Nineties nostalgia sees the collective consciousness turn to simpler times; the pre-digital age that was a cornerstone in speculative fiction. It was the decade that gave rise to the cyberpunk subgenre and its pluckier, more optimistic cousin – the Y2K aesthetic. Here, distant futures were exactly that, and the world we’ve evolved into is a satire of our own predictions. eSports are a lucrative career pursuit, breath masks are fashion accessories, and artificial intelligence is coming along in leaps and bounds. Sci-fi is no longer the speculative sounding board it once was. We instead inhabit the shades of the world we imagined just two decades before.
Ghost in the Shell (GITS), Masamune Shirow’s seminal cyberpunk manga, came out of Japan’s technological revolution, when the nation’s tech was synonymous with excellence and innovation. Through time and erasure, this meaning has fallen into obscurity as the franchise adapts to the changing world around it. Even by the time we get to The New Movie, these themes are positively passé. The forthcoming live-action movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, seems to have done away with this idea, offering instead a simplified through-line concerned more with the state of humanity in a technological world, than technology in a human world.
If anything indicates the shift between the nineties and now, then it’s the adjustment in attitude, with the argument focussed on what role humanity will play in the digital world. Ghost in the Shell is no longer a speculation on the state of our future technology, mediating on the amalgamation of flesh and tech, but rather a reflection of the world as it is now.
How soon is now?
We’ve discussed Elon Musk before on the blog, and his ideas have caught the zeitgeist, with a mix of dizzy optimism and terrifying insights. His earlier claims that humans were probably living in a simulation were one thing, but he now argues that in order to stay relevant, humans must become cyborgs. We’re through the looking glass, leaving Ghost in the Shell struggling for meaning and relevance in a world it predicted.
Musk isn’t the bearer of bad news, as industries across the board have expressed deep-rooted fears that artificial intelligence and automation herald mass job losses. It’s the inherent irony of robotics, that instead of playing god – i.e. creating life in our own image – we make our creations better, and bemoan the consequences later. Vying for relevance in this new paradigm means redefining what it means to be human, and jump-starting the next chapter of our evolution. In Ghost in the Shell, set in a near future, we’ve already arrived at a vastly different time where humans are linked with technology, both physically and psychologically.
As far as the economy is concerned, it makes little difference whether one process or another is realised by man or machine, already suggesting the redundancy of flesh. Musk argues that we as humans must augment ourselves through a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence”. He claims that if we fail to develop in this way, that we’ll become subservient, totally reliant and vulnerable to artificial intelligence.
The arrival of Ghost in the Shell in its original manga form came before the commercial rise of the internet, when the CD was the height of consumer electronics. Mamoru Oshii’s movie adaption followed some six years later, when the internet had been adopted with aplomb, and its possibilities were beginning to be realised. Within the story, human minds are technologically augmented, able to connect to one another. The idea was revolutionary, especially at a time when the web was viewed with suspicion by some, and outright condemned to failure by others. Yet in a world of increasing interconnectedness, where we wear literal computers on our wrists, this idea has become reality. Even the cybernetic beings in GITS relied on wires, rather than the pervasive wi-fi and mobile networks we enjoy today. The burgeoning internet of things (IoT) is testament to the capabilities of wireless technology, with GITS looking outmoded in comparison.
Re-contextualising Ghost in the Shell
Combing human wetware with technology – or ‘neuroprosthetics’ – is still some way away, but there have already been tentative steps. Brain-computer interfaces have, for example, been able to restore motor function to paralysed patients, and enabled communication in others with locked-in brain injuries. The abstract is for this technology to allow us to communicate ideas telepathically, or give us extra memory or night vision – a better human being, in other words. From what we already know, Hollywood’s forthcoming Ghost in the Shell sees cyborg cop ‘Major’ (Motoko by any other name…) learn of her former humanity and try to find out why she was made this way. The struggle to define our humanity in a digital existence, outpaced by artificial intelligence, is no longer a sci-fi narrative; it’s contemporary, leaving Ghost in the Shell a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there’s a lasting relevance for the franchise in this landscape, then it’s the idea of hacking into consciousness, and even that notion is no longer the far off concept it once was. But that’s a deep dive for another post.