Cyberspace, the nervous system of machines?
In 1999 when the dust had settled after the Matrix (1999) had made its mark, it had set the tone for follow-up science fiction films; it had raised the bar through its rich and intricate narrative as well as through the special effects it incorporated. Today we have inherited films such as Equilibrium and Minority Report which deal with human uprising against the machine, a theme explored in the Matrix (in essence the entire saga deals with this phenomena) and which is very central to the its message. Does Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogate (2009) represent a theme to be explored in detail by other motion pictures in the coming decade – in the twenty teens? Opening up a path towards the discourse of how humanity will one day fight to dislodge itself from its machine dependency. In the Matrix the machine had taken over and enslaved the human race and in order to fight back humans have to be plugged into the machines; the internet to duel. War takes place in the nervous system of the machines, in cyberspace. In Surrogates the narrative occurs in the grey area of that humanity’s enslavement by the machines. The climax of the narrative is the destruction of machine dependency, of surrogacy itself.
Suppression of feelings is an answer to peace?
In Equilibrium we were introduced to a world where feelings have been outlawed. Feelings are seen as stumbling blocs to the achievement of peace. In an attempt to reach a peaceful existence a drug ‘prosium’ is introduced into the soceity to be taken at various intervals of the day to suppress feelings. The protagonist (Preston) is part of a new order that curb out sense offenders and eliminate them by processing (execution). In the development of the narrative he will steer off the path by mistake and get a glimpse of what ‘feeling’ is, from then onwards never to use Prozium looking back so to speak (or in the context of the motion picture never be on the drug); he then tears apart, the system he had sought to uphold and protect, from the inside – freeing humanity for good.
What is it that deflects the flow of the narrative away from the monotonous rhythm of balance set out by the first few minutes of the film? The in-cry for human liberation from absolute control by the ‘other’, freedom from an established order that has come to dictate how life should be lived and experienced. We first witness it when Preston, confronting a haunting memory of the loss of his wife for the first time with un-suppressed feelings, realizes that the whole setup of outlawing feeling is rather limiting and that it is falsehood to life experience. In Minority Report another utopian idealized world is represented, a world where crime can actually be stopped before it happens, thanks to the psychic powers of unique so called ‘three miracles’ which consists of a set of twins and a girl who were discovered by the state to possess the powers of precognition and a new crime fighting division – Precrime – was established around them to help fight crime by stopping it before it happens. When the three miracles predict that the protagonist (John) will commit murder; he seeks to prove his innocence thus running in direct collision course with the future murder event, simultaneously proving that the system that he has been led to believe in and uphold as a custodian is faulty. One can consider the ultimate blow as the one where the viewer discovers that the man who runs Precrime had set John up so that he can solely run the new crime fighting industry solehandedly. The foe, at the closure of the motion picture having realized that his selfish motives have been unearthed kills himself instead of killing John. This reinforces the fact that the system has a glitch. In the final analysis we learn that our future actions no matter how cruel or well intended they may be, they are govern by choice. And choice, we may agree, is a forever evolving entity as move towards what we want. As humans we are bound to change our actions, no matter how devious the primary plan may be, we may choose not to go ahead with it or to do it. In Equilibrium freedom is gained when Prozium, once revered to have liberated humanity, is no longer used, for not to feel robs away one of humankind’s unique gift in his symbiotic relationship with his family, community and the world at large – sensitivity.
In Minority Report Precrime gets shut down. This gives humanity the choice to choose how the future turns out. For by being arrested before you commit a crime removes the essential part which is in opposition to the acting on the criminal act, choice, walking away without harming anyone or stealing or killing your self. One can always change one’s mind which is a human right to be upheld at all times by our civilization. In Surrogate we are introduced into a world where humanity has retreated into the dark corners in search of safety – their homes and their experience of the world is through humanlike machines. Well the procedure is remarkably simple. Apparently in the not so distant future we sit cropped on chairs which look like those of the dentists and through what look like an evolved head phone stereo we plug our ears and eyes into a computer generated gizmo-gadget that ensures that our fingers manipulate our machine counter part in the outer world. Moving out of our bedroom and going to work on our behalf. These machines can be stored in our bedroom or simply tucked away somewhere in a street corner not far from the train station or bus stop from whence we can plug in and be turned on and navigated to work. Through this Neo-Cyber machines human mortality has been curbed by 100 percent – ensuring longevity to the operators of the puppets for no harm can come to them. Harm starts and ends with our Cyber-puppet counterpart; our machine self. And there is also an added benefit; one can choose their Surrogates to be young, old or identical to themselves or to be a woman, why not?
Against the Virtual
Having a Facebook or Myspace or Twitter account and other social networking utilities available today has partly laid the foundation for the possibility of an ‘accident free existence’, as much as it has had positive results to business ventures and the idea of getting in touch with the world at a global level; it has also thrown the idea of privacy into stark relief. Both ¹Slavoj Žižek (1996) and ²Paul Virilio (1997 & 2000) caution us and comment on the acceleration of the computer generated world and forecast its tricky and sometimes fatal consequences.
The film Surrogates shows you such a world gone concrete.
While the two philosophers takes on the virtual space and its consequences, the film Surrogates takes a radical stance and visualize that ‘accident free world experience’ through the machines. When ‘the machine experience’ invades real space, the societal space – we cannot speak terms of ‘real society’ when we speak of ‘interaction’ for interaction itself would’ve been rendered artificial by the bowing in of the machine interaction vehicle into the real social space. The world of being here or there without being here or there would be erected before our very own eyes. This then will connote a fact that social interaction in the universe of causality without leaving your home will move from cyberspace (in the sense of our contemporary period where social networking utilities in cyberspace dominates the interaction space) into causal space (the near future period where the machine becomes a vehicle utilized to carry our interaction on a humanoid level) – this can occur in the upcoming historical space.
This upcoming historical space is an ‘accident free world’ where nothing can ever happen to you except through your concretized virtual self – ‘your machine stand in’. This brings to mind the sentinel Smith’s words in the Matrix when he said to Morphious, during an interrogation as to the location of Zion (the last retreat of humanity), that the history of humanity belongs to the machines since the machines started to do human jobs for the humans at a certain point in life; that the moment that occurrence took hold humanity lost its claim to history. In the future world of Surrogacy (machine vehicles), when causality inevitable does take place, the world will be experienced via your cyber-puppet. Your experience will start and it will end there, with your cyber-puppet leaving you entirely cushioned from harm of the real event. Physically that is; the film does not have the same rhetoric as that super text the Matrix where it is asserted that the mind never forgets. However it presents into the plot a malicious virus that has the capability of destroying the Surrogate and killing the operator. Thus this causes the expulsion of the accident free utopia that our future counter parts seemed to have come to cherished.
Like in Minority Report the protagonist in Surrogates has lost a child and is estranged to his wife. They live in the same home but they hardly ever see each other, in the real meaning of the term ‘see’. At least we can infer that their surrogates may bump into each other now and then, and I mean that word in its double connotation. On a serious note what we recognize as far as Tom and his estranged wife are concerned is that she upholds this cyber-puppet experience of reality whereas he seeks the full experience of human interaction. The protagonist like the one in Minority Report is part of the System that enforces the law, he is the lawman of the future. When he loses his machine counterpart in a crook chase and having realized that what the crooks have in their hands could prove fatal to the surrogacy world view his disillusionment in the cyber-puppet world interaction is further reinforced and he enters the world as himself not as an operator. By so doing a chain reaction is set in motion in which he will tear the system from inside due to the now existence of a fatal glitch.
I shall go no further than the steps I have taken in terms of showing how this ‘film’ continues the path laid bare by the Matrix a decade ago after Equilibrium as well as Minority Report, least I give away everything and ruin the viewer’s experience when the time comes to experience the text.
What I actually wanted to make clear was that if ten years ago the Matrix introduced a new type of war (between man and machine) that looms somewhere in the not so distant future; Surrogates takes another step further in the shadows of other Sci-Fi films dealing with human insurrection against machines; and that in order for us to find parallels in our contemporary period we need not look any further than the internet puppets of our selves which we have erected through various social media utilities. The point is if we forget that our digital selves are not real; this will be the beginning of a process of our digital selves which may one day find expression in a concretized form – which might be machines – our Surrogates.
One thing for certain that texts which deal with this dilemma of human experience captivity or liberation by machine experience are trying to surfaces to us is that our human nature should not be eclipsed by this new found ways of living. We are the one’s who are in charge not our virtual selves.
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2010
1. Žižek, S. 1996. The Indivisible Reminder: On Schelling and Related Matters. Verso. The reader may find chapter 3: Quantum Physics with Lacan, of interet to the content dealt with here in the present essay.
2. Virilio, P. 1997. Open Sky. Verso and Virilio, P. 2000. The Information Bomb. Verso. In the two texts respectively Virilio continues to investigate and meditate on our contemporary society’s proliferation of the ‘Information Highway’.
Films referred to
Mostow, J. Surrogates (2009). Touch Stone Pictures.
Spielberg, S. Minority Report (2002). 20th Century Fox.
The Wachowski Brothers. The Matrix (1999). Village Roadshow Pictures.
At the closure of 2009, an interesting decade, I personally have start to witness a phenomena that is not surprising if one has been following sci-fi films. After Gamer, Surrogates and the epic Avatar one can’t miss out on the fact that more and more the artistic consciousness is starting to discourse new coming technologies and those available against human nature. A question seems to loom. What is precious in a forever environmentally depreciating world?