An Accidental Humanism

Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie, Her, is primarily the story of a neurotic, mustached letter-writer, who falls in love with an intelligent operating system. It is also a cautionary tale about advanced computing in general. Much like with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a subtle aftertaste of techno-phobia that lingers upon finishing it. But the world in which Jonze sets his premonition highlights a set of devices and interactive tools which seem less inspired by The Jetsons, and more like advanced versions of the current spread of tablets, phones, game platforms, and headgear. In fact, some right-out predict the new features of Apple’s iOS 10, to be released this fall (2016).1

I’m referring to a new set of virtual knick-knacks which Apple will add to their messaging platform, seemingly to make text communication more interactive, and perhaps, more human. Though not released yet, the preview of the upcoming features is a showcase consisting of handwritten messaging, Facebook-style reactions, emoji translator, and expanded Siri (voice control) capabilities. Obviously, the reception of these additions is still to be seen, but what is worth examining is the impetus for these new messaging options. Elsewhere I have written about the resultant humanity of the slow move towards voice controlled interactions. Perhaps the drive to make texting more nuanced and personal is part of this neo-humanist mission or it could be a simple case of tech inspired by science fiction—which usually provides a context in which to see potential futuristic applications.

Though this is nothing new. Numerous headlines around tech sites have alluded to the hypothesis that Kubrick (or rather, Arthur C. Clarke) “invented” the mobile tablet, or that Dick Tracy predicted the smart watch.2 These theories are compelling “clickbait,” but they put too much emphasis on the gadget instead of the humans who use it. Jonze’s story, by contrast, places society at the center of these modes of communicating. Theodore, Her’s protagonist, writes digital handwritten letters for a living; a curious profession in a world without keyboards. Jonze suggests that in the near future, the desire for a personal touch would be so great that companies will emerge solely to specialize in the production of pseudo-handmade items. This is a logical evolution from Etsy and other independent handcraft commerce sites operating today which respond to demand for objects with human qualities. In Her’s world, the capitalization of craft does not depend on the fact of whether the letter was or was not made by hand, but rather that the thoughts and appearance of it are unique (and outsourced). In other words, future Hallmark could thrive with a simple algorithm or letter-generator, yet the fact that they require real people, dictating real thoughts into virtual machines shows a wider scope of social desires in the not-too-distant future. In various scenes, Theodore is seen romantically dictating other people’s correspondences into his screen, effectively writing love-letters to himself.

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Apple’s new messaging features.

Apple’s new handwriting feature seems to follow a similar train of thought. Although it does not outsource feelings just yet. From the iOS preview site, we can see that the new messaging interface will let you, “send a message in your own handwriting [and] your friends will see it animate, just as ink flows on paper.” The app will not only transmit your own scribbled notes, but will also simulate the act of writing on the other end. The gimmickry of this writing simulation, however enticing at the outset, may get old quick. Images on Apple’s site show a large “thank you,” implying that it’s not meant for everyday use, and that it might eventually be relegated to special occasions. Ignoring the fact that it is also an novel way to send vulgar gestures and lude subject matter, Apple has branded this upgrade with the tagline, “Express yourself in bold new ways.”

How people will express themselves remains to be seen. Other new tricks for messaging appear to be almost plagiarized from Facebook’s platform. They include the ability to “react” to texts with gestures (heart, thumbs up, thumbs down, ha-ha) and pre-determined message animations (Happy Birthday, cue balloons). Apple’s integration of these utilities are undoubtedly a response to Facebook’s entire repertoire of interactive messaging tools which include animated GIFs, stickers, emojis, and integrated hyperlinks. Clearly, an emoticon just doesn’t cut it anymore.

All of these advancements in communication platforms seem to constitute an accidental humanism on the part of software engineers. It is accidental because they come late in the development of text-based interactions; essentially by-products  of optimization efforts. These new software features are a result of reflections on cultural premonitions (sci-fi media) and neoliberal capitalist modus operandi. Facebook’s desire to capitalize on its own exabytes of human data, allowed it create a highly interactive, personal messaging interface. Developers recognized how people communicate online (and offline) and integrated multiple features into its proprietary system: GIFs, bots, custom stickers, popular site link embedding.  Thus, it is hard to believe that unique, personalized messaging is not the offspring of adaptive advertising. Marketing tends to work best when you acknowledge your audience’s uniqueness.

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Her, 2013, dir. Spike Jonze. Samantha’s call is announced with her own “handwritten” caller ID.

If successful advertising is a litmus test of society’s immediate desires, then companies which are able to leverage engineering and free market research are in the best position to create new forms of interaction. The positivistic argument would suggest that some aspects of society can be optimized through the analysis of human-device and human-device-human communication. The counter position might allude to the fact that social media companies like Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook have a financial obligation to shareholders, which weighs their optimization efforts toward revenue; their accidental humanist features being used as trojan horses for advertising (think: sponsored stickers in messengers, or hashtagging a corporation in order to gain followers).

In the case of iOS 10, the statement is clear: buy our phones in order to communicate more personally. Apple has a one-to-one relationship with the client consisting of a simple monetary exchange. Social media’s relationship to the user, on the other hand, is less explicit. We contribute hoards of data to its servers on a daily basis, and the result is usually an increasingly personalized experience. The more complex and intuitive their interface becomes, the less threatening it feels because it is more adapted to you. Of course, the principal goal with any corporate messaging platform is to monopolize and become the primary mode of communication—this is why WhatsApp was valued at $19 Billion in 2014. Moving forward, it is clear that we can no longer ignore the systems and underlying infrastructures of which we are a part.

Back in Her’s world, Theodore’s letters reflect the innate desire for human to human connections. The harsh reality, however, is that those connections are increasingly facilitated by devices and protocols, making interactions dependent on subtler, sensory technology. Theodore ends up falling in love with an OS because his connection was halted at the protocol level; it never made it to another person. Because Samantha (the OS) simulated human qualities, there was no need to complete the interface and Theodore was left trapped in an infinite loop of virtual pseudo-love. If that’s not a cautionary tale, I don’t know what is.


1. “iOS 10,” Accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.apple.com/ios/ios10-preview/
2. “Samsung: Stanley Kubrick invented the tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Last updated August 24, 2011, Accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.techspot.com/news/45209-samsung-stanley-kubrick-invented-the-tablet-in-2001-a-space-odyssey.html
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