I finished watching Serial Experiments Lain a few days ago, just before the 20th anniversary of its premiere on July 6th, 1998. Take a moment to think about how much technology has changed since then! Many of us carry phones in our pockets that double as miniature computers. We can watch movies on them for a flat rate each month, or order video games or flowers or dog food to be delivered for cheap at our doors in two days or less. We can use Facebook or Twiter to talk to anyone in the world with an account or a WiFi connection, no matter where they are. Forget the difference between now and twenty years ago, the difference between now and ten years ago already feels like an unbridgeable gulf.
There are many other things you can do on the internet, of course. You can watch other people film themselves live as they play computer games. You can read literal trillions of words of fanfiction. You can also start a cult. You can join a forum and become radicalized. You can call a SWAT team on someone filming themselves as they play computer games, and the SWAT team might kill them. You can Photoshop the face of a woman you don’t like onto somebody else’s nude body. You can bully people you don’t like so much that they have post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives. You can find a way to make money from every single one of these things.
The modern internet is a procession of nightmares just as it is a rack of amazingly useful tools. In the midst of this, it’s easy to see Serial Experiments Lain‘s ultimate obsession with the internet’s occult roots–Vannevar Bush, Rushkoff, the Knights of the Lambda Calculus–as a bit quaint. Yes, it’s freaky to imagine something as ubiquitous as the internet as the product of a massive conspiracy, ruled by shadowy figures. I too love to go on bends researching cryptids on Wikipedia (another recent invention that had seemed an impossible dream twenty years ago! Take a drink.) But we all live in that conspiracy now. As the future tilts further away from the egalitarian democracy once hoped for by futurists and towards fiefdom by immensely powerful crypto-lords with billions of dollars who care more about data than the people who worry under their yoke. As social media networks mine their frustrated and anxious users for content and ad revenue. As cable companies lobby governments around the world for ultimate control if only to pad their own pockets.
Where Serial Experiments Lain finds relevancy for me is in its breadth of imagination. The internet of 1998 had its own mysteries and dreams and horrors, but it was in its adolescence. With the future far ahead, the creators of Lain had the freedom to imagine how their stomping ground might evolve over the next decade. And they did! Technology in Lain is inescapable, a vast black shadow hanging over Tokyo. A virus that infects flesh and liberates the spirit. A parallel world to which ours is the shadow, one of impossible marvels. A state of mind. It is no accident that the series ends with the Wired and the real world becoming inextricably blurred. As Lain learns, nothing is constant but love, and the flow of information. The ever-present hum of technology. Save for familiar touchstones that appear each week–a glowing crosswalk, a small child’s voice, PRESENT DAY, PRESENT TIME–there are no boundaries.
Only a few years ago, we might have had cause to doubt Lain’s sincerity. To laugh at the antiquated future tech of 1998 the show presents as state of the art, or the hilariously 90s typography torn right from the X-Files. Now we know better. The internet was never just a sandbox fenced off from the rest of the world. It is the world, and now we are all in the sandbox together. Lain’s voice hums in the shade of the telephone poles. God is in the wired.