Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Layer 05: Motherboard

In a weird bit of synchronicity, I finished reading Neal Stephenson's "Some Remarks" on the same day I finished re-watching Serial Experiments Lain. I had initially thought of doing a separate blog post for each, but they aligned in some kind of freaky ways, so I'll go ahead and debrief here while it's still fresh.

I absolutely did not plan to consume both of these media at the same time. I'd pre-ordered the Lain Blu-Rays last year after they were announced, and had forgotten I had done so until they showed up in my mailbox a few weeks ago, after I had already cracked open Some Remarks. I was looking forward to both of them, and both ended up exceeding my expectations. Neal Stephenson has been one of my favorite authors ever since I read "Snow Crash" back in college; I'd already read a few of the pieces collected in "Some Remarks," and was honestly getting it for completeness' sake as much as anything, but ended up being blown away by a few longer essays that I'd never read before, most notably "Mother Earth, Mother Board." Somewhat similarly, Serial Experiments Lain has long been my favorite anime series, and one of my favorite works of fiction in any medium. It's been years since I last watched it, and even longer since I'd seen past the first couple of episodes (my standard gambit for introducing folks to this mindblowing series, which typically ends with them running away screaming). I'd felt slightly apprehensive that it wouldn't live up to my idealized memory of it; in practice, it actually exceeded it. The Blu-Ray upgrade makes the art even more beautiful than before, and the odd perspective it took on technology has made it seem weirdly prophetic rather than dated.

(Some spoilers for Lain follow; technically for the Stephenson too, I suppose, but can you really spoil nonfiction?)

The mantra of Lain is "everything is connected." What this actually means is very much up for debate: Lain is one of the most determinedly opaque pieces of fiction I've encountered, and I still refuse to investigate wikis or anything else that would destroy the mystery; I enjoy the sensation of my mind chewing over it too much. Still, every time I watch it I feel like I'm getting closer to some sort of understanding. Even though the conclusions are unclear, the questions are relatively easy to spot: how constant connection and communication affects us as individuals and as a species; whether the Internet represents a fundamentally new thing or an evolution of previous analog networks; exactly when one's existence begins and ends; the extent to which we can ever truly know another human being.

One question that is debated with increasing frequency in the series is, "Is the Wired [i.e., the Internet] an upper layer of the 'real world'? What exactly does that mean? And, if the answer is "No," then what is the Wired? After mulling over it some more (and, I have to admit, with Mother Earth, Mother Board fresh in my mind), I see it like this:

Thesis One: The Wired was created by humans, out of physical materials in the world. It exists on top of our society, and can only reflect ideas that already exist within that society: nothing new can emerge from within the Wired.

Thesis Two: The Wired was created by humans. It grew in complexity, and now has an equal level of reality as that of our universe. (To crib from another Stephenson novel, it holds an equivalent position on the Wick.) Events that begin in The Wired can affect the real world just as strongly as events in the real world can affect The Wired. A thing (e.g., an idea or a memory) can continue to exist in the Wired even if it no longer exists (or never existed) on Earth.

Thesis Three: The Wired is a digital manifestation of the collective unconsciousness that our species already had. Ideas can emerge and hold power from The Wired, but such ideas could also emerge in the past from analog sources (mysticism, religion, metaphysics). Such impulses in the past have guided our civilization's growth, and thus in a sense the Wired invented itself.

The series seems to end with  a suggestion that Thesis Three is correct, but I'm far from confident in saying that. Throughout the show, we regularly get one character or another stating with great assurance "You must not forget that The Wired is just an upper layer of the real world" or "The Wired is not, after all, an upper layer of the real world." In any other show, we would be led to the "correct" answer, but Lain seems to delight in muddying the waters, forcing us to think for ourselves about what explanation seems most plausible (or least distressing!).

This muddying extends beyond the words to the actual actions in the anime. Another enormous mystery that runs throughout the entire show is the identity of the "other" Lain. We understand several properties of her: she looks like Lain but is more confident, aggressive, and skilled. At one point, it seems like the "real" Lain has cracked the mystery: she confronts Taro, stating that the "other" Lain is only a product of the Wired; in the real world, she has only ever been spotted within Cyberia, which is a sort of threshold spot (not unlike one of the "thin places" of religious revelation) where the Wired can easily manifest thanks to the prevalence of projecting electronic devices. Mystery solved!

And yet... only an episode before, we saw another Lain step out from her own body, greeting her classmates and cutting her off. That certainly didn't happen in Cyberia. It's pretty hard to interpret that scene as anything other than the Lain of the Wired manifesting in the real world, a doppelganger supplanting its double. And, of course, a few episodes later we'll learn the bombshell that the Lain of the Wired is the original Lain; and the "real" Lain is the copy. Presuming, of course, that we can trust the man providing this information. The truth of this conundrum seems inextricably tied to which of the three theses we can accept: is it possible for a being to emerge from The Wired, and if so, could that being then influence "reality"?

These aren't new questions, but they were pretty new at the time the show was created. Lain was originally created in the mid-to-late 90s, before The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and other movies that played around with these sorts of concepts (though, to be fair, well after Gibson and Stephenson and Ghost in the Shell). Still, I think that the show has aged really well, partly as a result of its light touch on matters of technology. Inevitably, works of cyberpunk that try to be very specific about how technology is going to evolve end up seeming laughably misguided after only a decade or so. When Lain does make predictions, they end up being correct with startling subtlety. It took a while for me to realize the oddness of a class full of students with wireless Internet-enabled devices: it is ubiquitous today, and impossible to imagine back when the show was created. Ultimately, Lain is more interested in philosophical and existential questions that underlie not just the Internet but the universe as a whole, and so it continues to feel very relevant today.

It's that same continuity that makes Stephenson's Mother Earth, Mother Board almost shocking to read. Near the end of the essay, he quotes one of his sources as saying that, when it comes to digital communications, in the last one hundred and fifty years there have been no new ideas, only improved techniques. It's a shocking thing to say, but by that point in the essay I feel compelled to agree with him. Using the same techniques that he deployed so effectively in The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson shows how a modern institution was, for all practical purposes, completely formed in a short amount of time long ago.

The primary focus of MEMB is the physical structure that underlies the Internet: more specifically, the undersea cables that connect the continents together and enable the global exchange of information. It's a long, sprawling, and completely engrossing essay, covering every conceivable aspect of this: how cables are financed, how they are insured, who runs the project, how they are installed (different for every country!), the hazards they face, the politics of their creation and utilization, how data gets transmitted over those wires, etc. It's a bit humbling to think that, when I visit the legacy web site for Serial Experiments Lain, my request is getting put onto a wire, traveling 5,400 miles across the Pacific Ocean, connecting to some computer over there, then that data is coming back to me over another 5,400 miles before forming a picture in my web browser... and that all of this technology is fundamentally identical to that which was used in 1858 when the first transatlantic cable was laid between England and America.

So, much as Lain seems to be somewhat ambiguously suggesting that The Wired isn't really anything new, Stephenson points out that today's global telecommunications regime is a matter of increasing intensity, not something truly original. The kinds of debates we hold now, about whether we are too easily distracted, whether constant communication is changing our minds and relationships, are exactly the ones that people were writing about back in the Victorian era. This isn't to say that the Internet isn't important: but, the Internet is the current state of evolution of a process of technologically binding people together which has been progressing for a long, long time.

The rest of Some Remarks is also really good, although nothing else quite reaches the level of virtuosity of MEMB. The infamous Slashdot Interview is freely available online, and is pretty essential reading for anyone who liked reading, even if you don't like Stephenson. There's also a fascinating short story called The Great Simoleon Caper that perfectly predicts the rise of BitCoin, DogeCoin and other crypto-currencies, albeit not the practical difficulties they would encounter. (Oh, and you know those annoying windows that appear on web sites and say things like 'Hi, I'm Tiffany! Ask me if you have any questions!'? It also anticipated those by a good ten years or so.) The rest of the book is a solid collection of stand-alone short fiction, essays that expand on some topics he's already treated in fiction (notably the Royal Society feud between Newton and Leibniz), and some great one-off pieces like his introduction to David Foster Wallace's book on infinity that plumbs their shared experiences growing up in Midwestern college towns.

Near the end of the book is a somewhat depressing essay about the failure of science fiction to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, which Stephenson links to a broader tendency in our modern capitalist society to avoid risks. He points out that the wide-eyed idealism of early science fiction, from Wells and Verne up through Heinlein in the 1950s, gave tangible goals for society to pursue; later science fiction, which tended to be more dystopic, was more focused on showing the perils of progress. Almost all of cyberpunk falls into this category: the future might look cool, but it also has serious and dangerous problems. Lain, which isn't exactly cyberpunk, seems to glide past this distinction. It isn't encouraging us to step forward into a bright new future, nor is it cautioning us against what tomorrow will bring. Instead, it's asking us to think, to ask questions, to wonder what it means to be human and how our embrace of technology might be changing us. I don't think that Lain will inspire any entrepreneurs to build a new artificial intelligence, nor do I think it will inspire politicians to set limits on children's use of the Internet. I do think that it could inspire a new generation of philosophers, or merely informed citizens, who could help our children understand the questions that I struggle with while watching this remarkable series.

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