Until a couple days ago, I have never heard of the manga Gunnm series that was the basis of the new movie Alita Battle Angel and I didn’t even know the movie was coming out. Instead I stumbled on it when YouTube starting recommending people’s review of the movie. I was quickly fascinated by what I learned about it, but not in a way to motivate me to break my decade-long movie fast. The imagery of her world closely mirrored a vision I have about our eventual future. To be clear, nothing in this post is in any way a review of the movie or the manga series, and it is hardly even a review of people’s reviews of same. Instead it inspired by the story and the craft that went into the movie.
I would have liked to have invented a fiction that was similar to what I learned about her world. I would have chosen a more benign or less violent civilization, and thus assuring my story would have been read and quickly forgotten by a couple people at most. The original creators as well as the current film-makers made the more competent choice of getting her world out, and I respect them for that.
But what is her world? Since I haven’t seen the movie, I should restate that is what is this vision of a world that I think I share with the authors. By world, I am referring to the metaphorical soil from which her story springs.
That soil is a future split in civilization deliciously depicted as a grounded Iron City and a floating city Zalem for elites protected from the rest of the population. I would not have chosen a floating city for practical reasons, but it is a powerful metaphor for what I see occurring in contemporary society where the celebrities (including all professions whose members have a name that is a brand that brings them enduring wealth) live in luxury visible to the rest of the population but safely isolated from them. I like too how in this story, the people in Iron City aspire to someday earn their way into the elite city, and I like even more how such a promise is a manipulative lie.
The image that really struck me was that the floating city was anchored by cables to the ground. Almost immediately, I thought of the floating city to be like the Internet cloud computing of big data: the cables to the ground being like Internet connections to the people on the ground. The floating city represents modern day celebrity where millions of people aspire to social media celebrity status, thus ascending to the floating cloud to be with the other celebrities. As in the story, attaining such an ascension may be for part of the body, not the whole.
As I hinted, I would have approached the scenario differently. It still would have been bleak and dreary, but more optimistic in that it would not be as violent. Personally, I’m pessimistic: the violent world is more likely, but I would have found the less violent one to provide more room for character development.
The basic outline of the story is an upside down version of Jules Verne’s Time Machine world of Morlocks and Eloi. The grounded Eloi were docile but comfortable while the underground Morlocks maintained the world while occasionally feasting on the Eloi. Both imaginings still had a similar state for the people on the ground: forever separated from the other group that fully controls their lives.
Our current political/social debates seem to be leading to a future that is like either of these stories. There is a small elite group who will live in luxury, safely isolated from the rest of the population that they use to maintain their wealth.
Missing from our debates about immigration policy, gun control, universal basic income, universal free healthcare is consideration of how this will effect future generations: what will our as yet unborn descendants inherit? Micro-evolution will select the descendants who will adapt to the provisioning by others. Eventually, the ones who remain will become stranded on the ground, evolving to be like the inhabitants of Iron City or like the Eloi.
The Time Machine story is more realistic in my mind because the both the Eloi and Morlocks have evolved to no longer question the order. There is no rebellion, or some latent yearning for rebellion. To be fair, the Time Machine jumped to a far more distant future where evolution would have had much more time to select for these behaviors. Maybe Alita’s world remains close enough to retain from vestigial memory of enlightenment ideals such as all men being created equal.
The real inspiration for thinking about Alita’s world is its providing an answer to my recent posts’ suggestion about a government that rejects responsibility for justice. I suggested a government that was only interested in pursuit of truth. Such a government would observe carefully and use time-tested judicial procedures to arrive at the truth of what happened, but its interest stops at the point of conviction. The government itself would not have any responsibility for extracting justice from the convicted, although it may choose to rehabilitate but only to the point necessary to safely return the convicted to society. The goal of that government is to minimizing the bias of government interference in order to get the best observations of the current social condition.
When I was writing that, I implicitly accepted that justice would still be sought, but it was not the government’s job to deliver it. I suppose I was implicitly imagining a world like Alita’s, a brutal world of bounty hunters, assassins, and actors of retribution. I hadn’t thought of the other option of violent games, similar to motor ball. While not necessarily a direct form of justice, having violent (potentially lethal) games of voluntary participants could distract from we today consider to be justice. Something like the Roman gladiator or coliseum games might server as a distraction from direct justice for some offense. One may find justice served by rooting for the brutal or humiliating failure of the gladiator or team favored by the person who committed a crime.
In any event, I had in the back of my mind that day to day life would be more brutal when under a government that had no responsibility or means to carry out justice. I found that my impression of the Alita story was a possible outcome for my conjectured future. Pessimistically, I expect that the current trends in social-economic change will lead to something similar. Our near descendants will live far less comfortable lives than we live now, but they’ll adapt and probably look back at us with disdain.
A part of me rejects this pessimism. I have confidence that the future will adapt to a reality of a permanent 1% to 99% separation of the population. There may be some mobility between the two, but just based on numbers, the vast majority of the 99% will stay in that group. That group will live lives constrained in some way. There are multiple scenarios (some happy, some sad) that could end up where the 99% will be fully provided with adequate food, shelter, and entertainment.
Assuming a post-scarcity world, the big challenge will be how to satisfy the human need for justice. At the very least, there will be two systems of justice: one for the wealthy celebrities and another for the rest. The masses will have very little opportunity to seek justice from the wealthy, especially once democracy is replaced or rendered lame from politics of division of ever smaller identity groups. Over time (especially over generations), we will learn to satisfy our needs for justice though non-governmental means.
One option may be a general lawlessness where crimes are so widely inflicted that there is distinction between innocent or guilty. Another may be an organized system of offenses led by the elite to balance out the infliction of injury to achieve an impression that everyone gets their turn at being served justice. These seem to be explored in the movie.
It is interesting to imagine other more peaceful options with the extreme being among the Eloi of the Time Machine.
I don’t see lasting much longer the recent past experience of widespread opportunity for individuals to succeed economically to a higher status than where they started. As this falters, so too would our government degenerate into choosing between justice and truth, but not both. We’ll have to adapt to the consequence.