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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.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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