Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dissociation as addiction

I watched a movie over the weekend called Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. The movie itself is bad, a classic case of a good idea marred by poor writing and direction. But the premise is worth exploring.

In the not-so-distant future, technological advancement in the West enables people to engage their world through humanoid machines, which they control remotely from home. “Surrogacy,” as it’s called in the movie, is the ultimate realization of vicarious living. Imagine never having to leave your house to go to work or do chores. Imagine, despite your age and/or physical limitations, the “face” you show to the world is flawless, unmarred by physical and emotional scars. Imagine being removed from the immediate consequences of your actions: By controlling your surrogate from home, you can yell at your boss, pinch a girl’s butt, or leapfrog cars in traffic at no risk to your real person.

The hero Greer’s wife refuses to leave her room, preferring to interact with her husband via the medium of her sumptuous surrogate while her health and body deteriorate. No doubt the surrogate satisfies the husband in ways she can’t, but Greer knows the difference. He cannot love a machine, no matter how human it looks. Without affection sex is merely orgasm, achievable easily enough on his own.

This dissociation of husband and wife will signal the final victory of technology and media over human interaction. I knew there was a good reason why people walking to class listening to their iPods and talking on their cell phones bothered me in college. It’s gotten worse with Blue Tooth and smart phones. These are implements of self-absorption, insulation to buffer inputs from the user’s surroundings. The surrogate impedes all input. Each machine is a nuclear individual operating autonomously, imbued with the distant user’s substitute reality. Cooperation among the machines is prudential; community is sterilized.

It’s not hard to see how most people would become hopelessly addicted to surrogacy. After all, don’t most of us who are perfectly capable of going to the bank prefer to do our banking online? What started as convenience morphs into reliance and dependence. We may say we’re better than that, but our denials sound like those of the alcoholic sitting at the bar drinking lemonade. Eventually temptation wins.

Inadequacy, real and imagined, is the fuel of addiction. Deprived of his surrogate, walking down the street reminds Greer just how inadequate he is. Surrounded by perfect human bodies—beautiful, strong, driven by unknowable forces—he can’t escape the feeling he is an ant walking among giants. He could survive in this world, just as his wife could survive outside her room, but why try?

It’s difficult to maintain discipline in a world that rewards immediate gratification. The best way to avert succumbing to temptation is to stay away from it altogether. In the movie, a pseudoreligious sect rises, reminiscent of the Luddites, who in the 1800s destroyed automated looms because they priced skilled textile workers out of the market. They form secluded enclaves to preserve their way of life, unaided by surrogates.

Can you blame them? I can’t. The basic assumption of technology in our modern era is that life is a burden. For many, at this point, material needs are infinitesimal. Spiritual needs are greater.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times reflects on a world in which technology has alleviated the material needs of life and created a rift in the civil society:

The decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.

Here the decline in work-force participation is of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship. Like many of these trends, it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity.

Whereas his focus is on workforce participation, the same point can be made about commitment of life and body to the world of real people and real work.

I’m open to your thoughts. What do you think?


Cross-posted at the Red Pill Report.

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