Her, Spike Jonze’s latest and most philosophical feature film, and The Square, an Oscar-nominated documentary that depicts the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, each illustrate popular portrayals of how technology will liberate us.
Her is set in a futuristic Los Angeles where Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with “Samantha,” his Siri-like mobile operating system. (With Scarlett Johansson’s playful, flirtatious voice, we all fall a little in love with Theodore’s operating system.)
Like most fiction set in the future, Jonze pushes the difficult questions of policy and economics to the background in order to focus on the character development of Theodore, Samantha, and the supporting cast. Jason Farago observes in an intriguing New Republic review that we only hear the name of the company responsible for Samantha’s creation, Element Software, once while the story is still taking shape. All questions of how much Theodore pays for his operating system (and girlfriend), what personal information she collects about him, and what role the government has in regulating likely surveillance are ignored.
For Farago, in the wake of the NSA leaks, this is the most frightening aspect of the whole movie. He finds significance in the fact that the high definition shots of futuristic Los Angeles are composites of contemporary LA mixed with Shanghai’s Pudong district.
In Jonze’s filmic vocabulary China is shorthand for the future, and why shouldn’t it be? A society such as the one in Her, in which even our emotions have been co-opted by corporate entities, is highly unlikely to be a democracy.
In other words, for Farago, Her depicts a future in which citizens are more concerned with the emotional relationships they develop with their gadgets than the difficult problems of democracy and civil society. What’s most unsettling about the film — like Dave Eggers’ The Circle — is that much of the future already exists today. Important policy conversations on surveillance or gay rights have difficulty competing with the latest product announcements by Apple or Google. (Imagine if “Congressional Rumors” had just one-tenth as many readers as Mac Rumors.)
Town hall meetings are practically empty while young people stare mindlessly into their screens as they walk down the sidewalk. At one point in Her, Theodore’s neighbor and friend, Amy, shows him a scene from a documentary she is filming. There is nothing else in the frame but her mother sleeping with an expression of relaxed contentment.” Embarrassed by the bewilderment from Theodore and her husband, she explains hurriedly, “we spend a third of our lives asleep, dreaming. But what if that is when we actually feel free?” Taken in another context, the line is clearly meant to defend those who choose to spend a third of their lives playing video games or talking to their computers. If that’s what makes them happy, who are we to judge? Later in the movie, when Theodore asks Amy if he’s crazy for falling in love with his computer, she responds: “We’re only here a short while. While we’re here we should feel joy. So fuck it!”
Her depicts a future without messy discussions and debates about rights and markets and democracy so that we can increasingly focus on joy and the pursuit of happiness.
There is relatively little joy in The Square, the Oscar-nominated documentary film by Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim that follows the ongoing Egyptian Revolution from the point of view of young, liberal activists.
The Square depicts an Egyptian society united in protest but fragmented in its vision for what the country should become. After thirty years of authoritarian rule by Hosni Mubarak, the country’s liberals, Muslims and Christians all come together to take over Tahrir Square and demand that Mubarak step down. With the army initially on the side of the protesters, Mubarak eventually relinquishes control. This much is common knowledge, but it only makes up the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film.
With Mubarak out of power, the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the young (often Western-educated) liberals begins to break down. While the liberals demand a new constitution that will lay the legislative foundation for a truly representative democracy, the more conservative groups of the Muslim Brotherhood advocate for Sharia law. When Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi wins the first post-Mubarak presidential election, the liberals are crushed. Once again they take to Tahrir Square to set up their tents and protest, but this time they must compete with pro-Morsi Muslim Brotherhood protesters — the same Muslim Brotherhood protesters that were at their side calling for Mubarak’s ouster.
The Square is unabashedly sympathetic to the young liberals. The only significant Muslim Brotherhood character is often more sympathetic to his liberal friends than members of his own party. Writing in Al Jazeera, Evan Hill argues that The Square tells “the sexy story of the revolution,” while ignoring the thorny class and sectarian issues that lie at the foundation of the conflict between the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Throughout the documentary, technology is the trump card of the young liberals. A significant portion of the film takes place in the Tahrir Square-facing apartment of Pierre Sioufi, dubbed the “Guru of the Revolution” by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. Sioufi’s apartment, the “Facebook Flat,” is a meeting place for young, tech-savvy protesters who debate passionately in rapid-fire Arabic and English. Maybe they can’t compete with the numbers of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are stubbornly optimistic that social networks, international media and Tahrir Square will empower them to bring down any government. And, sure enough, Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office last July when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed him from power and suspended the constitution after four days of mass protest.
In a leaked audio recording of Morsi speaking with his lawyer earlier this week, he calls the endless protests useless. But that’s not the conclusion of The Square. Asked what they have achieved since the spring of 2011, the young liberals respond that they have learned to protest, that they have taught the youth to protest, that they will continue to protest until they achieve their goals. “We are all Tahrir now. Tahrir is everywhere.” With an uplifting protest anthem as soundtrack, the camera cuts from scene to scene of young people raising their fists in the air, emboldened by their capacity to take down a government and frustrated by their inability to “move outside Tahrir Square and into politics.”
A few days ago I was having a conversation with the co-founder of a young civil society organization here in Mexico City. Prior to his focus on civic participation, he worked as an investor in Singapore. We traded stories and observations about our time in both cities. Singapore is famously clean. Just about everything runs flawlessly and on time. It was a swamp with a population of less than 1,000 just 200 years ago; today it is one of the most modern cities in the world with giant, brightly-lit malls lining most streets. Mexico City, on the other hand, is chaotic, messy, and forever tardy. Not a day goes by without some major protest. It’s difficult to find half the consumer goods and electronics that one can find in Singapore.
So we agreed: we’d much rather live in Mexico City. Part of democracy is questioning authority, even if that means taking to the streets and raising one’s fists in protest. The simplified social contract of Singapore is to not question authority in order to enjoy the comforts of modern capitalism. It struck me after our conversation that Her versus The Square represented extreme versions of the same difference between Singapore and Mexico City — the difference of striving for our ideals or for comfort.
With much justification, pessimists like Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov see us sliding rapidly toward a Her-like future where our infatuation with technology distracts us from questions of democracy, civil rights and economic inequality. On the other hand, also with some justification, optimists point to social media and technology as a “fifth estate” that will empower the masses to rise up against the abuses of the authoritarian elite, as is depicted in The Square. There are concrete examples of how social media empowers the middle class to confront elite impunity, as I’ve written about recently. But those cases are few and far between. When tech-savvy activists attempt to move from protest to politics — by supporting, say, Howard Dean in the US or Antanas Mockus in Colombia — their record is far less impressive.
I believe that most of us don’t want to live in a future depicted by either Her or The Square. We’re tired of the endless protest, but we’re not satisfied with the status quo. What’s missing is a compelling narrative in the middle that can compete with the fist-pumping passion of The Square and the sexy gadgets of Her.