The 2013 film Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) takes place in Los Angeles in the future – but only very slightly in the future. Probably somewhere between twenty minutes and twenty years: close enough to now that we recognize it as our world, unlike, for instance, the world of Star Trek that’s set three hundred years hence, where technological and cultural changes have turned Earth into a place that might as well be an alien planet.
The main plot of Her is that Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) begins to fall in love with his computer’s new artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
Obviously a conscious OS is a lot farther away than we might like it to be, but as a science fiction premise it’s a great one – albeit one that has been used in stories before (nothing new under the sun, after all). That said, Jonze is trying to make a statement about our own relationships with technology and each other, and in order for the world that the movie presents to be believable, the audience needs to understand that he’s presenting a scenario that could be happening to us only a few years down the line, and not to our great great grandchildren. The way that Her presents its futurology to the audience serves to support the verisimilitude of the film, but it also makes for an object lesson to anyone in the business of innovation in either the technological or cultural sphere.
In creating the future of Her, Jonze had to think ahead, projecting current trends and past cycles into a world both credible and captivating. This is exactly the same thing that innovators need to do to keep their work moving forward. Whether it’s envisioning new features for the next generation of products, predicting what will grab hold of the imagination of fashion’s early-adopters, or breathing new life into forgotten ideas from history, the essential skill for innovation isn’t the practical know-how of the engineer or designer, but the pattern-recognition and free-associative creativity of the writer, the artist, the philosopher, the scientist.
For instance, a few of the visionary touches in Her include the sphere of male fashion: the return of non-ironic mustaches, the disappearance of belts, ties, jeans, and collars, and the prevalence of high-waisted pants and brightly-colored shirts.
Technology has undergone similar remodeling – the desktop computer still exists, but keyboards are touch-screens built right into the desk itself. The wood paneling that made television sets feel like furniture rather than appliances back in the 70s and 80s has come back. Theodore’s cell more resembles an iPod Nano wearing pajamas than a Samsung Galaxy.
Karl Schroeder, award-winning science fiction author and head of strategic foresight at Idea Couture, commends the futurology of Her. Schroeder says that unlike most popular movies in the genre, Jonze’s film has managed to avoid many of the usual mistakes that occur when we try to predict the future.
He invokes Heidegger’s concept of “tool consciousness” to explain the difficulty of predicting the technology and sociology of the future. According to this framework, we only really notice technology when it fails, not when it’s working correctly. The elements in our lives that function seamlessly don’t tend to impinge on our consciousness very much – it’s only when something goes wrong or something extraordinary happens like (in Her) falling in love –“Which,” Schroeder laughs, “some people would describe as something going wrong,” – that technology becomes a foreground element in our mind.
And this is where a lot of prediction simply fails, in art as well as any sphere that attempts to be innovative, including business and engineering. Creating innovations that are both influential and realistic requires much more than wild imagination, it also requires a sharp talent for observation and an understanding of how and why society progresses.
Exciting stories and successful business operations can’t rely exclusively on a scenario wherein everyone in the world gets obsessed with some new technology that becomes central and displaces everything else. Real-life innovation doesn’t work that way. Think of the advent of Facebook and smartphones – they radically transformed what we do and how, but they did so by addressing issues that were already bubbling under the surface, not by trying to solve a problem that no one really had. And they have both since become so integrated into the lives of most of us that many of us hardly notice them anymore unless something goes wrong with them.
That’s why, explains Schroeder, the greatest innovators give us a snapshot of the obsessions of the present, and take it from there. We need to recognize the immediate utility of an innovation – to see how it will fit into our existing life and needs. It may well transform our daily existence, as did fire, film cameras and Facebook, but it can’t change what we want and need out of our lives, our jobs, our goals and hobbies, or our relationships with each other.