Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is this what our future looks like?

There have been all kinds of signs that the future of our societies will probably entail much higher levels of control than is the case at present. The National Security Agency’s illegitimate surveillance, not merely of American citizens’, but of other peoples’ private communications as well, is but one premonition of the shape of things to come. Then there are odd rumours of an American lobby promoting the idea that Americans should be equipped with a subcutaneous microchip soon after birth, as well as with a barcode, to be able to inscribe a “failsafe” identity marker on their bodies, and to ensure “security” — of the individuals so inscribed, but also, supposedly, of others who might be in contact with such individuals.

Imagine a society where, in addition to the security cameras already in evidence in large cities, there are scanners everywhere, tracking your every movement by means of your obligatory microchip-identity and/or your barcode. Such a society is not really that unimaginable, in light of what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt describe in relation to the current sovereign global power that they call Empire (all the capitalist states in the world, which are moving towards what they see as a “supra-national” institution with global governing powers; see Empire, 2001). In Japanese anime sci-fi films one comes face to face with imaginative projections of a society in the not-too-distant-future where the means of social control far exceed what most of us have imagined in our wildest dreams.

When it comes to futuristic science fiction, few cinematic genres can beat Japanese anime. I owe my limited familiarity with anime to my younger son, Marco, who is an avid fan of the genre, and knows it thoroughly. Not only anime feature films, but also — especially, perhaps — anime television series. Hence, when he recommends something to me, I have learnt to trust his judgment. His latest recommendation was a gripping anime noir sci-fi series called Psycho Pass, which projects a dystopian future where societal control in Japan has become virtually complete.

The series title, Psycho Pass, is a reference to the basis of controlling human behaviour in this society, namely the psychic condition of each individual, known as their “hue”. “Hue” must be understood in psychological terms, particularly as an index of a person’s latent and actual aggressiveness, or potential for violence. One’s “psycho pass”, in other words, is your state of mind in terms of the possibility of violence that it exhibits.

But how can you tell the condition of a person’s psycho pass? This is the really ominous part of the narrative. There are scanners all over in cities, and in addition police officers — or members of the MWPSB, comprising inspectors and “enforcers” (who are themselves latent criminals used as “hunting dogs”) — carry weapons resembling bulky pistols, called dominators, which are electronically linked to the central intelligence and control system, called SIBYL. When a dominator is pointed at someone, it performs a “cymatic scan”, registers and announces the state of such a person’s psycho pass, expressed numerically as their “crime coefficient”. The higher this figure is, the more likely that the dominator’s trigger will be unlocked and the inspector or enforcer instructed (by SIBYL) to fire, either just to stun the target (if the crime coefficient is below a certain figure), or to eliminate the individual in question (as determined by the SIBYL system via the dominator), if the crime coefficient is at the level indicative of imminent violent behaviour.

Into the hotspot of the social control system, namely the criminal investigation bureau, or MWPSB, comes a rookie inspector, Akane Tsunemori, catapulted immediately into one emergency situation after another. Although she is completely inexperienced, she shows character and resolve from the beginning, ruffling the feathers of her senior, Inspector Ginoza, in the process. This is exacerbated by the fact that Akane treats the enforcers, who are treated badly by Ginoza, as human beings (instead of “hunting dogs”), earning their respect and affection in the process.

To cut the proverbial long story short (the series has 22 episodes), it gradually becomes apparent that a single, but elusive person is behind a series of murders, and one of the enforcers, Kogami (the “compromised” noir detective of the series), together with Inspector Tsunemore (one of several femmes fatale), finally closes in on him despite Ginoza’s suspicion, that Kogami is trying to escape from being obliged to work as an enforcer.

The supremely intelligent antagonist, Shoga Makishima, who, until deep into the series, uses others as fronts to accomplish his aims of destabilising SIBYL-controlled society, finally reveals his true colours as, paradoxically, a “crime-asymptomatic” (impervious to cymatic scans) psychopath who also happens to be an anarchist who wants to rescue humanity from SIBYL, which he correctly sees as an inhuman system of social control. He is therefore a supremely ambivalence-inducing character, whose appreciation of humans’ humanity and opposition to an inhuman system engenders sympathy in the viewer, while his horrific cruelty to individuals undermines such sympathy. Makishima’s means of achieving his goal leaves a lot to be desired, therefore he does not hesitate to kill anyone in the pursuit of his objective.

I doubt whether many readers will ever view this series, so it is probably not necessary to issue a spoiler alert before writing about the discovery, towards the end of the series, that the chief of police is not a woman, as everyone had always thought, but a “humanoid” robot (with a human brain, that is), working in conjunction with the SIBYL system, which is not a superlatively powerful computer or set of computers, but a vast collection of human brains-in-vats, together comprising SIBYL.

This is not what is most shocking to Akane and others, however. The truly, outrageously scandalous thing about SIBYL is that the brains comprising it once belonged to crime-asymptomatic, cymatic scan-resistant people like the criminal mastermind, Shoga Makishima — people that Akane, when confronted with the truth about SIBYL, describes as “monsters” who then arrogate to themselves the right to judge, and often condemn, ordinary citizens for the sake of social control. SIBYL tries to persuade Akane to cooperate with it, justifying the system as the only means to a peaceful, prosperous and “civilised” society — something that chimes rather ominously with similar justifications of the implementation of social-control systems today.

The important philosophical question raised by this is whether one can really justify the “consensual” governance of a society of ordinary mortals by a group of pseudo-humans which, for all intents and purposes, appears to answer to the description of a bunch of psychopaths or sociopaths — SIBYL even wants Makishima to be arrested alive so that his brain can be incorporated into the SIBYL system. Keep in mind that one of the crucial attributes of psychopaths, in addition to unusual intelligence and the ability to manipulate people, is their astonishing lack of conscience or remorse.

In its attempt to persuade Akane to cooperate with it, SIBYL argues that it is precisely the ability, on the part of its constituent “member-brains”, to observe human society dispassionately, that vindicates its capacity and right to govern as the most “perfect” system of government ever devised. It is a moot question, today, whether one can perceive in the behaviour of the big oil companies evidence of similar dispassionate, unconscionable decisions bearing directly on the future of all living beings on the planet.

I won’t comment on the way the series ends; suffice to say that it is immensely thought-provoking — not just in its iconographic representation of the future “society of control” (as Gilles Deleuze called it, referring to what already exists), but also through the inclusion of discussions between characters (including the philosophically minded Makishima) on subjects like freedom of the will, happiness, bureaucracy, the nature of a fulfilling life, of civilisation and so on, often alluding to the work of thinkers such as Plato, Rene Descartes, Jeremy Bentham, Max Weber and Michel Foucault. Clearly the producers of Psycho Pass have done their philosophical homework.

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