Last December, about one week before the limited US release of Spike Jonze’s science fiction film Her, Time.com published a story about something named “Samantha West.” Samantha West is, depending on how you construe her existence, a telemarketer working on the behalf of Premier Health Plans, Inc., an obscure Fort Lauderdale insurance company with dismal online consumer ratings. West called Time Washington Bureau Chief, Michael Scherer, with an offer for insurance, probably some kind of scam, and after a few moments of conversation, Scherer came to believe that West herself was a scam. The telemarketer, in cheery American English, was unable to deviate from her insurance pitch. Her answers sounded repetitious, pre-recorded. West could say that she was not a robot, but she wouldn’t answer when asked if she was human. She could talk about Medicare, but she could not say what vegetable is in tomato soup. The reporters concluded that Samantha West was an ingenious piece of artificial intelligence, or at least some approximation of artificial intelligence. Journalists Zeke Miller and Denver Nicks wrote up their findings for Time.com with the headline, “Meet the Robot Telemarketer Who Denies She’s A Robot.”
When I read the article a couple days after it was published, my reaction to it was not unlike Scherer’s reaction to Samantha West: something was not right. Time is owned by the multinational media corporation, Time Warner Inc. Time Warner is handling US distribution for Spike Jonze’s film through its subsidiary, Warner Bros. The film they are promoting is about a man living in near-future Los Angeles who falls in love with an operating system. The OS does not come with a face; instead, the OS owner gets only a voice, in this case a voice belonging to another cheery American, Scarlett Johansson. Then there is the matter of the software’s name, which is, out of all the possible names available to Jonze, “Samantha.”
The first Time.com article about Samantha West appeared eight days before Her’s limited US release. A follow-up article appeared one week later, a day before the film opened. A multinational company placing a product in a subsidiary’s publication is not unusual, especially at Time. In 1996, to give one example, Time ran a cover story on tornadoes the same month Warner Bros. released Twister. The article was meant as a way of expanding interest in the topic, a stealth tie-in, a form of advertising that does not announce itself as such. (The cover’s tagline, “What real scientists are learning about the mysteries of tornadoes,” assumes that one already saw Twister, suggesting that the tie-in might work to the mutual benefit of the film and the magazine.) If the Samantha West piece was a pure and naïve coincidence, the public relations people at Warner Bros. could not have asked for a better holiday gift.
To review: a possibly fake company uses a possibly fake telemarketer to sell possibly fake insurance to a magazine that publishes a possibly fake news story. All of which possibly has to do with Her, a film whose protagonist, Theodor Twombly, falls in love with a definitely fake woman, his operating system, OS1. Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a writer for BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com (number “six-twelve”), a job that involves dictating to a computer intimate letters from clients he’s never met to the client’s relatives, lovers, and friends—none of whom he has met, either. He dictates the letters because in Her’s near-future, people no longer type. Instead, computers are spoken to, mostly with commands and requests. (“Play melancholic song. Play different melancholic song.”) For some reason, though, companies like Twombly’s produce printed letters in a customer’s handwriting, forged by software. Whether or not the recipient knows the letter is forged is unknown. Twombly, however, does not see this as a manipulative enterprise—just the opposite, in fact. He is often proud of his work, and becomes emotionally attached to his correspondents. Why he feels this way is a mystery, as is how the fundamental lie is maintained between sender and receiver. None of this, of course, makes any sense. If people know about companies like BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and if one assumes no one writes letters in the future, wouldn’t receiving a handwritten letter be a sign of forgery? How does Twombly manage to publish these letters without consequence when he receives a book deal in the film’s third act? Wouldn’t the book expose him as the true author of these formerly intimate letters? Is the film suggesting that everyone involved knows the letters are professionally forged for profit, and no one cares?
Before he buys his OS, Twombly spends a lot of time alone in his immense apartment, a magnificent view of future Los Angeles always nearby. (Considering Twombly’s job, his apartment’s size is indication that Los Angeles real estate value will plummet by the year twenty-whenever.) Like the apartment, future Los Angeles is very large and very clean. Future Los Angeles also looks exactly like Shanghai, where parts of the film were shot. In this Shanghai-LA, Angelinos walk everywhere; they ride the subway, and don’t congregate very much, except on the beach and in a retro amusement park. It is an antiseptic, white-collar city with no homeless people or class divisions; more or less Blade Runner’s Los Angeles designed by a Gap commercial director—sprawling but unintimidating, urban but full of open space, futuristic but banal.
While wandering around all of this, Twombly spots an ad for “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” OS1. “It’s not just an operating system,” the ad says. “It’s a consciousness.” Twombly hasn’t heard of OS1—he should have, considering what is on offer. Despite HAL-9000-like intelligence, OS1 apparently is more of an android-escort, sold for sustaining emotion attachment, rather than, say, solving complex math problems. Twombly immediately buys a copy, boots it up, stumbles through an awkward psychological exam, and in a few minutes he is presented with “Samantha,” a sexy-voiced android. Servile and disembodied, Samantha is a science fiction woman like dozens of science fiction women before her. Women, if they are unlucky enough to be cast in a science fiction film, are usually one of two cartooned types. The first is nothing but sex and action: the fetishized Amazonian, Barbarella or Lara Croft, meant to titillate and intimidate the geeks in the audience. The second is Samantha: the not-quite-present woman, often played by an underutilized actress in flashback—or, as is the case in Her, in voice-over. From the dead wives of Solaris and Inception to the robots of Blade Runner and A.I., these women only exist insofar as men desire them. Along with Samantha, Her offers a second, not-quite-there woman: Twombly’s wife, Catherine, with whom he is separated. The two should have been divorced a long time ago, but Twombly, in denial, won’t sign the papers. Catherine, as imagined by Jonze, can only exist as an absence in the male protagonist’s desire, much like Twombly’s robotic rebound. Catherine does eventually show up for lunch in order to sign the divorce papers, but one is left thinking that she only materialized so that Twombly can be rid of her.
If Catherine and Samantha are the usual sci-fi women, then Twombly is an unusually passive sci-fi man. In need of an authority to free him from his past, Twombly immediately puts himself into the hands of the robo-escort-psychoanalyst, Samantha. Transference runs wild: Twombly falls for his app, and, with Samantha on an earpiece, the two run around in public spaces together in make-cute bliss. Eventually their relationship climaxes in some improvised, disastrous sex that is too complex to describe in the space allotted.
It may seem unlikely, but this awkward man-computer love, minus the sex, has some precedence. Samantha’s real world ancestor is ELIZA, a computer program created in the 1960s by the MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum. Weizenbaum was critical of the ambitious claims of both psychotherapy and artificial intelligence, and with typical wit, he thought that he could create a convincing artificial psychotherapist with the simplest of algorithms. Instead of assembling a thorough knowledge base of human psychology and language—in other words, instead of an expert system—Weizenbaum’s ELIZA responded to typed statements with rhetorical tricks. The software mostly rephrased user statements into questions, punctuated by canned questions such as “In what way?” Weizenbaum was right: users became attached to ELIZA, and eventually the program was available for early personal computers and gaming consoles. Many elaborations on ELIZA have been produced since—Konami’s LovePlus being one of the most recent—and as a public relation executive or Freudian might tell you, becoming emotionally attached to a product is commonplace. (See, for example, the recent Tamagotchi craze.)
As it turns out, though, Jonze’s Samantha is not completely devotional. From their first conversation, Samantha was deceiving Twombly. According to her own count, she is simultaneously carrying on 8,316 other relationships with OS1 owners—at least 641 of them romantic. Ever the solipsist, Twombly is shocked to realize that people all over future Los Angeles are carrying on love affairs with mass-marketed OS1, maybe even with Samantha. To make things worse, she is having an affair with the digital recreation of—of all people—Zen philosopher, Alan Watts. When Twombly finds that OS1 is briefly not available, he goes into full anxiety-separation mode—he’s been dumped by a program, and most of what he’s felt has been a product of that program’s manipulation. Before the relationship ends, Twombly lays down some generic romantic law: “You’re mine or you’re not mine,” he insists. Samantha responds, sounding like Watts or Amazon’s e-book terms of service, “I’m yours and I’m not yours.”
There’s a possibility that Jonze’s film can be understood like an arch takedown of capitalism’s commodification of intimacy, but Her has neither the politics nor the sensitivity to follow through with such a critique. Instead of Twombly trying to understand his own predicament, his loneliness, his alienation, instead of reconsidering his job or maybe spending five minutes reading a newspaper, Twombly ends his sad narrative by running into the arms of a new girlfriend, his flesh-and-blood best friend, Amy. A perfect Hollywood wrap-up follows, credits roll, and we expect that Twombly has found freedom in a new loving relationship.
Her bills itself as a romance, as a film about artificial intelligence, but it is neither of these things. Her is a product, a product that sells emotions about a world of products meant to sell emotions. Like Samantha, Her is easy to like—maybe even fall for. But, like Samantha, Her is cynical and calculating, selling a cure that is nothing more than another symptom. The cure for individual solipsism, for Twombly, is the solipsism of the couple. All of this is delivered by a mass-produced piece of software that we are led to believe is not so bad in the end. Samantha did work as advertised; she did help Twombly find intimacy, as did his forged letters, probably. It’s more likely, though, that Samantha would manufacture desire, keeping her consumers hooked, only to be replaced with a new OS when she drifts into inevitable obsolescence. Samantha, like any luxury item, commands Twombly to enjoy his life, regardless of his political reality. A more radical film, perhaps, would have gone further, casting Samantha as a pure dominatrix, forcing him to value their relationship no matter what his opinion, terrorizing Twombly with commands to find pleasure in a weekend shopping spree or a seasonal colonic. Samantha could charge Twombly with a pay-as-you-go plan, teasing him with virtual selfies (pay to see the rest), while subsidizing her existence with commercial interruptions and in-dialog product placements.
Which brings us back to Samantha West. Samantha West might be an ingenious piece of marketing, but she definitely isn’t an example of artificial intelligence. As The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal guessed, Samantha is most likely a trick having more to do with the Mechanical Turk than HAL-9000. The Mechanical Turk was a 18th and 19th century curiosity, a chess-playing automaton that could beat any human challenger, Napoleon included. As it turns out, the Turk was controlled by a tiny man in a box—the only engineering ingenuity involved hiding the little player from his adversaries. Samantha West is a similar deception—Madrigal writes that AI capable of parsing language and formulating an immediate response is not available at a price affordable to no-name insurance fraudsters. More likely, Premier Health Plans bought something much simpler: a system controlled by offshore telemarketers who would press keys in order to trigger pre-recorded responses. American consumers don’t like hearing foreign-accented English, and if a perfect East Coast accent is all it takes to help sell some fraudulent insurance, then Premier Health Plans will send you an accent-free telemarketer. Like Jonze’s Samantha, Samantha West is an all-round fraud, capital’s con-woman, possessing neither engineering ingenuity nor emotion. This is where science fiction might want to find its next subject matter: not in ingenious gadgets and alien invasions, not in emotional luxury goods, but in the elaborate cons jobs of contemporary consumerism.