Spike Jonze's new movie, "Her," a Golden Globe nominee, is a reminder of how all of us--especially entrepreneurs--can fall in love with our technology.
Ever hear of the so-called "edifice complex"? It's adapted from the more famous Oedipus complex, in which sons fall in love with their mothers. In an edifice complex, a person falls in love with a building--or simply the desire to design one.
In Her, the Golden-Globe nominated Spike Jonze movie, there's a suggestion that falling in love with technology may be the modern day manifestation of the edifice complex. Here's a little background on why this is an important topic for entrepreneurs--or for anyone becoming emotionally dependent on software-based machines.
Entrepreneurs and the Edifice Complex
Entrepreneurs are prime candidates to develop an edifice complex. Sam Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Co. (which makes Sam Adams), admitted this in a 1999 interview.
He spent two years and $4.5 million designing and engineering a state-of-the-art brewery, even though he recognized that "from a business point of view, it made no sense. We'd already received a 'Best Beer in America' award, so a new brewery wasn't going to make it any better. What it would do was make the beer significantly more expensive, thanks to capital and operating costs."
Koch eventually came to his senses and built a smaller facility. But thanks to the edifice complex, he'd spent tons of time and $4.5 million on an infeasible dream.
The Roots of the Edifice Complex
Ovid, the ancient Roman poet, famously wrote about a gifted young sculptor named Pygmalion, a woman-hater who declared that he'd forever be married to his art. Lo and behold, one day Pygmalion carved the statue of a woman. He named the statue Galatea.
Galatea was so realistic and beautiful that other men fell in love with her. Eventually her creator fell in love too: "He would dress her in rich robes....bring her the gifts real maidens love...put her to bed at night," notes Edith Hamilton's Mythology.
Throughout history--in both storytelling traditions and real life--there are countless examples of visionaries who've fallen in love with their own creations. John Grossman, in a fantastic article from 2002, profiled four entrepreneurs with an edifice complex. "Among entrepreneurs, it seems that the impulse to build transcends the corporation," he writes.
"Otherwise, why would so many of those who build companies be passionate about buildings--trophy homes, unique and occasionally bizarre corporate headquarters, vacation retreats, and a wide range of other structures?"
Falling in Love With Technology
The main character in Her, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a gainfully employed writer named Theodore Twombly. (He works nine-to-five for a company, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, that composes love notes as a service.) The movie is set in Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future.
Despondent in the midst of a divorce, Twombly buys a new operating system (OS) as a form of retail therapy. "Before long, he and the software, which calls itself Samantha, are exchanging pleasantries, playing the roles of strangers fated to become lovers," writes the New York Times in its review.
How is it possible for a man to fall in love with an OS? In Her, it's largely because the OS becomes a product of Twombly's creation. In the same way that today's machines come to learn and adjust to our very-human preferences, Samantha--voiced and metaphorically embodied by Scarlett Johansson--comes to learn what makes Twombly tick: His favorite songs, his favorite e-mail contacts, his favorite video games, his rhythms for waking and sleeping.
In the process, Samantha and Twombly achieve a sincere intimacy. It is the sort of intimacy you can only achieve by living with someone, or talking to them almost every day. At various points in the film, Samantha and Twombly declare that they love each other. And in the near-futuristic milieu of the movie, their vows are believable--and quite moving.
Samuel Johnson, the renowned English literary critic, famously said that "people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed." At bottom, Her reminds us of the perils that come from too deep a reliance on technology.
To have a smartphone, to depend on it, is to know the feeling of panic when you temporarily lose the phone. At some point in the process, you usually need to remind yourself: "Why am I acting like someone I know has just died? Or like my child has gone missing? This is just a phone."
Real-life relationships are risky, so it's only human to take emotional refuge in projects and products that carry less risk for the whacking ruin of heartbreak. But sure as there's a difference between lines of code and veins of blood, there's a difference between functioning and living. Her reminds us, rather than instructs us, of that difference. The inspiration of the story is one we all know: Technology can reach the sky; technology can even evoke some tender feelings; but the pulse coming from our hearts will always be earthbound, seeking love and responses in flesh and blood.