Everyone said I should watch Her, because of the themes of dating and technology, and of those things being shown in The Future. Although it sounded dumb, and really old hat (doesn’t anyone remember the 2002 movie Simone, or S1m0ne, about the beautiful simulacra created to replace a stroppy Hollywood star? Or The Fifth Element, which also revolves around a beautiful woman – Milla Jovovich – from another, man-made world?) But quite a few people said it was good – the New York Times basically called it the best goddamn thing since Goethe.
Her takes place in an actually really lovely-seeming LA of the future – everything is spotless, tall, ergonomic, prosperous and eco-friendly. Residents live in high rises with spacious apartments offering panoramic views and take plush, light-filled trains everywhere rather than the fuming cars of today. People drink vegetable juice and fresh fruit and – while they are inevitably absorbed in their beautifully crisp and clever technological devices – they do seem capable of human intimacy.
The problem starts with a rather inaccessible character named Theodore Twombly, played by an actually kind of not-hot, hipster-nerdified Jochim Phoenix, as the star. How old he is, where he comes from, what his past is and where he’s going are all left mysteries. He wears nice sweaters and pants, though. Do we care about him? Not really: he could be any number of self-absorbed products of late-late capitalism, as already depicted in numerous films. (Lucky then that the imagery of his world is so captivating; creamy sweeps of elegant civic land, intriguing use of wood and fascinating telephones.)
Twombly works as a letter writer for a company called yourletters.com or similar, dictating his compositions into a screen from which they emerge as handwritten masterpieces of the heart. Judging by his designer flat – or is urban planning just so spectacular in the future? – he makes a good living composing the poetry of other people’s sentimentality. (Is the implication that in this world people have lost the skill even to compose epistolary messages? He doesn’t actually pick up a pen, after all).
Ok, so Twombly is harmless, even talented and has a few friends, but he is both sex-starved and very sad about his ongoing divorce from his ex-wife. The two grow increasingly connected.
Here’s where the whole thing veers off. Feeling particularly lonely one morning after an unpleasant episode of phone sex with a stranger the night before (in Her‘s world, women are very happy to participate for free in random sex services), Twombly looks up at a big advert for a new bespoke operating system, one that’s meant to know and learn about you. Next thing we know, he’s bought it, downloaded it, answered a few questions (his relationship with his mother is one, but it cuts him off mid-ramble), and chooses the voice of the new OS to be a woman. What rises from the screen are the beautiful husky playful tones of Scarlett Johansson, who we never see, of course, because she doesn’t have a body – a point that recurs and recurs. She’s amazing; funny, responsive, intimate, curious, clever, constant and before long, lusty. They start having phone sex and fall in love, making their relationship official. She’s also keen on reorganising his emails and files; a secretary and girlfriend in one.
Now, Her does a great job of taking seriously the idea of a functional machine-human relationship. It offers a two-hour chance for reflection on what really is the difference between a relationship between a highly intelligent machine and a human, and any other disembodied entity – the Internet in general; paid-phone sex services; cybersex pals; chatroom paramours, Second Life partners. These are the everyday relationships we have already. Less everyday affective bonds have been documented, or fictionalised, between men and mannequins, robots, pretty much anything that can be assigned the meaning of woman or feeling. It’s not new to consider a man falling in love with either an idealised figment of his sexual imagination or a service-care-sex giver. What is interesting here is that it has evidently begun to be seen as a normal and acceptable arrangement; a sexuality, if you will. “I’m dating my OS”, Theodore says to his friends and colleagues who note his happy expression. Some of the comments in reaction – particularly those of his ex-wife – don’t sound so different from those in relation to people who spend a lot of time on their laptops on porn or internet dating. “He’s dating his laptop”, she yells to a waitress after he lightly criticises her.
These days, the two words “I’m dating” can be followed by an increasingly choice of words, from “my trainer” to “a guy” or “a girl” or “a trans-bi woman” or “five guys” or “three girls and seven guys”. We know ever more about kinks and fetishes and the internet has accommodated them with specialised sites of all kinds. Why not be OS-Positive or OSexual? The acceptability of the statement “I date Operating Systems” seemed a plausible development. Even better, Jonze’s presentation of the OS, named Samantha, is so complimentary – albeit relying on a very vague lexicon of computer engineering futurism – that one is asked to check one’s dystopian assumptions. Maybe having the option to date OSs would be a good thing – after all, Samantha helps Theodore explore his emotions (yawn) after the divorce, to see the world in a new way, keeps him company in lonely hours, offers extremely sensible administrative solutions, reminds him of meetings, and even sends his letters to a publisher, winning him a contract. Wonderful! When she finally “departs” – presumably because the product is being withdrawn though the commercial element of all this was preposterously ignored – it is done with more grace than the average breakup. It’s also worth noting that because of the sound technology and earpieces, Samantha could come on double dates with Theo and his friends and talk and joke with the characters, only once ever striking a wrong note when saying she was partly glad she didn’t have a body so she wouldn’t get old and die.
For all these invitations to think progressively about the future of technology and the human need for love, Spike Jonze is a bit backwards, I can’t help but feel. That he completely fails to engage with the commercial backbone of products such as Samantha (for she is a product, after all) is almost unforgiveable and makes the film far more toothless than it could have been. Twombly does not seem to pay for her and the whole thing is left unbranded. What about a subscription fee? What about choosing his package? (It seemed like an expensive one). What about the fact that she lives in the Cloud, making her eventual disappearance a matter of withdrawal of the service due to losses rather than the poetic retreat into the OS heavens with her new friends, as it is depicted? What about Twombly’s devastating realisation that she’s talking to hundreds of other people and conducting relationships with them too? The word “customer” is not once used, though it would have framed the whole affair usefully for Twombly, who seems to forget he’s paying for Samantha. It’s more convenient for Jonze to skip this part though, because it might raise irritating questions of the overlap between “love” and “money”. Or maybe Jonze just forgot that women like Samantha -or rather- those WITH bodies – don’t exist. Perhaps in his world they do, or should exist, and come for free.
Gender is mostly old-school. Yes, Samantha voices her needs and sleeps around (after a fashion). And yes, there is a female computer programmer mentioned. But ultimately, the OS is a bedroom-voiced woman who plays secretary, genius PA, life coach, shrink, nurturer, sex partner and friend – with the occasional outbreak of womanly irrationality over Theodor’s occasional “distance”. The only other women in the film are a sex-crazed date who won’t sleep with Theodore if he won’t promise to call her; a droopy friend from college who speaks exclusively in psychobabble, the one-dimensional lawyer girlfriend of the (token) male PA at Twombly’s office and – most bizarrely – a woman who desperately wants to play the “body” part in the sex drama of Twombly and Samantha.
The characters themselves are hemmed in by old, boring narratives of self. Who am I? What do I feel? Why do I sometimes do this or that? What do I want? How do I balance all these conflicting feelings? In offering some genuinely interesting glimpses of a potential future, Jonze falls into the trap of giving it a dystopian gloss in the form of the emptiness of the characters, who are ultimately so dispassionate and self-obsessed that you can’t help but think that the best person for the job of taking them on would indeed be a computer. For the humans we know today, it could just be too boring.
I may attend the next Israeli-Iranian party on Thursday, but
yesterday, I went to the Stasi-supplied home of one Salomea Genin, “given” the flat for a token rent (100 DM per month) in 1986, at 21 Sophienstrasse, one of the loveliest addresses in Berlin. When she “was offered” the flat, it was truly a sign of her previous devotion to the Communist cause: it had central heating, “rare for the GDR”. Her previous apartment was in Lichtenberg, the housing block-tastic district surrounding the former Stasi headquarters and not far from the infamous Hohenschönhausen prison. It was too big for her and associated with terrible memories, so they honoured her request for a one-bedroom. In the GDR, she told me, they offered people three different flats – if you didn’t like the first, you were offered a second, then a third, then that was it.
I was there because I cornered her after the premiere of a film by an Israeli film maker about her (the film-maker’s) missing great-uncle, who mysteriously chose to stay by the site of Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was held and survived, and live an East German life without reference either to his Jewish past or his Jewish family now in Israel.
The concept of Jews in the GDR had piqued my interest in the film; in all the discourse surrounding post-war German guilt, one never hears of the way East Germany dealt with the Holocaust. What were Jews in this police state, either in symbol or practice? Were there any? Clearly there were, though not many. Ms Genin piped up at the Q&A after the film, saying that no wonder he hadn’t contacted his relations in Israel – that as anyone living in the GDR, contact with the outside world was difficult, and with Israel even more difficult.
I had to meet this woman. How would the Star of David, the memory of the Holocaust and the bizarre day-to-day existence of East Germany intersect? She gave me her “card”, on funny flimsy paper with faded fuzzy ink, and told me to give her a ring. She had red eyes, a scowly but wry face, and a very husky voice.
I called her and went round. Unfortunately, this most interesting-seeming of women seemed annoyed I hadn’t read her two books -she called for concrete questions, and when I posed them, she gestured with irritation to her autobiographies, noting that it was all in there. Eventually she told me her eyes were agony and she was exhausted and I took the hint, getting up to leave though not before she strained those eyes to read out a 700 word glowing synopsis of her autobiography.
I had to make do with what I could. And there’s no doubt about it, Ms Genin’s story IS amazing, so I guess I should read her book, where its all set down. In brief: she was born in the immigrant West Berlin district of Wedding to a severely dysfunctional Jewish family from Lvov, Ukraine. The father had syphilis, and went to a madhouse after threatening to kill a policeman. She had two older sisters, eight and 16 years older. Her mother was fed up and divorced the insane, ne’erdo’well, infectious father who – miraculously – was cured of syphilis and did not pass it on to his offspring or wife, despite having had it for 20 years.
Hitler came to power the year she was born, but they evaded the deportations and most of the trouble due to being both officially stateless and poor, until the father was sent from the insane asylum in Wittenau to Buchenwald. Her mother secured an afidavit from relatives in Australia, managed to exploit a law I’d never heard of to get concentration camp prisoners out (requiring proof of passage and 100 marks), and – from a flat now near Alexanderplatz – masterminded the exile of the father first in 1938 and then the family in ’39, at the last minute.
At 12, in Melbourne, young Salomea became a Communist. In the 50s, as a young woman, she decided to commit herself to the GDR, which ticked two boxes: it fulfilled her deepest political dreams, and her desire to return “home” to a Germany she barely remembered but felt in her bones.
It wasn’t easy moving to the GDR – not that many people were tempted. She went first to West Berlin, had no luck, then to England then after 9 years of badgering they let her in and made her an instant unofficial collaborator. Ms Genin was a Stasi informant, met with her handlers every week or so, and told on people she met and her friends. She was one of those curtain twitchers of lore. Finally, after 20 years of this, she realised the GDR was not a noble bastion of communism amid hellish opponents and Nazis, but was rather a pathetic, banal and corrupt police state – and collapsed. Thanks to the wonders of psychoanalysis she recovered through the realisation that she’d been seeking a resolution to early trauma by returning to Germany, that indeed she’s been motivated by Stockholm syndrome. Ms Genin seems proud of both the suicidal state she entered on realising her dream was a straw man, and of the revelation of stockholm syndrome- both were made apparent to me in the two minutes chat we had after the film, in her flat, and on the backs of her books.
Nonetheless. Though I’m sorry to have taxed the elderly and well-meaning Ms Genin, it was worth the excursion to have had one of those moments of history-in-present. The thought of the flat having been presided over by Stasi henchmen and the lovely little street – the prettiest in Mitte – as well as the quaint white church, being the domain of a sinister network of spies, was rather piquant. Everything might be in her book, but I bet the blue velour jumpsuit she met me in, wall-to-wall white carpeting (the first I’ve seen in Berlin), green and brown chairs, and 1960s-style clock aren’t. Unlike those of the younger generation, this was not a cool, bohemian or hip flat, with acres of wood flooring. It was cosy, and its priorities were firm: warmth and comfort, perhaps to make up for lost time and long Berlin winters of shovelling coal into tile ovens. For now I’ll have to make do with this; once I’ve read the books perhaps the grizzled Ms Genin, who bills herself as “a Jewish woman of the world”, will re-admit me for some fresh insight.
Berlin is dredged with treats for those in the mood to look. Not one for trance and techno clubs, or drugs, the city is nevertheless studded through with delights for me: wondrous Rieslings, museums strange and grand, baked goods served in wildly bohemian settings (retro-minimalist-monarchical-communistic is the vogue now, only scuffed wood furniture and flooring and mismatched teacups allowed), pork products of all stripes, markets, and architecture silently screaming out its sinister history.
Cycling today from home to a new favourite café off the canal in Kreuzberg called Tischendorff for those coming to Berlin any time soon (excellent “long blacks”, ie Americanos, so strong that I had nearly blacked out on Friday after having had three), we hurtled along acres of Mitte’s south-west corridors. GDR-era blocks are of size and breadth that make it a struggle to see the end of them, streets are wide and empty, and so long. Pure blue sky framed bombed-out lots and skyscrapers – all is silent and vast and glinting, like a post-apocalyptic Canary Wharf. All you have to do is take a right or left turn off one of the grand boulevards of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden and suddenly the no-man’s land of Jerusalemer Strasse or Leipziger Strasse yawns before you through its old Communist mouth.
Zipping along, nipping through alleyways crammed with Turkish bakeries, ducking under hideous shopping centre arches, then a fabric market on Maybachufer, then ahhh, “Long Blacks” and little just-made buttermilk-raspberry muffins at Tischendorff, sun streaming in the wall-windows.
Shunning our normal food market trip to Kollwitzplatz, in Prenzlauerberg, we ran with our velo-freedom and kept peddling on through a park stuffed with drug dealers and, this evening, beer gardens, across a big brick bridge over the Spree, with the TV tower and Alexanderplatz in the far distance and GDR blocks in the foreground. Friedrichshain, with its grafitti dungeons and perfect flat whites hoved into view, and we swung down Simon-Dach street past the famous Hops and Barley hipster brewery and into Boxingerplatz for, wait for it, another farmers market. We took in the southern sausages, potato stalls, deep-fried apple stands and had pierogi stuffed with cabbage and some pomegranite juice before I went off to the Stasi museum.
Ten minutes cycle from this hive of consumption and prams is the headquarters of the GDR’s secret police, rumbled in 1990. Amid the monstrous complex of former East Germany’s state security apparatus is Haus 1, where Erich Mielke ruled. It’s a complex composed of buildings that look like any number of blocks in the East, bringing home the weird recentness of the Communist dictatorship. Prisoners were interrogated here in rooms barely altered. Hideous steel cabinets line cheaply furnished rooms. Best of all, Mielke’s office is left untouched, along with his private retreat room and staff’s offices. We’re talking acre upon acre of dingy brown 1970s fabric but some quite smart blue and wood chairs too. It all looks so 1970s, so banal. Perhaps that’s what is so sinister about it.
I hopped back on my bike and sped past GDR-built blocks of Frankfurter Allee, turning left back into the nice bit of Friedrichshain where I was stopped mid-peddle by a very cool looking wine shop. The man kept pouring generous samples, but into one glass, so I had to finish each if I wanted to try another one. I came away with some Sylvaner made by a genius (I had the same maker’s Riesling yesterday) and a SpatzBurgunder (red Pinot from Germany). The Stasi museum felt rather far away.
Then I beetled back to Kreutzberg, but first found a huge warren of bombed out lots and a warren of grafitti’d buildings – climbing walls jostled with clubs waiting for dark to get seedy. It was vast.
Tonight: a ball room in Mitte (Clarchens Ballhaus), in the heart of the old Jewish quarter and tomorrow: Potsdam, where the monarchy lived in the good old days.
It’s great that women’s empowerment groups are flourishing. But the physical world is still built by men
Today I was at the University of East London, where I participated in a lovely event called Visible Women, part of International Women’s Week. Last week I was invited to attend, but was unable to, a similar event at Goldsmiths University, in association with Prospect Magazine. Two weeks ago I was asked to talk to a secondary school about whether Beyonce is a feminist (of course I accepted, pending the right date). I have also very much enjoyed participating at Mumsnet Blogfest, which was about how to be a woman with a voice.
Keep in mind that I am not particularly famous. Usually I am far less impressive-sounding, actually, than the other women I have shared platforms with. They must be inundated. But it’s obvious that there are enough of these innovative events, platforms, and groups to go around.
Is this new? Not exactly: for a good hundred years, there has been a vibrant community of women’s groups in every city in Britain and throughout the US. But there seems to be a great deal of savvy media working around them now. These gals know how to get press, and the press are up for it, so the general buzz about women’s organisations has swelled. It feels like there are many more of them suddenly.
All do good work or intend to.
Still, I can’t help but question the long-term benefits of support networks, empowerment drives and “raising awareness” (is this a bit softer and more general than the iconic consciousness-raising of yore?), taken in isolation from the specifics of gendered dynamics at school, university, home, work, and acquisition of skills and interests. What I mean is not that women’s confidence and support-systems shouldn’t be built and strengthened through community and cooperation and outspokenness. Absolutely they should.
But I can’t shake the sense that other more concrete problems are not attracting the same buzz. General goals are all very well, but what about the severe shortage of women entering computer science departments? What about the lack of women going into maths and physics and engineering? Yes, groups need to be in place to lobby for better maternity and flextime policies so that women can continue their careers in these very fields after children if they want.
But there aren’t enough women going into these fields out of university. And the professions dominated by men happen to be the ones that literally build the world. Literally and conceptually, through engineering and high-flying architecture jobs, men build skyscrapers and bridges, hospitals and airports. Only 13 per cent of American engineers are women, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And British organisations like WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction) are barely heard of. They don’t throw cool media-friendly panel events, certainly.
Since men dominate the top of most political and corporate ladders, they also decide where these things go and what they should look like and even who should get to use them. More pressingly, perhaps, men rule technology – as engineers and as entrepreneurs. They build our dating sites, our search engines, our social media pages, our servers, our governmental security programs.
My question is: what would the world look and feel like if women played a bigger role in its construction? What would a woman-conceived bridge, or set of bridges or canal system, or women-built skyscraper, or women-made dating algorithm look like?
Maybe the answer doesn’t matter and even asking it is to get dragged into a world of polarisation and stereotype. But I think it’s a question that should be asked and I can’t help but notice how few young, cool, clever feminist entrepreneurs are addressing the very specific dearth of women builders. I’m not talking about work-life balance, the demands of motherhood or the apparently universal problem of female self-confidence. I‘m talking about: where are the female electrical, civil and digital engineers? Why, when we know that women’s cognitive abilities and even their tastes aren’t THIS different, are they absent? Is it just male culture in these industries? If so, what does that mean, exactly? How can it be changed? Isn’t this something that needs to involve men?
I want to know what a world with more women politicians and construction workers and engineers and tech entrepreneurs would look like but I’m worried that, for all the talk of support and empowerment, I’m going to be a long time waiting.
I hate to be the luddite, reliably heaping fear and loathing on new technology. Sadly, while I am broadly very in favour of technological innovation, I am utterly appalled by what it’s doing for singles. Dating and mating platforms have gone from “numbers game” to just “game” – with no shame whatsoever. It’s like we’re all being dragged into the lowest common denominator of masculine playtime values. World of Warcraft isn’t enough – now meeting the opposite sex has to look like gaming. Not gaming in the metaphorical sense that Neil Strauss, gross pick up artist guru, talked about it. But in the sense of actual games, gambling games. The coincidence and ubiquity of Chat Roulette and Tinder have made this abundantly clear.
Chat Roulette, or excuse me, Chatroulette “is a place where you can interact with new people over text-chat, webcam and mic.” It is not bounded by geographical location. Your screen pans through all the people on video and up for a “chat” and if you like the look of them (my guess someone’s impressive collection of Tolstoy in the background isn’t what’s going to stop most people), you stop and “chat”. If “chat” isn’t a word that hasn’t been utterly dirtified by the internet then OkCupid is a Jane Austen novel.
Tinder is hugely popular. Have you see Tinder? Tinder is what moves me to opine on “what technology is doing to us” or rather, what we (read: Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, aged 27, co-founders of Tinder) are doing to technology.
Tinder is modelled on a card game. There’s no going back. You set the geographical location to whatever you want; 2 miles, 89 miles, and press go. The satellite thinks and loads: now you rifle, literally rifle, through a deck of faces. If you swipe left, you’re binning the face, and a red stamp “nope” appears on the face. If you swipe left out of inertia, retrospectively deciding the person’s face you just binned was maybe a bit nice, maybe showed a glimmer of humanity that you were interested in, well too bad – they’re GONE man. Onwards. Next. Next. Next. Next. Next. Click the heart symbol or swipe right and in Valentine’s Hallmark letters it tells you “you’re a match!”. What does “you’re a match” mean? It means that the man you have clicked yes to also clicked yes to you when he saw your face moments before you saw his (the wonders of the algorithm). That means he liked your face – or he didn’t not like it – or vastly and obviously more likely, he lazily inferred that if there was nobody else available he’d shag you (if he could be bothered) if your face is anything to go by. Once you’re “a match!” you can message the person.
And that’s it. It’s completely bonkers because what happens is that clicking “yes” to a face, or rather, not binning a face, is absolutely identical in output or cost or inflowing knowledge to any other movement on the phone requiring one single flick of the thumb. So when you message the person (of eight or so “matches” none messaged me first), they respond a chronically uncharming message because, surprise surprise, you have nothing to talk about at all. You both did not swipe right, you clicked the heart symbol. That’s what you have in common. Nobody cares much about anything on Tinder – least of all other people – why should they? There’s always a deck of faces to go back to. Rifling takes no effort.
Tinder has been hailed as a “more honest” form of digital dating than internet dating because you get rejected and can reject so easily. Nobody cares about the profile anyway, it’s said, and therefore it’s only the picture that counts. But this is a false justification – checking someone out and thinking their face is nice in real life is a much better investment of time. You can see immediately if they’re enormously fat, have a terrible snarl when talking to their mates, or dead eyes. And if they really are attractive, then they really ARE attractive to you. They might have binned you on Tinder but if you charm them, there is room for negotiation. By contrast, Tinder shows you a face, and asks you to stamp it yay or nay while watching TV or masturbating or whatever people do – so static, rigid.
It’s more honest in the nightmare world of misleading pictures and binned faces that it has created, yes.
It’s not more honest in terms of the enigmatic mechanics of co-present attraction.
To end, I’d like to just remind you that Tinder, Blendr, and every single last online dating site bar MySingleFriend is the product of MEN. Male business school graduates, male engineers, male visionaries, male techies. Just saying. If women enjoy the feeling of thumbing a face into oblivion and the only very thin fulfilment possible when a message is exchanged, then great. But part of me wonders if Tinder’s followers are just – out of a combination of exhaustion and dutiful trend consumerism – just giving in to the dehumanising wet dream of a bunch of American boys.