TCS Daily

Future Shock, for America?

By James Pinkerton - September 22, 2004 12:00 AM

If, as many suspect, the 21st century ends up being the Asian Century, two movies from 2004 will be remembered as early auguries. The first film bodes poorly for the US; the second film bodes well for Asia. In watching "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," Americans thrill to the simple comic-book glories of 1939. At the same time, the Japanese, watching "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," think ahead to the cyber-future of 2032, pondering its potentialities and pitfalls.

A culture which prefers the languorous comfort of a quasi-mythic past to the rigors of confronting the hard-edged future is complacent, maybe even decadent -- and out of decadence comes defeat. But more on the Iraq war in a bit. Also, more on America's shrinking back from the next quantum leap of biotech development.

"Sky Captain," starring Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, is not, despite its title, about the world of tomorrow; it's about the world of yesterday. To be sure, the film is beautiful to behold; in the words of New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden, director Kerry Conran has created a "retro-styled future world that fuses Art Deco, Futurism, Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' and the spirit of the 1939 World's Fair into an all-purpose eve-of-World-War-II environment."

Conran, in creating his film, used no fancy sets and no remote locations; all the backdrops we see on screen were the product of computer generated imagery (CGI). The actors emoted and disported in front of a blue screen; CGI then filled in the pseudo-sepia-toned ultra-glam visuals of gleaming towers and falling waters. And thus the irony: the movie deployed the absolute latest in technology to take a time-trip back to the era of propeller planes, vacuum tubes, and Lucky Strikes.

But such nostalgia trips become dangerous if they are a sign of the times -- that is, if a yearning for the verities and moral clarities of the past seeps over into contemporary policymaking. We might consider, as evidence, the way Americans currently think about "the war on terror." Are we fighting "Islamofascism," as Christopher Hitchens suggests? Are we thus revisiting WW II, the Good War? Of course not. The enemy we face today doesn't use or need big menacing machines, of the type ordered onward by the sinister Totenkopf, the pseudo-Nazi villain of "Sky Captain." All that today's foes need, animated by their pre-modern Islamic worldview, are a few cell phones, some box cutters, some ammonium nitrate -- and confidence that they are going to meet Allah in heaven. And, oh yes, maybe they might manage to wangle a post-World War Two loose nuke or three, not by making one, but by buying or stealing one.

So why we were so clueless prior to 9-11? Perhaps, in our minds, we were watching for a notional neo-Wehrmacht to cross the Rhine -- while the real Osama sent Mohammed Atta via Logan Airport. As the 9-11 Commission declared in its final report the root cause of American failure on Sad Tuesday was a "failure of imagination." True enough -- and plenty damning. After all, in 1994, Tom Clancy had imagined crashing a civilian jetliner into the US Capitol in his best-selling novel Debt of Honor; for the price of a paperback, our $30 billion-a-year "intelligence" community could have gleaned its best tip ever. Yet seven years later, Uncle Sam sat clueless as radio-silenced passenger jets flew off-course to their deadly destinations. That's a failure of imagination, for sure.

But even after 9-11, as if to prove that leaden retro-magination is our dominant paradigm, we waged a higher-tech version of World War Two in Iraq. And our higher tech wasn't high enough. Still thinking in traditional terms of armies and infantry, we sought to control Iraq by ordering young Americans to go riding around in RPG and IED magnets, aka Humvees and Bradleys. In fact, the movie's "Sky Captain," looking down from his vintage Spitfire, would recognize today's Iraq force as not dramatically different than what he might have seen in the late 30s -- boots and wheels and treads in the dirt, still achingly vulnerable to small-arms fire and simple explosives.

So here we are, the highest-tech country in the world, and we still plunk down inadequately body-armored Americans in the middle of hot zones. With a success -- instead of yet another failure -- of imagination, we would have figured out how to bring about a regime-change with the aide of foreign auxiliary troops, while American UAV's buzzed around over head, blasting the bad guys. In the wake of true imagineering, the only American "boots" on the ground would have been robot-warriors, zapping nogoodniks like the Skynet-directed 'bots in the "Terminator" movies.

But Americans seem immersed in a culture that looks backward to the bygone Bijou days when a plucky pilot in a prop plane -- be it Harrison Ford in the "Raiders" movies or Jude Law in "Sky Captain" -- can save the world, and so maybe it isn't surprising that military transformation has suffered from vision-fatigue. Indeed, the sub-Mach One "Sky Captain" lumbered to a first-place finish at last weekend's box office rankings -- at a time when we need Klingon cruisers to strike fear, or death, into our enemies.

To repeat: such backward-facing is emblematic of decadent cultures. Instead of looking ahead, to new challenges, cultures in decline look behind, to past glories. And meanwhile, as Satchel Paige put it, someone else is always gaining.

In contrast to the retro-message being fed to Americans, the Japanese are producing, and consuming, a different message. "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" was a big hit in Japan, but it's the itty-bittiest pea under the mattress of US pop-cult consciousness; released here on the same day as "Sky Captain," "Ghost" took in just 1/50 as much money. Too bad for us.

Yes, the film earned many positive reviews. Writing in The Boston Herald, James Verniere lyricized, "'Ghost in the Shell 2' is a spellbinding original, evoking such otherworldly classics as 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Beetlejuice.' It is eerily beautiful even in its most violent scenes." That was a nice notice, but it still didn't get at the real point of "Ghost." Wild as it is, the film isn't just a head trip; it is a glimpse of things to come.

Whereas "Sky Captain" speaks to where we've been, "Ghost" speaks to where we're headed. Perhaps it can't hit the bullseye in all the details, but in its broad contours, its aim is true. Will there be "e-police," as the film suggests? How 'bout "sexroids"? Of course. In the future, there will be both.

As for "e-police," that's "e" for electronic -- and also "e" for expendable; they go on dangerous urban missions. And no doubt the e-cops will be joined by e-troops. Smart countries, wary of frittering away political support for military missions by frittering away lives, will look to robots and cyborgs to do the ground-pounding.

And what about "sexroids"? Of course, we will have those, too, as foreseen in many previous movies, including "The Stepford Wives" and "AI." Sex has always been one of the great drivers of human history; it's also been driving recent technology history, too, from the VCR to cable TV to the Internet. Americans are hardly asleep at the wheel of sex-preneurship, but the Japanese, who are way out in front of us on robots, are likely to show us the way. How? Which way? See "Ghost in the Shell."

Set in 2032, "Ghost" shows us the cyborged future, in which humans and machines struggle for identity amidst the forces of merger and convergence. And the film makes clear that humans who have thought they were spending too much time with a machine -- alongside an assembly line, in front of a TV, or staring down at a "crackberry" -- should think of those experiences as mere beta-tests for what's coming next. The "ghost" in the movie's "shell," for example, is the lingering bit of humanity still remaining in some "sexroids." So sad, so weird -- so inevitable.

To be sure, "Ghost" has links to the past. Like much of the cyberpunk genre, its plotline is film noir-ish. The lead character, Detective Batou, the loner who patrols the mean streets and is dirtied but not stained, owes much to Rick Deckard, the Harrison Ford character in "Blade Runner". But of course, even the great "Blade Runner" offers humble homage to every noir ever made; Deckard talks like Humphrey Bogart at his Spadiest, and Sean Young's character, Rachael, channels her hair, clothes, and smokes right out of the early '40s, too. Yet "Ghost" is nothing if not eclectic; other influences include Japanese manga from the '80s and '90s, notably "AD Police" and "Bubblegum Crisis."

So is "Ghost" director Mamoru Oshii guilty, after all, of the same retro-mindedness as "Sky Captain" director Conran?

No, not at all. "Ghost" director Oshii is on a mission to instruct. In an interview with The Washington Post, he observed, "People are very different from animals. We don't accept our original bodies. Humans wear clothes, have earrings and tattoos, do cosmetic surgery, take vitamins. If they are sick, they get organ transplants. And now we have radios, telephones, microphones, watches, computers, microchips outside the body now, but soon we will utilize these machines inside our bodies and then we will be part cyborg. This is inevitable. The process has already begun."

Dig that: It's inevitable. The process has already begun. Welcome to the machine, as Pink Floyd would say.

Going further, Oshii predicted, in terms not entirely complimentary to his countrymen, that the pioneers of body mechanization "will probably be Japanese. That, and human cloning... because we do not have the same taboos." He added, "Japan is a really weird country without any religion. We take ideas from everywhere. We don't really care about what is lost and what is acquired."

It's worth pausing over Oshii's "no religion" point. Most Americans probably think that the dominant faith in the US, Protestantism, has been an asset -- the upwardly mobile "Protestant Ethic," and all that. Yet some citizens, in the name of faith and morality, are seeking to put stumbling blocks in the path of their progress. The Bush administration seems perfectly prepared, for instance, to say "sayonara" to rivals across the Pacific, as the Asian Tigers pull ahead in the Great Game of Human Techno-Destiny.

One such is Mark Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations. On September 13, he delivered a stern lecture to the Heritage Foundation, aimed at fending off the future. The tide of technology, he commanded, should not flow further than his political-appointee throne: "The United States supports efforts to ban all forms of human cloning." He continued, "A ban that differentiates between human reproductive and 'experimental' cloning would essentially authorize the creation of a human embryo for the purpose of destroying it." Such a partial ban, he insisted, would thus also be "unacceptable."

Lagon is not making foreign policy for America; he is attempting to make moral policy for the world. He listed anti-cloning as one of the US government's five top priorities before the United Nations General Assembly, right up there with rehabilitating Iraq and containing Iran.

But here's a bet: much of the rest of the world will laugh, or at least smirk. Yeah, sure, a few countries will sign a treaty or convention cooked up by Beltway Right to Lifers, either because they want to gain some brownie points with the US or because they have no biotech capacity, anyway. But in Japan and Asia, as Oshii said, nothing will come of America's Canute-like command.

So in the meantime, yet another window of opportunity has opened for Japan and all of Asia. The Japanese lead in robots; some other Asian country might take the lead in cloning. But via cyborgs, robots, clones, a new trans-human reality looms.

But wait a second here. Back to Japan for a moment: hasn't the Rising Sun been setting for the last decade? Hasn't the bubble burst? Yes, that's true, and the Japanese also confront a severe demographic crisis -- a "birth-dearth." But if they can generate a trillion dollars' worth of foreign exchange via robot exports over the coming decades, they might buy their way out of it.

And by the way, speaking of bubbles, Americans might once again not be too complacent. After all, the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked in January 2000; it's down some 13 percent in the past four years. And the NASDAQ is down more 62 percent since March 2000. Some hear a distinct popping sound in those downward numbers. A few years from now, if it is still fighting wars and running huge deficits, the US might conclude that it has a lost a decade of development, too. And I will make this prediction: Japan's economy -- even the long-suffering Nikkei Index -- will be surging before the Marines succeed in pacifying Fallujah.

In the meantime, even if Japan fails, would it be wise to bet against the rest of the Asian economies -- ruled as they are by secular pragmatists who are out to get rich, open to any technology? Certainly not, especially when Americans, complacently obtuse about the risks they face, are blithely determined to spread the blessings of democracy, corpse by costly corpse, across the Middle East.

If present trends continue -- Americans thinking about the 1930s, Asians thinking about the 2030s -- then the world's political economy is headed for a major reversal of fortune. It doesn't take much of an imagination to see that tectonic jolt coming.


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