Giving Up the Ghost: Searching for Self in the Era of Big Brother

Ok, ok, I know I’m late to the party, but I just watched the magnum opus that is the ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ and I feel compelled to say a few words, as the film couldn’t be any more relevant than it is in 2014. Few films encourage us to question our identity as deftly. If we truly are just a collection of memories as ‘Shell’ argues, then who are we really, given the media bombardment that is life in the post-modern world? Is there a “we” outside of what is created for us? How much of what we consider to be our “selves” is simply a construct of commercial forces? What is real, and what is nothing more than marketing? And what does that mean in relation to our allegiances and values systems? Although there are no easy answers in ‘Shell,’ the inquisitions are haunting and difficult to ignore once they’ve been asked. We encounter the brave new world of the potential future through the eyes of Section 9’s Major Kusanagi, a government agent on a mission to find a cyber hacker dubbed the “Puppet Master,” a chase that inspires Kusanagi to question her own identity, purpose, and loyalty to the State.

One of the most pertinent questions the movie poses is whether or not Section 9, the future equivalent of the CIA/KGB/MI6, goes too far in its pursuit of the Puppet Master. Realists such as Hobbes and Machiavelli would argue that there is no “going too far” when it comes to State security; Section 9 is simply doing what it must to guarantee the survival of the collective, the State, the greater good. And yes, it could also be argued that violations necessitate secrecy, as the need to retain the legitimacy of the State is “justification” enough for its practice. However, if laws define a State, and the State cannot guarantee the secrecy of its violations, then it must be considered counterproductive and reckless for a State to violate those laws even to ensure “the safety of its citizens”; the violation would collapse the legitimacy of the State and would deteriorate its power. Better to change the laws than to violate them, and let the chips fall where they may. If the citizenry successfully revolts as a result, then clearly the State wasn’t fit to exist in the first place. The only caveat to this would be a differentiation of certain laws when pertaining to non-citizens within the State, but any State would be ill advised to make an enemy out of its own people. Prior to ‘Shell,’ the best example of an omnipotent State actor was found in George Orwell’s literary masterpiece, ‘1984,’ where the single party government of “Big Brother” defined, monitored, and manipulated the thoughts, words, and actions of each and every one of its citizens. Today, we see the United States government ambitiously pursuing a similar agenda, spending $2 billion annually on its National Security Agency’s PRISM program in order to conduct surveillance and data gathering not just on potential foreign threats, but on every American citizen, ostensibly to ensure the “safety” of Americans even as it tramples on the United States Constitution and American civil liberties that define American citizenship to begin with. Time will tell how these violations will play out in the United States, and therefore, around the world.

Of course, revolt or complicity both depend on the “perceptions” of the citizenry, and all State powers are therefore necessarily employed in avoiding such a costly and disruptive reaction whenever there is a possibility that a violation may be perceived. In ‘Shell,’ technology is used successfully to distract and engage citizens in a fantasy world that they cannot differentiate from reality. The garbage man’s constructed memories are a good example of this, as is Major Kasanagi’s brain implants; both are created in order to deploy citizens in efforts that advance the needs of the powers that be. But how is that any different than our post-modern world? Although brain implants aren’t as commonplace as in ‘Shell’ (that we know of) it could definitely be argued that the current elite form the attitudes and “collective memory” of society through the media, commercial influences, and the superstructures of their corresponding cultures. Onuf and Habermas both detailed in depth the power of language to define persons and situations, and to affect action on the world stage for the benefit of the ruling class. Language itself is a very compelling technology, as is the barrage of visual communication that modern man confronts on a daily basis. Studies have been conducted on the proliferation of realistic, war-themed video games on not only young minds, but on adults as well; and the advent of the smart phone and its easy and constant access to social media (Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, YouTube) with its accompanying incessant advertising and social commentary, surely has a defining effect on the collective psyche of the modern world, as more and more people around the globe are enjoying a level of communication unparalleled in the world’s history. Today, it is only too easy to plant a seed in that collective mind; once it goes “viral,” the influence is not only instant, it’s endless.

Deresiewicz’s argument about the importance of solitude in order to “secure the integrity of the self,” can easily be countered, as most psychologists would argue that human beings define themselves in relation to others, so that therefore the self cannot truly be formed nor can it exist in a vacuum. However, Major Kusanagi’s utilization of solitude in ‘Shell’ helps her to reassess the events in her life and how she perceives them, without the interference of even more data input or the direct manipulations of others. Often found contemplatively looking down at the city, or occasionally swimming to disconnect from the rigors of reality, these snippets of solitude give Kusanagi time to feel something other than what her programming allows, and spikes her interest in the Puppet Master, not just as a target but as a force. This drives her to want to know not just who he is, but also, why he is, why he does what he does, especially in light of the event with the garbage man.

Her solitude encourages her to question her own humanity, and even what humanity is. It solidifies her resolve to find the Puppet Master, not so much for the good of Section 9 but to quench her own curiosity about herself. This attitude towards solitude is in stark contrast to how solitude is perceived in our day and age, where the self is definitely defined by its associations to others, by its relation to the world around it. Solitude is absolutely socially undesirable, as anyone who has ever gone to lunch by themselves and has had to focus on their iPhone the entire meal can attest. If one is not constantly engaged in some type of social activity, either real or digitalized (or is often the case, both at the SAME time) it seems to garner the pity of everyone else around them; no one wants to be perceived as a person who is not constantly being emailed, texted, or phoned, because the implication is that one is therefore not important, loved, or desired enough to be in demand, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But that’s because the complete submersion into ‘the matrix’ of a technologically driven world hasn’t happened; we’re still in the ‘social’ stage of it, and the ramifications haven’t infringed on our privacy to a significant degree – YET. However, in the world of ‘Shell,’ it has; therefore solitude itself becomes a type of ‘prestige’ so rare that it is prized, albeit seen as a curiosity, or a potential hazard to the State.

The complete infiltration of technology into our lives has had a long history, and there is no question that our modern way of using, creating, storing, accessing, and communicating information would be impossible without the prior inventions of the wheel; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s “Binary Code” of 1670; Michael Faraday’s “Electric Motor” of 1821; Charles Babbage’s “Computer” of 1833; or Valdemar Poulsen’s invention of the “Telegraphone” in 1899 – the wheel obviously being the basis for all of our modern mechanics; binary code being the language through which computers are able to compute and to communicate; electricity being the life force behind all of our current technology; the computer obviously running everything from street lights to satellites; and recording being one of the vital functions of communication today. Without the contributions of these men, none of our current technology would be possible. And although the Internet existed when ‘Shell’ was released, it most definitely did not enjoy the prominence that it has in our lives today. “Hacking” was perhaps a potential threat in 1989, but in 2014, hacking has been elevated to a high art, crossing international borders and affecting everything from an individual’s ability to purchase a new home to the national security of entire nations. Had the Internet had the same impact on the world of ‘Shell’ as it does in ours, the destruction committed by the Puppet Master could have been much more extensive, but also, his capture would have perhaps been just as easy. Another technological advancement that has impacted the world since 1989 and the release of ‘Shell,’ is the cell phone, and more specifically, the “smartphone”. Had the smartphone been a technological reality when ‘Shell’ had been produced, it would have altered the event with the garbage man for one, since public phones would not have played a significant part of the plot; and it would have been infinitely easier for Section 9 to track down the Puppet Master through his digital imprint and extensive digital contacts.

Which brings us to, perhaps, the one moral of the story. Technology, like everything else in the natural world, is nothing but a double-edged sword; and a sharp one at that.


Latest Comments

  1. Matt Cunningham says:

    I’m glad someone new found that amazing property! The original is great, but the 2 series they made ask so many more prophetic questions that we’re living right now you really should check them out too. And the origin stories are all being released, one every 6 months or so, in theaters in Japan RIGHT NOW (the second one just came out last fall).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s