I mentioned in On the Sophistication of Anime Content and In Praise of Anime and Video Games that Animes have the same value as literature works, especially when they serve the function of challenging their audience with thought experiments. This is what I appreciate most about good animes and Psycho-Pass is, by far, the epitome of that ideal.
The purpose of this blog post
Psycho-Pass is a show that quotes Kierkegaard, Plato, Rousseau, Descartes, Max Weber, Pascal, Foucault and Jeremy Bentham. The aforementioned people produced works that are well-known in the fields of philosophy and sociology. Based on this, we can infer that the creator is at least somewhat literate in the fields of philosophy and sociology. It is also noteworthy that, in the anime, the creator himself also pointed out that its society is a parody of a dystopian novel written by Phillip K. Dick. Comparisons were also made between Dick’s dystopia with those of George Orwell and William Gibson’s, indicating that Psycho-Pass’s dystopia is very likely a well-thought through dystopia that builds on the ideas of these popular dystopian novelists. The notion that the creator of this anime created this anime based on sociology, philosophy and dystopian literature knowledge gave me sufficient reasons to embark on exploring and analysing this dystopian society – which is therefore the purpose of this blog post. Ultimately, I seek to answer the million-dollar question: Would I want to live in this “dystopian” society?
To avoid the confusing usage of language, Psycho-Pass’s dystopian society will be denoted as ‘X’ for the rest of this blog post.
Features of X
I will begin with an introduction to the broad features of X so as to provide you with some incremental and contextual understanding of this analysis.
It is common for dystopian literature works to visualise a world in the future and X is no exception to this trend. X has its streets patrolled by police drones instead of police officers, people dressed in holographic costumes instead of real clothes, street scanners that can decipher what people think, cars that are self-driven, and internet usage accompanied by virtual reality goggles. Some of these features – self-driving cars and virtual reality goggles – are already a reality. Given the current trajectory and pace of technological advancement, assuming ceteris paribus, I would give it another 20 to 30 years before we reach X’s technological level.
Economic self-sufficiency and diplomatic isolation
X’s economic features are not explicitly revealed but it can be inferred as self-sufficient. Food-wise, it developed a type of food called Hyper-Oats. As with all advancement of agricultural technology, agricultural efficiency improved; this piece of technology was the threshold that X needed to cross in order to be completely self-sufficient in terms of food. This served as a precondition for X to also diplomatically isolate itself. Also, the observation that the people living in X are not lacking in commodities ultimately suggests that X’s economy is self-sufficient. In essence, X’s economic condition is what North Korea very much desire, as outlined in its principle of Juche. North Korea chose diplomatic isolation because its dynastic regime rests on the pillar of ignorance, and I can also say the same for X. However, instead of a dynastic regime, it is trying to preserve a system. I shall elaborate more on that later.
What I’ve mentioned are peripheral features; the main feature of X is its political-judicial system. In X, the political and judicial systems are amalgamated into one single system called the Sibyl System. This should raise some red flags immediately because, according to western political wisdom, political and judicial systems should be as independent from each other as possible to prevent potential abuse of power. X not only blurred the line between the political and judicial systems, it made them one and the same.
Before we proceed further into understanding how the political-judicial system of X is itself the Sibyl System, we need to understand what exactly is the Sibyl System first. The Sibyl System is supposedly a supercomputer AI that possesses the processing ability to micromanage X. It is the bureaucratic central that not only performs basic administrative tasks, but it is also vested with so much authority that it has vision of the whole society, be it through drones or surveillance cameras. It also has the authority to dictate, based on standardized aptitude tests, what professions every individual has access to.
Judicial aspect of Sibyl
The Sibyl System uses a metric call Psycho-pass. Psycho-pass measures, based on a cymatic scanning technology that deciphers individuals’ thoughts, the criminality of the targeted person. The executor/arrester of the Sibyl system are the inspectors and enforcers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). These people are armed with a type of gun called the Dominator. The Dominator has an in-built psycho-pass scanner and also 3 modes: non-lethal paralyzer, lethal eliminator and decomposer. Once someone’s psycho-pass passes the threshold of 100, they are to be shot with the non-lethal paralyzer. That will paralyze the target, allowing him to be arrested and be mentally “treated” in a rehabilitation facility. If the threshold of 300 is crossed, lethal eliminator would be activated – which is effectively a gruesome death sentence. In essence, based on the Sibyl system, the police will carry out sentencing of the criminal through a real-time judgement based on the psycho-pass. This whole process, which skips the court trial procedure altogether, makes Sibyl System effectively the judicial system in X.
Political aspect of Sibyl
The Sibyl System decides every individual’s access to every professions, including the profession of politician. Although X has democratic elections, the politicians are pre-selected based on the criteria that they will not oppose the Sibyl System, which they are able to determine based on the cymatic scan technology that can read people’s minds. As such, elections become tokenistic in X. The Sibyl System, being the one with true political powers at hand, is effectively the political system of X.
The unassailable legitimacy of Sibyl
It should already strike you as puzzling that so much power is vested in the Sibyl System without the people’s opposition or concern. There are good reasons for this. Firstly, the system works. The in-built psycho-pass scanner in surveillance cameras and drones patrolling the streets meant that no one with criminal tendencies could roam the street in X. Anyone with psycho-pass getting even remotely close to 100 – which is the threshold for arrest – is required to go for psycho-therapies. For 100 and above, the CID would be informed and arrests will be carried out immediately. With such a system in place, crimes can effectively be prevented before it happens and the people of X enjoyed unprecedented peace in their lives as a result. They rightfully give the Sibyl System the credit for it and thus accorded it great power, believing that the system is impartial because it is a mere supercomputer AI, not a human that is inevitably tainted by desires and biases. The second reason why people accept Sibyl and give it power is due to the assured belief that the Sibyl System is perfect. The Sibyl System is strict in its allocation of arts and music professions. These are the professions that can sow the seeds of dissent. Hence, the strict allocation of loyal and supportive people into these professions would minimize criticisms of the system. In addition, the Sibyl System also implements censorship of historical records and works of past philosophy, sociology and political thinkers on the net – which is where everyone in X gets their information from. Physical books became obsolete and stopped production. This allows the system, through its control over the sole source of information called the net, to monopolise it. Without any windows into the past records and ideas, an alternative, better system could not be conceived. These measures by the Sibyl System allows it to maintain the public belief that the Sibyl System is perfect, giving it virtually limitless legitimacy.
The true nature of the Sibyl System and why it is designed this way
The true nature of the Sibyl System is not a supercomputer AI, as revealed in the last few episodes of Psycho-Pass. The Sibyl System is instead a collection of human brains that are harmoniously coalesced (not physically, that’s gross) into a collective conscious of diverse personalities and opinions. The system has 243 constituents – 243 brains that are kept alive and conscious. The initial 200 members are normal yet different people, so that the system can use them as references to decide how to run the society and judge criminality. What the system obtained from the 100 brains is a range of different opinions and personalities to consider. A wider range of opinions is desirable for the very simple reason that it would be more inclusive. Just think of it as a more perfect form of representative democracy: A parliament of 243 members are to be elected in 243 different states. Naturally, the interests, therefore opinions, of all 243 members will differ. Ideally, the members will be able to debate, agree to disagree, compromise, and ultimately provide answers acceptable to all 243 members and so everyone will benefit from the resulting bill passed in parliament. In reality, a diverse opinions of 243 people cannot never be reconciled in such a perfect manner. The Sibyl System, however, is able to force a reconciliation because the brain has a forceful and magical way to resolve cognitive dissonances. A collective conscious is hypothetically capable of that as well. It is therefore desirable to expand on the range of opinions, as it will not come at the expense of efficient decision-making processes. Ultimately, it will also create a more inclusive society based on a more inclusive algorithm, which can be derived from the diverse opinions of the constituents.
The morally perplexing part of the system and its justification
The Sibyl System isn’t perfect and it acknowledges it. It seeks to constantly improve itself by expanding the range of opinions that it considers. However, to find opinions that can be meaningful expansion to the pre-existing range would be to find people with extreme opinions. People with extreme opinions in X are, for the lack of plot devices to instigate a moral dilemma, extremely cruel. There is a conflation of radicalism in both actions and thoughts which I do not agree with. Nevertheless, these people possess opinions so extreme – and therefore useful – to the system that they cannot be comprehended by the Sibyl System with its limited range of opinions to reference from. To put it simply, these people cannot be read and judged by the system, which also makes them criminally asymptomatic. The system thus seeks to rein in these individuals, extract their brains and integrate them into the Sibyl System. Besides the whole extracting brain business being unethical, there is an even more morally perplexing problem. These people are, according to the Anime, twisted serial killers. These killers are to be additions to the constituents that, by de facto, rules over the society. Instead of getting punished, these people are made to rule, which intuitively seems wrong. However, if we are less inclined towards retributive justice and instead lean more towards restorative justice, we can argue that the contribution that these individuals make to the improvement of the system would compensate for their crimes. This whole deal, however, is rather pointless unless we can prove that radically-opinionated people are always radical in methods as well. If not, why not just find someone who’s radically opinionated but not radical in method to fit the bill and do away with the moral dilemma altogether?
Characters’ Opinions on the Sibyl System
Psycho-Pass isn’t just a dystopian literature work, it is also a debate between 3 different people about the Sibyl System. These 3 characters – Akane, Kogami and Makishima- are constantly engaged in this trialectics throughout the show.
Kogami’s character is built around a tragic experience that he had. As an inspector, he suffered the trauma of witnessing his partner’s gruesome death. The murder was instigated by Makishima. However, Makishima, being criminally asymptomatic, could not be judged by Sibyl. This fact made Kogami, who was driven by hatred, increasingly disillusioned with the Sibyl System. Hence, he deserted his role in the CID and embark on a quest to kill Makishima himself. Kogami lost faith in the judicial function of Sibyl, and he is convinced that it is a flawed system that cannot judge criminals accurately. Hence, he believed that he must step outside of the laws and take justice into his own hands. He is probably a very strong believer of retributive justice.
From young, Makishima was invisible in the eyes of Sibyl as he was criminally asymptomatic – which made him lonely. Inspired by various works of well-known philosophers, he became obsessed with the free will of humanity. With the feeling of loneliness which the society made him feel, he set out to free people from the bondage of the Sibyl System so that he might fit in again. Makishima wasn’t a believer of any justice. What he cared about was the capacity of humanity to progress through free will and conflict. He detested the stagnancy borne out of the stability in X thanks to the Sibyl System, which Hegel would most likely be able to empathize with. Hence, he sought to rebel against it.
Akane is the main character of the show, and yet I seem to understand her the least. The show didn’t reveal much about her past so what drives her emotionally remains a mystery. It is actually very interesting to me that the show acknowledges that emotions such as hatred and loneliness are always a starting point for actions. Along the way, we can glorify our actions with reasons, principles and ideals but ultimately, they are excuses to satisfy our emotional needs. For Akane, however, we don’t know what’s the emotional basis for her actions. Perhaps it’s the lack of emotional basis that led her to be highly rational, hence trusted by the Sibyl System. The system judged her as not a threat because Akane understood the necessity of the system in maintaining social order, although she is unable to accept the Sibyl System’s true nature due to moral reasons. What’s interesting though, is that she later justifies her action by pointing out that laws are an accumulation of people’s feelings and passions and it is fragile. Hence, the law does not protect the people, the people protect the law. I don’t find this convincing, it’s so incomprehensible that I thought she’s lost it. I think, instead of using emotions as a basis for her actions, she uses rationality as a basis instead. What the show portrays is that her recognition of the necessity of the system is a clear conviction. After which, she probably further rationalizes her action, albeit in a convoluted manner, to reduce cognitive dissonance.
Final Verdict on X
After going through so much about X – its features, problems and merits – the million-dollar question has yet to be answered. The question is:
Would I want to live in this “dystopian” society?
The answer is no. Technologically, I love it. Who doesn’t love holographic costumes and self-driving cars? With just a button, you can change the appearance of your clothes instantly. You no longer have to wash laundry or fold clothes anymore – although you’d be advised to wear some real clothes underneath to keep you warm and modest. Economically, it is a materially well-to-do society so I’m satisfied with that. However, I find a huge problem in X ‘s political-judicial system because Sibyl System definitely do not like intellectuals. I’m not saying that I’m intellectual, I’m not at that level yet, but I’m an intellectual-wannabe so let me dream a bit about the future. Although the system strives to provide a formula for progress without the cost of conflict, the fact that it strives to eternally exclude intellectuals in order to create a more inclusive society is a paradox that I cannot stomach. I have an emotional basis for my objection here, it’s not rational and I won’t seek to glorify it. It is raw desire: I thrive on knowledge, and if the society suppresses knowledge, it is starving me. And what do we do to those who starve us? We deny them.
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