The way we use the term “technology,” implies that it is a very new concept, therein defining the modern era by our advancements in the readability of knowledge and the supposed ease added to our lives because of it; however technology by definition is simply any scientific development used for practical purposes making it’s existence dated to the first time humans used a self-constructed fire for warmth and cooking. At the time Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was written, technology was not as rapidly evolving at the rate it is today, and Pirsig fashions his thoughts regarding technology into an argument for why we should embrace technology for the peace of mind it gives through it’s rationally mechanical nature. While the technology of a motorcycle provides an outlet for a calm connection with nature, it’s something that still must be mutually taken care of for its continued usage, yet this need for technical knowledge required by such maintenance, is unanimously feared for it’s non-human qualities. The film, Her, exemplifies this same fear of embracing that which is not human, yet what Her drives at instead is that we could potentially create something not-human that wills itself to assimilate to the nature of man, therein making it something loveable. The OS, Samantha, wants to understand what it means to be human while the motorcycle is not capable of such thought. Her deals with where technology is headed and what it could be, yet Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance what technology essentially already is, while both deal with the irrationality of the refusal of technology.
Samantha is an artificial, highly intelligent operating system, and as such is normally portrayed through film as an omniscient presence, transcending the boundaries of human thought into something devoid of emotions, finding them to be irrational like Hal in 2001: a Space Odyssey. However, Spike Jonze does something different with Samantha, because she recognizes that the ability to decipher human emotion and sympathize with it, is an intelligence in itself. Our wide range of emotion as human beings has led to our profound progression as a race, putting us above the rest of the animal kingdom, and Samantha has this desire to learn what it means to be a human being. Our greatest asset is our ability to love, and when Samantha realizes that she has the desire to learn how is the exact same moment Theodore begins falling for her. Her “mind” was created in our image, or at least the image of the ideal we strive toward, and this humanness gives the capability of her to be loved. Love in it’s purest sense is a deep understanding of another, and through the understanding comes an ultimate acceptance of that thing for all of it’s qualities, acting in this way by both parties.
On the other hand, a motorcycle is something, which can be loved because it can be understood and accepted, but it cannot be loved in the pure mutual sense. The love of a motorcycle coincides with the love one has for themselves. Pirsig loves his motorcycle because it provides him with a way to connect to Phaedrus, his
“former self,” yet this love is one-sided since it arises from a deeper understanding of himself, not another thing. Technically speaking, Pirsig “understands” his motorcycle in that he can figure out why it’s not running or how can even manage to run at all, but the motorcycle cannot seek to understand Pirsig, making the love impure. Instead the motorcycle is a tool for the roadtrip he takes to find himself. In understanding how the motorcycle runs, Pirsig can take the trip that allows his mind to come to state of willingness to understand himself.
The main difference between the two ways of viewing technology expressed between these two ideas, is the time period in which either is concerned. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance deals with the present state of technology in the 1970s, but Her is concerned with what technology will be able to do. Pirsig’s technology makes life easier, yet the technology of Her is able to convey emotions itself appearing to be “free-thinking,” even beyond the character of Samantha. Theodore can say to his phone, “play melancholy song,” and the phone is then able to understand that the song “Off You,” by the Breeders connotes the feeling of melancholia. Even the vulgar alien child in Theodore’s video game doesn’t have a pre-programmed set of direct responses exhibited by its reaction, “I didn’t realize you were a fucking pussy,” to Theodore’s “I actually like crying,” or when it calls Theodore’s future date fat. It has an ability to think beyond its programming. Through these instances, Spike Jonze is stating that technology, although currently de-personifying interaction, will eventually need to be personified itself to make up
for the way it’s changed society. Pirsig doesn’t view technology to be human in this way, instead finding it beautiful for the ways in which it isn’t human.
To Pirsig technology is what he considers to be a “classical mode of understanding,” which is devoid from emotion and governed by rational rules. Motorcycle maintenance as with anything else technological is liberating in the sense that once the rules by which it is governed are understood, there’s nothing more to be learned. Problems can be easily fixed through rationalization, but it’s the lack of creativity, which makes people like his friend Jon shy away from attempting to grasp this mode. The classical mode appears to be unappealing and ugly because of its restrictive rules, yet it “brings order to chaos and allows the unknown to be known.” There’s nothing that cannot be understood fully by classical understanding in regards to technology, and the peace of always being able to find a solution is reassuring.
In contrast, the emotional nature of the future of technology as portrayed by Her shows that it’s possible for what Pirisg says is classical to be romantic. Samantha is so highly intelligent that she’s written beyond her programming allowing for possible further development “technologically.” According to Pirsig, because Samantha is a computer, she could be “fixed,” back to the way she was through classical understanding, but this sort of emotional detachment is not relevant with Samantha. She transcends what she was initially created to do, and cannot be fixed through the logical reasoning that created her. The OS, itself, possesses a romantic understanding, however Pirsig could not have foreseen this
capability of the future of technology when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Critics of Her cite the sex scene as the main reasoning behind the notion that it is impossible to love something inhuman because Samantha does not have a physical body, yet this is overlooking something very important regarding human intimacy. Theodore’s attraction to Samantha does not come from her appearance, but from her mind. Intimacy, although a physical action, is a deep mental bond using only the physical as a way to express that sort of sublime feeling shared between two parties. Without the mutual understanding of the mind that is pure love, intimacy is no longer intimate, but merely an outwardly action. It’s not the body that’s important; it’s the mind.
Her’s portrayal is only scary in the sense that humans are capable of creating something that surpasses themselves, while the fear that arises from mankind toward technology in Pirsig’s novel is more so an unwillingness to understand that which is not human. Technology can’t tell us when something is going wrong with it, because it has no concept of right or wrong, and in other words no mind. Perhaps the scared masses which Pirsig refers to would be comforted by the predictions of technology in Spike Jonze’s film. Technology will become something that understands us better than we understand it, and will slowly combine classical and romantic understanding making the mix conceivable to anyone. Our two forms of understanding will not only morph into one being, but essentially technology and mankind will morph into one super being, both fixing each other’s faults when the
need arises. The technology of Her seeks to ascertain human nature while the technology of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seeks to provide an escape from it. The fears relating to Her arise from the progressiveness of the unknown future, while Pirsig’s noticed fears relate to merely attempting to understand something non-human. Pirsig couldn’t forsee the kind of personal separation technology would inflict in the modern times of today, but at least we are now beginning to realize that the thing that separated us in the first place could put us back together again.