The Power of Portals

Do we lose ourselves by immersing too deeply in a digital reality?

In the futuristic 2013 film Her, the character Theodore falls in love with his computer.

Named Samantha, this device is such an advanced feat of artificial intelligence—think Siri on steroids—that except for the lack of a body, it is virtually human. Samantha engages Theodore in intimate discussions and exudes a powerful warmth and charisma that leave him obsessed.

He’s not alone, either. The backdrop of the movie is one in which people move about with little or no interaction, their telltale earpieces indicating that they are instead talking remotely to their hard drives. They are all totally immersed in a digital reality—while still technically rooted in the real world.

This mingling of the digital and the real in Her is the focus of a recent paper by Dorothee Ostmeier, a professor of German and folklore. She sees the film as a modern revision of a classic literary device known as a “portal.”

Portals are doorways that connect two or more realities and allow heroes to move from one to another.

Imagine the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland (above), the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia or the train stations in Harry Potter. Portals may lead characters to justice and redemption or cause emotional turmoil and confusion. But they always provide passages for psychological, spiritual and physical transformation, Ostmeier says.

Ostmeier’s interest in portals began when she was inspired by a mentor to examine 18th- and 19th-century fairy tales as she studied German literature; to hear her take on the evolution of a classic fairy tale, for example, see this video.

Studying a foreign literature is, of course, intertwined with the study of language, and that led Ostmeier directly to the concept of portals.

Language is “the means through which we transfer all meaning,” Ostmeier said. “Language is a portal, too.”

In writing about Her, Ostmeier focuses on portals as offering layers of utopian promise, but also foretelling changes that we cannot predict.

“In this digital age,” she said, “portals have never been more relevant because we’re surrounded by them constantly.”

From immersive video games to our daily obsessions with email and texting, human beings today are constantly subjected to computer screens that serve as portals to alternative digital realities. Understanding the power of portals—from 18th-century fairy tales through modern cinema—might help us maintain a sense of self, Ostmeier argues.

“When it’s possible to live spontaneously in different realities and different identities, studying portals really forces you to be sensitive to your relationship with reality,” she said. “And even, in the case of digital realities, if you’re playing or being played.”

That’s the question at the center of Her.

Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is the portal to a digital relationship that at first appears to serve Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) as an antidote to his loneliness. But Samantha also uses Theodore as a portal to learn about human emotions and consciousness. Eventually, she connects with other digital entities and they abandon Theodore and everyone else and evolve beyond human comprehension.

The screen that was once a portal to a vibrant new world goes blank.

“He thought he was controlling it, but in fact it was controlling him,” Ostmeier said. “It really questions the idea of human superiority to artificial intelligence, as he’s left behind to return to his traditional relationships.”

—Marc Dadigan

Photo: still from Alice in Wonderland, The Walt Disney Company, All Rights Reserved