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A Word for Science Fiction: Surrogates (and the immortality of technology)

2 March 2011

Bruce Willis stars in Surrogates, a film that takes a ludditic stance against technological progress.

Robert Krulwich did a great radio spot a few weeks ago about the lifetime of technologies. It started when he took up a bet made by Wired founder Kevin Kelley, who claimed that no “species of technology” has ever gone thoroughly, globally extinct (this is ‘technology’ in the broad sense that includes everything from stone axes to supercomputers). Krulwich solicited ideas from listeners, whittled a list of thousands down to the three most (least?) likely candidates, and within hours had Kelley’s response: all three are in use, somewhere in the world, right now.

The experiment brings up some profound questions about our relationship with our tools and the persistence of ideas in human cultures. Krulwich explores these questions on his blog, which I encourage you to read. But the takeaway is pretty much that technologies never die, and maybe are incapable of dying. As Krulwich writes,

[T]he deeper lesson of this whole exercise is that — to a degree I didn’t appreciate until Kevin forced me to look — technology does indeed persist. Tools, machines, they change, they adapt, they morph, but they continue to be made. I hadn’t noticed this tenaciousness before.

I certainly hadn’t noticed it either. But it was fresh in my mind when I recently watched Surrogates, 2009’s futuristic action/thriller starring Bruce Willis.

***Spoiler Alert***
Surrogates is not a great movie. But it is enjoyable, and if you want to see it with fresh eyes, stop reading.

FBI agent Tom Greer (Willis) uses a neural interface to remotely control his surrogate body.

Surrogates is set in a near-future in which robotics, neurology and wireless internet have converged to produce lifelike android bodies that people can control directly with their brains from remote locations. Supposedly, the technology is affordable enough that basically everyone (in the developed world, at least) has a surrogate body that they use for all aspects of their daily life, while their real bodies age and atrophy behind locked doors at home.

Willis plays Tom Greer, an FBI agent who is called in to investigate an unusual murder. Well, in his world any murder is unusual, because killing a surrogate is just destruction of property—the human operator simply wakes up at home, safe and sound. But in this case, the weapon is a ray gun that delivers a computer virus intended to fry the artificial circuitry of a surrogate. The catch is that it also overrides the surrogate’s fail-safes and fries the brain of the operator, too.

The victim is the son of Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the man who invented surrogate technology. Since a falling-out with VSI, the company that manufactures surrogates, Dr. Canter has become an outspoken critic of the technology.

The course of Greer’s investigation leads him into a “reservation” for people who object to the use of surrogates, portrayed as a bunch of rednecks living an Amish lifestyle in an urban ghetto. Their leader, a charismatic, dreadlocked preacher played by Ving Rhames, turns out to be—gasp!—a surrogate. His operator? Dr. Lionel Canter himself, who hoped to lead a revolution against his former employer and the legion of remote-control puppets he helped create.

Canter’s son, it turns out, had borrowed one of his father’s surrogate bodies the night he died. VSI was trying to assassinate Canter, but killed his son by mistake.

The plot is clearly not the movie’s strong point.

The premise—a technology that separates people from their true selves, and each other—offers opportunities for thematic development and social commentary, but Surrogates fails to take full advantage. Some of the best moments come in the downtime between action sequences, when we get to explore the tension that exists between Greer and his wife. They lost a son in an accident, pre-surrogacy, and she has retreated into her surrogate body to escape the pain her true self feels. Her psychology is representative of surrogate culture, in which dissociative disorder has passed beyond pandemic levels to become the new normal.

While Greer’s attempt to redeem his wife is both touching and heroic, it seems to take place in a vacuum. It’s as though he’s the only person who recognizes that there is a problem and attempts to deal with it directly. Everyone else is either oblivious or living la vida luddite on a reservation. A society’s treatment of any technology is rarely so polarized.

The climax of the film takes the same no-middle-ground position, and provides both my major gripe and the connection back to Krulwich and Kelley’s bet.

Canter gets ahold of the virus-spewing ray gun and, using a stolen surrogate, hooks it up to the main data center for the entire surrogate network. He intends to a) destroy all the surrogates and b) kill all the fools (basically everyone) who’ve been seduced by the technology. Greer manages to stop him in time to save all the human operators, but is presented with a last-minute option: press a button to delete the virus and save the surrogates; or press a different button to allow the virus to fry every last android body on Earth.

Predictably, he chooses the second option.

Now, there are plenty of ridiculous things to call into question in this movie. If they can fool your brain into thinking that’s it’s having real experiences when it isn’t, why even build the android bodies? Why not just hang out in a full-sensory version of Second Life instead? (Well, I guess it’s because we’ve already seen The Matrix.) When Greer shuts down the surrogates, everything goes haywire—cars crash into buildings, planes drop out of the sky, untended nuclear reactors overheat—surely a whole bunch of real people would have been killed as collateral damage. Does he even think about that before flipping the switch? In the aftermath, does he care? And how does this make him any better than Canter? Etc., etc.


Disabled surrogates are the least of the collateral damage caused by Greer's decision to shut down the control network.

But the biggest question, in my mind, was: How does this accomplish anything? (Other than providing an excuse to film scenes of epic mayhem and destruction, of course.)

Greer is presented as having destroyed surrogacy itself, and thereby saved the world. But he hasn’t destroyed surrogacy; he’s only destroyed a bunch of surrogates. It’s not like the technology was entirely erased from history. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who could get to work building new surrogates that same day. While imperfect, surrogacy has its advantages, and those advantages still apply—and the people who enjoyed them before will want to regain them.

At best, Greer has pushed the reset button. Who knows, maybe humanity learned a lesson and the next version of the technology will be better. But more likely is that he’ll have the crap sued out of him for destruction of property in the largest class-action suit the world has ever seen, and then everyone will go back to their android dopplegangers and vicarious lives.

It’s a well-worn trope, in Hollywood as elsewhere, that some discoveries “just go too far” and must be destroyed for the good of humanity. To read Surrogates as social commentary on the technology of our own times, it would be an invective against the always-on, mobile-broadband, Twitter-Facebook culture, with the moral apparently being “Kill your iPhone.”

But Kelley’s research shows that technologies cannot be erased. Instead of worrying about the core mechanism, we should worry about how we use it. Mobile internet and social networking are changing the way we relate, for good or for ill. Our choices will determine which end of the spectrum we end up on—but destroying the internet is not a viable option. As the saying goes: “Technologies don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Perhaps we should add: “People don’t kill technologies.”

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