I finally decided to sit down and watch Spoke Jonze’s newest movie, Her. In case you haven’t seen the trailer or heard about the movie, Her is basically a science-fiction romance, where a man falls in love with his Artificial Intelligent Operating System. What you would expect to be some sort of comedy is, at its heart, quite the emotionally intense drama. I really enjoyed Her for a variety of reasons (although I can’t help but wonder if the story would have the same effect if it was a woman who fell in love with a male A.I.).
While I described the movie as a science-fiction movie, the story certainly doesn’t have the typical sci-fi clichés that one sees all over Hollywood these days. The movie itself, while featuring an A.I. character, does revolve around future technology. What I mean is that in these blockbuster movies we see these days, the entire story actually revolves around the setting – post-apocalyptic earth, giant robot death machines, space ships, etc. Oftentimes, sci-fi movies attract attention because of the setting itself, not the characters (and for various reasons, but I won’t go into that now). The setting defines the movie. In Her, the setting: the near-future, is only a setting, and it’s the characters that we are interested in.
Furthermore, this setting isn’t in the far-flung future, but in the near future, a future where people still go to the beach, take walks in the park, carry a mobile device. It’s a future that we can connect too, because it seems extremely probably. This near-future setting enhances our connection to the story, because even though we know it’s sci-fi, we know it’s completely possible (and indeed, could be happening now). We easily connect to the setting, because it’s familiar, and it helps connect us to the characters themselves. Even though some things have changed, we’re all the same humans as before.
Now, I could write a whole post on how the movie considers the topic of what it means to be human, human-technology interactions and the Singularity. But I assume that there are dozens of articles out on the webs about these topics. All I want to say on the topic is that this movie provides a refreshing view of a “positive/optimistic” future and reminds us that even in the future, humans will still be relevant. I highly recommend it, and I think I am a growing fan of near-future stories (see: Robot and Frank).
What I wanted to talk about is our concepts of the near-future. After all, what we imagine today will most likely be reality tomorrow (which is why have such an interest in the sci-fi genre). I think it’s interesting (and perfectly valid) that most near-future conceptions feature a very electronically advanced society. Many things are automated, humans have perfected alternate reality and we have devices that can interact with each other. But as an Environmental Engineering student, I often see the term “technology” in a non-traditional light. For Environmental Engineers (and other professions that deal with the natural/built environment), technology not only includes electronics and computers, it also includes natural processes. We use soil, microbes, air, and water in much the same way as electrical engineers use wires, resistors and capacitors – as tools and parts to achieve a goal. So I got to thinking, what about a biologically advanced near-future, what would that look like? Yes, there are plenty of futures that feature genetically modified organisms or electrical implants, etc. But what about the near future, what about the artificial limbs and such? What about the renewable energy? How would we envision such a world?
You may be thinking that we already do envision such worlds, and that’s true. But I think when we think of the future, we immediately think about an electronic future, not necessarily a biological one. For instance, the concept of the Smart City is popular these days. A Smart City has a Smart Grid – a grid that has many sensors and is able to best allocate energy/resources to where they are needed the most at any time of day. A Smart City understand the needs of the population and can respond accordingly. But what about a Biological City? What about a city that is so in tune with its surrounding environment, that, it has learned to tap into natural processes for support? A city where our heating comes from renewable energy, or microbes, a city that produces light not from light bulbs, but from phosphorescence? It is certainly a harder future to imagine (and arguably a much scarier one), but a future worth thinking about.
But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We certainly use biotech and electrical tech together all the time, and I think it is in this intersection, that we can unlock the most possibilities. I certainly encourage people to think about the world they want to see, and strive for it. But in this rapid advancement of technology, I think we should give a little more credibility to the impact that nature and biological technology (as it deals with humans, society and the environment) can have on our near-future. And in the midst of it all, we should remember that at the heart of the story are the characters, not the setting.