Disability in Pop Culture 8

October 9, 2009

Ghost in the Shell &

Ghost in the Shell—Stand Alone Complex

The Japanese manga/animé series Ghost in the Shell actually is (at its deepest levels) mostly about people with super-disabilities—although ostensibly the theme is about humans’ relationship with the machines they build and how that relationship changes us.

What is a “super-disability” you ask? Consider South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius.


Oscar, a double amputee, created a stir in 2007 because he came within 0.75s of qualifying for the South African Olympic Team. Not the Paralympics—the Abled Olympics. There was some debate as to whether he should be permitted to compete because his prosthetic limbs give him an unfair advantage.

We’re not quite there yet, but what happens when the artificial becomes better than the real thing?

This is a key question in Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Agent Batou

Agent Batou

Episode 16 of the TV series concerns a retired boxer. A key plot point was that he had been in the Paralympics, but they never refer to it as that, they just assume “Olympics.” In this future, the regular Olympics are a fringe thing that no one pays attention to because of the low quality of the athleticism. In this future abled people have perfectly good limbs, eyes and even brain tissue removed so they can have superior mechanical replacements installed. In fact, the character above, Agent Batou, has no biological parts remaining at all. He is all prosthetic.

There is an ongoing story thread in Season 1 concerning “The Laughing Man,” a hacker-thief whose identity is unknown because he can hack the ubiquitous cameras (including the ones implanted in place of people’s eyes) to conceal his identity; replacing his face with a smiling face icon that reads “I thought what I’d do was I’d pretend I was one of those deaf mutes.”

Police sketch of the Laughing Man

Police sketch of the Laughing Man

Major spoiler warnings here. This hacker was living among the residents of a special school for children with an autism-like impairment caused by a partial rejection of neural implants. He didn’t have the disorder, but could fake it and used his computer hacking skills to conceal the fact that he wasn’t actually registered as a student/resident. He was also protecting them from abuses by the staff. Lots of moral gray areas here (although the good-guys in Stand Alone Complex are always perfectly good, the bad-guys are rarely one-dimensionally bad).

This is some seriously great television. Add it to your Netflix if you like hard science fiction.

I often think that some of the remediation possible as assistive technologies feel a little like science fiction. We are blurring the boundaries between our biological selves and our tools in ways that were never possible before. And we are bringing people into the mainstream of our society who have never been included in any society before. Science fiction, although it deals in fantasy on the surface, is always ahead of the curve in exploring what advances in technology mean to us as a society.

One Response to “Disability in Pop Culture 8”

  1. […] recently wrote an essay about athletes like Oscar Pistorius, who I’ve written about, also. We are augmenting ourselves with technology—both the abled and disabled—and it […]

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