May 27, 2004

Does Cyborgs Dream of Digital Pigs?

Some comments on Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface by Masamune Shirow.

"Man-Machine Interface" is self-describing: the manga is to a large degree an orgy of information graphics and complex cyberspace jargon. Shirow's ordinarily information dense style goes into overdrive with the possibilities of computer generated 3D objects and visual effects. Add to this the usual high-context corporate political intrigue and Shinto-style philosophical speculations and the result is at times nearly impenetrable. Which maybe doesn't matter; this is a work that can be read or watched simply for its details.

The basic story involves the protagonist (an instance of the AI-cyborg hybrid Mokoto that emerges at the end of the original manga) working as investigator for a multinational corporation, trying to protect it from terrorists and infiltrators. But of course there are more to it than just animal liberation when pigs with clone human organs get slaughtered, and soon her investigations branch off into the labyrinthine.

Shirow loves design and detail, and the worldbuilding is impressive. While the television series Standalone Complex gives much more sense of how society might work, here the story has moved off to a less defined setting in the middle of the pacific. But many details remain, like the circular infoscreens, fascination with crustacean robots and tricks like hiding one of one's bodies inside a larger body.

Of course, the border between technobabble and technological speculation is diffuse. Quite often the cyberspace assumptions are highly suspect - this is a world where everybody seems to have bionic interfaces in their brains, but they can be cracked with a speed and ease that reminds me of script kiddies breaking open un-updated windows machines. While people might be sloppy about the security of their computers I doubt they would be as careless (even when clueless!) with their minds and lives. Just like in Gibson's cyberspace novels much of the terminology is rather an evocative expression of what is going on dramaturgically (wild fighting, barriers breaking down, stress or diversion).

There is poetry in the information overlays. They turn the characters into information saints, surrounded by AI-putti and billowing messages like baroque religious paintings. Reality is obscured by overlaid information. In many ways this is the opposite of Edward Tufte's clean and informative infographics. This is info-baroque in strong colors, obviously requiring posthuman attention systems to be manageable.

Perhaps the most interesting and technologically plausible aspect is the penguin-like AI agents used by Mokoto (replacing the fuchikomas/tachikomas as the resident cute AI). She is constantly surrounded by a myriad of agents implementing her wishes, from stress analysis of a chain to complex viral defense strategies to finding clothes. Are they external to Mokoto or parts of her exoself or even parts of her core mentality? They appear to be not quite part of her (she still 'speaks' to them) but still so close that they collaborate with a minimum of fuss (perhaps due to long training and adaptation on both sides). This is how agent support should be. Implementing it this well for real is going to be another matter.

Identity becomes fluid. In the original manga the protagonist mainly kept a single body, just interfacing through other bodies. Here there is no clear central body: she keeps decoys and extra bodies stashed across the world, and while sitting in her office she is also organising things in cyberspace and jumping around buildings using another body. There is a wonderful sense of her being physically unbound. The only constraints that bind her are limits to knowledge and information.

As a transhumanist I of course cheer for the vision of radical human-AI symbiosis envisioned here, even when phrased in Shirows homebrew shinto-quantum metaphysics (as mystical transhumanism goes, it is a fun complement to David Zindell's ideas in the Neverness books). But in the end this manga does not really lead anywhere: a momentous transformation has happened, but most characters are either unknowing or passive observers. The big struggle turns out to be irrelevant, and the core issue - how to handle emerging truly artificial life - is still placed in the future. Of course, that hints at the possibility of a sequel.

Posted by Anders at May 27, 2004 12:02 AM

"There is poetry in the information overlays. They turn the characters into information saints, surrounded by AI-putti and billowing messages like baroque religious paintings. Reality is obscured by overlaid information. In many ways this is the opposite of Edward Tufte's clean and informative infographics. This is info-baroque in strong colors, obviously requiring posthuman attention systems to be manageable."

I'd not considered the artistic effects of the overlays until you blogged about them.

To me, the effect seems more pornographic than numinous. I realize the two do not necessarily contradict each other. Perhaps this tension exists only in my eyes.

Everything Shirow's drawn since the early issues of Appleseed, he draws exactly one kind of female figure: big-breasted, large-nippled, wasp-waisted, and with a heart-shaped face. The overlays and other technological paraphernalia conspire with the panel layout and viewing angles to emphasize pulurchitude.

Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" has a passage that describes the erotic aspect of technology. I can't find it right now, and will post it later.

I hope this post doesn't give an impression of prudery. I like Shirow's work very much, and I like the vision he presents of intimate fusion between humanity and its tools. If adding sex appeal helps communicate the idea, good. Otherwise, the art and its message exist as simple technoporn--fine in their own right, but sterile.

Posted by: Jay Dugger at June 1, 2004 02:28 AM

I found the quote, but won't post it on someone else's blog. For those interested, it exists on page 290 of the 1978 Penguin edition. I have in the mind the paragraph that begins "All Margherita's chains and fetters are chiming,..."

Posted by: Jay Dugger at June 1, 2004 05:30 AM

Pornography is about arousing desire, usually the sexual kind, but one could easily expand the concept to encompass information and technology. Webster has one meaning as "the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction", which seems to fit the information overlays well. Strong colors, technological shapes, lots of information, dozens of agents and messages at the same time. On the other hand, the Webster meaning misses the desire part. One wants to *participate* in the vivid data processing orgy. Of course, I have always found information more sexy than humans, so I don't count :-)

The question beyond whether it is technoporn is the lasting value (if you return to it again and again, is it then technoerotica? :-). Here I think Standalone Complex is far more successful than Man Machine Interface. The worldbuilding and cybernetic issues involved link it to the real world far better than the cybershinto and intrigues of the manga - many of those are interesting but about as relevant to us as the mechanics of forging rings of power in Middle-earth.

Apropos the standardized protagonist (the Shirow heroine with a thousand names? :-) I find her way of treating her body/bodies rather interesting. One of the best things IMHO with the original movie was how at the start the protagonist was literally constructed on an assembly line, but gradually turned from technology and information into a person/sex object. During the movie the viewer is led to gradually forget the cybernetical nature of her (there is certainly plenty of musings and comments about her condition, but the visual and "acting" impact is very much human). This makes her fighting in the last scenes so dramatic and upsetting - her skin and body is literally ripped apart revealing her technologyhood. She is quite ready to break her own arms in order to achieve her goals, something a human never could do with the same painless focus. This kind of rupture of the illusion of humanity is a very powerful way of showing the weirdness of the setting. Another example is the send-off scene with the tachikomas in Standalone Complex, where the emotional and practical behavior of the AIs clearly do not match and show their alienness starkly.

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