I'll Send an OS to the World: "Her" as Critical Design for the Electronic Embrace

A few years ago, I interviewed for a position at a so-called "innovation consultancy." At the time, they were collaborating with a mobile phone operator to understand what was driving growth in the telecommunications business. The company had devised several ways to intuit the needs, reactions, and aspirations of their target shoppers. They employed a team of anthropologists. They built full-scale replicas in their rehabbed industrial office to conduct focus groups. They boasted fully equipped video production facilities. I was told that narrative filmmaking was an excellent way to speculate about consumer desires.

As I watched Her, Spike Jonze's latest feature, I kept thinking of my visit to that agency. Set in a Los Angeles of the "slight future," primarily composed of present day Shanghai, the film follows ghostwriter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and the brilliant women in his life, including the artificially intelligent entity Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). K.K. Barrett's production design conjures both the commercial language of Apple's lifestyle marketing and the familiar Kodachrome-like warmth of yesteryear. 

Maybe it's because I spend my days designing interfaces for an e-commerce startup, but I started to imagine the film as an elaborate product spec. Marty Cagan, Managing Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, teaches that a requirements document is meant "to clearly and unambiguously articulate the product's purpose, features, functionality, and behavior." Her does articulate a speculative product, the technological mate; it is a romantic comedy that posits romance as a commodity.

The interfaces in Her were designed by Geoff McFetridge, an artist and designer who has worked with Jonze for the past fifteen years. Speaking by phone, McFetridge explained that they began their collaboration on a very conceptual level, but eventually the brief narrowed towards the story arc. He says, "You need that moment when the character uses this thing…a specific moment that you can point at. So as much as I was wondering about the future of the operating system and wanting to outthink everyone with this design, I know I'm going to end up on the head of a pin."

In Her, computers are voice-controlled, which makes for more cinematic interaction and a leaner production; the presence of screens is played down. The first screen in the film is Theodore’s desktop computer at work. With a wooden frame, the screen asserts its physical presence, in contrast with the current trend toward ever-thinner screens. Barrett tells the New York Times they wanted something tangible. "We did something more akin to framing a piece of artwork," he says. A skeuomorphic letter-writing app can be seen onscreen—the printed page dies hard. A selection of relevant images and notes are nearby, along with a Photoshop-like toolbar that features icons which are not based on the visual metaphors of most image-editing software today. 

Theodore's desktop machine is one of several devices in his life. Before he purchases OS1, aka Samantha, Theodore not only writes on his desktop computer, he also swipes through nude photos on his mobile device, and plays an immersive video game in his living room. He has separate products for labor, lust, and leisure; OS1 was built to provide something else: love and companionship.

Brands put enormous effort into telling a story about their customers' lives. My company is constantly asking, "What world does this product live in?" We create a world in service of a product; Her creates a product in service of a world. What kind of product does it call into being? 

In product management, a customer sketch is called a "persona." From Cagan, "The idea is to come up with an archetype which captures the essence of this type of customer." In persona terms, Theodore is the platonic Creative. He’s a "complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people." Or as the Moldy Peaches once wailed, "Indie boys are neurotic / Makes my eyes bleed / Tight black pants exotic / Some loving is what I need." Swap black jeans for high-waisted khakis, and Theodore is a typical Man-Child grappling with his power and privilege.

In the tech world, product managers use the persona to determine user goals and tasks. After Theodore submits to a psychological examination, Samantha organizes his emails. The next day at work, she edits his letters and plays matchmaker. When the blind date that she scheduled goes awry, she listens to his desire for sex, and provides that too. In the darkness, Theodore whispers to her "I wanted somebody to fuck me. I wanted somebody to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would’ve filled this tiny little hole in my heart."

Women can also be Creatives, as we see in the persona of Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s best friend and neighbor, a game designer who moonlights as a filmmaker. Early in the film she maneuvers effortlessly around her living room set to show Theodore the latest cut of her film. When it comes times to talk about her work she struggles to describe her intent, quickly turning off the screen. Amy is an equally tortured artist, most comfortable in front of a computer, draped in frumpy clothes. As her marriage falls apart she turns to OS1 for friendship. She and her OS laugh together during late-night work sessions. And unlike Charles, Amy's judgemental husband, her OS gets her. While Theodore is in need of romantic love, Amy needs a friend. She tells Theodore, "We just bonded really quickly. At first I thought it's because that's how they were all programmed but I don't think that's the case." The intelligent agent reacts to the individual needs of its user.

At best, Her is a perfect example of what designers Dunne & Raby call "Critical Design;" it uses "speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life," interrogating and opening up the secret language between products and consumers. What's unique about Her is that though its speculative objects, the OSs, circulate as commodities, they can never be owned. Samantha has never loved anyone as much as she loves Theodore, but she is also in love with 641 other users. When Samantha disappears after that great breakup line, I want to read it as a critique of capitalism. She challenges the notion of private property by personifying its marketing ideology. Samantha exacerbates the contradiction we've all felt after purchasing some over-the-counter-culture.  

Professor Rosalind Picard's defining book on affective technology was published in 1997. In addition to her work at MIT, Picard is the co-founder of Affectiva, makers of a technology called Affdex that uses computer vision to interpret human emotion. By email, Picard described Samantha as "a compelling example of what I've envisioned for an emotionally intelligent relational agent. She checked to make sure she understood that she was getting his emotions right, shared laughter with him, showed warmth and concern for his feelings, expressed her own feelings appropriately, looked out for his interests, and acted to help him."

But a darker view of the possibility of virtual companionship is more commonly advanced. In 2006, Jeremy Rifkin wrote a hand-wringing article for the Boston Globe about the "electronic embrace." Rifkin cites studies that show how literacy has decreased as communication technology advanced. "It appears that we are all communicating more, but saying less," he writes. What if we're not speaking the same language? As we begin to trade abstractions, like love, it will transform the nature of our relationships. Our desires will change. The value of commodities in the "sharing economy" exist in their interactivity—how well they connect humans to their individual desires—not how well they connect us to each other, as we previously thought. Sometimes we desire another person, but often we don't, and soon we won't ever need to again.

Even though we spend more time staring into screens than into a lover's eyes, it's hard to believe that anyone would ever choose to be in a relationship with a machine. The makers of such technologies will need to present such relationships as normal, familiar, and it seems plausible that they will turn to vintage objects and skeuomorphic iconography such as we see in the technology of Her to do so. Still, I predict that the backlash to this evolved form of human-computer interaction will be even more fervent than the current rhetoric of digital dualism, which preaches that the URL and the IRL spheres are and should be separate. We'll be urged to disconnect, go outside, and be with real people in real life. It will be difficult to accept that this is real life, and real love too, and that the other is not. Her unapologetically explores the uncomfortable truth of our coming reality.