By Allen Stare

I did something this morning that reminded me of a Bruce Willis movie. Before I tell you what I did, let me tell you about the movie. I’m guessing it didn’t jump into your head when I mentioned “Bruce Willis Movie.”

It’s a movie from 2009 called Surrogates. Yeah…I’m pretty sure you’re going, “what, now?” Surrogates is a heavy-duty sci-fi thriller based on a series of graphic novels (you know…those really expensive comic books) of the same name. The comics…um, excuse me…graphic novels, came out in 2006.

The movie was a minor success at the box office. Critically, it was slammed pretty hard but I’ve always thought the premise was very cool. The story revolves around our ability to interact with the world through surrogates of ourselves. In the not-too-distant future, a robotic corporation has developed the technology to make life-like robots with some amazing remote control capabilities. You can have a robot created in the image of the very best version of you that you can imagine. Do you like how you looked in college? Give the surrogate company a picture, and that’s how your surrogate will look…only with better hair, perfect skin, whiter teeth, 6% body fat and toned abs. These “surrogates” look and act like real, actual people. Thanks to cameras in the eyes and microphones in the ears and voices activated by remote control, the surrogate robots interact with each other in public spaces while remaining under the constant control of a real, actual person who stays home.

The person operating the surrogate from home does NOT have perfect hair or teeth…and they tend to be a bit sallow, chunky and out of shape thanks to all of the staying home. The real flesh-and-blood non-robot people spend their days operating the surrogate version of themselves like they’re playing an elaborate version of “The Sims” video game. And, like any good gamer, I’m guessing these folks take in a fair amount of Doritos, burritos and Mountain Dew. Sure, they have to go to work…kinda. Their surrogate deals with the physical commute and then does their job, under their control, like some really awesome tele-commuter with perfect hair. Bored on the bus going to work? No problem! Just power down your surrogate and go grab a bowl of cereal. Once your surrogate arrives at your stop, power up and continue on your way. Outside of work, surrogates go to parties, go shopping, go dancing…anything you would do as an actual person out in the world is done for you by your surrogate. You control the action and experience it all from the quiet safety of your home.

There are big advantages to a surrogate only public space. Surrogates don’t sweat or create any other objectionable emissions, so there are no unpleasant odors on the bus or subway or while waiting in line at the ATM. Surrogates don’t spread germs and they aren’t affected by germs so there’s no worry about colds or flu. Surrogates don’t have any built in emotions. If somebody cuts in front of your surrogate in line at the post office, you can yell and scream back at your apartment all you want. Just don’t pass those reactions along to your surrogate. You can freak out while your surrogate stands passively in a serene and happy state until it’s their/your turn.

After establishing the premise, the movie turns into a really convoluted “cops-n-bad guys” shoot ’em up with a lot of double-crossing and political mumbo-jumbo. So it wasn’t a great movie, but the premise struck me as weirdly interesting. It was the premise of Surrogates that jumped into my head this morning.

What did I do that made me feel like I was in a sci-fi movie? I renewed my license plate sticker.

Have you done this? I did it the first time last year. It’s very handy and supremely cool. An emissary of Mr. Jesse White, the esteemed Secretary of the State of Illinois, sent me an e-mail saying my license plate sticker was about to expire. Would I like to renew my sticker on-line?

Oh, yes I would!

By clicking a link in the e-mail, I opened a web page where I was able to enter information about my auto insurance, confirm vehicle details, ownership and mailing address. Then I entered my credit card to pay for the renewal. I clicked “submit.” My new sticker will be in my mailbox in 5-7 days.

No, I didn’t send a life-like robot to the Secretary of State’s office…but look what I did! I’m sitting here drinking a cup of coffee in my sweats and I accomplished something that normally requires a trip…and a wait…and a line. The people working at the Secretary of State’s office are great. They’re polite, they work hard, they’re knowledgeable…but, come on, it’s the DMV! The DMV has been a target for comics for fifty years for a reason. You take a number, you have a seat in those tightly packed plastic chairs surrounded by a lot of sneezing, coughing, belching and…well…you know. You wait your turn while some guy yells at the poor DMV worker about renewing a sticker on a trailer he sold to his brother-in-law. Finally, you do exactly what I just did with a few mouse clicks.

I feel like I sent my surrogate to the DMV. Do I feel bad about it? Nope!

Ultimately (spoiler alert!) Bruce Willis destroys the surrogates and forces real people to emerge from their homes and interact with each other. The commentary is clear and heavy handed: we hide behind, and isolate ourselves with, our tech. For years technology has been blamed for society’s increasing isolation. We stopped talking to each other on porches and in our neighbor’s yards so we could watch Sid Caesar on television. Addiction to the screen easily shifted to computers and videogames in the 1980s and, ultimately, to the internet. The things we create…even when they seemingly promote communication…are actually keeping us apart.

Should we guard against slipping into a Surrogates-style society? Okay, I agree maybe we shouldn’t get that extreme with our isolation…but can we please keep the on-line license renewals?

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