Humankind has struggled with concepts too big for quick and easy understanding since we evolved to conscious deliberation. It is for that reason (among others) that once we carved out enough time beyond the necessary survival tasks like hunting, gathering, reproducing, sleeping, etc we began to participate in creative endeavors. Art, music, dance, and literature have all been used as a tool to process and distill concepts like death, love, loss and the other non-concrete parts of the human condition. Since the 1890s another tool for working through these hard subjects has become film. Some of the most important recent subjects being humanity, technology, and what does it mean the closer the two become?
Perhaps one of the most iconic stories about this in film (certainly in animated film) is Ghost in the Shell. Though I don’t really watch a lot of animated entertainment anymore it still holds a special place to me because of how it grapples with the humanity of the protagonist. Major Motoko Kusanagi, the aforementioned protagonist, possesses a cyberbrain (as well as a fully prosthetic body) which in many people’s opinion might no longer classify her as human. However, in a future where cyberbrain interfaces and technological prosthetics are the norm new avenues of crime become possible, specifically the theft and manipulation of people’s brains.
This is where our protagonist and her team, Public Security Section 9, come in. They’re a special taskforce that combats hackers and cyber-criminals. In a world like ours where cyber-crime is becoming a bigger and bigger problem it is an interesting parallel. My first flights of transhumanist fancy come into play here. Major Kusanagi is fast, strong, precise, and very durable thanks to her highly advanced prosthesis. What a wonderful thing to be afforded after-market upgrades for our human form, but in the world of Ghost in the Shell there is an understandably high cost. In one scene Major Kusanagi and her partner Batou discuss the fact that if they ever choose to leave Section 9 their high-tech components (which amount for most of both of them) would be forfeit to the department.
Another major piece of the story’s appeal is its approach to artificial consciousness. What happens if an artificial consciousness becomes self-aware, especially in a world where everything is interconnected by computer language? It’s already possible for humans to hack into many machine systems in the real world today, and it has created enormous expensive defense industries just for our information. Think of it this way, though, even the best hackers in the world are writing in a code they learned. Essentially: they’re speaking their second language. It’s like an actor who grew up in Spain, speaking Spanish, and then went to England, learned English and eventually joins the Royal Shakespeare Company. How much faster would they have been if they had been speaking English from birth? In a world run by machines any sentience (organic or inorganic) who can speak the language fluently will have a better advantage than others.
Honestly I could write twice as much about the ideas in Ghost in the Shell, and you know what I just might. It’s a very thought provoking film (which also happens to have gorgeous scenery.) I recommend you watch it at least twice, and if you don’t speak Japanese (like me. I don’t.) then make sure to view it with the subtitles and then the overdub. There are so many important concepts flowing around that it might help you wrap your brain around them. However, even if you just watch it once, it’s definitely worth your time.