Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell franchise can be summed up in two words: fear and philosophy. The story became a success because it mirrored real American fears during a time when Cold War tensions were rising and the Internet was still a mystery to most.
In 1989 I was three years old. My experience with technology was limited to those old, boxy CRT televisions with knob dials and spiral-corded land-line phones. The most futuristic possession my family had was the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, but that was all I needed back then. It was hi-def enough for my imagination. I recall physically jumping in my room every time I made Super Mario leap over a goomba. I eventually stopped doing that after a friend’s mom laughed at me for it. And boy, for the rest of my life I will remember the time when I was too frightened to play a Sesame Street game because it had a scary numbers puzzle with Count von Count. My toddler-self was terrified by it.
This was my technological world, and I was experiencing it at the same time that Masamune Shirow first published his Ghost in the Shell comic.
My mind was being blown away by a televised pixelated plumber why Shirow was creating a world where people replaced their own body parts with mechanical substitutes, where a person’s consciousness could be stored in a cybernetic brain and transferred into another body, hence the title Ghost in the Shell.
He created this world in a time when the concept of the Internet was still a mystery to most, a time when smartphones did not exist and home computers didn’t even have web browsers. Shirow imagined a future far advanced beyond his own world. In his future humanity had evolved itself by merging with technology— the world had become interconnected by an all-encompassing electronic network that permeated every aspect of life.
As home computers became ubiquitous throughout countries like Japan and America in the 1980s, a new kind of anxiety spread across the globe. There was a fear of technology, a fear of becoming a slave to computers or being replaced by them.
These fears got the world thinking about humanity’s future in a new light, and the same fears are represented throughout Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell franchise. While today we fret over our identities being stolen, it’s really just a concern over somebody else abusing our credit accounts. In Shirow’s future the threat of identity theft has been turned up to eleven as hackers take over people’s cyberbrains, going as far as replacing the memories of their victims and taking control of their body parts. Now that’s identity theft.
A nuclear attack was a real possibility, as was the danger of technology overwhelming the American way of life
Comics in Japan are as mainstream a medium as novels and movies are most everywhere else, but in taking a look through Masamune Shirow’s success in comics, or, to use the correct term, manga, it is interesting to see that his work has appealed largely to audiences outside of Japan. Why did this happen?
Well, in 1986 a San Francisco studio head by the name of Toren Smith learned of Shirow’s work and thought that the manga creator had a rather un-Japanese style to his work that might draw the attention of U.S. Comic book consumers.
Shirow’s style consisted of alluring female protagonists, tech-heavy themes, and information-dense narratives. His tongue-in-cheek approach to it all was lost in translation as his works were converted to english for Dark Horse Comics. The English editions came off as a bit more serious as a result, but that’s what the American audience wanted. Ghost in the Shell addressed the American fear of technology. It wasn’t a laughing matter.
The comics created a cult following that helped foster a large budget for the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film which was created with the American audience in mind. The movie topped the U.S. Billboard charts, and that was rare for a Japanese anime back then— it’s still uncommon now.
So why did Ghost in the Shell hit it big in America? It all goes back to that fear I was talking about earlier.
Back in the 1980s, Japan was struggling to keep up with the popularity of Internet networking that seemed to be taking over the west. Installing the infrastructure took time, and getting the country on board was a more gradual process than had transpired in the United States. It was a comparatively less jarring transition for Japanese businesses and residential consumers alike.
With more time to acclimate to the new technologies, and probably due to a good deal of innate cultural differences, the Japanese populace held a more optimistic attitude toward the introduction of new technologies into their daily lives.
Unlike Japan, an anti-technology sentiment had spread across America. The fear had settled in. The Cold War was in its final years and there were many questions surrounding the socio-economic state of the western world’s future. Computers and their networks were another uncertainty of the time. What would Americans become if all of their jobs were taken over by computers? What if American citizens did nothing but sit and stare at their screens all day? The country would become helpless to defend itself from General Secretary Gorbachev and the Communist Party.
Ghost in the Shell mirrored these real fears in its futuristic setting. Shirow’s fictional world had suffered through nuclear war, of which powerful nations like the United States had crumbled in the fallout.
Ghost in the Shell played into these fears that the Japanese simply did not have, and so they found little to relate to. It was the American comic book consumers who were fascinated by the content within because on some level they were experiencing the same conflicts as the characters in Shirow’s world. A nuclear attack was a real possibility, as was the danger of technology overwhelming the American way of life. It was a scary time to be an American, and a good time to stay in bed with a quality comic book.
Ghost in the Shell found its initial popularity by reflecting the technological fears of the western world. This popularity is what gave the franchise the ability to expand beyond its initial published manga, its success demanding sequels and reinterpretations. The audience wanted more of the world, and Shirow was happy to oblige.
Every character is a different mix of human flesh and cybernetic enhancements
But where did the original concept come from? We’ve already established that a ghost in a shell is a person’s conscious within a body, and that goes for any body, natural or mechanical. The concept of the ghost was taken from Arthur Koestler’s essay The Ghost in the Machine. In his essay, Koelstar argues that the human brain has grown throughout its evolution, building new layers atop the ancient, primitive brain structures that were initially set in place. That primitive core still exists, says Koelstar, and it is able to overpower the higher logical functions of our modern brain with its hate, anger, and other destructive impulses. That primitive brain is our ghost hidden within our own machine.
Shirow’s a smart man, and he saw this as an opportunity to explore the continued evolution of our human minds. Artificial intelligence is crafted and controlled in his fictional universe, given the potential to learn and adapt, but with restrictions put in place to prevent undesirable emotional development.
In the original Ghost in the Shell manga and film there is an artificially intelligent creature called the Puppet Master. It was created outside of the AI code of ethics with the intention to hack people’s minds in order to gather information about international crime and terrorism. An unintended side-effect was that the Puppet Master became sentient and called into question its own existence.
The Puppet Master was troubled by the fact that it could neither reproduce nor die. It wanted to know what mortality was like, what being a living thing truly meant. And so it sought out a means to achieve its goal.
This sentient being made of artificial intelligence made plans to merge with a person’s ghost, a human’s consciousness. It achieved this goal, fusing its mind with a human’s, neither existing as human or machine any longer, but having figuratively given birth to a new form of life.
What I find most interesting about this exploration of humanity is that it doesn’t end there. We get to watch as each installment of the Ghost in the Shell franchise explores this balance of human and machine in varying amounts. Every character is a different mix of human flesh and cybernetic enhancements, and they share their thoughts and concerns with each other about the various levels of augmentation that can be done.
The Puppet Master returns in later installments, giving us more opportunities to study what a mind fused from both natural and artificial intelligence is capable of.
The Ghost in the Shell franchise brings constant attention to two similar, yet wholly different questions. At what point is a human no longer human? At what point is artificial intelligence no longer artificial?
A Stand Alone Complex is when copycat behavior arises and there is no true originator of the copied action.
As interesting as the man versus machine trope is, it’s matched by Ghost in the Shell’s discussion of hyperreality. It is a condition where a person’s conscious in unable to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, where what is real and what is fiction is blended together so intricately that a person cannot tell where one ends and the other begins.
In modern day we could imagine a simple version of this where computer graphics and holograms become so detailed that we can’t visually tell the difference between what is real and fake, but Ghost in the Shell goes deeper than this.
In Shirow’s universe, hyperreality is presented as a phenomenon created by the parallelization of the human psyche through the cyberbrain networks. It’s like everyone’s brains are being conditioned to think in similar patterns. The global cybernetic communication system exposes every person to the same information in the same context, from the same perspective, causing similar psychological reactions to occur among large groups of people. Imagine if Fox News was our only source of global current events. It’s something like that.
The effect of this parallelization is a lemmings-like scenario where one person’s response to an event is copied by another, and then another, and so on until every person thinks the same way, believes the same beliefs. Individuals may be convinced that their thoughts are their own, yet a coherent copycat behavior emerges from the entire populace, forming a Stand Alone Complex.
Alright, hang in with me here. I know this is a little dense. Masamune Shirow’s creations are know for the piles of information they throw at the audience. It’s difficult to get it all on the first go through one of his stories, at least it is for me. What I’ve got here is just a brief summary of the ideas Shirow put into his Ghost franchise.
Ok. So. We’ve touched on hyperreality which is a weird thing where people are unable to tell the difference between reality and fiction, right? Think of it as affecting one person, like yourself. It’s as if you were stuck in a fake world and didn’t know that you were– like Jim Carrey The Truman Show. Everything seems real to you, but other people know that it is not true reality.
Now if we expand hyperreality to the masses, it can create a Stand Alone Complex. It’s a situation that catches the public’s attention, let’s use the Slenderman phenomenon as an example. Most of you have heard about the fictitious creature; Slenderman is a tall, thin supernatural murderer that went viral across the Internet with people reporting to have seen him in action, some providing grainy photos and blurry video as evidence. He isn’t real, of course, but the reality is that this fictional being inspired real attacks to happen.
A Stand Alone Complex is when copycat behavior arises and there is no true originator of the copied action. Real people started attacking one another as a response to the Slenderman phenomenon, though no true Slenderman actually exists. It wouldn’t matter even if the originator was said to be a real person because it actually started from a rumor or illusion, despite whatever anyone else may say.
The Slenderman example of a Stand Alone Complex is clearly a fantasy gone awry, a creation of absolute fiction turned sour by a few bad grapes. But what if the mass misunderstanding was more subtle, the abuse of hyperreality more nefarious in its creation? What if the government made us all believe something happened that wasn’t true and that caused us to go to war in response? What if corporations aligned to deceive us, making us enjoy products that we thought were popular, but it was all an illusion designed to empty our pockets?
It’s scary to think about these examples in today’s world if you consider effective advertising and subliminal messaging to be an actual threats. But Imagine how much more of a threat these ideas become in a future where we are all wired together in the same network, our cyberbrains under attack by hackers, being hit by a constant bombardment of political campaigns and unavoidable advertisements. Its nightmare fuel.
There are people in your world, in your country, in your neighborhood being treated as if they are worthless, as if they are less than human.
Human evolution through artificial intelligence. Hyperreality. Stand Alone Complex. These are a few of the bizarre issues that Ghost in the Shell deals with. Technology in fiction often brings up weird philosophical concerns, especially when it comes to our robotic counterparts.
Do androids dream of electric sheep? What if a robot were to disobey one of Isaac Asminov’s three laws of robotics? Is it ok to kill an artificially intelligent being? Legally? Morally? How intelligent do they have to be? What if a part of them is human?
A technology-filled future is an interesting setting for these discussions because it really boils down to the issues we are dealing with in our modern lives right now, issues of racial and gender equality, issues of slavery and imprisonment. If we treat each other so poorly now, how will we treat the androids of the future, and will our attitudes change when they become indistinguishable from ourselves? Will people even be treated equally by then?
I can think of a million other questions like these. The point isn’t to answer them now, but to explore them through the stories we create. In Ghost in the Shell and similar works our interest lies with exploring the limits of humanity and figuring out just what it is that makes us human.
It’s scary to think about these things, to wonder what it would be like if we had to confront these issues right now. That’s why we turn to fiction. These issues do exist right now in our own world. There are people in your world, in your country, in your neighborhood being treated as if they are worthless, as if they are less than human. But we don’t want to talk about those people, we don’t want to help them. We just want to talk about robots. Because they’re not scary. Because they’re not real. Not yet.
This has been an episode of Paracosms. Robotics has intrigued me since I was a little kid. I think my first experience with robots was Gigantor, which was a cartoon from the sixties about an mindless automaton that fought crime and was controlled by a kid with a remote control. I only now learned from Google that it was originally a manga from the fifties.
Gigantor, the cartoon at least, was shallow when it came to philosophy. Ghost in the Shell is pretty deep. We can choose to watch whatever we want, but, regardless of the media we consume, the human versus machine discussion affects our daily lives if you think about it. Would you feel bad if you kicked a roomba? Why? How about when you say something rude to Siri? You have to admit that it hurts when she scolds you, at least a little bit. Yeah, I called Siri a she, not an it. That’s a philosophical statement right there.
If you have any thoughts to share please stop on by my website at arthurmcmahon.com and leave a comment on this episode’s blog post. I’d love to hear from you.
I really enjoyed catching up on my Ghost in the Shell knowledge for this episode and I’m excited to see the new movie adaptation coming out in March. Let me know what you think of it.
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Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you in the next.
Remember to treat each other with love and respect. We’re all humans. You’re going to need as many friends as you can get when the robot uprising commences.