything but simply and neatly packaged.

We can create machines which make our lives streamlined and which keep us in touch (Face Time, Skype), but only humans weep and authentically laugh at bad ironic humor. “Her” is a great film and an homage to the desire we have to short circuit human flaws and fears through forms of self-medication—some of them embodying the best of innovative technology.

Technology is not “bad”; it’s just not self-validating. When my vehicle breaks down I want a smart phone and a GPS so I can make a connection and get help. When I’m really wrecked emotionally I want a shoulder, not a computer, to cry on. Barbra Streisand was right . . . “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

Note: If you want more details and reviews of the film “Her,” Google, Rotten Tomatoes ; better yet, take some time to view it. I would love your feedback on a film which while not “entertaining,” is majestic, provocative, and on target. Also, let me know if you are mocking me for referencing Barbra Streisand . . . look me in my eyes and tell me face to face.