Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Surrogates for Intelligence... Missing Links, Hated Avatars

I'm pretty sick of this shit, Bruce Willis.  We live in strange times.  On the one hand, we're constantly being sold on the idea of progress and the achievement of human potential, while on the other hand, we're being bombarded with conflicting ludidtic, anti-technology propaganda.  And it's a total crock of shit.  I was watching the Bruce Willis vehicle SURROGATES the other night in an effort to use up my stockpile of nearly expired, military-grade popcorn that I had accumulated in my lead-lined underground shelter that I had constructed so I could watch movies in peace during whatever apocalyptic view of the future that Roland Emmerich has envisioned came to awful fruition.

SURROGATES started out with an intriguing premise; the advent of advanced robotic and AI technology provides people with the opportunity to experience the world through cybernetic avatars that allow them to experience all of the pleasure and none of the pain through some kind of neural interface.  The vast majority of the human population embraces "surrogacy" while a few hold-outs led by The Prophet (Ving Rhames) prefer to live on reserves, embracing a low-tech agrarian lifestyle devoid of most forms of technology except for an ass-ton of fire-arms and accompanying unlimited supplies of ammo, because apparently the only technology worth embracing is the kind that you need when you absolutely, positively got to kill every last motherfucker in the room.  (Accept no substitutes.)

The cybernetic surrogates are purported to be 100 percent user friendly with no negative physical side-effects up to the "present" of the movie, so it came as almost no surprise that within the first 5 minutes of the movie two people were murdered by exploiting a fatal flaw in the system.  The two FBI agents sent to investigate the deaths--Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell)--set into motion a series of events that allow us to experience an eerily uncanny younger version of Bruce Willis with blonde hair as well as an exploration of what it means to be human in the face of rapidly advancing technology.  The only problem being that any of the intriguing issues raised by the movie are handled with all the nuance of a good, old-fashioned Hell's Angels skull-fucking and we're left with some kind of ham-fisted message about the power of the human spirit or some shit.
The Sixth Element

Except that despite its seemingly genuine desire to show the negative aspects of the surrogate technology, it makes actually makes everybody who is opposed to the technology look like a complete asshole.  But on the other hand, it's implied that most everybody who has embraced the surrogate technology have also become bigger assholes because of it, so it all kind of gets muddled.  Though, judging by how everybody who uses a surrogate is either grossly overweight or is made up to be quantifiably much less attractive than their cybernetic counterparts and is made out to be somehow socially impaired and disconnected combined with the ending of the film, apparently the film makers wanted us in the audience to understand that we're supposed to be rooting against the quasi-terminator avatars.

It seems that the surrogates in SURROGATES are actually philosophical surrogates for modern developments in technology.  It’s no stretch of the imagination to see how the physical avatars in the movie are meant to represent the digital avatars that we use now on a daily basis on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or fan sites for sharing amateur erotic stories about Drew Cary (for a random example).  The common perception is that these avatars--whether physical or digital--somehow impair otherwise normal human social interaction.  The message that SURROGATES beats its audience over the head with is that highly mediated human relationships that are facilitated through the implementation of technological advancements are somehow detrimental to our existence as human beings.  What it basically boils down to is this: technology bad, human good.

There are, however, no less than three fundamental flaws with the argument that the movie tries to make.

#1: We are All Cyborgs Already

Here, I’m going to invoke Marshal McLuhan who posited in his most famous work, Understanding Media, that technology is an extension of humankind, an assertion that I would have to agree with. There’s this tendency now in popular media to vilify technological advancement or achievement and juxtapose it next to the inherent beauty and nobility of the natural world.  The most glaring example of late is, perhaps, James Cameron’s AVATAR, with its baffling anti-technological message presented using what were (at the time) some of the most technologically advanced story-telling techniques ever devised.

Two questions though: Why are the technological and the natural presented as diametrically opposed? And who the fuck was it that determined that the natural world held the moral high ground?  I’ve got news for you: there is no human action that you can take that is not governed, mediated, or otherwise bound up in technology.  We tend to think of technology now as digital or even industrial, but at its most basic level technology is any physical or abstract thing or system created or used to facilitate the reaching of some end goal or the solving of some perceived problem.  So, yes, the clothes on your back are technology.  All of that life-saving medicine and clean water that we have access to in the industrialized countries of this great planet of ours is technology.  Picking up a fucking rock and cracking open a walnut is technology. Language is technology, without which even thinking thoughts and the resulting self-consciousness as we understand it would be impossible.

You are nothing without technology.  What’s more, technology is a part of you, not just in the way it integrates with you physically, but also in the way it changes your perception of the world.  You are technology.  Without technology, you would not be human. Homo technologicus.  What’s more, without the specific technology that we have developed, we wouldn’t be the same humans. Without continual developments in technology, your life would be shit.  Just ask the millions of people dying of thirst and easily treatable medical conditions in third-world countries every day.

What gets me is the conflicting messages, where one moment we’re being sold on the next iPad and the next we’re being told to go RVing and toss all of our communication devices aside like a diseased liver. Just pick a fucking side. Cultural texts like SURROGATES are actually detrimental to human progress as they sell some kind of pseudo-morality about how amazing the power of “real” human beings are. This is based on some kind of weird normative range of social interaction that people assume exists because of some backwards essentialist notions. There is nothing essential about humanity or anything else in the universe; there is no such thing as unmediated social interaction; and everything about our perception of the world that we take for granted, like morality for instance, is constructed.

There’s nothing inherently immoral or moral about technology because meaning is not inherent. We attribute meaning to things; we don’t draw it out of things. In the natural world there’s no morality or immorality. In fact, by our moral standards, the natural world and all of its inhabitants would be indicted, tried, sentenced, and imprisoned on countless charges of murder, public indecency, loitering, incest, cannibalism, and feces-throwing. Fuck the “morality” of the natural world. You think nature has the moral high ground, the next time you go to court ask them to throw you to the lion’s den to beg for leniency. You’ll find that arguments about justice or habeas corpus or your Miranda rights will fall on deaf ears.

It's OK, I've conducted thousands of anal exams.  I don't have
any medical training per se, but I do have a kick-ass beard.
#2: Robots are Fucking Amazing

Despite Greer’s dick-headed and narcissistic move to decide on behalf of the entire fucking human race the moral implications of the surrogate technology, the movie itself made this seem even more retarded because of how awesome surrogacy was. In the world of SURROGATES, basically the blind are made to see and the lame are made to walk. Some of the really tantalizing implications about gender and sexual identity are really kind of glossed over in the movie, but there would be huge social and personal implications. Sex is 100 percent safe, everybody has freakish superhuman abilities, and it’s even demonstrated how crimes can be stopped in their tracks by remotely deactivating them from a secure, centralized location manned by trusted law enforcement professionals and one stereotypical overweight IT nerd.

Was the world of SURROGATES perfect?  Obviously not.  People were shown to be emotionally disconnected from each other and there was still corruption within the system. The thing is, though, that somebody somewhere will always find a way to exploit the weaknesses in any system. The answer wasn’t to destroy the technology but rather to begin discussions and debates to help foster widespread cultural and governmental reforms.  But I suppose grassroots political movements and informed ethical debates aren’t showy enough for a Hollywood movie.  Instead, SURROGATES resorts to this ant-technology rant that basically boils down to the Republican argument against healthcare reform for our brothers and sisters down in the US: if it won’t benefit everybody all of the time, then there’s no use in even trying.  Of course by that reasoning, nobody should ever try to do anything because there is nothing in this world with a 100 percent guaranteed success rate.  Hurray for reason!

#3: What Gives You the Right?

In the movie SURROGATES Bruce Willis is a dick.  Maybe not Bruce Willis, but he can serve as a surrogate for the target of my ire in this case.  The end of the movie when he makes the decision for everybody in the entire fucking world to destroy decades of technological achievement might have been easier to swallow if he had actually put some thought into it and tried to intelligently balance out all of the pros and cons.  But instead, he’s sad because he feels disconnected from his wife mostly because of the death of their son, which has nothing to do with the surrogates in the movie at all either directly or even thematically.  He wants to reconcile with his wife, so he figures facilitating a large-scale aspect of cyber-terrorism for which he will surely end up spending the rest of his natural life being water-boarded in Guantanamo Bay and fucking with the lives of billions of people is an acceptable course of action to take.

No wonder this guy is fucking estranged from his wife.  What a self-centred prick.  Besides the moral and philosophical implications of infringing on the rights of individuals to make their own choices, he didn’t stop to consider any of the potential consequences.  With the use of surrogates, we might have been able to explore the depths of our oceans or travel to other dangerous terrain to gain more scientific knowledge about our world. We might have been able to use surrogates to expand our exploration of space and the colonization of other worlds. People might have been able to safely complete previously dangerous jobs that put them in physical jeopardy with the ease of watching Jeopardy! on TV.  Also, some people’s lives might have actually improved through the use of surrogates. There might have been some paraplegics or quadriplegics who might have actually welcomed the chance to walk again.  Maybe somebody with severe physical deformities might have been able to overcome their reservations and gain access to social interaction that they may have thought impossible.  But no, just because Bruce Willis doesn’t like the technology, that means there was no benefit whatsoever.  Fuck him.  Fuck him up the goat ass.

It never occurred to him that maybe he was the one who was being unreasonable by not respecting his wife’s wishes. She--and most everybody else--seemed perfectly happy with the benefits that the surrogate technology provided.  I’m not saying that the technology as it was presented in the movie was perfect, but I just wonder why the filmmakers were running under the tired assumption that technology that employs the use of avatars or pseudonyms like surrogates or their modern technological equivalents like the Internet is somehow disconnecting or dishonest or socially detrimental in some way.

Some people may intentionally try to mislead others through the use of various digital media, but that’s no different from any other fucking social context.  People have been maliciously dishonest with each other before the advent of the Internet.  Why was there no discussion in SURROGATES of the potential benefits of interacting through avatars and how potentially empowering it could be like I outlined above? 
Oh my god, how do I shut off this terrible fucking movie?
Besides that, what about the practical implications of disrupting such a ubiquitous technology?  My first thought after Bruce Willis shut down the grid was “What about the fucking airplanes?”  They were most likely being piloted by surrogates, and so almost every plane in the air at the time the virus was uploaded that disconnected people from their terminator bodies probably crashed. There were probably no living people on the planes, but there were most definitely living people on the ground where those planes might have randomly crashed. What if there were surrogate firefighters rescuing real people from a burning building or surrogate doctors performing life-saving surgery or surrogate workers at nuclear power plants that might suffer from some catastrophic Simpsons-style meltdown without people there to monitor them?  
There was absolutely no thought given throughout the movie to any other viewpoint than technology separates us and makes us ugly on the inside.  The real irony is that in an attempt to try and explore what makes us human, SURROGATES actually does the opposite.  Not only does it rail against technology which is actually the cornerstone of the human experience, it completely obliterates any notion of free will.  By the end of the film, we’re supposed to sympathize with agent Greer and his decision to allow the deactivation of the surrogate technology making the choice for everybody when earlier in the film Greer’s partner agent Peters looked mortified when the resident FBI computer nerd interfered in much the same way on a localized scale to prevent a rape.

And that was really the moral question at the heart of SURROGATES, even though the filmmakers themselves seemed totally unaware of it.  It was that balance between power and responsibility that even SPIDER-MAN dealt with in a more mature and meaningful way.  A huge part of what “makes” us human, especially in the modern perception, is our ability to choose for ourselves.  Self-determinacy.  And in its effort to disseminate its anti-technology propaganda, SURROGATES actually shat on two of the things that truly make us who we are.  At least they nailed a third one: a tendency to act against our own best self interests even amidst all tangible evidence and logical thought.  One out of three ain’t bad, I guess.


I wasn't expecting a whole lot from SURROGATES, but I was definitely expecting more than this shit.  SURROGATES is at best a 3/10 = One Oddly Transfixing Blonde Bruce Willis Head Being Shot With a Future Redneck's Trusty Shotgun.


  1. Great, now I have to re-watch this terrible film just so I can enjoy hating it on a whole new level. Thanks!

    1. Happy to perform this small civic duty. Enjoy your hate-viewing, and feel free to spread the word.