WIRED, CYBERSPACE AND THE MIXED REALITY CONCEPT
"Mixed Reality" is one of those sets of buzzwords that you can kind of figure out what they mean just by looking at them, but the definition changes depending on what company is currently trying to market it to you. The basic premise is: a way to integrate the real and virtual world. Simple, but with innumerable possibilities on how to actually do it.
A fairly basic but comprehensive example of a mixed reality application would be Pokémon Go: it makes use of real world locations, weather data and physical landmarks from the real world, as well as some of the main characteristics you'd find in a regular Pokémon game such as gyms, wild encounters and trainer battles.
These elements are all mixed to create a game where both "realities" intersect, by mapping encounters and gyms to real world areas, tracking the players' steps to hatch in-game eggs and overlaying the Pokémon model themselves onto the environment through the user's phone camera. Pokémon GO leans more towards the real world when it comes to the mixing of realities, as it thrives with the idea of having Pokémon in our world instead of us having to take a peek into theirs.
The distinction between the physical and the digital as entirely different "worlds" and "realities" is one worth questioning. Because what makes something real? Is it the presence of stimuli you can interact with directly, without the need of a device? Or can data be considered real, as long as it triggers emotions in those who parse it? These are questions that have been asked since the dawn of computers – and that are not trying to be meaningfully answered by current mixed reality technology companies since their focus is on selling the idea rather than having meaningful discussions about it.
A good place to look for answers is science fiction media, where these ideas can be freely speculated upon and sometimes even have real world technologies developed in spite of them. I will be analyzing two anime: Serial Experiments Lain and Dennou Coil, released 9 years apart, to see what their portrayals of a mixed reality match have in common and where they might differ.
COMMIT "The Wired"
Serial Experiments Lain released in 1998 alongside a Playstation game and has become a cult classic when it comes to anime, and for good reason – its surreal presentation and topics like identity in the virtual world are relevant to this day. It was written by Chiaki J. Konaka, a man known for his work in science fiction anime such as Hellsing, Digimon Tamers and the topic of this section, Serial Experiments Lain. His work can have a certain eerie tone to it, in part due to him taking inspiration from the Cthulhu Mythos (and even contributing to it).
It begins with the titular Lain receiving an email from a classmate that commited suicide recently, stating that they "abandoned their physical body to inhabit the Wired", which is this world's equivalent of the internet. More strange events occur when alternate versions of Lain start appearing throughout both the Wired and the real world and interacting with others without her knowledge or consent. Because of this, Lain meets multiple people that claim to know her, only for them to describe a personality that is the polar opposite of her real world self. It all culminates in the revelation that Lain is actually a being created to bridge the gap between those two and that she can rewrite reality as one would a computer program.
And yes, it actually happens. As in, Lain is actually a being that exists in both the physical and virtual world. The different versions of her with different personalities are actually unique entities instead of simply being different facets of her online presence. But reading the events as metaphorical is still very valuable since the "how" and "why" certain events (supposedly) happen in the real world are left intentionally unclear. Even trying to differentiate between the physical – the real – and the virtual is a pointless exercise as the Wired and the real world begin to overlap due to a new protocol – Protocol 7 – that would make use of the planet's magnetic properties to connect everyone's subconscious.
The anime's depiction and prediction of the internet manages to be somewhat accurate through the fact that it doesn't actually show much of it. Most of the show's computer time is spent by Lain navigating the fictitious operating system "Copland OS" on her "NAVI" computer. Assembly Language code is shown to give the impression that something is going on, but it's unclear what that thing is. Rather, the internet is conveyed through metaphor and imagery of physical spaces, such as the scene that has Lain listening in on a public conversation between avatars lacking in faces (but not mouths). It is unclear if this is some sort of VR hub or if this is a visual representation of the complex systems that make up the Wired.
After the show's main antagonist is defeated and Lain severs the connection between the real world and the Wired by erasing everyone's memories of herself, the world is shown as a much better place. The gloomy skies, ominous empty streets and strange behavior from people disappears (or at least diminishes considerably), either because the Wired had been physically influencing people as soon as the world merging protocol started being planned, or as a visual metaphor showing that people are much happier now that there is a clear distinction between worlds.
The anime uses familiar real world situations to delve into subjects that only really exist in the virtual. The rumor about Lain supposedly spreading rumors about one of her classmates could be objectively dismissed in a purely physical world – after all, the rumor has to have started somewhere, and so the people she gossiped to directly would be able to stand up and clarify the situation. But the anonymity of the online space makes it way easier for something like that to happen. The rumors could have been posted on social media or a message board instead of being told to someone directly. You don't even need a real Lain to do it – someone with a convincing enough Lain profile and mannerisms could easily pull off the whole thing if there are no systems in place to combat disinformation.
The choice to represent the Wired as a literal other world that must be kept separate from our own expresses a certain air of hostility towards the technology. The posthumous email that starts off the series sets a feeling of untrustworthiness onto the Wired since the very beginning, and not much is shown of it being useful or bringing joy to people. A large chunk of the show is dedicated to Lain upgrading and messing with her computer's hardware – and yet what she actually does with it is left mostly unclear.
Something else worthy of noting is that PHANTOMa, the one video game shown off in the anime was a front for an experiment that sought to exploit the inherent psychic ability present in young children, and it even results in a real death after one player shoots another during a reality merging event. When Lain directly asks a boy why the game is fun, he straight up responds with, "nobody knows what's fun and why".
One might say it's simply 90's fear mongering about all important activities being migrated to the internet, or that things are intentionally vague because the true nature of the way the internet can connect us wasn't very well established until the early 2000s. I personally choose to think this is a cautionary tale rather than a pessimist one. It is undeniable that there are many bad things happening on the internet all the time, but I would say they are caused by the people that use it and the corporations that have a chokehold on it rather than some inherent aspect of the concept of another, more abstract layer of human interaction.
But that's just on the surface level. It's necessary to look deeper into the show's themes to understand what is actually being conveyed.
One of the central themes of the show seems to be the nature of information. The merging of the two realities wasn't going to be equal, rather being implied that the Wired would become the central plane of existence and the physical world would be converted to pure information to be fed into its various systems. But, as shown in multiple instances, misinformation can be easily disseminated by those who have the power to craft it. The fact that Lain is able to make such drastic changes to the mixed reality just by removing herself from everyone's memories is more than enough proof that raw information is unreliable.
Of course, misinformation is a very broad subject that can still be spun into harmful narratives, such as... sigh, the Digimon Tamers 20th anniversary broadcast written by Konaka himself, where the main villain is literally called "Political Correctness" who wields a "Cancel Culture" attack. But that doesn't mean it is any less valuable and relevant.
Dennou Coil is an anime released in 2007, the first animated series directed by Mitsuo Iso. He has some experience with science fiction, as he previously worked as a freelance animator for shows such as Gundam 0080, The End of Evangelion and the 1995 Ghost in the Shell adaptation.
Dennou Coil is set in the year 2026, where technology such as self-driving cars is already well established in everyday life. One such piece of technology, invented 11 years earlier, is the focus of the entire series: the Cyber Glasses (or Dennou Glasses, or whatever you want to localize it to), a pair of glasses that allows the wearer to interface with the internet through the use of augmented reality technology. Applications such as voice calls, device tracking, web purchasing and a variety of different hacking techniques are shown with floating keyboards and interfaces that can sometimes be reminiscent of high fantasy magic.
The plot itself is as follows: an 11 year old Yuuko Okonogi moves to the fictional city of Daikoku, where the cyberspace systems cause strange events to occur. One such event is the encounter with a virus-like program called an Illegal, which infects her pet cyberdog. To heal him, she has to become a part of her grandmother's detective agency and help with the recent cases of virtual pets going missing around town.
It is my favorite anime, and one that doesn't get talked about very often, so unlike Serial Experiments Lain I won't be spoiling the whole story. I might have to include a few spoilers here and there so I can talk about the show's themes, but my objective here is to make you want to watch it once you're done reading this.
The way the worldbuilding on this anime works is very interesting. There is a structure there with all the explanations, and it serves to support a metaphor that is entirely non virtual. The hunt for metabugs, for example, is identical to the hunt for real life bugs, as both are disappearing because the space they used to inhabit is being "modernized". Similarly, even with the unique aspects surrounding the virtual nature of the pets, a pet rescue is a pet rescue and it works like you would expect for a club run by children – aside from the virtual gadgets they can employ to aid them.
This anime also doesn't show a lot of internet-y elements either. The few actual websites we get to see are styled like old geocities (which I just found out was still in operation in Japan until 2019!) homepages. Rumors also play a big part in this anime, although here they are mostly passed down between the characters directly. There are some blurbs before the episodes that confirm rumors are indeed spread through the "Net", but we rarely ever see the characters using it for more than a simple search (with one exception towards the end of the series).
There are many moments where the virtual world is completely ignored – or rather, completely assimilated into reality – with the only reminder being that the characters are still wearing the glasses. Some situations make use of the virtual to make real things that we wish were. You probably won't find much when you follow a route in your town that is rumored to make ghosts appear, but if you have a virtual world, maybe it can be programmed to send you a spooky email if you do!
There isn't much of an exclusive virtual "world" per se, the internet is presented as it is for us today: a channel to share information and interact with other people that is dependent on its users to function. There are places in cyberspace that don't have an equivalent in the real world, but these occur due to the system failing to update changes in the city's layout such as new buildings being built or old ones being demolished. It's also possible to access a place called "the other side" if certain conditions are met, but this is due to a function of the cyber glasses that was supposed to be removed due to being capable of harming the user. Furthermore, the other side is a specific cyberspace, and not a larger "world" that encompasses the whole of virtual technology.
Glitches and unintended uses of the technologies that make up cyberspace are what cause some of the shows more supernatural moments, perhaps as a way to convey that there are still dangers with merging the real and virtual world even if it's done in a shallow and safe way. For example, there is a character called Kenichi Harakawa – Haraken for short – whose arc is finding the scattered remnants of data left by his best friend who died in a self-driving car accident. It is speculated that a malfunction in her glasses is what caused the accident, and he starts to suffer from similar effects the more he looks into the case.
It's implied that these glitches are fixable, however. These are caused by unresolved issues created by the first glasses company, Coil, during their experiments that led to the creation of cyberspace technology. Coil ended up collapsing, and their assets were bought by the current glasses company Megamass. Either due to the lack of documentation or (most likely) not wanting to spend funds fixing everything, they simply applied shallow measures to keep the Coil version of cyberspace buried. They also go to great lengths to manipulate and silence both the protagonists and antagonists who want to expose and fix the issues that these glitches caused.
As for deeper themes, I would say that nostalgia is a big one, but not necessarily in a way that glorifies the past. Even faulty and dangerous features can provide exciting adventures, and those adventures will be missed as cyberspace becomes sterilized and heavily monitored by corporations much like our own internet.
Because what is a childhood without its thrills? An environment that, while unsafe, provides opportunity for hands-on learning and developing social skills – and is fun as hell. "Hey, remember that summer when we got chased by a giant bean cop?" certainly makes for a fun story while "Hey, remember that summer when the company that holds all of our data got breached and leaked?" fills you with existential dread about the nature of capitalism as a system.
These are things that won't ever exist anymore. No one will be able to collect rare bugs anymore, because there are no more spaces where these bugs gather. Even the remnants of what these spaces used to be fade over time. Just like the human brain, a computer has a limited memory capacity, and it will eventually have to get rid of old records to store new. But it's hard for something to entirely disappear from the collective human consciousness. Even if a page is removed, a hundred links will still point to where it used to be. The new generation of virtual pets will be made immune to a certain kind of malware, but you will still hear tales from your grandmother about what crazy things happened when her old cyberdog wasn't.
Of course, just because the dangers of cyberspace technology serve as catalysts for a fun, thrill-filled coming of age story doesn't mean they're not still dangers. As the series progresses, wearing the glasses becomes more of a curse than a fun novelty when a glitch in the way they handle outdated spaces causes the protagonists to not be able to turn them off in case of danger. The protagonists are lucky in that they have connections with many people that are tech-savvy and directly connected with the company that manufactures the glasses. We are shown many children their age that were not so lucky – one of them being Haraken's deceased friend.
On a first glance, it seems like Dennou Coil takes a completely different approach to mixed reality than Serial Experiments Lain. The former highlights the dangers that such integration can cause, and the latter shows a relatively successful attempt at it. However, I believe that these series share many of its visions on how the real and virtual world should and shouldn't interact.
One of the main themes conveyed by Serial Experiments Lain is that the virtual world should only be a tool to be used by humans. This show takes a more radical approach and proposes that only the physical can truly be considered real. An example of this is during the final moments of the show, when the main antagonist Masami Eiri has his ideals shattered as Lain points out he needs to manifest a physical body to injure Lain.
This is mirrored in Dennou Coil in the fact that its most touching moments (aside from the ending) happen completely detached from the virtual world. However, I would argue that Dennou Coil is more lenient with its definition, proposing that the virtual can be real so long as it facilitates the creation of meaningful memories and doesn't force us to cling to the past. This is very literal, as one of the versions of the fictional urban legend "Miss Michiko" states that she drags into the virtual world people who get consumed by grief and refuse to let go.
The true value of data as a form of meaningful human interaction is where I believe these shows differ. Serial Experiments Lain suggests that data can never truly express meaningful human connections, because this data becomes separate from the physical and emotional context it was created in as soon as it is input in a virtual medium.
A similar reading could be made for Dennou Coil, since long distance messaging is mostly anonymous and used by the antagonist to deceive one of the characters. However, the fact that the characters are shown having fun with the mixed reality technology at all already differentiates it from Serial Experiments Lain's ideology. Many activities children would do to each other in real life such as playing pranks and catching bugs are recreated with virtual equivalents. This proves that the virtual can be a part of reality as long as it's used as a tool and not a different reality entirely.
Another theme the shows share is distance, which the director of Dennou Coil Mitsuo Iso has stated to be the core of the show. It's easy to see how the technology that is supposed to bring us closer can have the opposite effect. Throughout his journey to investigate his friend's death, Haraken grows even further from her memory as he tries to make sense of the data and circumstances surrounding her passing. Similarly in Serial Experiments Lain, the titular protagonist finds herself growing increasingly distant from her friends and family as her alternates start taking her place in more situations.
Both series also deal with the issue of certain people having disproportional power to control the virtual world. In Serial Experiments Lain, these people are Lain herself and Eiri. By proxy, the factions that worship these two also have a great influence over the Wired, and the company that created PHANTOMa as well for literally wielding the psychic energy of countless children who play the game.
In Dennou Coil, the power imbalance is a little more relatable due to the fact that there are companies who own cyberspace and who decide what is allowed and forbidden. These decisions are made based on monetary gain and personal interest (and on rare occasions, user safety) and can even override the government's demands. For example, in this universe accidents caused by self-driving cars are always considered the victim's fault, even when it is clear a malfunction in the navigation system occurred.
Corporate greed and poor management is what causes most, if not all of the dangerous glitches that cause the deaths of several children in Dennou Coil. We are shown the glasses having a variety of uses that are beneficial and unique to them, such as their use in therapy which was pushed by the protagonist's grandfather, and protection against filming hospital patients. The dangers of the virtual world are only there because of the unresolved history between Coil and Megamass which prevented the harmful experimental features from being removed from the glasses. One could draw a parallel to something like Tesla cars – vehicle technology itself can be made in a safe way, but they chose not to for what ultimately boils down to greed and so we see Teslas literally exploding all over the news.
Or, for a more relevant example from the same source, we can look at Neuralink (content warning for animal death). Even in the technologically advanced society of Dennou Coil, the technology to interface computers directly with the brain wasn't considered safe enough to be rolled out to the public. And considering Coil's corporate greed and incompetence is relatively mild compared to real world companies, I don't think it will be happening until the show's setting year 2026.
In conclusion, I believe that both series share a core ideal: that the virtual and the physical aren't different "realities" at all, but simply two different mediums where human interactions can be had. The thought of turning the virtual into a "world" that is completely detached from our own can be considered an act of technofetishism at best, and actively harmful at worst. It can reduce everything to contextless data, and it can make us cling to the past and stop growing.
However, it's also true that humans reside entirely in the physical world. While it is possible to have heartfelt emotions in regards to experiences in the virtual world, they are captured, processed and reacted to by our physical bodies. The thought that abandoning the need for a physical form should be considered an act of transcendence is misguided in my opinion, as the imperfections of the medium are what makes us who we are.
- Many thanks to William Lamkin, who has much more experience with Lain than I do and helped me with interpreting some aspects of the series!
- Rosy Hearts and Adrien, who helped me edit this!
- Lain screenshots taken from NezumiVA's video on the show (highly reccomend!)
- Most Dennou Coil screenshots taken from the anime by me. Last one was taken from this Tumblr post
- Pokémon GO promotional image taken from the Pokémon GO website
- Background taken from Sadness' Tiled Background collection