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Ghost in the Shell, over two decades old, remains our most challenging film about technology

The first questions about the loss of human identity in a tech-filled world were raised in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 hit film.

Japanese animated films and anime series are weird. But the release of the classic Ghost in the Shell over 20 years ago drove the genre both upwards by reaching adults, and outwards, reaching the West’s mainstream unlike other previous efforts. It did this while blending sci-fi elements, cyberpunk visuals and deals explicitly with mature themes and ideas.

The film starts with a mysterious woman removing wires from the back of her head as she observes buildings and traffic from dizzying heights. She soon descends into a building by crashing through the window, killing a high-level diplomat and escaping right in front of everyone else using some nifty high-tech camouflage.

The story follows Section 9, a public security agency headed by Motoko Kusanagi, tasked with finding an elusive uber-hacker known only as the Puppet Master. This mysterious criminal is able to hack into the bodies of others, effectively rendering them simply as shells (hence the title) in order to alter the memories and conscious state of their minds.

This high-concept plot results in a journey untangling a web of political corruption and cover-ups, finding out what's behind the Puppet Master's actions and its ultimate motivations.

Given the major current interest in the science of ageing and "internet of things", this film couldn't be more relevant. In fact, Kusanagi has an interesting monologue early in the film, where she discusses how her world was only dreamt of as science fiction not so long ago, where a body's metabolism and biological processes still matter, but they can be separated from someone's thoughts and memories. We should remember that the film takes place in 2029.

Kusanagi also questions what her existence means or even is, and whether she is just a synthetic being created by scientists, with neurological implants aimed at making her more productive. She asks her colleague Batou, "I mean who knows what's inside our heads. Have you ever seen your own brain?" and examines whether a hyper-connected cyborg could create its own soul all by itself? This scene ultimately poses the final scary question: what is the purpose of being human?

As you've probably gathered by now, the story deals with concepts of identity, the ubiquity of technology and its uses, and the political and societal implications of a technologically advanced society.

The presence of naked female shells is fascinating. Yes, the female body and female characters are already disrespected in films, games and you know, life in general. But don't mistake why such visuals are used in the early scenes in this film: after asking whether you think they're a necessary element, you're left asking by the end of the film what exactly are the uses of a human body which has no unique identity of its own.

For many, many years, philosophers and super-smart thinkers have asked the question what it actually means to be human, both literally and figuratively. Philosophers have been thinking about the “zombie” scenario: there could theoretically be two identical versions of a person, able to carry out actions in exactly the same way, but one might not show any signs of consciousness. The doppelgangers are just replicas. This film asks what it means to be conscious and whether an identity of ours exists outside the immediate physical realm.

Although there are frantic technological advances in many frames throughout the film, some things remain the same, such as scheduled household waste collection and people shopping in stores (sorry, Amazon). Nonetheless, the visuals are quite simply vivid and memorable, especially when no other film, animated or otherwise, comes close to making humans feel so small, questioning our role in a world filled with technology, and a lack of an accompanying “moral compass 2.0”.

Ghost in the Shell was originally told through serialised Japanese manga in 1989, by the visionary Masamune Shirow. Numerous films, anime series and computer game adaptations have followed ever since. Hollywood will attempt a live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, scheduled for release next year. The production has been heavily criticised for whitewashing all of the main characters when the film industry is under fire for failing to allow black and minority ethnic talent to break through.

It makes the original film even more urgent viewing, especially with the rise of today’s artificial intelligence and what role humans will play in a future world where more tasks will be sufficiently carried out by robots.

This topic is mentioned in the film, as the Puppet Master quips bluntly about the dangers of depending on technology too much, and the threat of a virus being able to corrupt a whole set of interconnected systems. They go on to say copies aren't much use either, as they "do not give rise to variety and originality. Life perpetuates itself through diversity".

Perhaps Ghost is hiding a simple morality tale, warning us of the need to be more original. But we can only do that if we know what our unique identities are and the purpose of our existence. We'd better hurry up though. As the Puppet Master says, “the net is vast and infinite”, and we can’t lose ourselves inside a meaningless abyss.

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood