IN the dating game you no longer have to bring roses and chocolates. You don’t have to go to dinner, know each other, have mutual friends, live in the same country, admit to your age or even use your real name. But a body would be good. The movie Her operates on the premise that a body isn’t necessary to an intimate relationship. The director wants us to believe a nerdy guy (Joaquin Phoenix) can fall in love with a sexy computer voice. That the voice belongs to a woman with a famous body (Scarlett Johansson) adds to the allure of bodily abstinence.
The movie is set in the future when Siri-like voices have perfected Google-like intuition, but it’s close enough to today’s experience for most of us to go along with the conceit. If you’ve ever argued with the woman in that GPS device or yelled at a recorded voice in a telephone queue, you’ll feel comfortable with a virtual Scarlett whispering in your ear.
The idea that we don’t just have a relationship with technology but can be intimate with it is both a reflection of the dating culture and an indication of where technology is taking us. They are each heading towards a big bang.
The dating scene has been transformed by technology. It’s gone online with dating sites and it’s been put on the map with GPS apps. Those sites and apps are the medium for dating, if you like, but they’re also becoming matchmakers. You can now let sites do matchmaking for you and the algorithms are so good that half the users of sites like Match.com now click the matchmaker option rather than trawl through profiles themselves.
That’s one small step for technology but a great leap for intimacy. More than half of us will trust a computer algorithm to pick a date more than we trust our own search capabilities. Are we lazy or just out of pick-up lines?
At least digital dating results in a relationship between two humans — bodies and all. The idea that you can have a relationship between a human and a computer voice pushes the boundaries. But then, we already have relationships with our devices even if these don’t require roses and chocolates.
Think of your relationship with your phone. On average you look at your phone screen 100 times a day, you carry it around with you all day and into the night; you dress it in a protective outfit, feed it money, gaze into its screen, talk to it, play games with it and stroke it. And doesn’t that sound like grooming?
Grooming, for those who haven’t watched David Attenborough in a while, is the touching, petting and cooing monkeys do to other monkeys. It’s also the sort of thing mothers do to babies and lovers to each other.
Unknowingly, we are using the ancient biological act of grooming on our phones, so it’s not surprising we develop relationships with them, give them names and mourn their absence. Love in the time of circuits.
The phone may be our most intimate device but we have relationships with other devices. In scientific circles, they call it human computer cognition but we just know it as talking to the screen.
Many of us have a working relationship with a computer that resembles the bossemployer set-up. We have a cosy relationship with a tablet that often feels like a writerreader one. We have long-term relationships with cars, especially if both parties have a lot of horsepower; we have dysfunctional relationships with voice recognition ladies and some have a fractious relationship with the oven (maybe that’s just me).
And all the time devices are getting smarter and the voice in the device is sounding more like us. The digital lady is anticipating our needs, she’s sounding more relaxed, she’s endlessly patient and she may well sound like a Hollywood actor who is desperate enough to voice messages for computer devices.
The voice in the computer is not that far off Scarlett Johansson and many of us are becoming as lonely as Joaquin Phoenix. The operating systems may not be human, but we’re not great at being digital either and even though it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine a marriage between algorithms and Homo sapiens, it’s a match made in cyberspace.