Would you ever be OK with dating an operating system?
Hoping to experience something more elevated than the depressing powerlessness of my post college years, I devoted my early 20s to spiritual development. I meditated, chanted and studied ancient texts that spouted ancient wisdom: You are not your body. Identification with the body is ego. Identify with the breath. It was an intellectually compelling notion but it didn't really help me with my food or relationship issues. So I spent my late 20s and 30s correcting or at least adding to this dissociative way of thinking. I studied drama therapy, yoga and other embodied healing practices that encourage you to Be In your body and Connect With your body. The body which has vitality, wisdom, movement, limitations, expressions, surges of feeling, senses and odors. Essentially, the body is vulnerable and You are your body. I became a devout student of embodiment and intimacy (in the psychological sense), and that is what I taught, and to some degree, still teach.
With all this in mind, I recently saw the movie Her and found it quite provocative. The idea that someone is dating his operating system is as preposterous as it is imminently possible. In the background of the film, people walked through train stations by themselves — as many of us do today — talking and gesturing to other beings (live or computerized) through their wireless devices, but not to each other. It really drove home the point that engagement is no longer body or location dependent. And it begged the question, when talking to an operating system, who are you really talking to?
In an article I wrote in 2011 called Simulationships, I posited that certain types of online relationships merely mimic real ones. My thinking then was, if you created lots of online "intimacy" but then became physically ill, would anyone in your cyber-cadre really show up for you? Who would take you to chemo, or bring you a pot of soup? But in the movie Her, these questions were answered. Because if the protagonist got sick, his computer could not only keep him company, but also choose and download a movie to play, order soup from the best place in the city, and have it delivered. No, he couldn't hug her thank you or goodnight, but he also didn't have to worry about getting her sick. If a computerized being or avatar can order you soup, does it matter if it can't give you an actual hug, hold your hand, wipe your fevered brow?
I am a denizen of the modern world of dating, in which the telephone has become nearly extinct. To arrange dates and in between them, we stay in touch via text messaging, sometimes lengthy strings of them. I enjoy it, and I can't help but wonder — what happened to talking? In losing the voice contact, what have we lost? We have eliminated some of the messiness of growing a relationship. We do not experience the awkward pauses in which we must figure out what to say or how to say it. I can't hear the exhaustion in his voice, nor he the thinner, higher quality of mine when I'm managing nervous excitement. Conversations are no longer interrupted or punctuated by dogs, children, or the various sounds of multitasking.
We don't get to sink into that luscious silence, feeling the connection together in the breath-filled pauses between topics, but some of that manages to trickle into the texting experience. And I can enhance my natural wit with literal, on the spot editing. He doesn't hear my empathic sighing. I don't hear his laughter. We also don't even have to formally say goodbye ... sometimes a text goes unanswered and you have no idea why. Maybe it didn't go through. Maybe it hit a nerve. Maybe it was time to get the laundry out of the dryer. Maybe he simply fell asleep with the phone on his chest. Who really knows?
Technology provides the perfect container for our cultural conflict about intimacy. It seems as if we are moving towards connection and dissociation at the same time. When we don't include the body in our relationships, we don't really have to contend with the confining (and yet equally thrilling) presence of what Sartre refers to as "the gaze of the other." As we move deeper into technology, I wonder if things are coming full circle. Maybe I'm not my body after all. Is the body, slowly, slowly becoming obsolete?
I'm dying to know your thoughts. Please, share them in the comments below or on my blog.
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