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Archive for the ‘Virtual Reality’ Category

Living through Our Machines: A Review of Surrogates
By Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

What if you could always be young, strong, attractive, and have any experience you wish without the possibility of personal injury? Considering our obsession, particularly in the United States, with health and beauty, most people would jump at the chance to have such a life. In the future world of Surrogates, advances in technology have made those dreams come true. A person can purchase a robot, or multiple robots if you are wealthy enough, that might bear a resemblance to your actual physical appearance, or no resemblance at all. If you would like to be a man or woman, it doesn’t matter what your actual gender is, you can be whatever you want. No one needs to worry about plastic surgery, makeovers, dieting, etc. After buying your ideal, robotic body, you can live and experience everything through it. Like Neo in The Matrix, trying to choose between the blue pill and the red one, fantasy or reality, we are faced with the choice of living through our own imperfect bodies, or flawless surrogates. Come on now! Be honest! Which would you choose? Think of the possibilities!

Ever since the concept of Virtual Reality began to grip our imaginations, people have dreamed of such a breakthrough. At the present time, Virtual Reality is largely a visual experience, though there have been developments in trying to engage some of the other senses. In the era of Surrogates, which is less that 10 years away (for those of you who may be trying to get your money together to place your order as soon as possible), you sit in the comfort of your home, hooked up to your surrogate in such a way that you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste everything through your robotic puppet. If you have a job, your surrogate goes to work for you, but it is your mind that actually does the thinking for the surrogate and directs its every activity. Though the surrogate can be damaged, the human host is never harmed in any way. The surrogate might be destroyed in a helicopter crash, but you would not be injured, though you would have had the thrilling sensation of what it is like to be going down to what would otherwise be certain death. While it may seem on the surface that some machine is living for you, remember that you are thinking for the surrogate, and you are experiencing everything the surrogate does. While these ideas about Virtual Reality may seem to cover much of the same ground covered by Total Recall and The Matrix, there are differences. The experiences of the host through the surrogates are not pure fantasy. The events are actually taking place. The use of a surrogate seems to be the ultimate form of vicarious living. You can really live your life through someone else, and that someone else is you. Could there possibly be any drawbacks or dangers to a style of life that seems to solve so many problems?

Surrogates, directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), is loosely based on a series of comic books, The Surrogates written 2005-2006 by Robert Venditti. Though much darker than the film version, the comics explore the threats to a society that could occur when people become addicted to living through machines. In Mostow’s movie, Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is an FBI agent who does his work through a surrogate. He stays home all day, hooked up to the computer network that allows him through a Virtual Reality link to live through his surrogate. Though Tom and his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), live in the same house, they usually stay locked away in separate rooms, rarely seeing one another except through their surrogates. Since their surrogates are young and trim versions of their actual hosts, she prefers that all of their interactions take place through the surrogates. Yet Greer is not satisfied with living through a surrogate. He misses the actual flesh to flesh contact with his wife.

Another source of the Greer’s unhappiness is the lingering grief over the death of their little boy caused by a car accident. It may be that Tom feels guilty for not having provided a surrogate for his son. On one occasion, as Tom walks through the city he hears an advertisement for child surrogates, promising a childhood of safety without the risk of injury or disease. Since most parents want to shield their children from all the possible dangers in the world, wouldn’t it be tempting to keep them in the safety of their homes and let their surrogates go to school, or play sports, without the risk of exposing them to accidents, criminals, and life-threatening diseases that might be spread by “real” children?

Though Tom begins to question the benefits of surrogacy, there are a few in this society who never yielded to the temptation to live through a machine. Referred to as “Dreads” and “meatbags” by those in the surrogate society, they are living on a place referred to as “the Dread Reservation.” They are led by a quasi-religious leader known as “The Prophet,” played by Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction) who is constantly preaching about the evils of surrogacy. While the slogan for the world of surrogates is “Plug in…and Live,” the motto for those on the reservation is, “Unplug yourself.” These two groups have entered into a treaty not to intrude into each other’s space, but there is an uneasy peace between them.

To complicate matters further, as is the case with most technological utopias, someone figures out a way to ruin the technology. The hosts and the surrogates are connected through a massive computer network, and, naturally, one computer geek has found a way to disconnect the surrogate from the host. But the most terrifying threat is that someone has discovered a weapon that destroys not only the surrogate, but also the host at the same time. Tom Greer and his FBI partner, Peters (Radha Mitchell), who also works through her perfectly beautiful surrogate, are called upon to investigate the murder of a man whose brain was destroyed when the new weapon was used on his surrogate. Those in power must conceal this unpleasant development from the rest of the world, since the appeal of surrogacy is its guarantee of a safe life. If the surrogate itself becomes a risk of death to the host, then there would be little motivation to have one.

Initially, surrogacy sounded like a good idea. Surrogates were invented by a scientist, Dr. Canter (James Cromwell), a paraplegic, who wanted to give people in situations similar to his the opportunity to know what it was like to walk, run, jump, and live a “normal life.” But once Dr. Canter opened the door for the disabled to have a surrogate, why not allow all people to have one if they wish? As always, once science opens Pandora’s box, we must sort out a whole new set of moral and ethical dilemmas that we have never had to face. In an interview with John Hogan, Robert Venditti explained part of his purpose in writing the original comics: “I was trying to highlight the fact that we have a tendency to welcome technology into our lives without considering the impact it will have on us in the long run. Technology is a very seductive thing, and because of that, we don’t often look before we leap.” Though the surrogates in this film do not turn on their creators in the manner of a Frankenstein’s monster, their invention may ultimately result in the deaths of their users

This film depicts how we must grapple with the unintended consequences of technological advancement. The human hosts do not bother to exercise, put on make-up, or, in any other way, try to make themselves attractive. Why bother? No one ever sees your real body anyway. All that other people see is the surrogate. Though living through a surrogate might seem a pathway to immortality, the hosts look as though they are ready for an early death through lack of activity. When we finally are permitted a sight of the real Maggie, her physical appearance, demeanor, and the many prescription drugs on her table, reveal a depressed woman whose physical condition is rapidly declining. Like the passengers aboard the Axiom in Wall-E, we can imagine that eventually, the hosts of surrogates would become incapacitated through diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and obesity. Zager and Evans, in their 1969 hit song, “In the Year 2525,” predicted that by the year 5555 our arms would hang limp at our sides since machines would be doing all the work for us. Surrogates points out that this dire prediction about the future may be realized far before 5555. Actually, aren’t we already having to deal with the health problems in children whose only activity is playing video games?

Films such as Blade Runner, Terminator, and The Island have explored the issue of what it means to be human. In Surrogates, the question seems to be, “What does it mean to really live?” At one point in this movie, The Prophet says, “We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.” Though we may not yet have surrogates available for our use such as those in this film, we could ask ourselves if we are not already, to some degree, living our lives through machines. Is sitting in front of a television, living vicariously through our sport heroes and celebrities, really living?  Does living through our machines give us the same experience as reality? When we play golf on Wii, or play the guitar on Rock Band, do we really get the same satisfaction as we would have had if we had put in the hard work to actually learn and play the sport or the instrument?

Is the community we develop through the Internet real community? In the interview with Hogan, Vendetti recalls how the idea for The Surrogates originated:

In grad school, I read a book about people addicted to the Internet. The players would lose their jobs and sometimes even their marriages because they couldn’t tear themselves away from the personas they created for themselves online. It was a thought that kind of rattled around in my head for a while, until one day it dawned on me that if you were somehow able to create a persona and send it out into the real world—where it could go to work for you, and run your errands, and so on—then you would never have to go back to being yourself. What would that world be like?

 In Surrogates, people may have no idea of the actual identity (including such things as sex, age, occupation, etc.) of the actual host. Isn’t this similar to the games that people play with one another on the Internet, posing to be different than what they actually are? Are we becoming less authentic and honest the more we live through our machines? Are we even forgetting who we really are? In one of the scenes in Surrogates Tom is trying to convince his wife that he wants to see the real Maggie, but she argues that the surrogate is her real self. Tom knows that his real wife is actually hiding behind the façade of her surrogate. Kevin Stoehr, an assistant professor of humanities at Boston University, points out how relating to one another through machines without body to body contact may ultimately result in a nihilistic culture where we care less and less about one another:

 You might think here of the commitment-free, risk-free, hedonistic Web surfer, someone who sits in front of a computer screen and bounces mentally and whimsically from one Web site to another, without any ultimate passion or active engagement. Such a form of obsessive detachment from the natural world and from the experience of one’s own body can lead to nihilism, the belief that nothing matters, in the undermining of our commitments and concerns. We would become little more than passive and neutral spectators, gliding from one Internet portal to the next, and our daily lives would follow suit. (132).

In Surrogates, when we do get a few glimpses of the human hosts, they seem anything but happy and fulfilled. Though living through a surrogate might provide thrills, something is missing when our actual bodies are not interacting with others in a real environment.

Also, this film raises the question of whether risk and danger are not essential in making life worthwhile and meaningful. While the surrogates may shield us from the risk of disease and injury, the end result could be unbearable boredom. Just as the fear that death could occur at any time is a spur to live fully in the present moment as though it may be our last, doesn’t risk and the threat of danger provide part of the joy and excitement of life? Sure, you could climb a mountain through the use of a surrogate and see all the beauty of the landscape through its eyes, but would it be the same as actually being there, knowing that one false move could result in injury or death?  Don’t we put ourselves in those situations because of the risk involved? You could ride a roller coaster through a surrogate. While it is true that the surrogate could be damaged if the cars derailed, you would always know that nothing bad could happen to you. Oddly enough, one of the reasons we get on the roller coaster is the thrill of the risk involved. All human relationships involve risk, as well. The attempt to live through machines, even as advanced as these surrogates, may be an unconscious attempt to eliminate risk from our dealings with other human beings.

In Surrogates, Dr. Canter becomes disillusioned with his invention and wants the world to go back to the way it was before he invented these perfect robots. Greer tells him that a return to the pre-surrogate past is impossible, though Greer will later decide, unilaterally, to force the world to accept life without surrogates. Like the world of Surrogates, we cannot turn back the clock to a time when we did not live through our machines. We are already living through surrogates. It remains to be seen how much more sophisticated our surrogates will be in the near future, how dependent on them we will become, and what effect they will have on our relationships. Even if we develop surrogates as sophisticated as those in this film, perhaps we will eventually might grow tired of them, the way we usually get bored with toys, and desire real contact with one another.

Works Cited

Hogan, John. “Surrogate Father.” Graphic Novel Reporter:            http://graphicnovelreporter.com/content/surrogate-father-interview

Stoehr, Kevin L. “2001: A Philosophical Odyssey.” The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film.
Ed. Steven M. Sanders. Lexington: The University of Kentucky P, 2008. 119-34.

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