Psycho-Pass 04 – The Overlap Between the Virtual and the Real

The Sibyl system has created a supposedly perfect surveillance state, with very few ways of going about your daily lives unnoticed. The idea that simple things such as leaving your house or apartment can leave an electronic signature thus leaving a virtual diary of when you go out and when you come home is shocking. Such a system arguably exists in some respects today, with the increased usage of CCTV and other controls, but the system evident in Psycho-Pass takes state surveillance to somewhere altogether more scary and dangerous. In such a system it is hardly surprising that there would be those who rebelled, deciding that they are fed up with having their every move watched, to the point that something simple like a broken toilet can be tracked. The Psycho-Pass system is supposed to control the population, thus making it easy to determine who may be a criminal, and where your place in society is. However, we are beginning to see how easily abused such a system can be, and how something as supposedly infallible as the Dominator or Sibyl systems can be avoided and used for other, more nefarious purposes.

Ginoza views the idea that someone could disappear without a trace as odd, because it goes against everything he believes in. It became evident in episode three that to Ginoza the Psycho-Pass system is essentially infallible; he degraded the detective skills of Tomomi and even Kougami as ridiculous suggesting that such skills are useless. However, it has already become clear how fallible the Psycho-Pass system is and how easily it can be used and abused by those in power or with the right knowledge and ability. The Drone Factory is a prime example of how this system has been abused by those in power by bringing in workers to be bullied in order to maintain a constant Psycho-Pass reading for everyone else. When such workers have had enough and the Psycho-Pass is sufficiently clouded they are moved on to another facility where their reading wont cause any harm. The system is played, it is used and abused in order to maintain other workers levels, but at the cost of numerous individuals.

The murders in last week’s episode were caused by a system that puts undue stress and anxiety on those who have to live under it. The murderer can be viewed to be as much of a victim as those who he killed, he was the target of bullying, but because of the way the entire facility had been set up nothing was done about it. In essence he was the sacrificial lamb to the Psycho-Pass deities in order to maintain order in the facility and allow everyone else to relieve the stress that such a job creates. He was certainly guilty of murder, of that there is no doubt, but when you look at the murders in context it becomes clear that the situation is infinitely more complex. This, above all else is what the Psycho-Pass system, and indeed any other virtual system lacks, context. By simply labelling others as criminals or giving them a number the context within which crimes are committed is lost. This is something that the Enforcers with their immense and damaging knowledge provide, but they are also subject to an increasingly tight and potentially damaging system that denies the existence of their knowledge, skills and abilities.

Akane wishes to understand the Enforcers and essentially become one of them, but in this respect she can be viewed as both idealistic and naïve, while also seemingly one of the few who truly appreciates the abilities that they possess. She finds Kougami both fascinating and scary, his willingness to live life on the edge and the sheer joy of the hunt and eventual kill marks him out as dangerous. But, he has already told Akane that he wants to be a real detective rather than a hunting dog. In this respect Kougami has the potential to be a complex and enigmatic character, one that embodies the very essence of what is wrong with the Psycho-Pass system, while simultaneously providing a reason for its current existence. The idea that in order to catch a criminal you must think like one is hardly knew and can be found in any number of crime films or series. But the basis of that saying is fundamentally accurate, however, in the Psycho-Pass system these kinds of characters become labelled as criminals.

The idea that Akane has to become a criminal in order to catch others (at least under this system), thus ruining her current lifestyle seems ludicrous. The Psycho-Pass system is therefore trying to create an imaginary line between what is good and what is bad by using arbitrary numbers and colours to determine where the line is. And therein lies one its many faults, because you cannot create such a strict line between good and bad since even the definitions of these words and ideas are subjective. They rely on how people think, what they do, and whether or not they consider their actions to be with in the current laws and rules or perhaps they may even ignore them but still be considered to be good or right. By creating such a strict divide between good and bad everything in Psycho-Pass is polarised, with no notion of change or movement from one to the other. The reality of course is that rather than black or white the world and its laws can be seen in shades of grey with different definitions and ideas intermingling and changing depending on who uses it and why.

Within all of this we have a global net where people can hide their true selves behind avatars, something that must be quite familiar to us all even now. The avatars can hide your identity and in some small way break down this imaginary line between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ with no indications as to Psycho-Pass levels or who they are. At the real life fancy dress party using your virtual avatars as costumes Kougami comments that such a meeting is too dangerous and that to him any one of those people could be carrying a knife or a gun. In this respect Kougami is as much a prisoner of the Psycho-Pass and Sibyl systems as Ginoza and his utter reliance on the systems means that he can no longer trust anyone. These people can meet up because they do not truly agree with these systems and instead of worrying about their levels are free to enjoy themselves without worry.

Furthermore, the complete reliance on these systems once again shows us the fatal and intrinsic flaws in the institutions and ways of working that have been set up to catch ‘criminals’. The criminals in this case use the system to their advantage by being able to detect the Dominator and thus know that CID is in or around the building. In doing so they show how a simple system that everyone has come to rely upon can be used, abused and twisted to ones own ends. By becoming wholly reliant on such a system to the point where simple detective skills are viewed as being useless we are beginning to see the many inherent holes and cracks that can be walked through with ease. By using the system to their own advantage while also blurring the lines between the real and virtual worlds the criminals demonstrate the ease with which the Sibyl system can be made useless. The Enforcers have become wholly reliant on their Dominators to determine who is a criminal and who isn’t. In both this and last weeks episodes we have seen how limiting and limited such a system can be, with the Enforcers relying on the guns to show them who their suspect is despite everyone dressed in the same holographic costume.

The ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude that they exhibit in this episode demonstrates that despite their (supposedly) superior technology the CID are in essence a bunch of thugs who barge in without finesse or any real plan. We can make comparisons here to Judge Dredd or even Phillip K. Dick works such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner) or The Minority Report in terms or attitudes towards tools and who is a criminal. These works all contain critiques or comments specifically on the American law system and the attitudes of many police when it comes to apprehending suspects. In Psycho-Pass Kougami and Tomomi shoot at random, incapacitating numerous people simply because their Dominators said so, there is however no thought that perhaps the current situation may have heightened their current levels or indeed any real thought process to speak of. As Kougami has already stated, the Enforcers merely follow the instructions of their guns, but when the system is against them the guns are truly useless lumps of metal.

By not thinking and following a system that is clearly as flawed and broken as it is, the CID are effectively only catching the obvious criminals that cannot play such a system. Those who are clever enough can get around them, and because the CID is wholly reliant on the Psycho-Pass and Sibyl systems they have yet to be seen. In many ways we can view the Dominator system as akin to a computer game where you shoot when your virtual crosshair turns red. There is no thought process, simply a reaction to something that cannot read or understand the intricacies of real life. In this respect Akane is the most knowledgeable and ‘real’ character in the entire series since she can see both sides and even thinks about why people become criminals. She may claim that she doesn’t question the Sibyl system, but in her continuous observations and comments we are seeing the only member of CID who can at least differentiate between a real criminal and one who was driven to criminality by a system that essentially creates criminals to justify its existence. At the moment, however, she has yet to fully understand or make sense of what she is seeing, hearing or thinking.

While this episode was quite interesting, and the ideas that the series explores are also fascinating, it did however, reinforce my reasons for disliking the writing of Urobuchi Gen. He cannot create proper, multidimensional characters, especially antagonists. The main cast of CID are all rather fascinating, and while they are inherent character types the ambiguity surrounding who they are and why they do such a job is all very interesting. Kougami for example clearly dreams of being a true detective, but he has the instincts and abilities of a vicious hunter and when it comes to it his instincts take over. He truly enjoys the chase and the sense of power that holding a Dominator gives him, even though he suggests to Akane that he wishes for more. In this respect the series has taken some positive turns over the last couple of episodes, with the introduction of some interesting, albeit derivative concepts. However, in this episode, things took a step backwards with the introduction of what appears to be the main antagonists.

Antagonists don’t always have to be truly evil, and in numerous other cyber-punk or dystopian settings the antagonists are as morally ambiguous as the protagonists. In ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ for example the main character Deckard is not a particularly nice individual who simply carries out his jobs without questioning why the androids must be ‘retired’. As the story progresses the androids start to seem more human than Deckard, which all fits into the narrative of what it means to be human that Phillip K. Dick is creating. Similarly in Ghost in the Shell there numerous times where Major Kusanagi acts more like a criminal than the alleged criminal that they are trying to catch. Add to this characters on both sides of the law that are morally ambiguous and frequently used antagonists that seem to have a more moral view of the world than those in government and you have a fascinating and complex story.

Urobuchi has none of that, and instead we are presented with a series of antagonists who are clearly horrible and the series is at great pains to show them happily strangling a woman in her apartment. There is no need for this, and especially no need for the scene showing us how they will dispose of the body. In many respects this is simply gratuitous violence to simply point out how nasty they truly are. Such a series would work with a morally ambiguous antagonist, but instead we are given one who is clearly evil, right down to his red eyes and apparent love for multiple women and wholesale slaughter. Essentially Urobuchi ruins all of the good steps that the series has taken in recent episodes in one fell swoop with the introduction of this character. He is a bit like a cartoon villain, only with more blood, and destruction. I would hardly be surprised if in the near future we see him asking for a massive ransom before he unleashes some giant laser cannon on the city, while we are provided with some maniacal laughter that would make even the Joker jealous.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

8 Responses to Psycho-Pass 04 – The Overlap Between the Virtual and the Real

  1. windyturnip says:

    I think it’s a little bit unfair to judge the Sibyl system for creating an “imaginary” line between good and evil. Regrettably, this is a necessary component of any justice system. Without it, law enforcement and prosecutors would be stuck spinning their wheels forever.

    If anything, this imaginary line is one of the few things the Sibyl system does right. I assume it has collected vast amounts of data to justify its conclusion which is far more than I can say about our actual justice system. The way it acts on this information is overly aggressive, but the information itself seems relatively reliable.

    The Sibyl system apparently monitors mental activity to determine how criminally inclined a person is. I don’t see how you can get any less arbitrary than this. Trying to define good and evil is a fool’s errand, but the Sibyl system makes a commendable attempt. To sum it up, the Sybil system has an amazing amount of data and analysis, it just can’t apply it properly.

    With your post as proof, Psycho-Pass brings plenty to the table in terms of discussion, but a more superficial look is disappointing. If you’re going to have a show about detectives, you have to have at least a little bit of crime solving, and this episode was absolutely embarrassing in that respect. Am I seriously suppose to believe that Kougami solved a murder because of a scratch on the floor and some adhesive residue? Really? I don’t need the next Sherlock Holmes, but Urobuchi is going to have to try harder than that.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I dont think so because it does create an imaginary, or artificial boundary (more artificial than others at least), and any attempt to strictly define where the line between normal and criminal lies is an exercise in futility. Yes, all justice systems create that sort of line, but we also have to look at how they police that and the system of appeals and also how trials and the entire social and cultural system that surrounds the distinction between lawful and unlawful works. Everyone should be considered innocent until they are shown to be guilty, not the other way around. The Psycho-Pass system doesn’t even have this aspect and anyone who shows up on the scanners is taken away without any thought of appealing against the judgement or looking at the context within which they were scanned. This alone shows us how troublesome such a system can be, and also how it has moved this society towards a totalitarian regime with very few actual rights. This is a common theme in dystopian or cyber-punk stories, with these extreme situations used to further explore our current world, society and culture.

      I cannot see the Sibyl system as a good way of deciding on what is good or bad when it can be used and abused in the ways that we saw in episode 3, with corporations and the government manipulating peoples Psycho-Pass levels in order to maintain their work load. Furthermore, the idea that you can simple tell if someone is a criminal by their mental state is inherently flawed, not least because the system and the society in general pushes people further towards such a state. This does not mean that they are criminals, but according to the Sibyl system they are, without any real proof of crime of criminal intentions other than what is effectively an arbitrary number and colour. Basically, it is far too neat to ever be a truly effective and accurate system, humans are not neat or easily defined creatures, and anyone who suggests otherwise probably hasn’t spent enough time with them.

      With regards to the characters, I would agree – while the main cast have an element of ambiguity, they can also be as one-dimensional as any other Urobuchi character. Kougami’s sudden detective skills when all he has done up until this point is antagonise others and shoot them with the Dominator seems a little suspect. It’s like Urobuchi sudden decided that we need to see some Sherlock Holmes style detective work, but all the nuance and intricacy is left out in favour of one of the most ridiculous conclusions I’ve ever seen. Add to this the ridiculously one-dimensional antagonists and I really fear for the series since it is going in a very bad direction. If anything I still find Psycho-Pass an odd series to watch because large sections of the story and plot points seem to have been lifted from other series. There has been little or no attempt to use these interesting ideas and make them their own, instead they have been borrowed wholesale and almost dumped unceremoniously into the plot. Interesting ideas certainly, but an incredibly derivative story all things considered.

      • That people abuse the Psycho-Pass that way reminds me of human history in general – whenever something is proposed, people are willing to utilizing it to further their own ideological goals. Phrenology provides an example. It proposed that the brain had special, localized nodes that corresponded to various emotions (such as “mirthfulness” or “vitativeness”) that could be quantitatively measured through examining the skull.

        The Psycho-Pass appears to be an extension of that line of thinking – people using it assume that criminality can be measured via the brain. Of course, judging a person’s ability to commit crimes based on an erroneous notion that criminality is somehow hardwired into the human psyche makes for an odd show.

        This approach to crime reminds me of the Back to the Future five-episode series released by Telltale Games. When Marty arrives in 1931, he soon discovers that Edna Strickland is influencing a young Emmett Brown into producing a system of identifying someone as either an upstanding citizen or a degenerate. At one point, the game requires you to make Emmett appear as a degenerate on the scale by forcing him to react a certain way to certain pictures being projected onto a screen. The whole system thus has one fatal flaw – it doesn’t actually determine one’s moral standing, it reacts to one’s emotional state.

        • illogicalzen says:

          That is my major problem with the entire system, it is trying to suggest that it is possible to determine if someone is criminally minded, when arguably that is not possible. All crime, regardless of what it is happens within a specific context – it could happen because of poverty, social pressures, maybe lack of food, greed, perhaps there are unwritten laws within society such as the vendetta code, the reasons can go on. None of these crimes are committed by people who are criminally minded, although as time goes on, perhaps committing crimes becomes the norm for them, but still, everything has happened within a specific context and set of circumstances. Trying to determine who is criminally minded through the use of the Psycho-Pass technology seems to be a fools errand, and we have already seen how the people that they catch to try and apprehend aren’t really criminals. In the first episode the suspect was arguably forced into his current mental state by the very presence of the Enforcers, and similarly in recent episodes we have seen various suspects who are victims the system itself.

          You can draw parallels between this system and the one in The Minority Report – while The Minority Report has a system that is supposed to determine future criminals, it is still based around a system that is inherently flawed and ultimately doomed to failure. You cannot really predict who will be a criminal, although you can perhaps predict crime depending on the area and social group. Crime in slums for example seems almost inevitable due to the social and financial conditions of the area, whereas you cannot really predict who will carry out the crime or why. Either way, I find the system in Psycho-Pass flawed, and more flaws, holes and problems are coming to light with every week.

  2. windyturnip says:

    Why is the Sybil system–a database with more information than we can possible comprehend– any less effective than a jury made up of 12 biased humans? Both have their pros and cons, but I don’t think I could label either of them superior to the other.

    Again, I’m not defending the actions taken by the enforcers, but the information they act upon seems fairly reliable. Another thing to note is that we have yet to see any suspects cooperate with law enforcement so of course there will be some conflicts.

    We also haven’t seen what happens after the police have played their role. How do the courts actually work when these people have been taken into custody? As for the people who were killed, they were all immediate threats to either the detectives or others so it is understandable why the enforcers did what they did.

  3. s2012k1993 says:

    A central thesis to your argument is that we should criminalize people based on their intentions (not their immediate actions or as PP system interprets, brain activity), hence the subjective nature of crime. Unfortunately, I cannot learn of another’s intentions just by listening to what she says. Intentions are conveyed through one’s actions. So, if we are to understand another’s intentions before judging her of a crime, we would want as large of a set of her actions as possible before interpreting her intentions. What do we have? A surveillance system that tracks everyone’s actions–what better method can one think off to base another’s intentions off of.

    What PP system claims is that the system itself can interpret our lives. One does not need to choose what projects one takes responsibility for: the PP system will do it for you and you don’t need to worry about being wrong or failing. There is no metaphysical existential risk, if I may borrow some feminist jargon.

    The PP system claims it relieves one of choice in return for the perfect choice, the choice we would have made if we knew everything about ourselves. The question the anime asks is whether this should be rejected or not.

  4. Vincent Chiang says:

    Perhaps the point of Makishima and the villains that he uses are humanity is inherianty evil and that actions will always result in a greater evil to form.

    Even in a system that provides for all, dissatisfaction and hate still seep in. Makishima’s actions are that of a playwright, demonstrating this to the world and attempt to shatter the illusion of happiness that persists.

    If Makishima was ambiguous, this effect would have been lost. Being given the personification of hedonistic evil demonstrates the abyss in humanity.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Yeah I cant really see that unfortunately, if he wanted to demonstrate how bad the system and humanity in general are there are more efficient ways to do so. The way he is approaching things right is incredibly pretentious and arguably pointless because it has little bearing on what is happening in society. Also, the system doesn’t provide for all, far from it, in fact it can be argued that the system in Psycho-Pass does the exact opposite and creates a highly stratified and unjust society, although what constitutes a ‘just’ society is debatable. An ambiguous antagonist is essential in such a story since we can begin to question whether the protagonists are good or whether they are the bad ones, but making everything black and white it takes away any real chance at such subtleties. We just have to look at Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell to see how effective ambiguity can be within the story. Psycho-Pass is just sloppy and badly presented in this respect, with one-dimensional characters and masses of plot flaws.

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