Monday, December 12, 2011

GITS and Anonymous

I think this essay covers topics most geeks are pretty familiar with, but I can't remember actually reading an essay on these topics before. So here it is: the essay about self-organizing "hacktivists", futurism, and Ghost in the Shell.

Like most geeks, you've probably mused about the faint echoes in your mind between what you saw in Ghost in the Shell and what you've heard about Anonymous. I'm going to try to draw the line between them.

I will be using the term "meme" colloquially. Don't think about what a meme is too hard, that's not the point of this essay.


In Ghost in the Shell, arguably the most interesting plot line is the "laughing man" plot line. I call it "the plot line", but it's actually just one line in a theme that shows up many times in various GITS series and incarnations.

The basic idea is that people are not so distinct as they seem. They are easily manipulated into doing things either consciously or unconsciously. Obviously, this is not a unique insight. However, the spin GITS puts on it is interesting: the creation of a 'deep' internet allows this to happen with such fluid speed that the unconscious and semi-conscious actions of the participants can form a 'life form' with its own 'will'.

As an example, in one GITS plot line, people begin to do things for no discernible reason, but they all act towards a single aim. The people involved have no idea what they are doing, nor do they have any knowledge of the secret aim. They have been programmed - not by invasive surgery or brainwashing, but by the unending tides of memes they have been exposed to on their immersive internet. The memes are somewhat directed, but also have a life of their own, since the directives of the original source emerged from the nature of the memes, and are therefore echoed by the participants.

In another plot, one man serves as a hub, allowing participants to enter his personal brain/computer. While there, their sense of self is weakened and they can participate in projects such as sharing memories and computing whether P = NP. They can also be programmed to act in certain ways while outside his personal brain/computer.

This sort of thing is hardly GITS-unique. GITS may have been a popular and compelling example, but there are literally millions of science fiction stories with this same fundamental set of ideas. For example, it is a common conceit to have a VR MMORPG which goes crazy and begins to use/screw up/damage the participant's minds. This is super common in Japanese stories, perhaps because they usually cling to a spirit/body duality, but it also happens in Western stories. Finder did a particularly interesting job of it, for example.

I guess you could say it smacks of an "ascension" ideology. The idea that we can overcome our humanity and, well, go to heaven or whatever. However, I am specifically thinking of it in mechanistic terms. That is, I'm not posing some mythical energy state we can merge into, and I'm not relying on the concept of a spirit or soul. Just people who might become something different than what they currently are, within the limits of physics and biology.


Which brings me around to the other end of this rope: Anonymous.

Anonymous and the various similar groups operate in a way that was impossible without the internet. Decentralized, the theory is that any given Anonymous operation can take place with no leader, or perhaps with only a transient leader given a fairly minor role.

In a real sense, the "leader" of an Anonymous operation is largely a memetic broadcaster. Aside from posting specific meeting times if necessary, their job is to yell about whatever they feel is happening that needs to be smashed. And if enough other voices pick up the shout, it becomes an action.

The nature of the memes they broadcast is such that if another person is "infected", they will act in the interests of the original broadcaster. Not because of brainwashing or coercion, but because they will draw the same conclusions.

For example, Anonymous moved against the Church of Scientology. They did not do this because someone wanted to and convinced everyone else to go along. They did it because most people who heard what Scientology was doing reached the same conclusion: the church must be punished. This created a pocket of action, a group of people who, despite their anonymity, all wanted the same thing.

This is a very powerful tool. If there were leaders, not only would the targets be able to strike back, but the followers would also judge which actions they should join based on the leader. This would limit them - "oh, that leader believes things I don't agree with, this action can't have any merit..."

In many ways, this is a very close mirror of the GITS idea, although without the CG bling. This is a group of people who suppress their identities and sequester the majority of their personality and opinion off in a corner so that they can work together with other people doing the same thing very fluidly.

In a very real manner, the Laughing Man is fact. A science fiction concept that is not just possible, but is happening in the real world at this very moment.

To be honest, I would call them "Laughing Man Groups" if I wanted to give them a distinct category. That's the level of similarity I see here, even though Anonymous is only a tiny seedling of the concept.


What about the rest? What about where this is going? What about the next step? What about the fact that a lot of the stuff that these Laughing Man Groups are doing is horrible?

Well, a lot of the science fiction around this concept is based on the idea of subverting someone's brain. Forcing them to act. And I doubt that'll happen any time soon. But it doesn't have to: simple cooperation is more than powerful enough.

And as for horribleness, please remember that these are just groups of people. The jerks and assholes are over-represented at the moment because jerks and assholes tend to be the ones that delve into the darker parts of the internet where this kind of organizing is happening. When it becomes common, I can see it being used for a lot more positive aims.

I can see the methods of transmitting memes and forming task participation becoming a lot slicker. I can see people cooperating almost instantly, trusting their connections have a good reason for their requests. I can see people starting to get very good at prioritizing memes as to which ones are more important, not simply more offensive.

I can also see corporations and governments attempting to form or subvert these kinds of environments, which could be interesting.

Can I see something like a VR game which takes place inside the designer's head?

Well, now we're talking about a serious leap in technology.

Everything I've described in the past few paragraphs could happen with today's technology. Anything more is probably science fiction.

For now.


Drew said...

Current events have been causing me to compare Anonymous to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. While currently only Anonymous is technologically linked at the moment, I can't think of many groups that have been as completely decentralized as OWS seeks to be.

OWS has only vague actual goals due in part to its decentralized nature, it has nevertheless accomplished relatively impressive feats; taking over city parks, turning them into communes, winning a few court cases, etc.

Is OWS a Laughing Man Group, or do those require a technical connection?

Craig Perko said...

I would consider OWS a "Laughing Man Group". I thought about mentioning it, but forgot.

The whole point of this kind of group is that the members can pretty much ignore the leaders (if there are any) and will willingly put most of their own personality and opinion aside to work on one specific task or group of related tasks.

Call it a "meme-driven group" rather than a "leader-driven group", if you like.

Keto said...

I had never appreciated GitS until I realized that it was successfully describing an actual concept that exists, but in a more sci-fi way.