A few months ago, our columnist Fosta sent me the text of his bi-monthly column, in which he proposed a design philosophy that he dubbed "The Future Mundane," which was among the more though-provoking pieces in recent memory. When it came time to reflect on the Year in Review, I had originally intended to frame my piece on 2013 in technology in terms of practical yet powerful hypothesis, only to end up with an obliquely apologetic rejoinder to Christopher Mims' 2013-Was-a-Lost-Year-for-Tech polemic. In a sense, it's two ways of saying the same thing: Even though reality often doesn't live up to our expectations, there's no reason not to expect it to be better than it is.1
Indeed, the Future Mundane is as much a symptom of our impatience or outright frustration with the current generation of technology as it is a measured optimism about the next one. We might reduce the sentiment to the 'megapixel effect': we've been indoctrinated to believe that more is always better when it comes to digital cameras, despite the the fact that the spec feels vestigial in the smartphone era. We may think of ourselves as discerning consumers, skeptical of marketing hype, but at some level, we are conditioned to judge new things on a superficial basis, whether it's a GIF of an interface breakthrough or the lackluster specs of the latest new smartphone.2
Lost year, maybe. But the Future Mundane is also a manifestation of a parallel theory of material culture, Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison's notion of 'Supernormal,' which speaks to the process of becoming mundane.
When we create something that is new with the expectation for it to be different yet it somehow feels normal, that is what defines what Supernormal is about. Supernormal is something that is designed with an essence of normality that we share in our memory. In other words, Supernomal is something new but it has familiarity from the beginning. Becoming normal is something that happens and it is not something we can make happen.
I invoked the ever-relevant hypothesis in an [e-mail] interview with the former and IDEO's Jane Fulton Suri, whose 'Thoughtless Acts' nicely complement so-called 'curious rituals'—device-engendered behaviors, postures, tics, etc.—as subconscious adaptations to the objects and world around us. This is the metadata of reality, which are not subject to prognostication and can only be contemplated in hindsight.3
All of which speaks to the transcendent breadth of cultural context in stories about the future. Parallax motion is a useful metaphor: Near or far, the future will be populated by an accretive totality of timeless heirlooms and novelty items alike; damaged goods, obsolescence (planned or otherwise), and buggy betas; slow-moving institutions alongside visionary products and services; as well as a persistent horizon of expectations. Taking an anthropological longview, science fiction cannot possibly take all of these things—which collectively constitute a world—into account. But these seams in the fabric of a future reality aren't plotholes so much as 'storyholes' (see Fosta's distinction), and a cohesive narrative and compelling plot will supersede any gaps or oversights.
Which brings us to Her. Along with a telling clip from Minority Report and a few shorts, Fosta also saw fit to include the trailer for Spike Jonze's then-unreleased film, which opened just a few weeks ago. I'd describe it as a winsome sci-fi twist on a classic boy-meets-girl formula, but this grossly understates its richness: The fact that the romantic comedy is not a genre-bender is precisely why it's a compelling piece of design fiction. The auteur forgoes special effects and A.I. tropes, astutely glossing over the technical details of "OS One"—the very premise of the film is a sort of deus ex machina beyond the wildest dreams of Greek tragedians—with a laser-like focus on a well-crafted narrative.
Near-future Los Angeles is a sun-drenched utopia—there's scarcely a car (autonomous or otherwise) in sight—where the expansive elevated walkways and plazas of downtown, peopled by pedestrians chattering into the ether, and the postcard-perfect beach are equally accessible by public transit. (Jonze consulted Diller & Scofidio about the idyllic setting; the urban scenes were shot in Shanghai's new-ish Pudong business district.) A mustachioed, masterful Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, the sensitive, sympathetic protagonist—what Fosta calls "background talent"—candid to a fault. His friends, played by Amy Adams and Chris Pratt (Parks & Rec), provide ballast.
But it's the unseen OS that steals the show, despite (or perhaps because of) her lack of screen time. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is friendly—flirty, even—from her first few phrases, uttered with convincingly human sincerity, and her easy rapport with Theodore is a leap from Siri's woefully confounding/confounded attempts at small talk (meme notwithstanding). Forgive the lack of citation, but I recall reading somewhere that a sense of humor should be the holy grail of A.I., and Samantha's chipper demeanor fits the bill and then some.
Jonze's version of machine consciousness is but a mirror for ourselves, and in some ways, the film is a feature-length wink at our quasi-solipsistic device dependence. A significant percentage of the film consists of overhead close-ups of Theodore's face as he lays in bed—I left the theater with an intimate knowledge of Phoenix's pores—conversing with his disembodied companion, his escape to virtual reality afforded by an embedded earpiece, like a tiny, protective shell for some kind of inside-out hermit crab.
Even so, the director's deliberately unironic treatment of technophilia—Theodore's friends accept his virtual relationship without question (inevitable corny neologism: beau+OS = beau-S?)—suggests that the commentary runs deeper than face value. He's not concerned with tech-induced anti-social behavior but rather how Homo sapiens is 'programmed' to experience the world and other consciousnesses in a certain way. To the extent that she is real to Theodore, the fact that Samantha is incorporeal doesn't matter, and he might just like her better that way.4
Of course, Samantha does have a body, or at least a physical form: In Jonze's version of the future, smartphones resemble miniature leather-bound books, about the size of a deck of cards, with a porthole-like camera roughly where the center of a reel on a cassette tape would be (he was reportedly inspired by a vintage lighter). It's a twee prop to complement Theodore's high-waisted trousers—a token, perhaps, but not an object of any particular attachment—and there's actually a kind of post-materialistic vibe to the entire film despite the considered interiors and costumes. Pants aside, the general aesthetic might be described as understated, Muji-esque meticulousness.
Meanwhile, flawless voice recognition has spelled the end of input devices, and interfaces consist only of touchscreens and (presumably context-aware) microphones. This much is apparent from the opening scene, in which we hear Theodore dictating what we soon learn is a "beautiful handwritten letter"—dot com—for his viable day job of the future.5
Thoughtful though the details may be, these cues to the texture of the future are largely incidental; the as-yet-unattainable breakthrough at the heart of the film is more subtle. In fact, it's the very basis of the viewer's suspension of disbelief: Samantha is seamlessly integrated into the flannel of Theodore's life as a kind of UX nonpareil—there when he needs her and all but invisible (so to speak) otherwise. Her breathy on-demand omnipresence comes from nowhere and everywhere at once—the sensation of being hermetically sealed in headphones is certainly familiar to the general public by now—to the effect that the external world not only fades into the background but is entirely mute. Samantha is all signal and no noise.
Thus, Her takes us to the far side of the uncanny valley (there's a questionable mixed metaphor about the Silicon one or L.A. in there somewhere): As a consummate A.I., Samantha transcends categorization as artifice or artifact. Theodore repeatedly describes her as "excited about the world"—the lush cinematography helps—but what he really means is that she has factory-reset his outlook on life. Everything he discovers along the way was there all along, which brings us back to the point that we live in an age of novelty for the sake of novelty. But where he muses on "amazing future technology... sitting atop a Victorian chest of drawers," which invariably evokes an object, Her points us toward the intangible, everywhere in between the warm MCM furnishings and serene cityscapes.6
So yes, at risk of oversimplification, the sci-fi aspect of Her is nothing more than a meditation on software as therapy. The parable, however, is nothing less than art: Connectivity is the dogma of the digital age, but what we're really looking for is someone on the other end.
1.) RE: The Lost Year, Don Lehman pointed out that product development cycles still lag behind the inexorable real-time pace of digital media—the general public picks up on early Google Glass sightings or iWatch rumors long before those products will hit the market, an endless cycle of buzzworthy concepts du jour usurping the spotlight only to fade inevitably into inertia. By the time a product reaches the market, we're already clamoring for the next one. See also: CES. [back]
3.) To put it another way, 'Supernormal' refers to a kind of common vernacular of objects, i.e. if you ask a child to draw a car, it will most likely look like an 80's Volvo—a bunch of rectangles on wheels—as opposed to an S-Class. The iPhone, of course, is the latest product to enter the canon of supernormalcy. [back]
4.) Quasi-spoiler alert: Samantha, for her part, might have it otherwise. Jonze demonstrates a curious sensitivity to the brave new world of relationships in a scene in which Samantha summons a surrogate—a lithe model-type who is sexy in every way that, say, a telepresence robot is not—in a dubious attempt to inhabit Theodore's world. Sci-fi thought experiment: Would a surrogate be the A.I. analogue of an avatar? [back]
5.) Additional design notes: A gaming system is projected in a wall-sized diaphanous plane in front of Theodore's armchair; he mentions that he's "buying cables" in one scene, but he's never seen charging his smartphone; similarly, we can also assume that the earpiece runs on some kind of nth-gen BLE. Maybe it runs on body heat, who knows? [back]
6.) If it's not obvious by now, I haven't spoken to Fosta about it—I'm actually curious to hear what he thinks. [back]