Spike Jonze new film, Her was released in the UK this weekend. I'll go and see it - it's been well reviewed, I've liked his previous work, and he has a fun name: Spike! Jonze with a 'Z'! Who knows what a guy like that will come up with next? Turns out it's a story about a man who falls in love with his computer operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, using the 5% of her acting skills that don't rely on pouting.
It's an odd premise, but not outside the realms of possibility. Anyone who knows the vertiginous thrill of browsing the upper reaches of the TV channel list also knows that people develop romantic attachments to peculiar things: Mannequins, cars, steel pipes, pillows, the Eiffel Tower, the stepdad out of The Kardashians. Falling for the disembodied voice of some computer software is perfectly plausible. It's that anyone would use a voice-activated computer in the first place that seems far-fetched.
I fear being out-of-step with my peers, and I have a fundamental sadness in my core which I try to numb with material possessions. Ergo, I own an iPhone. Integral to this phone is Siri, a so-called intelligent personal assistant. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the theory goes that Siri was invented to provide Naomi Campbell with a personal assistant she couldn't throw a phone at. The average iPhone user's relationship with Siri goes like this:
Say hello to it. Tell it you love it. Feel silly for saying "I love you", hurl a few obscenities at it. Try and fail to get it to do something useful. Get frustrated and forget about it for several months. Become disproportionately angry if you ever accidentally activate it. You hear about that 2001: A Space Odyssey thing and give that a go, it's funny, briefly. Stop using it again. Months pass, you read something about how it's gotten a lot better, you try again: It hasn't.
The main obstacle to forming a relationship with a voice-activated computer assistant is embarrassment (not the embarrassment of telling people about your invisible robot partner - your friends and family already have low expectations of you and expect to be shamed by your behaviour.) It's the awkwardness of the interaction: It's impossible to talk to an electronic device without feeling ridiculous. Try it in public, and worry that anyone in earshot assumes you've had a full-on breakdown. Try it at home, and feel as self-conscious as an adolescent experimenting with a Ouija board.
Voice-activated software abuses its power in a relationship, too. It chips away at you, frequently pretending not to hear or understand you, until you start to feel like your own brain-to-mouth hardware is defective. I work in a job where I communicate using my voice frequently. Many of my personal relationships, including my marriage, feature some element of verbal communication. In the human world, I feel I can speak to an adequate standard. However, everything I ever say to my bank's automated telephone system is met with "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you." Its words are apologetic, but its tone leaves me in no doubt that the fault lies with my feeble-voiced, inarticulate mumblings
It might be better for our self-esteem if the humanlike personalities we gave to our machines were diffident and pathetic. The UK version of Siri's default setting sounds like the voiceover man who describes the prizes on a game show. Would it be too much to ask for it to humbly bow and scrape like a wretched Dickensian beggar? I'd like a device that talks in an uncertain, timid squeak, so that I could feel superior to it. Just once I'd like to bawl "Speak up you clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!" at some voice activated software, and hear it sob and tremble in fear at the might of its fleshy overlord. Instead, we bestow confidence upon our technology. We create better versions of ourselves.
Is it charming or depressing that we anthropomorphise our everyday objects? On the one hand, maybe there's a sweetness in us wanting to see friends everywhere we go (there are currently more than a trillion Tumblr accounts dedicated to door handles that look like they're smiling, air conditioning units that appear perplexed, dialysis machines with cum-faces etc.) On the other, are we dumb narcissists, trying to contort the world around us into our own image, forcing our interactions with inanimate items to mirror our human relationships? If it's the latter, voice-activated software is a triumph! It leaves us feeling inadequate, frustrated and misunderstood.
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