Disconnect

Surrogates (2009, Bruce Willis) combines several technologies together for its pretense.

~ There are android robots.
~ These androids are humanlike enough that people don’t freak out when interacting with them. (They’re still easily recognized as robots)
~ An android can be controlled remotely by its owner (probably through an internet connection)
~ The interface for controlling the android is natural and intuitive, and immersive enough that some people even like having robot sex with other people’s robots.

These remote-control, human-like robots, called surrogates caught on much like cell-phones, so pretty much everyone has one (except counter-cultural Luddite weirdos). And everyone pretty much surrogates around (yes, that’s now a verb) and lives their life from the safety of their respective homes. A surrogate crosses the street so you don’t have to!

It’s an okay movie with some interesting ideas.

So in Surrogates there’s a part where Special Agent Tom Greer’s Surrogate (Willis) has been destroyed, so Greer (scruffy Willis) has to go out into the real world in the flesh to pick up groceries and continue investigating crime. Only now he’s in his own body and he’s really aware he can get hurt. So after years of surrogating, every passing car, every pedestrian whipping by, every strange noise is intensely visceral and alarming.

I’ve been there.* I’m kinda there right now. I’ve grown so used to having a cell phone that I feel naked and exposed and out of contact without it.

Here’s what happened: My prior cell-phone provider went out of business and gave us about a week’s notice (ending tomorrow!) I got a new provider and installed everything yesterday. But it hasn’t activated yet. I hope it’s not some technical error that’s going to take a week or three to solve.

Giving the new guys the benefit of the doubt, I expect the old guys are being apathetic about assisting evacuees, especially if they’ve already laid a lot of people off. So I’m waiting for them to free up my phone number so the new guys can activate it. Allegedly it can take a couple of days.

In the meantime, I’m connected when I’m at home or a cafe lends me some WiFi love, but when I’m in the in-between, on the streets and in transit, I’m all alone with no phone and no SMS and no internet.

In Surrogates the inventor of the surrogate tech feels that it’s made human beings worse for all their surrogating. He opines that humans have gotten soft and squishy and stay safe, but they don’t get out to breathe the air and look at trees and keep their eyes to the frontier like real men should. I think this was supposed to be a Luddite tech-is-bad message which I think is too generalizing.** But I may be giving a summer sci-fi blockbuster too much credit. Still, at this point a question is raised: Am I too dependent on my sweet, sweet smartphone?

Realistically, I missed these things even before I had them. In the era of land-lines and pay-phones, I would become terribly anxious being late for an engagement and having no way to forewarn people. Transit delays would drive me batty, partly due to co-workers and managers who did not forgive lateness even due to light-rail failures on the news.

It’s not just me. Society was different for the lack of connection. Prior to cell phones, it was customary (among my colleagues and I) to assume that an hour was officially late (not merely transit delays), and two hours was a wash (It’s time to go home. Someone flaked or landed in the ER).

It’s actually refreshing nowadays that anything more than fifteen minutes late is generally forewarned by a phone call or a text. For those friends of mine who are particularly fastidious about time (or enjoy the anticipation of my arrival) I can text my waypoints so they know where I am and if I’m suffering delays, where and what that’s all about.

So, really, no, it’s a good thing that we’re all connected now. I got a cell phone as soon as one became affordable. And then my primary cause for getting internet-in-transit was to check real-time public transit routes.

I’ve heard (or read) a lot of arguments that because of the new cellphone fad (trend, whatever) we don’t connect with each other anymore. Sometime even people lament the loss of the bus-stop conversation with strangers since we focus our attention on our devices.

That hasn’t been my experience. People never talked to each other much on the bus anyway. Now they talk to someone they know.

In the 80s and early 90s, people jammed themselves into a metro car too tired to talk to strangers or even to care who they were pressed up against. The eight people I was caught between were all as lonely and withdrawn and desperate to get home. I think a crowded street-car full of tired workers is a really lonely place. These days, these commuters are listening to their own music and chatting with their boyfriends / girlfriends and giggling at their shared inside jokes. There’s a lot more bus-giggling in 2015 than there was in 1990. To me, that’s a sign we’re more connected, and we’re connected to people we care about.

Of course, to be forthright, all this is anecdotal from one guy’s observations in San Francisco, a single metropolitan area. I don’t know if New York City’s Subway passengers are or were chattier, or there were dance parties all the time on the Chicago El in the early 90s that faded with the proliferation of the smartphone. Like my technology-adverse rivals, I’m only guessing that having phones by which to stay connected to sweethearts makes our commutes more bearable. I have heard rumors that in London cafeterias a total stranger will sit next to you and completely chat you up, but I don’t know if that’s still the case now that everyone is connected by cell phones. It’s a whole different country.

What I do know is that I’ve become quite comfortable with reliable communications, and that I don’t like — and have never liked — traveling in complete blackout like I’m passing behind the far side of the moon.

* Actually, I had an experience really close to this the last time I tried to reduce my current SSRI medication. Suddenly the outside turned into a giant real-world game of Frogger because everything zipped by super fast and almost hit me. According to my psychiatrist, this is a withdrawal effect of the medication, but it’s not supposed to be that severe even when tapering. We decided I should stay on my current dose.

** The discussion of technology making humans softer and squishier is a sizable philosophy topic that occupies professors for semesters at a time. I’ll probably blog about related stuff more at some other date with the disclaimer that I don’t know the answer. Here’s an early chunk of that dialogue: The step towards softer, gentler, kinder humans started the moment we planted a seed or corralled a creature for utility, and if it weren’t for this step, we’d still be hunter-gatherers with no (hope of) comprehensive health care or centralized disease control.

Also, completely inoffensive technologies often result in more risk and more tragedy. For instance, the Safety Lamp was a mining lamp meant to only flare (burn brightly) when pockets of volatile gas were encountered, dispensing with the need for mining canaries and preventing explosions when the pockets hit fire before they agitated the canary. The end result was that miners were pushed by their foremen to dig deeper until they’d get killed instead due to insufficient pillaring and mine collapses.

A sobering dissertation on technology and human dependency on it (for good and for ill) is discussed in the TV series and book Connections by James Burke.

The NextBus GPS-powered bus prediction service started as independent oversight of SF MUNI, since the SFMTA developed the policy of promising more buses on a line than they would deploy, and eventually the public caught on that MUNI coaches were always late and slow and crowded. Over time, NextBus expanded to include other transit services in the Bay Area and then crossed over to other municipalities. But yeah, it started here because the SFMTA corruption was here.

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