Monday, April 25, 2016


The little communicating iPhone

I write about movies a lot because on the one hand in this so-called retirement I’ve re-created my undergrad life as a theatre/film student at NU and on the other (17 years later) my grad life at the U of Chicago Div School.  As one friend puts it, other women had families and I had Chicago.   

I spend the first half of the day writing and reading on the “South” side and the evening watching whatever I can find on Netflix, which does not understand anything but popularity.  Overnight my brain (they say this is quite literal) washes all the debris out from between my neurons and drains into my body where it gives me dreams.  I’m sure dreams come from the autonomic nervous system that is connected to viscera — not from those conscious muscle neurons unless there’s a short circuit that makes you jerk in your sleep.

So let’s talk about “Her” which endows an entity, an OS (computer Operating System), with a visceral achievement of empathy which her operator (Theo) lacks.  That is, this is one of those romantic movies where heartbreak improves someone, wakes them up, connects them.  But this time there is no body so we don’t have to sit through either stereotypical coitus or someone’s idea of brilliant innovation.

Spike Jonze

To me the most interesting thing about “Her” is the story of the development of the film, the result of Spike Jonze’ extended, intelligent and collaborative preparation.  I stumbled into a wealth of material simply because I loved the little computer the protagonist carried around, almost small enough to be a locket or photo folder but equipped with a camera eye, and because it folded, easy to stand on a convenient flat surface as well as slip into a pocket.  Surely someone is preparing a replica in real life!  

I don’t carry a smart phone, don’t want to because I don’t want to be accessible or for everyone to know where I am every minute.  I live in a very small village so those features would be redundant.  Anyway, around here the infrastructure is so full of holes and distances that most of time iPhones — meant for an urban setting — are simply useless.  But this elegant little interface with the world in the movie was so appealing that I wondered who figured it out.  Turns out it was an invention for the film.  KK Barrett devised it.

It's a little like a fancy cigarette case.

I have to pause for a moment to talk about emergence, self-unfolding —growth simply through experience instead of someone’s idea of a curriculum sequence.  I was surprised that on the website called “Aeon” an essay about this by Jamie Davies, a professor at the U of Edinburgh, provoked vehement responses from a certain sort of commenter, the status quo people.  

Davies, as a result of trying to understand how a kidney forms a tree of tubules, using a few kinds of molecules and maybe four “if-then” rules — strategies familiar to computer people, I think— used those insights to see that the double helix of genes and chromosomes do NOT dictate the characteristics of persons, one on one (this one for eyes, this one for teeth) but rather offer a mix of rules (bodies must be bilateral) and variables that respond to contingencies (the amount of skin needed for the size of the person).

Jamie Davies speaking at the Sherlock Holmes lecture series.

I have a hunch that the people who hated this idea, almost willfully misunderstanding, were Republicans and it makes me worry about the future.  Alas for their personal relationships.  If they have wives and children who do not conform to this style, they will suffer.  “My way or the highway.”

“Her” has to be futuristic because it is so idealistic.  We watch both a real developing person (Theo) and an abstract developing relationship that doesn’t have to eat or earn a living or adapt to outside systems — until as the logical interactions proceed, they DO mean relating to other people and even other OS systems of this kind. was one of the provocative articles, but there seem to be quite a few out there.  By the way, I was pretty disappointed that the great climax of Theo’s “nice” empathetic letters is simply a book, an aggregation, another way to live someone else’s life, made up and imposed by cultural expectation like birthdays, Christmas, babies, etc.  Theo’s great at that Hallmark meta-script stuff.  But not in real life.  No amount of fabulous nighttime views of the city can compensate either, though as a CSI nut, I appreciate the reference to clue-searching/the million stories in the Naked City.
Double phony letter  This nasty little potty-mouthed big-headed creature was devised by David O’Reilly.  Even with all its rudeness, the little Sisyphus is a slightly more dignified version than the usual rat race image.  The tech people like to point out that they designed it to be a holograph, without a screen, room-filling.

The Potty Mouth Sisyphus

We are in a time that mistakes velocity for experience.  A young woman reports she is sophisticated because she travels — through an agency, not setting out on a bicycle with a backpack.  Old people sit on a deck just outside their luxury ship room, watching the world go by and assuming that this is the pinnacle of luxury.  My mother traveled in retirement and it was her heaven before her death.  But Theo and his OS stop and talk.  They take time.

I have a friend who has to constantly remind me of Barry Stevens’ 1970 book, “Don’t Push the River.”  You can buy it on Amazon (not the river) for a penny.  We are so used to fast-forwarding through the hard parts, the stupid parts, the cliché parts.  Why have we forgotten all those splendid understandings we developed in the Seventies?  Why weren’t the Millennials taught that stuff at birth?  I love it that Alan Watts turns up in this film, though it’s only his voice.  He would miss his body, the way a lot of people miss his San Francisco world of the Seventies.  This OS has no sensual or limbic life, but never did and never will.  This is not "The Velveteen Operating System."  But every little bit helps.

The nighttime city is full of stories.

Of course, in the end of “Her” the OS person goes off with another OS person and the human person, now wiser and warmer, ends up with another human, the way we used to color-code race or the costumes of Shakespeare's lovers — like-with-like.  Forget all that.  The real issue, as Jamie Davies knows, is how to develop what you’ve got into a way forward.  Points of attachment, growth through clear paths, in a physical world always need oxygen.  Standing on a rooftop at night would do it if we didn’t know from the daytime shots that the air is far from clear.

But while I fuss with my metaphors, the yard is self-developing to suit itself — not its goals since plants don’t have goals — but rather the potential and opportunity presented by sun, rain and gumbo.  I intend to intervene; even Zen people work on their gardens.

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