'Her,' ChatGPT, and Fiction's Reality-Making Power – The Gospel Coalition

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In a bizarre but not entirely unexpected turn of events, the dystopian sci-fi movie Her has become reality, just 10 years after it was released.
Directed by Spike Jonze and released in late 2013, Her is a wild, slightly creepy depiction of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his AI virtual assistant (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The film was provocative at the time because it pictured a near future where smartphones (which by 2013 had already become indispensable appendages in most people’s lives) had evolved, via AI technology, to the point they could believably mimic human love, empathy, and relational connection.
That future is here. And as if to underscore the fulfillment of Her’s prophesies, OpenAI launched its new ChatGPT-4o model complete with a virtual assistant (“Sky”) whose voice is unmistakably similar to Johansson’s. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman basically admitted his intention to mimic Her when, on the day ChatGPT-4o was unveiled, he shared a one-word post on X: her.
Scarlett Johansson was horrified. In a statement released to NPR, she notes she specifically said no to requests from Altman to allow her voice to be used in the OpenAI chatbot. But Altman apparently modeled Sky after her anyway. In response to threatened legal action from Johansson, Altman has since apologized to her and paused the company’s use of the voice.
In addition to being a flashpoint in the ongoing tensions between Hollywood creatives and tech companies over AI threats, this incident vividly illustrates the power of storytelling to shape reality—especially in an aimless secular world increasingly detached from transcendent metanarratives.
One of art’s values is that it reflects reality back to us, helping us see ourselves in ways we might miss or be blind to. But art also has the power to create reality, sometimes intentionally but often in inadvertent ways.
Many artists are well aware of this power: artistic works can imagine a world into being or create plausibility structures that pave the way for reality to change. This is why, for example, the LGBT+ movement prioritized pop culture representation in the ’90s and onward (with shows like Ellen, Will & Grace, Glee, and even Friends). To make a world where queer sexuality was normal and accepted, activists recognized that fictional artistic depictions could play a crucial role. The more narratives of a potential reality are seen and shared, the more those potential realities are likely to become actual realities.
The more narratives of a potential reality are seen and shared, the more those potential realities are likely to become actual realities.
This reality-making capacity of art isn’t inherently bad. It’s part of what it means to be human. God created us with the capacity to imagine desirable worlds that don’t already exist. It can be used in helpful ways and dangerous ways. Christians know that storytelling and imagination can be deployed to create visions of goodness, truth, beauty, and virtue that are inspiring and shape audiences’ loves in healthy directions. This is why art has been valued and patronized throughout most of church history. Christians have recognize art’s profound catechetical power and desire-shaping potential.
I’ve been inspired by TV shows like Bluey and Friday Night Lights, which depict healthy, loving family relationships. Watching these fictional narratives gives me a vision of the sort of reality I’d love to cultivate in my household. Reading or watching Tolkien’s fantastical stories in his imagined Middle-earth inspires me to pursue virtue, goodness, and sacrifice in a world of darkness.
But inspiration goes both ways. Art can also present imagery of vice and visions of darkness that plant seeds of imitation in wayward human hearts. Bluey might present an “aspirational reality,” but so do violent films like The Matrix, Scream, and Fight Club, each of which inspired criminal acts in real life. Are artists to blame when their fictional narratives spark real events? Probably not. But creators should at least recognize the power they have to shape imaginations—and steward this power with care.
The wildest thing about Altman’s choice to model Sky’s voice after Johansson’s in Her is that he seems to have missed that the film presents a dystopian vision. The film isn’t propaganda for a future we should want to have; it’s a warning about the type of future we might have if we’re not careful.
But in a secular world absent metanarratives and without a solid grid for evaluating things like truth, virtue, and “the good life,” definitions of “dystopia” end up becoming subjective. One man’s dystopia is another’s utopia. Stories intended as cautionary tales can fill the narrative void and become aspirational visions for some, especially if the aesthetic is attractive. Don’t discount the extent to which sleek packaging, cool vibes, and naked pragmatism matter more in a secular age than morally coded attributes.
In Silicon Valley, many tech entrepreneurs seem to recognize that a sufficiently stylish, innovative veneer in their products can cover a multitude of sins (errors in both function and ethics). Apple debuted its new iPad Pro, for example, with an ad that leaned into dystopian imagery of the analog arts being crushed into oblivion by a digital future. Perhaps Apple was betting that consumers would be so wowed by the future-chic design aesthetic that the implications of the imagery wouldn’t register. They admittedly “missed the mark with this video,” but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong about digital culture’s general trajectory.
In the naked public square, devoid of spiritual telos and anchoring truth, the directions we might go—as individuals, communities, and civilizations—are wide open. Stories and visions abound in the limitless spaces of online life, and any number of them might provide ideas, images, and aesthetics that seem interesting enough to pursue.
In a secular world absent metanarratives, one man’s dystopia is another’s utopia.
Just as Jonze’s dystopian vision in Her seems to have inspired Altman, any number of Black Mirror episodes (each depicting a disturbing tech dystopia) likely have inspired tech entrepreneurs to see if they can make that scenario come to fruition. In a world lacking imagination and purpose, creatively rendered prophetic warnings are still creative visions that provide fodder for otherwise aimless culture makers.
Christians should go boldly into this narrative and imaginative void, striving to create stand-out artistic visions that are both beautifully rendered and grounded in solid truth. Our goal shouldn’t be gimmickry and power grabs for the biggest share of the attention-economy pie. It’s not enough to force the Christian story on people by any means necessary. We must do the work of telling good stories, full of beautiful truths, in ways that move audiences to desire Christianity’s grand narrative.
We must show the Greatest Story to be not only a great story but the greatest reality—and, ultimately, the only one that will last.
Do you feel yourself becoming more foolish the more time you spend scrolling on social media? You’re not alone. Addictive algorithms make huge money for Silicon Valley, but they make huge fools of us.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With intentionality and the discipline to cultivate healthier media consumption habits, we can resist the foolishness of the age and instead become wise and spiritually mature. Brett McCracken’s The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World shows us the way.
To start cultivating a diet more conducive to wisdom, click below to access a FREE ebook of The Wisdom Pyramid.
Brett McCracken is a senior editor and director of communications at The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, and Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Brett and his wife, Kira, live in Santa Ana, California, with their three children. They belong to Southlands Church, and Brett serves as an elder. You can follow him on Twitter.
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