Her incipit : on cybernetics, love letters, and simulation

In the opening scene of the movie Her, the main character is reading a love letter addressed to a “Chris”.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix playing Theodore in the opening scene of the movie Her by Spike Jonze (2013)

“Chris” was the name of Alan Turing childhood friend (and first love), Christopher Morcom, whose great intelligence and premature death is said to have inspired Turing in his later researches on artificial intelligence.

Alan Turing (left) and Christopher Morcom (right)
Alan Turing (left) and Christopher Morcom (right)

In the movie The Imitation Game, Turing baptises his code breaking machine “Christopher” after him, which is n ot a historical fact (it was called the Bombe) but is a good way to show how Turing was attached to the memory of his teenage love.

In the 50s, Turing worked with another “Chris”, Christopher Strachey, who wrote a program that is considered as one the first text generators and digital work of art. This program had the peculiarity – like Theodore in Spike Jonze film – of writing love letters.  As a prank, Strachey and Turing would print the love messages and pin them around the lab (you can try the program here).

A love letter generated by Strachey’s program

Both Strachey and Turing being gay, we can interpret the fact that Theodore addresses the letter to “Chris” (instead of “Christopher”) as a trick to create an ambiguity on the gender of the recipient. Ambiguity that is also cast upon the sender when the moustached Theodore writes that he feels “like the little girl I was when you first turned on the light”.

Theodore’s computer screen during the opening scene of the movie Her (2013)

At that moment we see Theodore’s screen and understand that he is dictating the letter and playing the role of “Loretta”. He is a man playing the role of a woman, like in the original imitation game from the Victorian Era, which inspired Turing when conceiving his famous test.

In this test, both a computer and a man pretend to be a woman – answering questions via telex to a board of examiners. The examiners aren’t assessing if the computer can simulate a human, but if it can simulate a man simulating a woman.

Much has already been said on what Turing meant by intelligence, gender (being a woman is per se a simulation?) and so on. In the movie Her, the point is more to what extent is every relationship (partly or fully) a simulation?

Along the movie, the characters repeatedly pretend to be someone else to meet others (real or imagined) expectactions : they pretend to commit, to cheer up, to take pleasure… “I think you always wanted me to be this happy, bouncy, everything’s fine L.A. wife and that’s just not me” Says Theodore’s future ex-wife in a central scene of the movie (right in the middle) – when they meet to sign the divorce papers.

At the end of his blind date with Olivia Wilde, she asks him to pretend that he won’t leave her in the morning like the other guys. Simulation is what seems to be necessary to start and maintain a relationship, but it is also what breaks it – when the characters get fed up of pretending, of making an effort for the other.

This relation to simulation is epitomized by the fake love letters that Theodore writes as a daily job. These letters seem to be part of the cement that glue lifelong relationships. Theodore’s client seem to know him very well – and therefore to know that the letters they address to each other are simulations, written by a californian hipster.

At regular intervals, the movie shows Theodore composing these letters, until the crucial moment where they are returned to him in the shape of a book compiled by Samantha (as a tribute to his talent). After this long series of fake love letters, the concomitant events of receiving the book and being abandoned by Samantha lead him to write his first sincere love letter – to his former wife Catharine – in a scene symmetrical with the opening one that ends the movie.

His love story with Samantha (the best “simulating” partner, able to  bend to his desires) and his daily job as a writer of fake love letters lead him through an initiation about illusion which culminates in the illumination of the final scene – in what I would call a cheesy understanding of zen buddhism.

Zen buddhism is figured in the movie by the character of Alan Watts – a real Californian philosopher who died in 1973 but that the OSes  resurrect just before they reach what seem to be a form of singularity.

Alan Watts
Alan Watts

Alan Watts was fascinated by a lecture of D.T.  Suzuki – a japanese popularizer of zen buddhims – and became a popularizer of the writings of the popularizer. One could say that Spike Jonze, by popularizing Alan Watts’ view on zen, is popularizing the popularizer of the popularizer… Admiration didn’t go in both directions : D.T. Suzuki is said to have criticized Watts understanding of his writing, and maybe Alan Watts would have criticized Jonze’s own understanding.


To read more about love letters and cybernetics see :

Love Machine and the Tinder Bot Bildungsroman

A Queer History of Computing