Do you know who I am?
You can peruse at my posts. You can read my about page. You can scroll through my Twitter. You could even ask me directly. But can you trust any of it?
Perhaps the “me” you’re seeing isn’t a facsimile but a facade. The image you perceive could be but a projection I’ve crafted to hide what lies behind the veil. And perhaps you, too, are a facade.
Perhaps Lain is a facade.
I recently had dinner with a good friend. It had been a few months since I had last seen him and there was a lot of life to catch up on. However, within moments of sitting down at the table he was instinctually glued to his phone. I waited for a minute, observing, before breaking the ice.
I can’t remember the last time I had a social interaction that didn’t involve phones being out. It seems increasingly rare that you can speak to someone who is completely present. I’m guilty of this too; it’s ingrained in our culture to fill every lull by connecting to technology. Pulling out our phone has basically become muscle memory.
Serial Experiments Lain predicted this society back in 1998, long before cell phones were ubiquitous or the internet was the vast portal to information and communication that it is today (this video shows what the internet was like around the time of SEL’s airing… we’ve come a long way!). Nowhere is this seen more than the way Lain is changed by the Wired.
Lain starts off as shy, innocent to the world of depravity around her. Her room is sparse save for stuffed animals lining the windowsill. She slumps around her house in an adorable bear outfit, one that will come to represent her attempts to recapture this blissful state when she wears it later in the series. But at fourteen years old it was inevitable that Lain would soon need to face reality.
Reality exists in two planes in SEL: there’s the physical world and the Wired, the series’ version of the internet interfaced with as a virtual reality. The lines between them are increasingly blurred as people start to spend the majority of their time in the Wired, building their identities through the endless expanse of information and ideologies available within it. The Wired has been so normalized in SEL’s society that when a kid asks his mom if he can go to a friend’s house to play a game she questions why playing online isn’t sufficient enough (it’s worth stressing that “online” is a full-body experience in the Wired).
We, too, build ourselves through the internet. As we encounter new ideas and media online we gauge our reactions and use them to form an identity. We can have friendships that begin and exist entirely online yet are stronger than those we share with the people physically surrounding us. The internet has, much like the Wired, supplanted many of the functions of our existence in the real world.
When Lain is exposed to the Wired for the first time it uproots her life completely. Her timidness instantaneously gives way to wonder as she explores its halls of knowledge. At the same time her interpersonal relationships with her school friends begin to slip. She becomes distant as she gives herself over to the digital world.
Here, Lain becomes a facade. She can be anything and anybody. Her persona becomes mythical amongst the Wired as she appears to its different users as a God-like figure. Little would these people realize that the person who this wandering avatar embodies is an introverted middle schooler.
SEL posits that we undervalue the power of the human touch. It warns us that we stand to lose our humanity if we become too engrossed in virtual realities, that we might as well (quite literally) forfeit our bodies and transfer our consciousnesses to the Wired. Why exist in a world where your interpersonal relationships have eroded? Your body has become worthless, a shell. Feed it to the pigs.
For Lain this warning comes in the form of the aforementioned recluse version of herself that sabotages her friendships, particularly by spreading her best friend Arisu’s secret of being in love with her teacher. Lain is later redeemed when Arisu shows her forgiveness as an affirmation of their friendship, literally holding her hand in a moment of the person-to-person connection SEL values so highly.
The feeling of losing your humanity when becoming isolated is something that I’ve experienced in the past. There were times during the years I struggled with deep depression where I would stay in my apartment for days with no connection to the outside world other than the portal of technology surrounding me. It’s a state that changes you, sours your emotions. You forget that a vast world of people are living outside your walls. Existence feels solitary. Your health and relationships erode. The only way to remain sane becomes tapping into the Wired. Yet it’s a shackling solution, one that only makes it more difficult to get out of your vicious cycle.
In a social context I point back to people pulling out their phones constantly. It’s rarer and rarer to feel like you have someone’s undivided attention in a society where we’re expected to be available digitally at all waking hours. People have a tendency to only be there in body but not mind. It harkens back to SEL’s questioning of whether our bodies are even necessary anymore.
This is put into practice in the final episode where Lain forgoes her physical existence to save Arisu from permanently crippling trauma. She then becomes an omnipotent presence in the world, able to be anywhere at any time. It’s the culmination of everything the Wired is, a representation of pure information. Lain could even be watching you right now! Effectively she has become one with the Wired, its “God” if you will.
This may sound like a higher state of being (especially to the more voyeuristic amongst you) but for Lain it proves everything but. Throughout the series she’s come to realize that she cherished her real life relationships and lamented those that had severed (or indeed were faux given her true nature of being a consciousness born from the Wired). Having to view humanity from a distance as they foster their connections in this new world she created is the cost she must pay for becoming a slave to the Wired.
It’s obvious that Serial Experiments Lain is a series that was well ahead of its time. It portrays themes that resonate more today than when it first aired given how many of its prophecies have rung true. Its hardware, while aesthetically indicative of its era, remains advanced in ways that are still incomprehensible with modern science. It’s an astounding feat.
But more than anything what we can take away from the series is a warning: we must learn to disconnect from our technology or face losing what makes us human.