If you’re a geek and have a functioning cortex, you may have caught wind of a micro-budget film coming up on March 31st. If you’re glued to ET or other TV shows or just spend a lot of time browsing entertainment sites, you may have heard about this little indie film as well. It’s called Ghost in the Shell. Chances are you’ve heard about it because of the whole whitewashing controversy. I don’t want to focus too much on it, though as a geek it does piss me off. Long story short, Ghost in the Shell is an incredibly popular and influential cyberpunk manga and anime series. Heard of a little movie called The Matrix? Thank Ghost in the Shell for its heavy influences. If you haven’t heard of The Matrix then holy fuck what is wrong with you? Back to Ghost in the Shell and its controversy woes before we get into the main point of this post. Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese property with Japanese characters and in typical Hollywood fashion, they cast a white actress, Scarlet Johansson, in the main role of the cyborg who I’m pretty sure for many nerds was the cause of much adolescent stirring. Not only that, but there is a great fear that this American production will stray far from one of the other things that made Ghost in the Shell so great which was its seamless blending of heavy philosophy with action and hot cyborgs.
Now, in keeping with the true spirit of Ghost in the Shell, I want to go back to the original anime movie, all the way back to that magical time known as 1995. In particular, I’d like to focus on a specific quote I think that holds a lot of weight and that we can all apply to our lives and in fact should. Yes, there is advice coming out of this article. The quote comes from none other than Motoko Kusanagi, the fully cyberized commander of the Section 9 cybercrimes task force. The quote is said in the scene in which she is talking with the newest and least cyber augmented member of the team, Togusa, about why he was chosen and how he complements the team by adding a wildcard aspect to their otherwise highly cybernetically augmented unit. In the course of this conversation, Motoko says, “It’s simple: overspecialize, and you breed in weakness.”
It is ever so simple isn’t it? He’s human and so he won’t react the same way. Harder for the bad guys to predict Section 9’s patterns and next moves and thus get away. But, there’s more to it than that. With Ghost in the Shell, there usually is. If you think about it, part of the reason Togusa can be unpredictable in ways that the other members of Section 9 can’t is that he is in full control. The cyber augmentations of the other team members may give them enhanced abilities in some respects but in others they actually detract from their ability to exercise free will. They are constrained by the model specs of their particular enhancements. Additionally, just like any mass produced product, not to say that they are no equipped with top of the line augmentations that basic civilians would not have access to, they will lack complete, true individuality and most importantly, they will possibly suffer an impediment to their ability to make choices or at least to manifest them. So what the hell is this all leading to? I hate to do this… actually screw it, I don’t. Let’s look at another quote to further develop our conclusion.
Robert A. Heinlein, author of classic novels like Starship Troopers an Stranger in a Strange Land, had this to say about overspecialization.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
On a subtle level, both quotes are talking not just about the problematic effects of being too specialized but of relinquishing choices. In Motoko’s case, being too cyber augmented strips the unit of the ability to act in an unpredictable manner and in Heinlein’s case, being specialized is a roadblock to living a fully realized life of being able to choose between a large repertoire of acquired skills and experiences. (Funny side note, many people incorrectly peg Heinlein as a fascist because of his book, Starship Troopers, but many people are uneducated and humorless idiots who don’t see that this book was an ingenious work of satire. The more you know.) But how does this relate to everyday life?
Now this is where we get to you, you self-absorbed malignant narcissists, you. The thing about overspecializing is that in a way it is an abdication of choice. When one becomes overly specialized, one forgoes the entire life experience and instead cordons oneself into only a specific corner and acts only in that corner, that one specific subset of situations. As for the rest? Fuck it, I’m not specialized in that. Furthermore, by overspecializing, one forgoes any hope of a unique, complex personal identity, either in one’s personal life or work. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of working in a cubicle farm like I have; doing the same fucking task for eight or so hours straight, specializing in a particular task, as it were; you will begin to experience a breakdown of a sense of autonomy as you begin to take on the aspect of a thing, a process, an application that only does a certain thing, that only serves a particular function. The problem here isn’t just that this divests an individual of their individuality but what happens, as I said before, a person accepts this mechanistic view of him or herself. It sure makes making choices simpler as we can fall back on safe, well worn behavioral patterns and duck away from making harder choices that lie beyond the safe boundaries we’ve twisted ourselves to fit within. But the opportunity to overspecialize doesn’t just come from boring desk jockey jobs.
Overspecializing can occur by way of only subscribing to one particular point of view or holding one particular ideology above all others. This can apply to religions, politics, economics, or philosophies. Overspecializing can be said to occur when we lock out the rest of the world and only view things through the one particular filter we’ve chosen and never question if this filter is reasonable or is just more bullshit we’ve piled on to our bullshit existence. The weakness arising from such slavish, unthinking devotion to a set of ideas should be obvious. You not only erode your ability to think critically but you also forgo any possibility of adaptation. Foregoing and refusing adaptation, you will inevitably be left behind by a world that couldn’t give less of a fuck about you or your thoughts because it already gives absolutely zero fucks about you.
Now, the rest of the world may not care about your being left behind, in fact no one will likely know you were even there to be left behind in the first place, but you will feel it on some level as the world becomes more and more incomprehensible since your inflexible ideology goggles get more and more scratched and scuffed, soon leaving you in a swirling miasma of confusion that could be easily lifted it you just took off the fucking goggles, man! But this is the kind of weakness we’re talking about when we talk about overspecialization. Little fun fact for you, one of the things that makes humans so adaptable is that we come in to the world totally unspecialized for anything more than feeding, pooping, and looking squishy and adorable. Everything else, besides a very few innate tendencies and biologically derived cognitive capacities, is learned. And now look at us. Masters of the planet. All because we were flexible, we could adapt and integrate new information and paradigms.
The take away point of all this is that life requires choices and we make those choices by the accrual of individual experiences and skills. All these things allow us to act in a way that is particular to us. I hope this won’t be misconstrued as the tired, saccharine platitude we’ve heard ad nauseam: just be yourself. This isn’t about that. First of all, you might be an asshole to others in which case maybe you should be a little less you. Secondly, that tired cliche never actually tells us why we should be ourselves. Again, the reason that someone is usually fed that kind of advice is that this person has something that he or she wishes to do but for whatever reason, is living a repressed life and finds that it is not possible to act in the way he or she wishes. It boils down to freedom. We could go further and say that such a repressed person has become overspecialized in the practice of conforming to the expectations and needs of others. They have created a product of themselves and a product has no function unless it is consumed or utilized.
In the end, we are really talking about freedom, the freedom to act as oneself, not as a component of a machine or system, not as a specialized tool whose function is prescribed. I’m not suggesting that one totally go crazy, start wearing their underwear on their head and smearing their entire body in used coffee grounds for no other reason than, “Fuck it, I’m free.” Sure you can do that but to what end? Maybe it’s performance art. I don’t know. All I’m saying is that all things are possible and permitted; that’s both the awesome thing and the terrifying thing about life. It seems crazy to lock ourselves into tight corners and claustrophobic rooms when considering the vast degrees of freedom that are literally forced on us by dint of our being alive. And yes that may come with crushing responsibility but the terms of our existence are not open to negotiation so we may as well step up and make the best of it which means being willing to take on the role of a singular being, left without the assurances of determining factors, and compelled to act to the best of his or her ability in a rapidly changing and indifferent universe. The thing is if you’re doing it right and embracing this mercurial state, you can actually have a good bit of fun, no cyber augmentations required.