Movie Review: Surrogates

Surrogates has a surprisingly tight plot, considering how easy it would have been to examine all the bizarre implications of the premise.

Apparently, in the future robotics technology will advance to the point that it will be possible to create perfect replicas of humans. However, artificial intelligence technology won’t keep up, since the robots will be marketed exclusively as “surrogates” for real people, who lay in bed and remotely control them. Sensors on the robots will also transmit artificial sensations back to the operator. This leads to problems when some surrogates are attacked and their operators are remotely killed. The effect is basically the same as with the blipverts in Max Headroom.

It is a Bruce Willis movie, so there are good action bits. One remarkable chase scene involving Willis’ character and a female robot stands out for its similarities to a scene in Blade Runner involving Harrison Ford’s character and a female replicant.

Most of the film’s imagery is devoted to exploring the social and psychological consequences of having most people use surrogates. Some of the dehumanization from a police and security perspective reminded me of Minority Report. However, overall it more resembles Gattaca, especially in the lighting and cinematography.

The plot seems tight probably because it is overly simplistic, being complicated only by the mystery of the antagonist’s identity and the suffering endured by the main character. Even the mystery, though, would probably be obvious to most people familiar with comic book style science fiction such as Unbreakable. In fact, they might have stolen it from Unbreakable.

One of the background circumstances in the movie is that anti-robot people, the Dreads, have cloistered themselves in little self-governing reservations. Their lifestyle closely resembles that of the Blanks in Max Headroom. I think this was a deliberate decision by the writers in order to express the villain’s insanity while emphasizing the message about the artificiality of surrogate society. Politically the situation is absurd, because it requires us to believe that the US government and the FBI decided to respect the sensibilities of these antisocial radicals and let them set up their own little autonomous enclaves within established cities.

The take-away from this movie is that it is really a parable about Internet culture. None of the other elements of the script were original, so it isn’t surprising that the whole thing could boil down to a simple allegory:  The surrogates are like avatars or online personas; the worldwide wireless network of operator-surrogate connections is like a non-technical person’s fantasy about how the World Wide Web works; the social consequences of surrogacy are like the social consequences of Internet culture and addiction. In fact, in justifying trying to kill billions of people, the villain says that surrogacy is an addiction and the only way to stop an addiction is to kill the addict.

The curious thing is how almost no one in Surrogates has chosen to be “anonymous.” Almost all people have chosen to live through their surrogates to the greatest extent they can, including customizing them to match various ideal looks. There are generic models, but they are still based on a particular human individual. There are also robot-like surrogates that are explained as being old models, and there are featureless, disposable soldier surrogates who participate in wargames. In general, though, everyone is allowed only one surrogate, and both operator and surrogate are apparently registered with the government.

The lack of “anonymity” in Surrogates is probably due to the combination of strict government control and the fact that almost everyone lives their entire life through their surrogate. Unless it somehow manages to remain anarchic and mostly unregulated, this is probably the final condition of the Internet, perhaps ten years from now.

The Pew Research Center teamed up with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center to survey 895 experts on the future of the Internet–and at the forefront of the discussion is the sticky topic of anonymity. Experts were nearly split down the middle, with 55% agreeing that Internet users will be able to communicate anonymously and 41% agreeing that, by 2012, “anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.”

The Future of the Internet

However, I maintain that anonymity on the Web is only a “problem” insofar as one wants to create an orderly virtual community; and you can see that the owners of many virtual communities on the Web do tightly control registration while still keeping meatbag identities secret from other low-level members.

“The routine and pervasive corporate and governmental surveillance, tracking and ‘proviling’ (profiling) systems that are already much too widespread are certain to continue and expand,” says Jim Warren, a tech entrepreneur and activist quoted in the Pew report. “Those who are in positions of power–both corporate and governmental–ALWAYS want to know ever-more about everyone.”

But is there a middle ground?

Axel Bruns, associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology, finds value in an in-between realm of pseudonymity, identifying as a human but not a specific person. “Other than for law enforcement hardliners, the challenge is not to tie every online activity to a specific identified user, but simply to verify that the activity is carried out by (or at least on behalf of) an actual human being rather than by a spambot or other malicious and disruptive entity–and for this, verified pseudonymity is sufficient,” he says.

So, again, we see that the solution to the “problem of anonymity” is not necessarily to let everyone in the world know your mother’s maiden name, your shoe size, the name of the hamster you had when you were seven, your parking ticket record, and the color of your underwear. That’s because, although those details can identify you, they don’t matter to most people. Anonymous comments from other people on blogs and Web forums only matter to the extent that you want to manage your social life online and promote a political agenda.

Anonymity is also a great concern for everyone who is desperate to spread the myth that political identity is intrinsic to human life. The cynical political operator is concerned with riding the wave of the anonymous crowd and using it to accomplish his ends; but the idealistic and brainless political animal is concerned with slotting everyone according to their political allegiances. The only way they can understand the world is by producing a massive matrix of everyone’s political vectors so that they can instinctively know how to react to everyone.  This is a type of person that I can tolerate online as long as they don’t bore me, but in the meatbag world I write them off as idiots.

By the way, who are the most anonymous “persons” nowadays? I think it would be corporate “persons.” I’m not referring to the people employed by a corporation, but rather to the corporation itself in its status as a person. I don’t actually know anyone who believes that corporations are persons with constitutional rights, but I am told that many “conservatives” believe in it, just as many liberals believe that animals are (or should be) persons with constitutional rights.

The problem for the corporate person is that he needs to be embodied in order to fully participate in meatbag society. The obvious solution is to have a surrogate.


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