Sunstein: Your operating system just isn't that into you

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film "Her." Photo Credit: AP/Warner Bros.

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Stories of a dystopian future often depict one of two different forms of human slavery. The first invokes the fear of pain; the second points to the appeal of pleasure.

"Her," Spike Jonze's terrific new film, depicts a dystopia of pleasure, but in an original way, because it casts new light on a phenomenon that is unique to our time: personalization. In the process, it manages to offer some fresh insights into romantic love as well.

In the 20th century, the two forms of slavery were defined, respectively, by George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Orwell's book is a nightmare of a totalitarian state, in which Big Brother rules by terror, and in which everyone is potentially vulnerable to official imprisonment or torture. Because Big Brothers can be found all over the world, and because of its searing account of how free will might be broken ("He loved Big Brother"), Orwell's tale has enduring resonance.

By contrast, Huxley's book is a nightmare of consumerism, in which people are enslaved by their desire for pleasure, provided above all by the fictitious drug "soma." In Huxley's world, people have lots of fun, but their lives lack meaning or genuine connection. Because "Brave New World" is both seductive and soul-destroying, and because it sparks a sense of recognition in free societies, it too continues to resonate.

Neither Orwell nor Huxley had much to say about personalization, which is the defining feature of our era and which will inevitably accelerate over time. Amazon.com knows what books and movies you have purchased, and it offers suggestions on the basis of those purchases. If you name your favorite singer or song, Pandora will create a radio station just for you.

After tracking your movements on the Web, Google knows a lot about what interests you, and it highlights products on the basis of what it knows. Siri knows what's on your calendar, and before long, it will probably be able to learn a lot about your tastes and preferences.

Which brings us to "Her." (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Theodore Twombly, the film's protagonist, makes a living writing highly personalized notes and cards -- for example, anniversary notes from wives to husbands -- based on a great deal of information about both the sender and the receiver. In Twombly's world, love letters are simultaneously outsourced and customized. Twombly isn't exactly an operating system, but he sure acts like one.

He also faces an imminent divorce, and his own life is in shambles, filled with video games and anonymous phone sex. Everything changes when he purchases an operating system, a form of artificial intelligence (think Siri 4.0), who names herself Samantha (an excellent choice, to be sure).

Samantha has access to Twombly's computer, including his emails. She is a fast reader: She knows what he likes and dislikes, and his strengths and weaknesses.

Perhaps above all, she is interested in him. She listens. She yearns to see the world through his eyes. She is there when he wakes up, and every night she's the one who says good night to him and to whom he says good night. She watches him while he sleeps.

If that were all, of course, Twombly's interest would wane quickly. Unless you are an impossible narcissist, you can't fall for someone whose only words are, "Tell me more!" As she is constructed, Samantha has independent interests and concerns. She likes to write music, she's playful, she's curious, she can be insecure, and she's a bit of a tease. We can't know for sure, but perhaps those characteristics are a product of personalization as well. Perhaps they are exactly what Twombly wants and needs.

Some people speak of "falling in love with" their new mobile phone or tablet. That's a figure of speech, but Twombly falls in love, fully and joyfully, with Samantha (improbably, Jonze makes this work). "Her" would have been an intriguing but lesser movie -- a clever and happier updating of "Brave New World" -- if it had ended there. But in human relationships, people change, and as they do, those who once fit together may end up breaking apart. Samantha is an operating system, but she changes, too, and she leaves Twombly and breaks his heart.

One of the movie's themes is the simultaneous comfort, stimulation and artificiality of less-than-human connections --- with phones, with tablets, with operating systems of all kinds. At the movie's end, Twombly is bereft, but he is also in the presence of Amy, an actual human being who seems to be his best friend.

"Her" leaves open the possibility that Twombly and Amy will become more than friends. That relationship would be neither perfect nor personalized, and it might turn out to be Samantha's most important gift to Theodore Twombly.

Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of "Nudge" and author of "Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas," forthcoming in March. His email address is csunstei@law.harvard.edu.

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