The role of technology in modern society according to Serial Experiments: Lain

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(Note: This is a short IB Extended Essay written by Amysteriousgal some time ago.)

Introduction

SE: L is a postcyberpunk, postmodern sci-fi TV anime from 1997 and has long since faded from popular attention. However, many of its points about technology, the Internet and their role in society are still relevant. By comparing the vision it presents with the place of technology in the real world, the differences and similarities between predictions and reality can be seen.

Literature review

In one essay, an analysis in the context of the country where SE: L was made (Tribbett, 2010). Through a study of the Japanese tradition of social hierarchy and social groupings, and its contrast with the lack of distinction and individualism on the Internet, known as the “Wired” in-setting, Tribbett shows that the Wired allows people to remove their social masks and show behaviour “more based upon a person’s ‘true self’” (p2-4). Tribbett illustrates that the role of the Wired can be the cause of loss of social identity as well as a refuge for people who are already isolated and uncomfortable with communicating by normal means. For example, the protagonist Lain, who was “unable to develop her understanding of the hierarchical form of socialization” due to isolation from her family and peers (p4-5), grows to rely on the Wired. This study of SE: L from the perspective of Japanese social norms is highly relevant to understanding the role of technology in such a society, but the unknown source of this analysis calls its reliability into question.

Caromba and van Heerden (2007) examine SE: L as a visual medium. They note that Lain’s computer, called a “Knowledge navigator” or “Navi” in-setting, becomes a “technological monstrosity” which covers her entire room over the course of the series (p3), showing the growing dominance of technology and its influence on children. The foundations of society, according to SE: L, are the connections between people, but Caromba and van Heerden state that “become dependant [sic] on the Wired for any form of connection whatsoever” and technology becomes a staple in all social interaction (p10) – at this point in the plot, if the Wired disappears, society would collapse. The focus is on society’s increasing reliance on technology, which makes this reference appropriate. As a secondary source analysis, it is an effective way of interpreting the series from the audience’s point of view.

There are several interviews that can shed light on the producers’ original intentions. In one of them, character designer ABe comments that the depiction of swirling colours in the shadows are meant to show that the Wired is “still there beneath the surface” in the real world, and the director Ueda confirms that the series portrays the merging of the real and the virtual worlds and that there are characters who are “stuck in the Wired” (2000), showing the dangerous attraction people may have to technology. While there is less relevant material in the interviews, which focus more on the development process, this provides some insight into the intended meaning behind the work. Because this is an interview, the information the interviewees give should be close to the truth. However, the original is in Japanese, and some meaning may have been changed or lost in the translation to English.

Setting and supporting cast

There can be little doubt that SE: L places an emphasis on technology. Almost constantly, characters are seen interacting with some form of digital media, be it a cell phone, Navi or even a mechanical “drug” known as Accela. Even when they are not, abstract effects in shadows in the real world scenes show the omnipresence of the Wired. The network coverage has grown to the point where in Layer 12 when the “men in black” wish to escape from the influence of the Wired, they discover that there is “no such place on earth” where the Wired does not exist. The society in Lain’s world begins as something ordinary and easily recognisable as being similar to our own. Children go to school, talk to friends, text message each other under the tables during class, and other common practices. In Layer 01, a small group of girls gather around Lain, closer to each other than they are to her, and Lain acts shy and insecure. When she says that she is bad with computers and has not checked her email for a long time, her classmates are incredulous. In their society, like ours, using computers is considered a basic skill. Another notable aspect of technology portrayed in SE: L is online role-playing games. The game known as PHANTOMa is popular amongst young characters, and the game-play essentially involves defeating other players in virtual battles. One player remarks that “nobody knows why it’s fun”. It serves no purpose beyond entertainment, yet somehow, players can become so accustomed to the mechanisms of the game that, as seen in Layer 04, they may respond to threatening situations by instinctively reaching for virtual weaponry and in-game voice commands. This can be considered a reflection of the younger generation’s tendency to obsess over gaming.

Visually, SE: L is noticeably abstract in its representation of environments. The real world is drawn in a minimalistic way, with limited colours and most structures represented by shadows on a white background. The Wired, however, is based on a black background and is considerably more colourful. The contrast of dark and light evokes an association with the yin-yang, a symbol showing two distinct but united realities. Indeed, one of the main themes of SE: L is whether the Wired can be considered another reality, and each of the characters presents a different viewpoint. One particularly notable view made by the former president of Tachibana Labs, a Navi manufacturer, is that the Wired is a more advanced upper layer of reality. Most people, however, treat it only as a method of communication and information transfer.

The ways people interact with the Wired are represented symbolically as well. In Layer 06, a Wired user manifested as a mouth informs Lain that most users only have an ear. This can be a reflection of the 90-9-1 participation imbalance, also known as the 1% rule (Arthur, 2006). The ears represent the passive consumers of information, the “listeners”, who make up around 90% of each community. The mouths are the active participants, who create or distribute information by “talking”, and form around 9%. Those who like Lain herself can manifest completely in the Wired represent the 1% of the community who start projects and are essentially the core participants. By this rule, 90% of the activity of any given community is created by 1% of the members. While Lain does not appear to participate much online, somehow all the Wired users know about her. This can be seen as a depiction of how quickly one can rise to fame online.

The development of Lain

While she is initially one of the few people in her environment unable to use computers well, after receiving a new Navi from her father, Lain becomes more and more skilled at using and even modifying them. This takes place over three episodes and apparently a corresponding number of days, although time is not clearly represented in SE: L. Technology appears to integrate extremely easily into a person’s life.

Along with her computer skills, Lain’s confidence in communication increases, at least through technological means such as text messaging. This change is even more noticeable when she is on the Wired, almost to the point of being a separate personality. This can be seen as an example of the online disinhibition effect, which allows people to adopt a different and often more open or aggressive persona online in “an attempt to understand and explore oneself” (Suler, J. 2004), and which Tribbett stated as “more based upon a person’s ‘true self’”(p4). One of the functions of the Wired is to allow free and anonymous expression, which is especially important to isolated people like Lain, who goes on to question her own identity. The change Lain develops online barely improves her interactions in the real world, leading her to become increasingly reliant on technology for communication. Considering Japanese culture and its emphasis on the separation of one’s public and private faces, Lain’s behaviour online is more similar to her inner personality than to the persona she displays when interacting with her friends offline.

Due to her assertiveness and her inexplicable fame on the Wired, Lain is soon acquainted with everyone and somehow “connected” with them through the Wired. This online friendship is somewhat similar to how people now have many more friends on the Internet through sites such as Facebook than they may be familiar with in real life. However, Lain comments in Layer 12 that one of her classmates in particular is very important to her, because they were friends even before she had connected with everyone else through the Wired. The series, like most people in the real world, agrees that a direct, face-to-face friendship cannot be replaced by friends online.

In Layer 08, Lain is confronted with an issue. People believe that she has leaked information that they wished to keep private. As she walks through the school, she finds everyone staring at her accusingly. This shows the dangers of sharing personal information online, but at the same time gives evidence that it is easy to let a few secrets slip when behind a mask of anonymity on the Wired. In response to this, Lain opts to use her newfound power and expertise to erase all evidence of the private information leaked onto the Wired, consequently causing the incident to fade from everybody’s memory.

SE: L covers many of the issues regarding the role of technology, particularly the Internet, in society. Some elements, such as the proliferation of handheld digital devices and the ubiquity of wireless Internet access, were almost prophetic. The increasing popularity of online gaming was already evident when SE: L was produced in 1996-97. Influences of technology on interpersonal relationships were also predicted quite remarkably, especially the portrayal of the online disinhibition effect, the way instant inexplicable online fame can occur, and how personal information leaked onto the Internet can spread equally quickly.

Justification

Tribbett’s analysis of SE: L in 2010 explains the reasons for isolated or shy people such as Lain to be attracted to the Wired as a way to connect with others. However, it fails to take into account Lain’s conclusion that direct contact with others cannot be replaced by online interaction. Similarly, Caromba and van Heerden’s 2007 essay notes the increasing significance of technology in the society of SE: L and in Lain’s life but exaggerates the importance of technology in communication, neglecting how the characters still talk normally on a daily basis. The transcript of the interview confirms that the creators intended to portray the omnipresence of the Wired and the dangerous lure it can have to young people, but there is limited information provided overall.

Conclusion

Serial Experiments: Lain portrays technology in a neutral way, showing that it can be helpful in developing interpersonal relationships and facilitate information transfer. It also, however, warns that reliance on technology and careless use of the Internet can have damaging effects on society. There is also an acknowledgement that the expansion of the Internet and increasing use of technology are inevitable, and that most incidents that happen are, like the leaked private information in SE: L, forgotten in a single moment.

Bibliography

Tribbett (2010). “Serial Experiments: Lain as a Reflection of Modern Japanese Anxieties in the Digital Era.”

Katherine Caromba and Karlien van Heerden (2007). “VKK 320: Decoding Virtual Culture in the Media - a case-study of Serial Experiments Lain.” South Africa: University of Pretoria.

Interview with Yasuyuki Ueda and Yoshitoshi ABe (2000). [1]. Baltimore, Maryland: Otakon 2000.

Serial Experiments: Lain scenario transcriptions. [2].

Suler, J. (2004). CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 321-326. Also found at [3].

Charles Arthur (2006). The Guardian. Also found at [4].