Traditionally in the superhero genre, the superheroes themselves – the extraordinarily powerful entities who are for whatever reason the only beings capable of challenging the threats around which the story revolves – form the acceptable face of unaccountable, consolidated power. The assumption is that sometimes power must be consolidated for the greater good into the hands of those who can actually do something about the “real problems.” Politically this seems a murky avenue and it is this tension (between the ethics of empowering the individual to be the saviour and representative of a by definition underclass, and the nature of the threats that would make this the only viable option) which frequently defines the stories of heroes like Superman.
Yet at its core, there is a kind of cynicism about the idea of traditional authority structures and their inflexibility – and thus inability to respond to unexpected threats. Superheroes step in when the problems which “acceptable” authority figures such as the police face are too challenging. What the progress of instant mass communication technology – via social media and the near-ubiquity of smartphones ensuring the majority of the population of developed countries are never too far from the ability to contact others and share information – has done is provided a real-world challenge to authority; a real-life “Superman” is said to be (in the words of representatives of Google et al) the whole of society working together to address problems from a more targeted and immediate angle to “top-down” authorities. Episode 3 of the science-fiction superhero series Gatchaman Crowds ends with the president of a new-tech social media company declaring war on the “real enemy” – the “vertical society” of traditional power structures that represents the modern-day developed world. The entire rhetoric of this imagined corporation, GALAX, is taken straight from the tone and subject-matter of books such as Reality is Broken, or the keynote speeches at technology expos in which social-media experts explain the changing relationship between computer-users and society as a whole. What GALAX apparently fights against is those who need some kind of compensation or reputation hit before they commit to helping – doing what is seen as a social duty. This is made apparent in the second episode when, following a fight between the superheroes ostensibly at the centre of the narrative and the as-yet inscrutable aliens they protect the world from, the immediate response of bystanders is to use their smartphones to get on the GALAX site and contact any nearby doctors. Yet the selflessness – the lack of respect and care for the individuals in society that apparently GALAX promotes – is a lie and this is made very obvious. Every “good” act performed via GALAX does provide the feedback that it apparently is supposed to avoid; a pop-up window appears on those who helped’s phone informing them “the world has been updated” and their “mission” is complete.
Reality is Broken, arguably one of the key texts in the field of gamification, offers real-world support for this fictional model; its argument is that humanity is inherently not openly altruistic and does require an impetus or structure before it will act spontaneously and selflessly. It emphasises the importance of providing feedback – even meaningless feedback like “achievements” or “badges” on a social network – in encouraging people to go beyond the minimum and put extra effort in. It is a philosophy that has come under criticism from the non-tech world as being almost sociopathic and nihilistic, arguing that without any kind of expected reward or capacity to “do better” than someone else (have more badges for helping others, for example), humanity has at some point lost its will to be selfless and help others. Spontaneous goodness is apparently missing and what is needed is a psychological gratification. If gamification holds true, people help others to get recognition and feel good about themselves over and above doing some universally-held “good” deed. Returning to the fictional world of Gatchaman, the hypocrisy of GALAX becomes obvious in light of this; while the will to help others is there, it is still being controlled to some extent by the desire to “update” the world. GALAX is creating its own vertical society, making its users reliant in some way on the positive feedback of completing missions.
This theory is made much clearer in Episode 3, which focuses not at all on the superheroes’ secret lives but on how the mundane world proceeds. It begins with a woman complaining on GALAX about a dispute with unreasonable neighbours, at which point the mysterious “X” – a moderator-like figure aesthetically reminiscent of Apple’s Siri voice interface – sends a personalised email to a nearby lawyer without informing her. This is a science-fictional endpoint to the personalised recommendations that are rapidly becoming ubiquitous; nowadays, social media makes educated guesses about what you may be interested in and who you may know. GALAX, in this future world, takes personal issues into its own hands and makes them public. From a tech-world perspective this is a desirable endpoint; peoples’ problems being solved for them with minimal input, perhaps even before they know really how to go about solving them. Yet from a more cynical outsider view, it is arguably a step too far; that a computer “reads” your conversations and contacts a total stranger for advice about a personal issue because his social media presence suggests he is an expert seems unthinkable. This thread is picked up in the final section of the episode, where it is claimed that GALAX’s ability to match peoples’ problems to appropriate professionals is rapidly obsoleting job agencies and traditional methods of running businesses. The social-media portal is, very literally, shutting out the traditional structures of society. Of course, what this means is that GALAX itself is retaining knowledge of peoples’ problems and private lives, and analysing all their conversations; X is a supercomputer dedicated to the task of monitoring all GALAX users’ feeds and solving their problems.
Thus is the real cost of GALAX – and its real-world, less powerful, analogues. The convenience of having problems solved by “X” comes at the total cost of privacy; anything said on GALAX is interpreted by a machine and sent to appropriate experts. What social media does, in real-world terms, in its handling of recommendations and friends lists, is divorce control of the act of discovering new things to a corporate mediator which cannot be relied on to be impartial or even authoritative. One of the frequent criticisms of the modern world’s recommendation-driven society is that it leads to a spiral of confirmation bias; recommendations drive consumers into ever-less-diverse media consumption habits since they just provide more of the same. A computer can build up a picture of what you like based on your interactions with it, but cannot account for changes in taste or the desire to experiment. By automating the processes that social media claims to, a user gives up some of their autonomy. What GALAX, in this science-fiction world, is doing is reducing its users’ reliance on traditional fora for interaction (the traditional job market, for example) and increasing their reliance on its own carefully-curated selections. It is creating a – to use the lexicon of Apple – “walled garden” effect; a hermetic society reliant on a carefully-curated set of services and increasingly reluctant to consider new things.
All these threads come together in the main plot of Episode 3; a batch of contaminated milk is distributed via catering services to schools and offices, and GALAX is able to spread the news and prevent people drinking it. The narrative progression by which this happens – with the central figures being the two leading superheroes having to work without their superpowers – works almost ideally as a quaint parable of how social media obsoletes traditional power structures and how its unaccountability works in its favour. X receives the information about the milk by illegally monitoring media channels but this is presented as acceptable because it is for the greater good. The news is disseminated via smartphones, interrupting the school day and encouraging those pupils at the focal school who subscribe to GALAX to take action. When they do, it is shown as a chaotic burst of activity which humiliates and shows the inefficiency of the “traditional” authorities – the schoolteachers. The old teachers want to worry about protocol and meetings and don’t trust news from the internet in a litany of the kind of exaggerated inefficiencies that are used to justify blind progress. The school’s senior authorities – representing traditional social power structures – are lampooned as luddites because they will not immediately believe social media’s importance. It is the same as the tech world’s response to criticism in reality – opponents, no matter their arguments, are all melded together into one morass of “luddites” and “technophobes” whose silly reservations prevent true progress. Yet for the story to have a happy ending technology must beat – and not just beat but utterly discredit – traditional authority. So there is a disturbance, and the young, hip, new teachers (who do adhere to the concept of GALAX) help the students rebel against the old authority. Technology is called “disruptive” by its inventors because it allegedly shakes up obsolete power structures and here the “disruptive” effect is made very physical. Technology must force its way in place of traditional power and because it can, the day is saved and the world is “updated.”
What this episode can be seen as is a fantasy of the crowd-sourced social media world that modern-day social media innovators want; a world where the rules are broken in trendy fashion for the greater good, where the irrelevant older generation have rings run around them by the connected young world. Perhaps this is analytically overreaching but the scenes of chaotic running around a school pursued by teachers who don’t “get” new media almost evoked real-life scenes of online activism co-ordinating protests faster than police response can keep up, and the derisive analysis that followed in the news about how un-tech-aware the police seemed. It all, on the surface, seems a good thing – people worked together to solve a problem, and as the epilogue to the story shows the law stepped in and addressed the issue of negligence at the dairy. Yet the way it is framed – that it was only possible because GALAX were prepared to break the law, and because students had to break the rules to be believed – combined with the hypocrisy that has been shown in how GALAX perceives and presents itself – should challenge this naïve, utopian view. The tech-world utopia is presented as a liberal one, where power is “democratised” to the people by allowing everyone to do their part – yet this must be done through corporate mediators (which as reality shows can have vested interests) and the truth is ultimately more libertarian – it is about commodifying expertise and altruism, and filtering good deeds through an agenda, apparently of discrediting “obsolete” power structures.
Gatchaman Crowds is not per se an anti-technology story, or indeed a politically conservative one; it shows that new technology can be beneficial in more subtle ways, such as a scene in Episode 2 of a social club meeting organised entirely online. Yet its depiction of a fantasised, idealised always-connected world where everything is handled through one company’s structure (and dressed up as freedom through reduced reliance on entrenched “vertical” authority), juxtaposed with the suspicious behaviour of X and the GALAX company, reminds viewers that progress can be politically-charged and not all as it seems. It offers a refreshing reservation about the benefits of new technology, a reminder that for all the good a tool can do, reliance on machines – especially in a corporate age – can lead to a loss of autonomy.