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Surrogates : A little too true to life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When l was an astronomy teaching assistant in grad school, some of my students would look through the telescope eyepiece at Saturn, pull back as if they didn’t know what to make of it, look again, and ask: “That’s really Saturn? It’s not a picture? A projection?” Some insisted on looking down the telescope tube from the other end to convince themselves they really were peering across millions of miles of open space. I had sympathy for them. Eight hours a day of staring at a computer screen makes it harder to apprehend the world when we see it for real.

We all complain about our ambivalence with modern technology. I’ve think I’ve given myself acquired attention deficit disorder by staying connected all the time. But it’s hard to scale back without giving up many of my relationships (not to mention my job). “You can easily find yourself sucked into the vortex of spending hours a day staring at a computer screen,” says Jonathan Mostow, the director of the film Surrogates, which opens tomorrow.

I saw an advance screening this morning, and it captures this ambivalence. Like the graphic novel on which it is based, it imagines a world of robots: not autonomous ones, but remote-controlled ones. People stay home, send their robots out, and live their lives through them, creating a physical version of Second Life or The Sims. The film plot is an unsubtle detective story, with a dose of the father angst that every film seems to have these days.

But to me it was the allegory that made the film worthwhile (that, and seeing the youthful avatar version of Bruce Willis). The film hits a huge number of technological hot buttons, from the way that comment boards lower the standards of civility to the (SPOILER ALERT) conflicted feelings that many inventors of technology have for own creations. Over the past month, I’ve had very interesting conversations with the screenwriters, Michael Ferris and John Brancato, and director, Jonathan Mostow, and they’ll feature in an upcoming Sci Am podcast (which for technical reasons we haven’t been able to post yet).

“Science-fiction movies tend to be Luddites,” Brancato says. “They say, ‘Oh, here’s this great new technology, and isn’t it awful what it’s doing to us, and let’s destroy it.’” At least in this case the technology doesn’t become self-conscious and turn against us. Rather, it turns us against each other.

Film still courtesy of Touchstone Pictures





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  1. 1. Michael Hanlon 4:54 am 10/22/2009

    Mr Musser, I hope you see this before it gets micro-filmed. (Ha Ha). The newer blog at Observations entitled "Silent but Deadly….." sure does indicate that the general public is biting at the bit to have a surrogate existence, exemplified by this quiet car desire, the turn to digital communicati0ons rather than face-to-face,etc. I know, I should never use an etc. when enumerating a proof list, but I gotta go play with my robot radio controlled car.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Michael Hanlon 5:56 pm 12/24/2009

    Merry Christmas to you, George, and your loved ones.

    Link to this

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