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Caprica, Gamer, & Surrogates: Overlooked Benefits of Virtual Worlds
Ben Scarlato   May 27, 2010   Ethical Technology  

In its first season, Caprica has done an excellent job of exploring the ethical issues relating to V-World (the virtual world created by the ultra-rich Daniel Graystone), looking at the dangers of becoming overly immersed in V-World, and whether an avatar constitutes a real person. Also in the past year, we’ve seen Gamer and Surrogates, two movies that explore some common themes with interesting parallels to those in Caprica.

In Caprica, Tamara Adama’s storyline is what gives us the richest opportunity to explore V-World. Killed in Zoe Graystone’s MAGLEV bombing, a copy of her lives on in V-World as an avatar. Her father Joseph, although he’d never used a holoband before, becomes obsessed in his quest to find her avatar, neglecting his son and turning to drugs to make himself faster in the game. Joseph says Tamara isn’t dead, because according to him the avatar is his daughter. At the same time, Tamara meets a man who’s obsessed with the game as it finally allows him to be something. Tamara suggests that maybe if he didn’t spend all his time in here he would be something out there.

But does virtual reality have to be about addictive escapism? Although she despises the sin and corruption in V-World that occurs when actions don’t have consequences, Zoe Graystone doesn’t think so. She thinks “there are better things to do with our technology. Like, maybe in V-World we should extend life.” Indeed, a virtual environment wouldn’t have to be a shallow reflection of our lives, and it can be hoped that such environments could give us new ways of connecting with one another and deepening the experiences and relationships we value.

In the future this could be accomplished with the aid of tools such as neuorotechnology, but even today cellphones and social media can create bonds that wouldn’t be possible otherwise and strengthen existing relationships. For instance, last year a Pew research report found that “ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks,” which are “a key measure of people’s most important social ties.” Moreover, this usually had no or even a positive effect on participation in local communities.

While we strive for that better future, we need to be cognizant of the risks involved. Perhaps of all the recent depictions of living lives other than our own, Gamer involves the most explicit negatives. In Gamer, some individuals are paid to be controlled while others pay to act as controllers, and games are played in the physical world instead of a digital one. Just as Caprica has the Bill Gates-like Daniel Graystone, Gamer has the mega-rich Ken Castle who created these games, offering people freedom from disease and a longer life in exchange for replacing a few of their brain cells with his nanotech cells.

The hero, Kable, is a prisoner who plays the game Slayer in a desperate bid for freedom, before being rescued by an activist group called Humanz. They tell him that although for now it is mostly desperate people who are giving up their real lives for the virtual, every day more people are “throwing away everything it means to be human.” Of course, Ken Castle is quite the villain and as is typical the most transhuman character in the movie:

“I’m wired too. I replaced 98% of my own noodle with nano-tissue years ago. But mine’s different. It’s built to send, to transmit, whereas every other nano-cell that I’ve put out there, including the ones in your head Kable, are designed to receive. I think it, you do it.”

Gamer raises several issues that we need to be vigilant about as virtual environments become increasingly prevalent, including the greater impact of computer viruses and losing control of yourself to a hacker. But it doesn’t provide a very good depiction of the potential benefits of virtual lives beyond the kind of sex and hedonism we see in Caprica. Surrogates does a slightly better job of illustrating the possible benefits.

In Surrogates, most of the human species no longer interacts with the world directly and instead lives through human-like, robotic surrogates. Originally designed as a medical tool to empower the disabled, the widespread use of surrogacy has led to the almost complete reduction of crime. It has also led to a society where everyone can be beautiful, and the inventor of the surrogates feels that this use for “everyday vanity” is a corruption of his invention.

However, it is not clear what is so terrible about letting people have the bodies they want, particularly when everyone has access to some kind of surrogate or another. Nor is it clear that the hero’s marital problems, which he attributes to surrogacy, could not just as well have arisen without surrogates.

Much like Gamer had the Humanz, in Surrogates the few remaining humans are called the Dreads. Their leader, the Prophet, says that when you sacrifice your own desires for the greater good, you never die, which is what it means to be human. Now, selflessness is admirable, but I much prefer working on common goals for each other, such as literal life extension, over an ideology of sacrifice. The Prophet also states that the Dreads give up modern pleasures to connect with themselves.

It is as if all these depictions of virtual lives ignore the potential to genuinely enhance interpersonal bonds. Particularly for those who would normally have difficultly forming such bonds, virtual worlds give them a new avenue to do so, but even for the rest of us, communities can always grow stronger.

Regarding Surrogates, Wesley J. Smith writes that the movie tells us “transhumanist escapism is pathetic, destructive, and ultimately, wholly dehumanizing.” Perhaps that was the intended message, but we shouldn’t let fear stop us from developing technologies such as those used in Caprica or Surrogates. The original intention for the surrogates had been as a medical device, and that is a much more real and immediate application than some dystopian fear that society could become overly-obsessed with hedonism and beauty.

What I found a lot more compelling than the threat of such a dehumanized society was seeing a woman who’d lost an lost an arm trying out an advanced prosthetic in one of the Blu-ray special features. The mini-documentary, called “A More Perfect You: the Science of Surrogates,” showed just how lifelike prosthetic limbs had become, such as some from Aesthetic Prosthetics which include the person’s fingerprints, and the CEO of Biodesigns talked about integrating electromechanical components under lifelike skin. Seeing the amputee try out one of these integrated prosthetics was really powerful.

Similarly, virtual reality doesn’t have to be a degenerate escape from the problems of realife; it can teach new ways of confronting our problems. One promising example of this is psychologist Albert Rizzo’s work, who uses virtual reality to help treat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Although we still have a long way to go (and Second Life continues to be overhyped), even in 2010 video games and virtual worlds are impressively immersive and realistic. It is important that we have a framework for how to deal with the risks and benefits of virtual worlds before they’re even more common, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Caprica explores topics such as uploading and V-World next season.

Ben Scarlato, a former IEET intern, studied Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology and works as a software engineer focused on security.


Although it was still a small study, James Hughes just posted a good article on the metaverse list suggesting that virtual reality therapy works better than typical talk or drug therapy for PTSD.

Great article..

Hollywood and TV sci-fi series have always played a major and important role in depicting both the positives and negatives regarding techno-futurism. However, ultimately they always seem to resort to the typical good guy, bad guy dualistic epic struggle and reduce everything to good/evil scenarios. This can be a danger when contemplating the emergence of new technologies. It seems that Hollywood is not content with promoting “healthy scepticism” it has to go the whole nine yards and resort everything to epic struggles of survival and dystopia?

For once it would be good to see the portrayal of a storyline that shows the “struggles” to promote a prosperous future with new technologies, (involving the hardships and obstacles faced in the journey towards successes), or moreover a few episodes in your favourite medical shows exploring the use of robotics and nano-techs which would help to promote a more positive outlook and acceptance for prosthetics and overcoming disabilities with technologies.

But hey.. that wouldn’t be exciting would it? No machine guns blazin’, no explosive finale? After all that’s what Joe Public only really understands? 120mins start to blockbuster finish. It is all a subtle form of “mind-less” control, yet who is it that is really mindless? Is it the paying public or merely Hollywood producers?

I see mind uploading as maybe the most efficient and cost effective form of longevity, both with its potential to effectiveness on resources and space, and of virtual existences within relative time. This is as long as we can utilise and maintain power sources that are both efficient and effective and non destructive to the environment, (and which do not benefit the few at the expense of the many) : like the Sun’s heat and light for example : a ready supply of available energy?

The challenges of mind uploading are great yet so are the rewards. We do need to explore the ethics concerning VR at every stage and with every new innovation. Only then can we ensure that scenarios such as “Gamer” do not lead the philosophies for these technologies?

Concerning Hollywood: The epic good/evil movies are that way because all stories involve conflict. They’re entertaining. The one’s that don’t are called “documentaries”.
Wouldn’t be much of a movie if they portrayed transhumanism without any kind of epic conflict, now would it?
I’d like to see an MMO set in a transhuman world, where the conflicts are more abstract/thought provoking than shooting stuff and grabbing loot, and yet at the same time highly engaging.
Tough cookie.

:0] @ ipan.. Exactly!

Every Hollywood blockbuster plays out the same, its what we have all come to be programmed to expect? Cats vs dogs, Humans vs transhumans, rather than humans are transhumans!

Fiction comes before fact and can be viewed a predictor of the future. it is not hard to imagine how avatars, both the pixel and the physical types, will become extensions of our humanity in the not too distant future. Do not stifle fiction by interspercing your little biases in an other wise excellent review…..Ben. Religion and SecondLife are worthwhile.

@iPan I’d like to see an MMO set in a transhuman world

Have you ever heard of Eve Online?

Movies like X-Men or Watchmen do not fall into that trap of representing the transhumans as the bad guys vs the good humans, yet they have plenty of appealing action sequences too. The problem with Hollywood movies is manicheanism, whatever the setting (transhuman or not); when it goes out of this simple-minded comfort zone, and introduces shades of grey, the result is much more interesting.

Movies like X-Men or Watchmen do not fall into that trap of representing the transhumans as the bad guys vs the good humans

So the constant war between the mutants and the humans completely escaped you? Xmen if anything is a prime example of a world divided and on the brink of war do to a major genetic social divide.

It is not good humans vs bad mutants.
There are factions. The mutants are sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes with their own agendas, very, well, human. Some use their powers for good, some for bad, some for selfish reasons, some to help others, or for the greater good, some don’t care, some wish they didn’t have powers, some would like everyone else to have powers. It’s a whole spectrum.

I agree there’s an entire spectrum of conflicts and alliances with humans and mutants, I was simply reacting to your comment of xmen being void of such memes.

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