, Salem, MA

January 8, 2014

Watson: We are living online more and more

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — One of the biggest developments that is altering societies across the globe today is the invention of the online world. The Internet, the business transactions that rely on it, the information that spreads because of it and the social media that have grown on it are all transforming innumerable parts of the ways that we conduct business and relate to each other.

At the most personal, individual level, the new cyber world has facilitated or afforded or caused all sorts of new dynamics and behaviors. A provocative new movie, “Her”, starring Joaquin Phoenix, explores some of those new realities and posits a few more.

Set in a time maybe 10 or 15 years from now, “Her” shows us a society that is almost assuredly the one that we will be offered. Theo (Phoenix) lives in Los Angeles and appears quite mainstream and ordinary. He and his friends (and everybody else) mostly keep an earpiece — wireless to their computers — in place as they work, play and walk.

Outdoors, during the commuter hour, we see pedestrians moving in groups and alone, and the solo walkers are invariably talking and listening with their headsets. At work, people take out the earpieces only when they speak with co-workers.

At home, there is a wealth of cyber-based entertainment options. In addition to the Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TV, DVDs, Wii, blogs, gaming and more that we are used to, Theo’s time has immersion games where avatars and avatar worlds are projected in see-through, 3-D images, and scenes and action sequences that fill up most of the volume of a room. These games have become quite seductive because the user (you) directs all the action and is himself the protagonist and star. You become the center of attention.

Keyboards are rare in the world of “Her.” Almost all control of computers, games, phones and machines is executed by voice-recognition software. We see this in Theo’s job. He is a love-letter writer, and he dictates the letters into his computer, which produces ballpoint-pen, handwritten copies for his customers to send their partners (we are left to wonder if people have become incompetent to express emotions, or whether this service is simply another inroad of commercialization).

Theo excels at his job, writing wonderfully touching letters, which of course is an irony, considering that he is sad and lonely and has been unable to land a girlfriend.

In a blue mood, he turns to the Internet for distraction and is offered an “Intelligent Operating System,” a program designed to answer his questions, help organize his online files and generally keep him company. This IOS, a new product, will actually “evolve,” becoming smarter and smarter as it “learns” from its own lightning-speed data surveys and search history.

The IOS is triggered anytime by Theo’s voice, and it has a human voice of its own. Theo is delighted when he selects a woman’s voice and she — named Samantha — sounds beautiful and attentive (Scarlett Johansson).

Although he (and we) knows that Sam is a computer program, he cannot help but laugh at her jokes, be comforted by her and discuss topics with her. She is good company and reacts spontaneously to the life that she observes through his camera lens — as he takes her everywhere.

Things take a turn when Theo discovers that Sam is talking with 8,316 other users and in love with 641 of them. After all, they have had sex (you’ve got to see it), and he has fallen in love with her.

Simultaneously, Theo is finalizing a divorce agreement with his wife, and his best friend is divorcing her husband. The movie, which starts out solely as a description of imminent computer technology, slowly broadens into some investigation of love relationships.

The two topics are connected. For it is partially the enormous reliance on cyber-based communications that is changing a host of norms that used to guide both the standards and quality of human-to-human exchange. How we use emailing, texting, tweeting, instagramming, gaming and a whole host of smartphone capacities is changing our emotional and cognitive skills, our habits and our expectations.

The characters in “Her” do not seem futuristic. You already know people exactly like them today. But we still live in a transition time, and over half of our citizenry grew up with the “old,” pre-computer ways and norms. Today, however, nine of 10 teens aged 14 to 17 utilize online social media. And, rapidly, computerization, automation and robotization are expanding in all directions. Therefore, we have not yet arrived at the ultimate online society that we are — without a doubt — pointed at.

So, as more and more life migrates onto screens, will we try to assess what is gained and what is lost? With all that computer power, we’ll have no shortage of data, but I wonder if we’ll lose the inclination and attributes necessary for the requisite distillation and synthesis.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at