Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Friday, July 11, 2014

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: First Gig (Holy Navel Gazing Batman Oh and Spoilers)

So I want to talk about my favorite western  animated movie. Except I already did. Titan A.E.

Ah good times.

So let's see what else do I have to work with? Screw it. Wagons East!

Let's get with that cyberpunk night I promised myself.

Okay so when ever I talk cyberpunk I'm probably going to name drop one of two things. But here is something you have to remember. I came of age in the minst of the anime boom so I didn't see Blade Runner until college. Cut me some slack. It was made before I was born. But you want to know what I did see.

Even then, while I like the movie, what blew my mind was the series, Stand Alone Complex. And it hit right around the time when I was becoming interested in computers and the internet was starting to look more or less like it does now.

See in the early 2000's the internet was starting to become a thing everybody had and used. You didn't have to explain what email was anymore you could just ask, "what's your email address". And the show seemed to be the best I'd seen at articulating all of the changes I saw around me.

How this non-physical space which until now was thought of as wholly separated from reality now was affecting the world in ways that could no longer be ignored as distinct from that reality.

This show reads like Nostradamus' quatrains.

And it was damn cool. Oh classic Adult Swim how I miss thee.

Seriously my 16-year-old head exploded.

Largely I think the reason was the world it created. Ghost in the Shell presents a world where the digital has been so integrated into society that it's impossible to view it as distinct from it. There is no longer a line separating digital avatars and the actions they take in that space versus their real world counterparts. And yeah that's where I thought and still think the world is headed. It's our future and arguably our present. I may have separate email and twitter accounts but all of them still represent different aspects of real world me as I act through them.

Let's Meet Section 9
So the show and the movie largely revolve around with the adventures of Public Security Section 9, a cyber-terrorism task force as they try to do their jobs.

That job is largely to protect the status quo, to keep the bad guy of the day from using, abusing, manipulating, or revealing the types of information that sort of networked world makes available for those with the skill and interest in it.

The first episode deals with the group trying to stop a terrorist from using a politician's, Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, sexual fetishes to kidnap him and pull a Manchurian Candidate by swapping out his brain case. Or in real world terms think about all the shit that could happen if President Obama's cell phone got hacked. All the texts, emails and tweets that would carry presidential authority before anybody figured out it wasn't actually him.

Which is why secret service protocol is the POTUS doesn't get a iPhone.

Almost nobody is going tell someone they think is the president no. Think of all the the crazy insan...that's the plot for another movie me thinks.

Alright but let's do this

Aramaki- He's the brains of the outfit. He's an older dude and doesn't do much field work but has the Rolodex-O-Power. Whenever our guys need assurances that they won't be punished for breaking protocol, going outside of the chain of command or eventually going after government corruption Aramaki, the Chief is the guy who makes it happen.

He also tends to be the smartest guy in the room and remember this is a political thriller featuring g-men, hackers, and cabinet ministers so that's saying something. The reason why he has that Rolodex-O-Power is because everybody knows he's probably the smartest guy in all of Japan at least when it comes to sheer clock speed. Once he has the pieces he can figure just about anything out, and formulate a counter plan that will take everybody else about 10 minutes of story time to understand let alone foil.

Despite that he's mostly in the background acting as the big good when the rest of the team can't figure things out by themselves. Since he's thought of as being the the country's intellectual powerhouse he's a busy guy and can't micromanage them. His showing up is normally the cue that things have the potential to get really bad and that somebody on the inside might be working against them.

The Major- She has a name, Matoko Kusanagi nobody calls her by it so I'm not. She is the face of the franchise and is normally the mouthpiece for all of its heady philosophy. Case in point in almost every version of Ghost in the Shell she is mildly insecure about the fact that she's a cyborg and her body is almost completely artificial.  Is this Robocop still human? How much of her is her. Or to get into specifics. She could choose just about any model that's functional but tends to stick with a female casing. Why? In a lot of ways she is the eponymous Ghost in the Shell.

That having been said while its still there that is not the focus of her character here. At least the human after all bit. For that watch the movie.

She's professional and somewhat aloof but when shit hits the fan it's clear her team matters to her. She's a cipher and a good portion of her arc is about her team figuring her out.  Realizing that though it might not look like it she is more than just the job. She may hide it but she does have it in her to be sentimental.

In a lot of ways her personality is like a younger more physical Aramaki. She's still smart, probably the second smartest person in any room featuring her boss but she is also the show's highest ranking field agent. In the action scenes she's the one leading the charge and giving commands.

Aramaki may come up with the plan but The Major executes it, flawlessly I might add.

Batou- He has a few roles. First off he's The Major's best friend being the only person to really call her by her name and as such is the person on the team most likely to give her the benefit of the doubt when the plan calls for some risks. He's the walking proof that she isn't the unfeeling robot the series makes her out to be.

All the same he is also probably the guy with the most military experience and questions authority the most often as he and people he cares about have been screwed over A LOT.

Overall the plot is about the team making the decision that the status quo, which it's their job to protect, on occasion isn't always worth protecting and he's the guy who is most outraged at government corruption as it is soldiers like him who end up paying the price when policy gets set by self-interest and personal greed. These are the guys he risks his life to protect and more potently cover for?

In general he tends to be the most emotional of the group. Everyone else is able to stay detached, stoic. But Batou feels. And through that feeling regrets. Why do people, why do we, keep making the same mistakes? When tragedy hits he's the guy who takes it the hardest because he feels he was in a position to do something about it and didn't.

Togusa: The thing about Togusa is that he has the least prosthetics and cybernetics of anyone of the team. The show downplays The Major's human after all act for Togusa's mild inferioity complex. This show was made nearly a decade after the movie and in this day and age not having computers puts you at a disadvantage.

All the same Togusa acts as the heart of the team. Without all of that "gear" risks for him are more real than they are to the rest of the team and everybody knows it.  When he says, "this must be done and if you won't I will" it signals how important things are, and can force the team to question themselves and enter action.

He also rounds out the team being the most normal of them. He's the guy who closest to the series' probable audience, a running joke is that he is a guy from another age, an old-school cop and family man who wouldn't feel out of place in Lethal Weapon, who holds his own among these machine men who can bench probably three times as much as he can.

While there are others on the team these are the most important and have the most distinct personalities.

Trans-humanism and Digital Dualism
So while there is a plot the first few episodes serve introduce the world and get the audience used to the series' motifs.

The big innovation of the series is cyberization. The interfacing of the human brain directly to computers by mapping and grafting the biological onto the digital. And what makes the series tech even more interesting is that they've taken it further. Since the human brain is basically a computer it can interface directly with other brains.

This is fundamental change in the human experience.

The mind apart from perhaps the body is the most intimate space I can imagine. One of my common idioms is "My head is a dangerous place". If I were to invoke God or something and go for a tree of knowledge metaphor, which I won't because the tech in this show is so damn cool and I don't like saying there are places science shouldn't go, this would be it.

Opening up your mind directly to the rest of the world is dangerous and the show explores that in depth but also relishes all the stuff it allows our protagonists to do. The entire world becomes a GUI but its more than that. Its complete augmented reality. Sounds, sensations, recorded thoughts and impressions. All of that can be used to improve the experience of life.

In this show a director who can't find funding creates the perfect movie in his mind. The movie is so splendid that people spend their entire lives interfacing with his brain preferring to die than walk out of the flick.

Still though a door once opened can be walked through in either direction.

The only thing keeping our brains from being hacked now is that we don't have machines that can interface with them and that acts as a natural firewall. If I really wanted to build the most secure network on the planet I would probably build it out of old gear nobody knows how to program anymore and is incompatible with modern languages anyway.  Of course that would severely limit its functionality, bringing into question the old security vs convenience dilemma. There is a reason why nobody still uses punch cards.

What happens when the mind itself is no longer private, when it rather than the body becomes the interface through which we interact with the world?

Since the transmission of data and ideas has become so easy we are living in a world where more and more those ideas and the minds that birthed them are less and less limited by the physical body. The sound of my voice is not bound by the the location of my mouth.

All the same the body isn't completely divorced from my concept of self. I am both more than my mind and more than my body. In a world where the tools we use to interact with the world are digital constructs and fabrications what role does our physical biological bodies play?

We are living in a world where the mind and the ideas it creates do on occassion live divorced from the body. I write a lot. Would it be possible after my death for somebody to reconstruct my mind from my recorded thoughts. THIS AINT CAPRICA MILES. Though there is that one episode where a South American guerrilla clones his mind and sticks the copies into prosthetic bodies to keep the spirit of revolution alive after his many assassinations.

Anyway like I said the show didn't have to work very hard to make it's point of digital transhumanism. That's not its purpose if your watching your probably already in the mindset to explore the division between the physical body and the digital mind. And that was what the movie and original manga were for anyway.

What You Know, What You Think You Know, and What Is
Part of me wishes J-schools would be bold enough to show this thing in class and analyze it. Part of Section-9's job is to deal with things before they get to the media. And we get more than a few information wars in this show.

Since Aramaki has everybody in his contact list he's generally the most informed about everything and has to make decisions on who needs to know what and also when he needs to straight up lie in order to manipulate someone for the greater good.

He has to predict what people will do with the information available to them and also assume everyone else is doing the same calculus as he is.   He's king of psyops and information misdirection. Like I said clock speed.

See as I said a lot of the episodes deal with political blackmail, so nobody wants to tell him everything even when not knowing is going to put his guys in danger or risk the operation. So as the group in the field finds stuff out he often has to bluff how much he knows and how much he doesn't to get a fuller picture, and on occasion also bluff that things are bad enough that he would or in some cases already has gone to the press, since we're talking some career ending stuff here.

Of course the press is mostly state controlled anyway so even then he has to do political calculus. How important is the g-man of the week to the political status quo and how likely is it the system will save him? How expendable are these guys?

Also how good is whoever he's bluffing at jumping through the same logic hoops he is. How well are they able to assess their own political importance and how much should he arm twist before the people around him realize he's got nothing.

Or on the other end of things if he overplays his hand he becomes more of a problem than a solution and even bigger fish might come around to swallow him whole. While people tend to keep him around because he solves problems they also don't like that they need him so there is always the chance that if he steps too far out of line scary things will happen. It's not paranoia when four out of five characters are espionage agents that probably hate his guts and would prefer to permanently seal the vault that is his mind. Though that's stuff is mostly the 2nd Gig (season).

The Laughing Man
I'll get to who The Laughing Man is later but right now I want to talk about what The Laughing Man is.

Anything digital can be manipulated. Especially in transit from one computer to another. It's that simple. The Laughing Man is a superhacker who has godlike power in this digital world because he can hack directly into people's brains. Again the transmission of digital data has implications for the physical world.

And we're not just talking about the obvious make 'em do what you want type deal. A hacker who's smart wants to infiltrate a system and gain access to its information. Sure a computer's credentials on a larger network might be useful but the valuable thing is the information and data contained within, and if a hacker reveals himself the opportunity to gain more of it will be lost as security is increased.  Or think about it like this. What if your head had a key logger. And we're not just talking your internal monologues. Every visual image of the eye, every sound of the ear, every sensation of the skin, every thought even the non-linguistic ones recorded and transmitted to an outside observer.

My point is that the dude is covert. Most of the people he hacks don't even realize it. Everyone's eyes literally act as his security monitors. And when he does decide to reveal himself he tends to do it in big showy dramatic ways that suggest if he wanted to he could unravel the entire government just with a few leaks.

He is Julian Assange four years before Julian Assange became a thing.

You want to know why people are afraid of that guy watch this show. Oh and the proto-metephor goes deeper but I'll get to that later.

He directly hacks into observers brains and any digital cameras and superimposes his logo over the face of whoever he's using as his puppet so nobody even knows what he looks like.

Since the guy is basically a digital god, in the omniscient, omnipresent sense, the powers that be are scared shitless.

It doesn't help that the guy has gone full on ubermench believing himself to be beyond morality or at least morality as espoused by the government. Well to be honest that's the show in general. As cops our protagonists, especially at first aren't really concerned about  the right or wrong of things. They're job is to enforce the law and protect the government. Morality has little to do with it. It's not their place to judge.

All the same and this the thing that makes him so scary and is key to the case, nobody understands his M.O. Why does he do the things he does? What are his goals? What is his endgame? What does he want?

When The Laughing Man is introduced, the show explains that he's been quiet for six years so nobody was expecting another incident, again adding to their fear when he does show up. You never know when he'll strike and he can't be bargained with.

The Major At Home
You know I want to talk about the scene where the Major is expositioning about the Laughing Man a bit. It's one of the few times we see the Major off the clock when she's reflecting on the case and as such reveals the most about her outside life of the job.

She's relatively well off living in a penthouse above the city, is a lesbian or at the very least is bi and is a bit of a hedonist when off the clock.  The big subtle reveal is that its implied that she's in a polygamous relationship with two girlfriends.

Part of me wants play a lot off that as fan service but it serves the purpose of telling us about who she is outside of the office.

"The Major" is a role she takes on at work, but isn't the whole of who she is.  And the same can be said about her home life as well. It's unclear how "serious" either of these relationships are yet its also clear that there is a genuine affection there.

Since her body isn't her body she doesn't have the hangups most people have about it. It's a piece of hardware to be explored. Or at least that's what I tell myself when she spends half of the series in a "camosuit" that requires her to be half naked, with the exception of a leather jacket over let's call it a tubetop and stockings. Oh god I am a pig.

That said for her character it doesn't feel as exploitative as it usually would since she has brains and a personality and is more than just eye candy. Also I feel all of that other stuff I mentioned is trying make an overt statement about how we attach unnecessary meaning to sexuality. The body is a nothing more than a physical tool to interact with the world but it is not her at least not the important irreplaceable part of her self.

Where We're Headed
While the plot of the show is about the laughing man the show takes its time exploring the ways in which the world has changed to give him so much power.  Let's explore.

Information Is The Reality
In order for society to work instructions and information have to be transmitted. And that transmission is often accepted as a proxy for its source or even its subject. Think about it like this. If I tell you to do something you don't think about the fact that before my voice reaches your ears it has to travel through the medium of air. I am still the one who gave you the command.

Since like it or not we live in communal society communication is necessary and that communication always travels through a medium. Is always transmitted. CAN ALWAYS BEEN HACKED!

How many times have kids played the well so and so "said it was alright game".  Kids don't think about communication theory! They don't think how the operator on the switchboard could control the ... (Miles you're at an eleven I need you at about four.  Remember that thing you said about not wanting to turn in to Izaya aka the guy who talks people into committing suicide by preying on personal information and nearly destroys his home town through rumor mongering both for shits and giggles. Don't be that guy. If Larry Page can control his inner Blofeld so can you. Dude don't be evil.)

Anyway this is made all the more clear by the political structures of the show. How and when they act is based on intelligence. The information they have on hand. It's not the reality they act on but rather the information. The information. The interpretation of available transmittable evidence, is what matters.

The Mind Divorced From The Body
Let's talk transhumanism for a moment. Transhumanism is the idea that sometime probably within our lifetimes the human body and by extension the human experience will transcend the strictly biological. Prosthetic limbs, pacemakers, hearing aids, and voice boxes are already common how long before more complicated organs and even the entire body become so as well.

Since people are no longer strictly limited by biology the body itself has lost some of its importance and is viewed as more of an interface or output device to allow the mind interact with the real world.

I never think of my monitor or my printer as my computer and view both as pretty interchangeable. Further more like with communication in general information has to be transmitted from the CPU to them. Somebody could totally screw with your display drivers and basically brick ... I got to try that..

What happens when people can swap their bodies which have become just another piece of hardware?

All the same those devices are still expensive. Part of the reason why Matoko joined the military in the first place is that when she was young her body was damaged beyond repair and her gig gives her access the best gear. She's keenly aware other folks are often not so lucky. Their minds, their self, is not so easily divorced from the body.

And despite herself neither is hers. Organ trafficking pisses her off something fierce. All the same the job often requires her to use another body when she goes undercover. Since she is going undercover and has to keep up the act it is really difficult to tell that she is herself and the show often asks the question is she.

Synthetic Manufacturing And The Internet of Things
So again we're in a world where the idea is more important than the physical product. For instance the instruction to build a product are often more valuable than the physical product itself because the template can be used to recreate it.  Or at the least create a satisfactory facsimile. Words are more valuable than paper because its the sequence of words on the page that give the book meaning.

All the same in the case of humanity can a facsimile ever replace the original. If I could create a perfect copy of myself would I be able to still call that copy me.  We would not just have the same body but we have the same thoughts as well. The exact same thoughts.  If two books contain all the same words in all the same order we consider them to still be the same book. But would we do the same with people?

Probably not because experience alters us. But let's look at things another way. Let's go sideways.

Fabrication of Identity
Early on it becomes clear that we might be dealing with a copy cat. That's the reason why its so hard to get a bead on The Laughing Man's MO. The reason why that can even occur is because identity itself exists. Like I said before in this world we communicate but lets go more broadly. We act. And those actions are almost always associated to a source. What made the laughing man interesting is that early on his actions never had a clear source. A clear agent.

Stuff would just happen. And in that way The Laughing Man didn't exist because he didn't have an identity. Since his actions weren't associated with him he did not act in the world.

Then he got angry and reckless. There are reasons. But later. The association between action and identity is in and of itself data that can be manipulated and when that association can be made. When it becomes clear that these actions do have an agent and that they can be associated to that agent they give him an identity. And that association itself can be hacked.  That identity can be hacked.

Okay let's say you have a guy who posts anonymously on a message board.  While he never reveals is name or any personal information it becomes clear that its the same guy because of certain ticks.  Since the only information anybody has about the guy are the posts those, posts become what identify the person as an agent. 

Since those actions don't have a physical body to be connected to the identity isn't of that of the physical author but of the abstract construct author.

This show predicted the future.

The Stand Alone Complex
But let's take it further. Let's say that thought is in and of itself an action. So is my identity merely the aggregate of all of my actions rather than any physical form? And if it is am I a sum of all the actions associated with me not just the ones that I initiate. My actions are the instructions. The blueprint for my identity.

What if I gave someone permission to tweet on my behalf. They in a sense would become me. Or is my concept of myself based wholly on my own will? I'm making my brain hurt and I'm only on episode 10.

By the way this is the show's eponymous stand alone complex. How actions taken by multiple agents can come together to form a singular identity and how in the modern collaborative environment the individual is a myth. This is why you can't kill Pirate Bay or Wikileaks and why trying to destroy Anonymous is impossible.

Taken even further this the direction of modern warfare where nobody and anybody can claim to be responsible for military action. Where the identity of combatants aren't based on the bodies on the ground and the physical associations of their actions, but the actions themselves making negotiation almost impossible.

This Show Predicted The Future

This by the way is why anti terrorism is a job for the police and not the military. The best you can hope for is the prosecution of individual acts rather than the neutralization and victory over entire organizations. In this new paradigm there will never be the last of anything. Some idiot will always claim to be a part of Al-Qaeda. And if you say you're Anon you're Anon. The struggle for stasis is never ending and in and of it self requires flux.

The actions themselves matter more than their supposed source. And the entire show is about Section 9 figuring that out.

Who Is The Laughing Man
Strap in kids this is going to get complicated. When humanity started digitizing their brains there was a small percentage of patients whose  brains would reject the process, hardening and slowly killing them. A doctor found a cure or at the very least a preventative treatment for the disease,  But that treatment used old school biological techniques that were out of vogue verses the series more modern nano machine technology so the powers that be sabotaged it for the sake future health industries.

A LOT of people died, because of that chicanery. Even then the machine treatment had its own share of risks and its hinted the biological one in some ways might be better.

The big wigs who were holding the treatment back were using it, unwilling to forgo the cure. They saved themselves at the expense of everybody else for money.

Originally The Laughing Man's or at least the man identified as the laughing man, it gets weird,  goal was to gather enough evidence to blow the lid off this thing. His hope was that if he went to the right people with what he knew they would rather stop suppressing the treatment and give people a choice rather than have the truth come out and deal with all the subsequent scandals. Even if it wouldn't bring the people who died back it might reduce a lot of suffering.

He kidnapped the director of  a nanomachine pharmaceutical company that had recently received the go ahead from this stories version of the FDA and was cited as a reason why the biological treatment wasn't needed. The two talked for a few days in rather interesting intellectual debates, and actually came to respect one another but the cops viewed the incident as corporate terrorism, which yeah it was.

After that plan backfired the original guy Aoi calmed down and decided to just give up and disappear. You just can't beat city hall.

That's why nobody's heard from him for 6 six years.

All the same the attack made the guy a hero and icon to anybody who had beef with the government or capitalism in general.  A bunch of copycats crop up reinvigorating his will to fight. He doesn't like that a lot stuff he disagrees with is being done in his name, especially corporate theft.  And feels that he has a duty to carry out his original plan to make up for all the chaos his antics have unleashed. In his mind what he was doing was about saving lives not money and it makes him sick that people are using his methodology for things like theft and assassination.

When it become clear that he actually is back the powers that be decide to do everything they can do discredit him so that when he does eventually go public nobody will believe him. Furthermore they were using the threat of this boogie man to manipulate the public as well as stock prices.

We have a classic false flag operation on our hands.

An investigation was given to the cops, not Section 9 mind you, but guys a little lower on the ladder. They weren't suppose to find anything out just give the public a good dog and pony show, maybe do a few press conferences about the threat of cyber brain hacking but when they do get close there are some "mysterious accidents".

One of those guys was a friend of Togusa's and he's not going to let it go, especially when it becomes clear that those guys were being illegally bugged. Togusa's friend called him when he thought things were getting too hot. Look you know how these things go. Dude dies in a bridge accident 6 hours later.

While there is some evidence of foul play its still not Section 9's  case and they really don't want to get involved. But Togusa keeps digging deeper and deeper get his ass kicked more and more until he ends up shot and on a hospital bed.

If what he was into was worth taking a bullet everybody else feel they owe it to him to take a look.

And that's good plot but let's talk about the head stuff.

The guy, or at least the original guy never named himself in his operations. Again he didn't want to be found out."The Laughing Man" was invented by everybody else. The Laughing Man is a construct distinct from its original agent. An amalgamation of anybody who wanted to bare the identity, even the bad guys.

When things get bad and its clear shit has hit the fan the original guy completely repudiates that identity. He wants to kill it but can't because it isn't him anymore.

You can't destroy an idea and that's what The Laughing Man has become as much as his creator Aoi regrets it. A construct not bound by flesh and blood but only by the actions associated with him.

Despite that the story frames him as good but fundamentally flawed, a modern Holden Caulfield with all the same personality problems. He acts as an arrogant rebellious teenage without thought to the consequences of his actions merely his disgust of the status quo and all of the "phonies". Except unlike Holden his skillset gives him the power to act as a catcher in the rhy, guiding the innocent from the path of sin or at least it does to him.

One reading of that novel is that Holden's quest futile and that his problems arise because he's fooled himself into believe that it is possible to walk the path of the righteous man, never compromising in this world which demands the compromise nessisary for the societal living that kept us alive when the universe wants to eat us.

And in a way so have Aoi's problems. The last few episodes are about him realizing how much damage that delusion has caused and trying to do what's in his power to minimize the damage.

Another interesting bit is that what got Aoi involved his reading of a document. A document which he didn't author. All though its convenient to call him the original laughing man he's not. He's just one more guy who's actions contributed to to the constructed identity that is The Laughing Man and the show never reveals who actually wrote the document that kicked this whole thing off.

Game On
Back to Section 9 once they actually do start investigating The Laughing Man Case seriously, with their rep, IT IS ON!

No more information wars, misdirection, media propaganda. Nu ah. Its an us or them dogfight. Especially once Section 9 is legally force. It's basically as if congress decided to outlaw the CIA and put the entire organization on trail  oh and forget modern prosecutions we're talking old school Knights Templar style . How do you think that would play. A boom boom boom.

And don't make the mistake of thinking that these guys would just going be reassigned to other agencies with a few prosecutions of the top dogs.  Ha ha ha. NO. What type of dystopian future would it be if that were the case. Section 9 is too dangerous to let go civilian. The weapons training, the intelligence. You don't want that to just be in the wind. Even before the legal stuff they tried to assassinate Aramaki, The Major, and well Togusa was already on his death bed. The only reason they made it out then was the intervention of Aoi and his interference gives the other team a pretext go at 'em sideways or rather stop going after them sideways.

Once that happens they bring out the heavy hardware. Or do they?

All of stuff happening put the powers that be in a corner where hey couldn't hide the original disease scandal any longer. Once that happened its clear who's going to fall on their swords and since Section 9 which has been publicly disbanded they can go back to their original purpose, covert ops.

And that's where the first season ends.

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