A modern contextualization of Serial Experiments Lain

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.

14 thoughts on “A modern contextualization of Serial Experiments Lain

  1. I have tried to watch Serial Experiments Lain a couple times now, and still haven’t gotten past episode four. This is less to do with the show and more to do with me and the feelings it evokes from me. The last time I tried to watch it was September of last year while I was relapsing from crippling anxiety. It didn’t help that Lain was the type of show to have eerie audio and contemplative imagery, since all that did was make me more anxious. Perhaps someday I’ll get back to it and finish it, but I’m wary that if I do, I may fall back into the trap of anxious thoughts.

    But I do commend the show and your interpretation of the series that it acts as an incredibly accurate parallel to the real world. And the fact that this was made in the earlier stages of the internet is a testament to how far ahead the show was in its message. It’s undeniable how prominent and essential the age of the internet and technology as a whole has become. Those few episodes I watched sparked a reminiscence of a simpler time, but by today’s standards a more frustrating time as well.

    Really enjoyed reading this post. Great job!
    ~ Ace

    Liked by 2 people

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  4. Lain is a fascinating series, and I can’t help but wonder to what extent even a facade or mask is “real”.
    Who we are changes, gradually or suddenly, as we are changed by our surroundings. Experience is the biggest culprit, but to some extent the company we keep and the setting can bring out different sides of who we are.
    What really stuck with me while watching Lain is the idea of perception as creating a separate person.
    I think it’s most notable in public figures like politicians and performance artists, but we all exist as more than one person.
    There is the person I perceive myself to be, and the person others perceive me to be. In most cases they tend to align, or the perceived self is really just a caricature, but Lain does a wonderful job exploring the extent to which our perceptions can, in a sense, create multiple versions of the same person, and how the person “I” conceive myself to be may not be the most influential version of me in the world.

    Your thoughts on Lain are interesting and refreshing. I think I may watch it again in the coming months, to see what I make of it this time.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the great comment!

      Yeah, we’re all slaves to how people perceive us. At the end of the day we are slaves to “the eye of the beholder,” what others have deemed us to be. We can try to be something else but it’s up to others if we can succeed. Your take on this is very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I don’t know that I’d say we’re slaves per say. Rather I think we are all struggling to communicate, and it’s important to recognize that even when we speak the same language, there are layers of translation involved in any interaction.

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  7. Great post! Thanks for sharing.
    It’s interesting to compare the experiences in Lain with today’s cellphone habits. It is true that it is easy for a person to get sucked into the embrace of technology and lose that valuable physical connection with other people. It happens with non technological things too; books, hobbies like painting or music, or any other activities that can be done indoors without human contact. It’s interesting to think about how much more potent the spiral is when technology enters in, offering a different type of social experience, allowing a person the freedom to feel connected while losing the personal connection.
    While reading your post, I couldn’t help but think about the importance of “skinship” in Japanese culture. I imagine that this emphasis on physical contact as part of relationships helped shape this theme in the series as well.

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  9. That was a really interesting take on Lain. I don’t think I’ve really seen anybody try and contextualize it for the modern era like that. Usually people just try to piece out some general meaning, so this was refreshing as it was specific and well-reasoned. I answered the call to get you more subs and I’m glad I did because your content is great! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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