The Real Verses the Virtual
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When we look back to when computers first became popular, they were seen as a way of organizing information. Then the internet was formed allowing people to share this information and to communicate. People began using the internet to communicate to the point that virtual societies were created. Some people have become so attached to the virtual world that they begin to feel as if the virtual is more real than reality. This is a thought that is explored in two science-fiction movies: The Matrix and Serial Experiments: Lain.
The first movie is The Matrix . Everyone has seen this movie and most have discussed the basic concepts to great lengths. The Matrix is a fairly typical product of the science-fiction genre. The technologically savvy young man is faced with a problem that threatens society as we know it and, through the help of the not-as-computer-savvy chic dressed in leather, realizes he is the "messiah" that must save humanity.
The Matrix poses the idea that our reality is actually created, a hallucination used to distract the masses from the true reality of the Matrix. The Matrix also gives the idea that everyone has the potential to be godlike, to control our own lives, but for some reason we choose not to realize this potential. Perhaps it is more power and responsibility than we are ready to handle. Maybe this is why people like to play SIM games. People are able to live "lives" in a virtual reality that they are able to manipulate. People get to play God but do not have to take their actions seriously because its not affecting the real world (Turkle 71). It also makes some wonder if the internet is becoming the new reality.
Serial Experiments: Lain has many similarities to The Matrix , but a great deal more differences. It is an anime that takes place in the "present day, present time" but is based off of a mirror of our society. This thought-provoking series presents several questions to the viewers which allow their thoughts to travel on tangents to deeper questions about our interactions with people and the internet.
The film series is about a thirteen year old girl who is technologically ignorant, but when her "father" buys her the best computer on the market, she increasingly finds herself seduced by the virtual (an advanced version of our own internet) and quickly becomes more and more obsessed with exploring the internet. As she spends more time in the virtual world, she begins to form an alter ego and becomes alienated from those of the real world. However, when Lain begins to notice a correlation between the events in the virtual with those of the real, she also begins to realize that she has the power to influence these events. The more time she spends in the "Wired" the more powerful she becomes over both realities. In the end she must give up all of her physical belongings, including her body, and completely submerse her consciousness within the "Wired" to save those she cares about in the real. Essentially, Lain becomes God of the "Wired" and the physical world and must reset reality.
The film is quite vague and only ever alludes to certain ideas, but the idea here is that the growing network of peoples' consciousness in the virtual world is becoming so complex and dense that it is forming its own spirit. It just happens that the spirit is taking form in Lain. But is there any possibility of this ever happening? Are people like cells, where if they grow into dense groups, that they could possibly form a whole greater than its parts? Can a virtual collective consciousness ever manifest into its own spirit?
This issue of alienation that forms from people engrossing themselves in the internet is a real problem. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced nations and it has one of the highest suicide rates. This problem is even addressed in the series when a "Wired" junkie throws herself off a building. This begs the question can people survive in the virtual? In the film series, Lain's only true friend is her classmate that she interacts with mainly in the real world. This leads to another question: Are the friendships that we form inside the virtual as valuable as those we form in the real? Lain knows that everyone is connected in the "Wired" but she realizes that these virtual connections are weak and superficial. According to Sherry Turkle, author of Life on the Screen , the computer "evokes both physical isolation and intense interaction with other people" (60). The only true relationships are the physical, face to face relationships.
How can people claim that the friendships they form over the internet are valid when everyone is hiding parts of their identity? This series also touches on the alter egos that people form in the virtual world. In both films, people are dissatisfied with their real lives so they escape to a virtual reality. Do computers help us find an alternate side to our personalities or do they just let us escape from who we truly are? People believe that through the cloak provided by the internet, they can be themselves in the virtual world. However, rather than just being themselves, people often choose to portray themselves as something they are not. Is this not putting on the same kind of façade as one does in the physical world? Also, wouldn't a person's awkward social habits and personality flaws still exist in the virtual reality? After all these are undeniable, unchangeable parts of who we are. I believe the internet is just a false solution to problems in our realities.
Both movies are intending to make viewers question the authenticity of their experiences and their existence. Earlier, when I was talking about the Matrix, I mentioned that the Matrix asked the question of is the internet becoming the new reality? In Serial Experiments: Lain , the question is a little different. It asks which reality is more real, the virtual or the physical one? In Lain, the answer is neither. They exist and evolve together.
Cyberpunkreview.com. "Serial Experiments: Lain." Feb. 26, 2006 .
The Matrix . Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburn. Warner Home Video, 1999.
Serial Experiments: Lain. Dir. Ryutaro Nakamura. Pioneer Entertainment, 1998.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen . New York : Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.