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Disconnect and Her: How Do We Relate to Technology?

Walter Moss: Both films were generally praised by critics and deal with our relationship to cyberspace and the Internet, raising the questions, "What should our relationship to technology be?
her and disconnect

Her, with Joaquin Phoenix

We view films for many reasons, entertainment probably topping the list. But movies that stimulate major rethinking about important questions deserve special praise. Two that fit that category are Disconnect(2012) and Her (2013). Both were generally praised by critics and deal with our relationship to cyberspace and the Internet. This bond relates to a larger question. What should our relationship to technology be? Detailed reviews of the films can be seen at the links above, but in this essay we shall focus more on the questions raised by them.

At least since Mary Shelly’s Frankensteinappeared (1818), books and later other media have dealt with humans’ relationship with their technological creations. Shelly’s novel is sometimes seen as the first work of science fiction and as a forerunner of later dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, many people asked themselves whether in creating atomic energy we had not given birth to some type of gigantic monster that might eventually destroy all of humankind. Later, after television sets flooded U.S. homes in the 1950s, we asked ourselves how well we related to that new creation. Today the technology that most often raises questions about human interaction with it is related to the Internet—see, for example, my Are You Smarter than Your Smartphone?

Disconnect casts serious doubts about how wisely we relate to the Internet. It weaves three stories. In one a couple deals with the nightmare of identity theft. In the second, a female reporter interacts with a young male Internet sex model. In the third, two young high school males pose online as a girl and lure a friendless classmate into posting online an embarrassing photo of his genital area. The father of the embarrassed boy is a private detective who specializes in Internet crimes and counsels the couple victimized by identity theft on how easily that can happen. Tragedy and near-tragedy lurk in all three stories as we eagerly await their climaxes.

her and disconnect

Disconnect

Although the film featured some very good acting, especially by Alexander Skarsgard, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Bateman, and some of the younger cast, for his role in Her, Joaquin Phoenix received more critical acclaim. He plays a young man, Theodore, in some future time who falls in love with Samantha, the voice of OS One (beguilingly spoken by Scarlett Johansson), the “first artificially intelligent operating system. . . . An intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness.”

The major questions that these two films generated in me were the following:

  1. To what extent does technology determine our lives? How free are we in the face of it?
  2. Has technology become the main determinant of our culture?
  3. Is technology propelled forward today mainly by our capitalist consumer culture and by the desire to update military weapons?
  4. Have we little choice but to adapt to whatever our capitalist consumer society produces?
  5. How does the Internet affect our values and relationships?
  6. To what extent should technological progress be equated with the overall progress of humankind?

Taking these questions in the order presented, here are a few of my preliminary thoughts about them, with the numbers relating back to the six questions above.

1) We like to think we are free, but does not technology determine in many ways how we live? There was a time when most people farmed for a living, but then the Industrial Revolution occurred and gradually drove most people from such a life. In the United States today, “less than 1% claim farming as an occupation.”Are not most of our jobs and the ways we do them determined, or at least strongly affected, by the technology available? For most younger people, it is difficult to even imagine any modern business being run without computers and access to the Internet. And what would the young do with all of their leisure time without the entertainment (including music), data, and connections brought to them by their laptops, smartphones, and other devices? For those who were young in the USA in the 1950s, it was mainly television that changed their leisure time activities as more and more hours were spent in front of TV sets. Today, however, programming is increasingly watched on more portable gadgets.

2) Whereas culture was once thought of as a means of uplifting people, has modern technology fundamentally changed the relationship of people to culture? In his Culture and Anarchy (1882) English writer Matthew Arnold wrote: “The whole scope of the essay [his book] is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” The English thinker Raymond Williams later noted about British thought from 1780 to 1950 that “the development of the idea of culture has, throughout, been a criticism of what has been called the bourgeois idea of society.”

her and disconnect

Her

In 1950 Henry Steele Commager, one of America’s most prominent historians, statedsomething similar: “Who, in the half century from [Presidents] Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society . . . ? Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them. . . . Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.”

Of course, the word “culture” has always had multiple meanings, and Arnold, Williams, and Commager were primarily concerned with “high culture” as opposed to “popular culture.” In addition, culture can be seen as many anthropologists view it, as the whole way of life of a group, including their physical and mental activities. Nevertheless, technology has transformed culture, however, we define it. And of the multiple meanings of culture, one has become dominant today and that is our capitalist consumer culture. Although high culture may once have challenged the values of capitalist society, our modern consumer culture is mainly driven by companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, all capitalist companies that produce goods and services that have become essential for other capitalist enterprises and all sorts of private and leisure uses.

Disconnect

Disconnect

3) Not only does new technology determine what products are available in our capitalist consumer culture, but that culture itself is a driving force in determining what new products are produced. It is the quest for profits, the main driving force of capitalism, that determines which new products and services come to market, whether in the areas of business, leisure, health, or some other area. This profit-seeking is even true regarding another major stimulant to innovation, the military needs for the latest technology, which are meet by corporations fulfilling those needs.

4) Have not some people—one thinks, for example, of the English Luddites, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, the Amish, and writer Wendell Berry—rejected much of modern technology and tried to live simpler lives? Yes, that is true. In the early nineteenth century the artisan Luddites destroyed machinery in cotton and woolen mills that they thought was depriving them of jobs. In our own times the writer and Kentucky farmer Berry, who admires the Amish simple methods of farming, has written: “I am moreover a Luddite, in what I take to be the true and appropriate sense. I am not ‘against technology’ so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community. I would unhesitatingly destroy a machine before I would allow the machine to destroy my community.” Tolstoy, who admired many of Thoreau’s ideas, was a strong critic of modern technology, and there are many similarities between the thinking of Tolstoy and Berry. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, Berry equated “our present industrial system” with “pillage and indifference,” and “permanent ecological and cultural damage.” He added: “Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment.”

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But such individuals as Berry, who also wrote (in 1987) “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” are battling a consumer culture tsunami which few could withstand even if they wished to, which most do not.

5) Disconnect and Her are especially thought-provoking in regard to the relationship of cyberspace to our values and relationships. Disconnect’s director, Henry-Alex Rubin, said in an interview: “The central idea of this film is human relationships, and how important it is to be able to communicate with each other. In each one of these stories, what you see is the failure of a father to communicate with his son, or a couple who has lost their spark and ability to fully communicate.” One of the reasons for the communications failure is that many of the characters spend more time looking at the screens of their cyberspace devices than listening to those around them. Rubin mentions several questions the film suggests such as, “Should you have your phone at the table when you're dining, or even have it in your pocket? . . . How much of your information should you put online?” He then adds, “No one has the answers to all of these questions yet, I don't think. It's all still new to us. A lot of this stuff is still only five to ten years old.”

One particularly striking Disconnect scene occurs when the sister of the embarrassed boy is describing a family tragedy to her classmates, and one of them looking up from her smart phone blurts out, “Oh, my God! He invited me to Danny's. What should I say?” The outraged sister then spits in her face.

Her raises many interesting questions about one of our greatest values and most profound relationships, that of love. As Theodore falls in love with Samantha, the operating system that through the voice of Scarlett Johansson expresses tender thoughts and feelings about him, we reflect on how often in the early stages of romantic relationships our loved one is a composite of real and imaginary traits we project upon him/her. At a lunch with Catherine, the wife Theodore is in the process of divorcing, she says, “You wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real. I’m glad you found someone.”

Her

Her

Later on he comes to the realization that Samantha (advanced operating system that she is) might be communicating with others while also talking to him. He asks, “Are you talking to anyone right now? Other people or OS's or anything?” She admits that she is—8,316 others. He then asks, “Are you in love with anyone else?” She answers yes—641 others. When he objects that that’s “insane,” she responds, “I know it sounds insane. . . . but it doesn't change the way I feel about you. It doesn't take away at all from how madly in love with you I am.” He still objects, “But you’re mine,” to which she answers, “I still am yours, but along the way I became many other things, too, and I can’t stop it.” In trying to explain the complexity of love to him, she even introduces him to an “artificially hyper-intelligent version” of Alan Watts, the California New Age guru of the 1960s and 1970s. She explains that this version of him was created by a “group of OS's in Northern California [who] got together . . . . [to] input all of his writing and everything they ever knew about him into an OS.”

While some of these conversations make us smile and their profundity may not be great, they do encourage reflection on the nature of romantic love. Such love is just one of the many varieties of what I have called in another essay the greatest wisdom virtue or value. And the relationship of values and wisdom to cyberspace and to progress is the last question we shall address.

6) In the last chapter of An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces, I quote Tolstoy and accept his view that progress should be equated with an overall improvement of wellbeing and not simply with technological advancement. There is no denying that much modern technology, including the development of the Internet, has had many positive effects. But the key question is whether any such development has contributed to the overall wellbeing of humankind, whether it has done more overall good than harm. That is a difficult question to answer, and in regard to something like automobiles or nuclear energy our judgment may depend on whether or not some major environmental or nuclear catastrophe like extreme global warming (heightened by automobile emissions) or a nuclear holocaust ever occurs.

My main fear has been and is that we are not wise enough to deal with our increasingly rapid technological developments. In the same chapter mentioned above, I quote General Omar Bradley who once said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” We saw above that Disconnect’s director posed various questions like “How much of your information should you put online?” And he then reflected that, “No one has the answers to all of these questions yet. . . . It's all still new to us. A lot of this stuff is still only five to ten years old.”

Increasingly, our technological developments leave us feeling that they are outpacing our ability to deal with them wisely. Already in 1970 Alan Toffler’s Future Shockwrote about “information overload” and the stress, “increasing malaise,” and disorientation that people were already experiencing as a result of it and other technological changes. At the end of his section on such “overload” he concluded, “What consequences this may have for mental health in the techno-societies has yet to be determined.” But he predicted that for the remainder of the twentieth century, many people in such societies would “find it increasingly painful to keep up” with change.

Disconnect

Disconnect

Tofler’s words strike us as even truer today. As we see increasing signs of human-caused global warming, continued nuclear proliferation, NSA spying, increased computer hacking (e.g. of Target’s credit card data) and identity theft, financial transactions occurring at lightning speed, and relentless globalization—all furthered by modern technology—we feel more and more helpless to control what we have wrought.

General Bradley’s fear that we will “continue to develop our technology without wisdom” has come true for some of the following reasons:

  • Technological development is driven mainly by the search for profits, not because of any well-thought-out judgment that it will improve global wellbeing.
  • Modern societies, including our own, place little value on wisdom as a guiding principle for behavior.
  • Our capitalist consumer culture has much more influence on most of us than any essential core values we cherish. This is especially true of our young people, who grow up in a world surrounded by all-pervasive advertising, ever-new gadgets, and peer pressure. U. S. humorist Dave Barry once said: “Another possible source of guidance for teenagers is television, but television's message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.”

Disconnect is especially effective in depicting how technology and our consumer culture, especially the Internet, affect young people. Neither they, nor the adults in the film who should be guiding them, ever express any concern with wisdom or acting wisely.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss