There’s a scene in Spike Jonze’s Her when Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) spins around in circles with his phone in hand but more in particular with Samantha, the operating system he has fallen in love with; he, elated, the mirth of a child or of one falling helplessly in love. It’s supposed to be a happy scene, composed of all its makings: laughter, love. But instead, it is evocative of sadness, heartbreaking, not because he is in love with someone (or rather, something) that will never be able to love him back, not in its true sense, but because of its aloneness, the alienating sensation of creating a moment with a lover without the physical presence of one.
Spinning in circles, sharing a moment with the one you love without them being there, phone always in hand, and a vibration or sound alert as a means to elation: if you’ve been in a relationship in the 21st century and own a smartphone, you know this feeling. As the movie progresses, we forget that Samantha is an operating system — we begin to believe that Samantha is a lover on the other end of the phone, a long-distance lover, or, at least, I believe so. Theodore’s descent is less a cautionary tale on the importance of disconnecting; his story is a reflection of myself and of so many like myself, who believe that technology, tweets, snapchats, and now direct messages on Instagram, can replace the palpability of human connection, who believe that they are apt and even better conveyors of emotion and feeling. Text replacing talk, snapchats replacing touch.
I have my own version of Her, though mine would be He, and I am Her to him. For three months we shared with each other our two separate worlds in the only way we knew that we could, with pictures and videos and texts, with anything that would allow us to install and share. Our first attempts at phonecalls led to voicemails, but within a week we were falling asleep together on the phone or speaking into the night, till minutes before dawn. It was during the first time we spoke on Skype that I was aware of the distance between us, when it became all too real. That night we were both uncharacteristically quiet, staring at each other, pulling faces and then laughing, laughing more so because the experience finally made us feel more real.
Laughter becomes unforgettable not because of its sound, but because of the unique expression to whom it belongs to — the crinkling up of the eyes, the involuntary flashing of slightly crooked, gapped but perfect teeth. Reality, or the closest thing to it, presents us at our most vulnerable. When Theodore tells his ex-wife that he is dating his OS, she replies, “You always wanted a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.” I was growing restless of our unreality, of our world all-too-perfect that faced no challenges that come with anything that is real. I went to visit him, and after a weekend together, I could see for myself which side of the bed he preferred to sleep on instead of imagining him and his bed and him in it, and he could hold me exactly the way he wanted to, instead of him just telling me, and the two of us imagining it without the sensation of touch. Imagine a world in which aural sex is replaced by oral sex, and imagine trying to survive that or a return to the former.
Nothing can compare to the feeling of waking up together, beside each other. There we were stripped down to expose ourselves, without good lighting and good angles, without the option of disconnecting. When I returned, we argued because I said that we needed to talk more, but what I meant was I need more of you, the real thing. I don’t want twenty texts a day, it’s not enough. On my last night, while he was fast asleep, I lay my head on his chest and I could hear his heart beating. In a few minutes, I knew the rhythmic pattern of his heartbeat. It was something I could not have imagined in all those three months.
The normalcy with which technology replaces human relationships in Her isn’t shocking, it’s reality. Once, I dated someone who refused to answer his phone when I called, but he could type away messages to me on GChat for hours. The ease of disconnecting. Another time it was someone who could text around the clock, but was armed with excuses as to why he could not hang out. There’s no wonder why Theodore has never loved someone the way he loves Samantha. Their relationship is devoid of the complications and consequences fundamental to human relationships. There is no one telling him, I need more of you, it’s not enough. But even with Samantha at his disposal, he is, at all times, alone. At his happiest with her, he is still alone.
Human disconnect, especially when times are difficult, can seem enticing. It is why many of us engage in OKCupid flirtations for months on end, without ever meeting or seeing the person on the receiving end: fantasy is better than reality. We can see these people as we want to see them, and all of us put our best faces forward. However, Samantha can’t put her head on Theodore’s chest; she can’t experience the pattern of his beating heart. For Theodore, technology is a guise for avoiding the challenges that accompany all reality. It has often been a guise for avoiding my dissatisfaction with myself and my insecurities. We hide, I think, behind technology or excuses or the perfect image of ourselves in order to hide from ourselves; we deem our imperfections unacceptable and unlovable. Eventually, Theodore’s fantasy world sours, and then it is over. Fantasy, regardless of how much we crave it, becomes tiresome after our satisfaction briefly peaks. It becomes monotonous, expected and predictable. It’s not simply the good that makes us whole to the people who love us — it’s us, in our entirety, if only we’ll allow ourselves to share our lives, good and bad, with them.
How do you share your life with somebody, Samantha asks. It’s a question that attempts to be answered throughout the movie, and it is a question we are forced to answer, as well. In this age of information over-share, when details personal and not are open for the world to see, when Instagram allows you to share group direct messages and Snapchats are open for all contacts to view for 24 hours, when “share” is a term we think of in apps, how do you share your life with somebody? How do you share your life with just one person?