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What does it mean to exist in complex relationships with machines? What insights can be offered to our understandings of these relationships by the theologically significant theme of ‘love’? What critical assessments can be made of our multiple uses of technologies in shaping our futures, by reflecting on our pasts?

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> Conference: Care and Machines
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Disquiet over the prevalence of social and economic individualism has a long history. In a world of mobile Capital and increasingly mobile people, communities of common tradition and locality appear to be under threat from the advent of a fragmented market society. Are these complaints against individualism justified? And crucially, how should Christians respond to them? Digging down into the substance of these questions, this project will consider the theological, liturgical and scriptural resources Christians have for understanding the notion of individualism in relation to issues of education, public life and the formation of democratic citizenship.

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Friday
Mar312017

Which Ghosts in Which Shells?

This blogpost is about the recent release of Ghost in the Shell, and while I have made an effort to avoid spoilers, it’s probably best holding off reading this until you’ve seen the film as some plot points are discussed or touched on here.

In the future, humans look set to become enhanced cyborgs – fusions of organism and machine. Or at least that’s the premise of Ghost in the Shell, the live-action adaption released this week of Masamune Shirow’s cult manga classic of the same name. While I perhaps have my quibbles about whether cyborgs are solely entities of the future – and you can pre-order those quibbles in my forthcoming book here – the film and the franchise that spawned this year’s cinematic release certainly raise interesting questions about the sometimes uncannily and uncomfortably close relationship between humans and machines.

The general aesthetic of the film rebooted this year, directed by Rupert Sanders, is nothing short of spectacular. The setting is a city that, like humanity, has apparently given itself entirely over to technology. Neon and holographic images are everywhere, and humans are cocooned in the worlds created by their own devices in a way that strikingly reminded me of both Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (also due a return and reboot later this year) and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, which recently crossed over to Netflix’s stream of original content.

Representative of how humans have given themselves over to technologies are the vast proportions of the population who have elected to enhance themselves as easily as plastic surgery might allow us to presently aesthetically ‘enhance’ ourselves at present. Concordant with the film’s emphasis on identity as being about what you do, though, the cybernetic techno-enhancements are emphatically about increased functionality. From enhanced vision, including X-ray and tracking software, to enhanced livers that can cope with enhanced alcohol consumption levels (perhaps to cope with the pressures of an all-too-enhanced society), constant cyborgian improvement is the name of the game.

These trends culminate in the creation and genesis of Major, the film’s central character and protagonist. Major is a human brain in a technological body – a ‘ghost in a shell’. In the film, a ghost is described akin to a soul. The nature of the soul in relation to the technological systems that ensconce, enhance, and also exceed it, particularly in terms of its transmutation into a ghost, is one of the central questions that the film attends to. Indeed, it’s one of the central questions that Hollywood attends to, and it crops up a lot in relation to technology, so it’s no surprise to encounter it here.

Major is a cyborg with an existential crisis: she struggles to know who she is. Part of her is owned by Hanka corporation, who manufactured her prosthetic body, were responsible for her cyborgian genesis, and maintain and repair her as she conducts the combat that she was programmed for. Part of her is her memories, sometimes presented as ‘glitches’ that fuel the drama of her coming to know who she truly is. Part of her is an autonomous individual who now combines the best strengths of humanity and robotics, yet part of her equally is prototype and being the first of her kind, which is isolating and makes it difficult to be sure of her strengths in the first place. In other words, part of her is ‘her’ ghost; part of her is ‘her’ shell. Cartesian ideas about the division of mind and body, which have long plagued Western philosophy and anthropology, are placed in a new shell in the form of this Ghost in the Shell reboot. Major – and the film itself, if not Western technoculture more widely – finds it hard to reconcile these tensions, which in a sense attests to her (and our) anxieties as a human about being (and remaining) human in an increasingly technologised world.

These questions were at the forefront of my doctoral thesis investigating (advanced) technologies and human nature in theology, specifically looking at the legacy of Genesis-based anthropologies and attitudes. There is a tension, I argued, between different understandings of human nature as something static or fixed, and as something more dynamic and open. That humans are made in the image of God, for example, may lead us to conclude that there is something essential and unchanging (taking a standard understanding of an ‘image’) about who we are. If this is the case, then technologies may either be in accordance with this, or detrimental to it. In Ghost in the Shell, for example, Major frets about what was taken from her in her cyborgisation, and what must be preserved.

Alternatively, open interpretations of imago dei and humans as created in the image of God, as told by Genesis mythologies and anthropogeny (a story of the creation of the human), would pay more attention not to what is essential to humans, but more of the ongoing conduct that we perform in the world and in relation and response to others, where technologies are a key part of that world. The image, then, is not something static, but is constantly reshaped and imbued with new meanings in our ongoing relationship to it: think here of hermeneutics rather than fixed meanings of texts or images. While the enhancement technologies prominent in Ghost in the Shell would suggest an anthropology of the latter style, I posit that in actual fact it returns to the same fixed notions using the same questions and attitudes about what it means to be human, but in a new scenario: the same ghosts in new shells.

Major insists – voicing one of the film’s central messages – that what we do is who we are. However, it actually seems to be the case that who we are is what we do: it is the self-as-created that comes prior, which explains why characters in the film have motivations towards connection in the form of family, sexuality, animal companionship (which itself is a very interesting theme that takes inspiration from plot and character traits revealed in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence), or friendship, which is seen as fundamental, against the tenuous and often alienating technologies. Humanity is performed, yes, but it is identified and gauged in accordance with certain images and preconceptions that are interestingly conveyed and even contorted by the film’s futuristic metropolis-cum-dystopia setting.

Like the holographic images of humans in advertisements all across the technocity, it seems that we are surrounded by images of the human: all of them ephemeral and distorted, deeply technologically mediated. I find these holograms to be an apt metaphor of individuality denoted by the film: omnipresent, often even larger-than-life, yet fundamentally absorbed or effaced by vast technological systems. Such systems are even larger-than-life, but they are insidiously masked by their technological prowess; they are the real and threatening ghosts – or, rather, poltergeists – in the shells and machines.

That said, the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note: against these faceless technologies and companies, audiences are told that humanity is our virtue. This is a notable departure from the end of the 1995 anime film, which sees Major fusing with a powerful AI to further question the hybridity of humans and machines, as well as self and other. Instead, it seems that the live-action film seeks to celebrate difference, but also to maintain a sense of difference. The techtopia that is the setting of the film is rife with struggles – a sort of ‘vale of suffering’ scenario – but it is only in such a world that humanity can be expressed and realised. In relation to the tensions raised and explored by the film, then, there seems to be little attempt at their reconciliation other than by recourse to returns to ideal and normative types of humanity, even as performed. Without intending to collapse difference entirely, then, the film sets out to equip its characters and audiences with a way of facing up to existing at the site of these tensions: of having privacy and being social; of having memories and pasts and yet making ongoing actions in the present and future; of belonging to oneself and yet having obligations and strong ties to others; of wanting enhancement and also preservation; of technology and tradition. The film sets out a philosophy and anthropology that ultimately addresses, if not helps us to understand, what it might mean to be ghosts in shells.

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