Phone Sex: “Her”, OkCupid, and the Algorithms of Love

It’s been two weeks since I saw Spike Jonze’s new film Her.

But it is only now, on a quiet night, that I finally feel ready to write about it. Because I am sitting alone with my computer and a chocolate bar, and it just seems painfully appropriate.

My screening of “Her” coincided eerily with my decision to break down and make an online dating profile.

To be clear, I was first forced into it by a friend—one of those “just give me a couple of your hobbies and I’ll make it for you” type of things. But naturally, once I was out on the market, I immediately had to nit-pick it to death. “Do these photos accurately show my athleticism, wit, smarts and gorgeous eyes? Am I listing the correct spread of timeless movies in different genres to show my depth and well-roundedness?”

I even searched for girls my age in my area to scope out my competition. Only once, though. I promise.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many boring online dating profiles there are in this country. My eyes roll back every time I get to the fifth straight one of these:

“I live life to the fullest and like hanging out with friends. Looking for a girl who likes to have a good time.” 

Then I snarl sarcastically at the computer “Pick me! Pick me! I am that girl!”

But every once in a while, I would find a boy who was a bright spot in the monotony. Someone who was intriguing, who seemed to speak my language. And then the game would begin. Do I message him? Do I like his photo, or rate him? Or do I simply view his profile and hope to Cupid he sees my witty username and reciprocates?

In the midst of all of this analysis, I watched Mr. Jonze’s movie. A film whose trailer I had watched months ago, and then vehemently exclaimed “No! Ugh!” at the prospect. There is something about artificial intelligence in the emotional realm that just makes me so darn squirmy.

And it blew me away.

Her revolves around Theodore Twombly, a lonely man and textbook introvert. Joaquin Phoenix breathes quiet life into the character of Twombly, who is employed at a personalized letter company. He spends his days composing thank-yous, I-miss-you notes, and other correspondence, using his way with words and knowledge of his clients to convincingly write with their voices.

Theodore buys a new operating system, or “OS,” named Samantha. Samantha is a name that the OS gives herself, after instantaneously scanning all of the baby names she can find in her network. She organizes Twombley’s files, manages his calendar, and becomes his friend. With every response he gives her, she adapts more and more to his personality and needs. They joke, debate, and wander. They make up songs and words to songs. They comment on the people around them that she can see with her built-in camera. He starts to smile for the first time since before his divorce.

Is that bad?

I honestly expected Her to mirror Pixar’s Wall*E, with a “TECHNOLOGY WILL RUIN US” type of message. But just as in real life, the advancements in Her don’t come with an ethical instruction book. And quite often, the results of the experiments are inconclusive.

Can you have a relationship with a machine?

Dating websites generally give a huge number of categories and facets upon which to define yourself within that world. And yet, nine times out of ten, people don’t really know how to write about themselves, so they stick with “I like going to the gym” or “I’m a fun person.”

Is that where it gets dangerous? As we develop our machines to be more advanced and more complex, we’re reducing ourselves and each other to simple profiles?

Or are we simpler than we think?

On OkCupid, one of the more popular (and free) sites, members have almost a limitless supply of questions to answer about everything from ethics to lifestyle. Once you give your answer to the question, you have the ability to tell the site which answers to these questions would be acceptable to you from another person. You can make a deal-breaker out of anything from “must love dogs” to “must shower daily.” And like Samantha, the site adapts to you based on every response.

I worried before joining that I would go into some sort of “shopping mode” and refuse to entertain the idea of any guy without a super-attractive picture. But I picked up on most of the not-so-subtle cues almost immediately. Guys with shirtless pictures are looking to hook up. Guys who only list “partying” as their pastime, or can’t think of a favorite book, won’t work with me.

And I only really have to make these distinctions in the 85%-match-and-above zone, because those are frankly the only guys on a dating website who are even claiming to be pro-Jesus and anti-hookup. So for a girl like me, online dating isn’t actually particularly hard to navigate.

In some ways, online dating has actually made me a little less superficial than usual. I got an endearing message from one guy in particular, shortly before discovering that he was shorter than me. Had we interacted first in a social setting, I would honestly have subconsciously dismissed him. Probably. But in this context I was basically presented with his personality first. And I found myself reevaluating what I should consider a deal-breaker.

The greatest danger in a relationship often lies in thinking we know what we want.

For this is where the match percentage leads us astray. It’s when we step beyond the helpful weeding-out of incompatible ideologies and into the realm of laundry-list preferences.

This should all come with the enormous disclaimer that I have not yet gone on any dates with guys I met online. I will soon. Truthfully, part of me would rather just message back and forth forever and not deal with flesh-and-blood people. Because people are scary and imperfect and not contained in my computer. But I know that keeping people contained to chats isn’t the way to go. Because in an actual live relationship, I learn something. I grow. I pick up on ways to be better at the relationship and ways in which I am selfish.

And that’s why a Samantha wouldn’t work.

Not because a relationship requires a physical aspect. Not because talking to a phone is weird (after all, iPhone users already do it). It’s because a genuine relationship requires mutual choice and inherent sacrifice. We have to know deep within us that we cannot expect people to have a machine-level of consistency any more than a machine will hold up to a person-level of connection.

My parents’ marriage of almost 30 years is beautiful not because they were just so very compatible, but so very determined.

A healthy relationship is defined by the lack of control. You are with someone who has not been made or paid or fooled into loving you. Someone who has not simply been programmed to make you happy. Only someone with the choice not to love you can truly enjoy loving you.

And it is God’s grace to us that we can love this way.