One of the more interesting research and writing projects I worked on earlier this year was a chapter for a forthcoming book through Westminster John Knox Press on videogames and digital cultures where I presented some thoughts on a techno theology of cybersociality, the interactions between human beings over the Internet and through other digital technologies and what this might say about an expression of human nature in relation to the sacred as well. While we usually take them for granted, I find the increasing presence of these technologies in our lives of great interest, and they provide a number of considerations worth reflecting on. Given this research interest I was pleased to hear of Surrogates, a science fiction film that dovetails with these areas, due for release on September 25.
The film, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, presents a world not too far removed from ours in terms of digital and robotic technology wherein individuals are “plugged in” and interact with each other not through social networking Internet sites or avatars in digital worlds like Second Life, but through humanoid robots created by Virtual Self Industries. Much like we choose avatars today to represent our ideal digital selves, in Surrogates individuals can choose “perfect” robotic representations and feel whatever scenarios and fantasies their robotic surrogates experience. This leads to people spending most of their lives lived through their surrogates in a utopian world of pleasure without suffering and crime. Along the way someone hacks into the system and uses the surrogates to commit murder, the first seen in fifteen years. FBI agent Greer, played by Bruce Willis, launches an investigation into the crimes, only to uncover a conspiracy, and through the process comes to question what it means to be human and the human-robotic relationship.
Although the sci-fi premise and scenario of Surrogates might seem far removed from our own circumstances it may not really be the case. Consider our fascination with "pseudo-events," the play revolution fueled by digital entertainment, and posthumanism. In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage, 1992), historian Daniel Boorstin argues that Americans live in an “age of contrivance” and that our public lives are filled with various “pseudo-events” or “artificial products” that simulate reality and which leave the individual who experiences the events or utilizes various products feeling as if they have experienced reality when in fact they have had their stereotypes confirmed by an encounter with the simulation. In addition to our experiences with pseudo-events, recall the great amounts of time we spend on play, particularly in the digital realm. Play is becoming an increasingly significant facet of life in those parts of the world where economic factors allow it to be so. This is particularly the case with the continued popularity of professional sports, and a new dimension of play has arisen with the increasing numbers of people spending time in various virtual worlds in cyberspace, such as Lineage, Gaia Online or Second Life. In his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), Edward Castronova believes a "fun revolution" is underway that will change the way in which we behave in the "real world." He says that, "An understanding of fun will become integral to understanding why the real world is losing people [to virtual worlds], and what to do about it." Finally, there are the discussions of transhumanism or posthumanism where the combination of robotics and human consciousness are seen as the next steps in human evolution and societal development. When the concepts of pseudo-identity, the large numbers of people spending great amounts of time in cyberspace or in other forms of digital entertainment, and posthumanism are taken together, it is not too much of a stretch to conceive of a future wherein people play or live their lives immersed in fantasy scenarios through robotic avatars as in Surrogates.
Given the subject matter, and advances in various digital and robotic technologies, perhaps this film will function as a combination of Westworld and the Blade Runner for the 21st century. In addition to the sci fi-thriller aspects of this film I am looking forward to the issues the film will raise as it touches on our deepening relationship with digital technologies, simulated and synthetic experiences, and concepts of virtual and "real world" identities as well as idealized selves. (On issues related to avatars and identity see Mark Stephen Meadows's I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life [New Riders Press, 2008].) I have added this movie to my growing list of fantastic cinema for the fall.