Digimon: A Postcyberpunk Narrative of Digital Natives and Digital Nomadism

Introduction

I personally have been, and continue to be today, a fan of Digimon. Perhaps some of this derives from rose-tinted, bittersweet nostalgia. Though, it spoke to me as a child, and continues to speak to me. Digimon incorporated narratives of friendship and morality to be expected of children’s media, though it also encouraged and motivated an affinity for the burgeoning potential of digital technology. The same reason it’s entertaining to see a frustrated Baby Boomer fiddle with a smartphone while a toddler picks it up with ease evokes a bit of Tai or Takato’s effortlessly benevolent attitudes towards their partner digimon and their unique ability to overcome specific obstacles. While I’ve grown and learned to take a discerning, nuanced look at the myriad problems and harsh realities facing the world, I can’t remember not knowing a childlike appreciation for the potential of technological innovation and the spaces it can create.

This is partially what continues to captivate me about Digimon. When faced with the choice of reading about the doom and gloom of current intersections between particular technological and political modes of thinking versus a lighter optimism of other imagined futures, I sometimes pick the latter. Surely, there is a utility to both, and when I opt for a side of saccharine optimism with my science fiction, it’s not just for escapist purposes, either. Rather, it’s for an alternative approach of imagining a better future. However, there are some important criticisms worth noting.

I aim to clarify the categorization of Digimon as postcyberpunk, to further elaborate on the importance of its narrative elements in relation to digital natives, and to articulate the importance, significance, and problems of such a narrative.

I’ve also spoken with Lewis Call, an American academic who is best known for his book, “Postmodern Anarchism,” which deals with the writings of cyberpunk authors as well as postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy. His commentary is included throughout.

I. Definitions: Digital Natives, Digimon, and Postcyberpunk

A digital native is a “person born or brought up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age.” An apt analogy for the digital native comes from the fictional world of Digimon: Digital Monsters, an expansive Japanese media franchise. Digimon can also be categorized under the science fiction subgenre of postcyberpunk.

Being steeped in digital culture from an early age, digital natives are afforded unique aptitudes, armaments, abilities, modes of identification, and modes of communication simply by nature of being born on the cusp of or during the Digital Revolution (arguably one of the most significant technological progressions in human history). While other narratives in the science fiction milieu might focus on the dread and despair associated with navigating a dystopic, digitized, decaying carcass of late capitalism, Digimon and its ilk propose a fundamentally different, more optimistic narrative for digital natives–one which illuminates intrinsic potential for digital nomadism (discussed more in section III).

Digimon: Digital Monsters, is an expansive Japanese media franchise. Overall, the narrative often centers upon “tamers” or “digidestined”–children with innate capabilities of interacting with partner “digimon” (creatures who are virtual constructs, functional amalgams of digital data). The human world and digital world are often treated as real, physically navigable, and tangible spaces through which digidestined and their partners pass through and inhabit. Most narratives tend to focus on combative aspects of digimon and the abilities of their human counterparts to train powerful partners. Indeed, its initial manifestation was meant to compete with Tamagotchi, a handheld, virtual pet simulator. (Sidenote: the functional difference was a demographic one–Digimon virtual pets were marketed specifically to male children. Because, of course, the desire to nurture could only feasibly pass as masculine behavior if the end result was destructive.) The franchise has since spawned various products which include anime, manga, videogames, etc.

Digimon may be categorized into the postcyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. Postcyberpunk derives from cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction which often manifests as speculative fiction characterized by nightmarish, dystopian extrapolations of prevalent political, technological, economic, and social practices. Protagonists (more often, anti-heroes) in the cyberpunk subgenre are shaped and defined by the brutality of late capitalism, using what little edge they can glean from technological developments to turn minor tides in vast oceans of terrifying matrices of oppression. Such subjects are often characterized by their ever-waning agency in desperately hopeless systems, other than whatever slight release or solace carved out spaces in the datastream or going “off-grid” can provide. While loosely defined, postcyberpunk employs a somewhat more optimistic outlook. Though, to what ends these are oriented are subject to scrutiny (which will be explained in more detail in the next section).

While somewhat loosely defined, the premise of postcyberpunk is posited by Lawrence Person’s Notes Towards a Postcyberpunk Manifesto. Person describes postcyberpunk protagonists as “anchored in their society rather than adrift in it. They have careers, friends, obligations, responsibilities, and all the trappings of an ‘ordinary’ life.” This contrasts sharply with conventional cyberpunk’s conception of lone, hacker or mercenary anti-heroes, whose goals are often to “topple or exploit corrupt social orders.” Person notes that postcyberpunk protagonists, alternatively, “tend to seek ways to live in, or even strengthen, an existing social order, or help construct a better one.” This is certainly the narrative espoused in Digimon, where middle- to upper-class kids are equally as concerned with the power of friendship as they are with defending the world from rogue computer programs.

II. Criticisms: Trouble in Unitopic Paradise

In the Digimon universe, we see apologist attitudes towards concepts such as panoptic surveillance, and otherization of all threats to the existing totalizing, technologically-influenced hegemonic social order. For context, Naciye Gülengül Altıntaş compares cyberpunk and postcyberpunk in these terms in Postcyberpunk Unitopia: A Comparative Study of Cyberpunk and Postcyberpunk:

[W]hile the essence of cyberpunk is chaos and disorder -an oceanic flow resembling the multiple interacting elements of the matrix-, in the world of postcyberpunk order is re-established and chaos is eliminated by a monolithic system of centralized power which is exercised through panoptic structures of new cyber technologies. […]

The emancipatory force of technology that was implicated in cyberpunk is diminished in the world of postcyberpunk and the implementations of technology are represented as the tools to enforce unity and order, in order to ensure a monolithic system of governance. In the world that is depicted by postcyberpunk, this power is governed by complex business organizations which are characterized by massiveness, rigidity and total uniformity. The policies of these companies’ represent -if not determine- the value system of society which the social ordering is founded on. iii, 30-31.

She posits postcyberpunk worlds as technopolic unitopias, societies in which technology is elevated and deified, and aids in the consolidation of monolithic hegemonic authority. The language and imagery employed in postcyberpunk narratives can often gloss over problems such as panoptic surveillance, invasive biopower, and various other Foucauldian nightmares that can be necessary to defend and enforce such a totalizing, technocratically-ruled society.

In the Digimon universe, government entities and tech corporations are equally responsible for maintaining existing social order and often unintentionally giving rise to the same technologies that threaten said order. For example, in Digimon Tamers, there exists a shadowy NSA-esque, government entity called Hypnos. Hypnos’ mass surveillance is ultimately positively codified as it plays an integral role in saving humanity from a rogue computer program.  Meanwhile, “viruses” combatted by the digidestined are negatively codified threats to humanity and/or the existing social order:

 

  • In Digimon: The Movie, a self-replicating digimon virus spreads on the internet and attempts to launch nuclear missiles.
  • In Digimon: Tamers, the primary antagonist is the D-Reaper, a security program developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in the ‘70s. The D-Reaper’s purpose is to limit the number of inhabitants of the digital world, though, it ultimately mutates and comes to threaten life in both the digital and human world.
  • In Digimon: V-Tamer 01, the primary antagonists are Demon and Neo. Demon is an evil digimon who summoned a human tamer, Neo, to the digital world in order to raise a powerful evil digimon. They both hope to destroy and subsequently rebuild the digital and/or human world.

These antagonists are, essentially, metaphors for unprecedented and unchecked technological growth or political opposition to what is otherwise described as a benevolent hegemonic authority. It’s interesting that these villains are framed with the same otherizing imagery and rhetoric applied to the alleged “War on Terror” (i.e. nihilistic or maligned anarchic extremists hell-bent on destroying existing social infrastructure) which are often extended to offer the solutions of militancy, police-state mechanisms, and mass surveillance.

Lewis Call: I agree that stories which portray advanced cybernetic technology in a strictly positive light run the risk of becoming apologies for that technology.  It becomes too easy to disregard the Foucauldian panopticism inherent in such technologies.  The ways in which cyber tech serves the interests of global corporate capital are also frequently elided.  Stories which focus only on the positive or liberatory potential of the tech come across as either reactionary or hopelessly naive.

There’s also the role economic privilege plays in relation to digital natives and protagonists in postcyberpunk narratives (we anticipate publishing a piece on the economic privilege of digital natives in the future). However, the social order these characters defend is one in which economic concern is hardly present, to say the least. Technology is widely available and is, in fact, an integral mechanism of the social order. In describing the economically advantaged protagonists in the subgenre (in Notes Towards a Postcyberpunk Manifesto), Lawrence Person even goes so far as to describe class warfare as extinct in the United States:

Like their cyberpunk forebears, postcyberpunk works immerse the reader in richly detailed and skillfully nuanced futures, but ones whose characters and settings frequently hail from, for lack of a better term, the middle class. (And we do need a better term; here in the United States, economic mobility has rendered the concept of “class” nearly obsolete.)

I don’t know what kind of utopic vision Person was experiencing when he penned that in the great state of Texas in 1999, but today, I think it’s safe to say class warfare and income inequality are still very much alive and well. Nonetheless, perhaps this economically advantaged perspective is partially where postcyberpunk authorship derives. These protagonists seek to defend, rather than topple, fictional social orders where they benefit greatly from technological and economic privileges. Regarding this assertion in particular, Call comments:

I have to say that Person’s claim that the concept of class has become obsolete in the US is simply absurd.  Americans have always had a willful ignorance regarding social class.  Perhaps utopian stories about the allegedly equalizing effects of cybernetic tech perpetuate the illusion that our post-industrial society is becoming classless.  But you can’t square that with the economic reality.  Wealth is more highly concentrated at the top of American society than it has ever been.  Though they don’t care to admit it, the vast majority of Americans belong either to an impoverished working class, or to a middle class whose economic opportunities have been stagnating since the 1970s–precisely the period in which cybernetic technology has attained hegemonic status in the US.

These are all notable criticisms of the subgenre of postcyberpunk, and criticisms which apply to Digimon as an extension of that narrative. While it may be good that cyberpunk began to shift and grow to incorporate various perspectives, those perspectives may not always be capable of representing varied economic interests, or the unique threats and responses accompanied by a hegemony coupled with tech to advance the state and global capital.

III. Towards Digital Nomadism

While the digital world in Digimon may be partially manufactured or marginally influenced by the state or corporate mechanisms, it is also a place largely outside of hegemonic control. It is in the digital world where the digidestined and their partner digimon experience the creative flight of what Deleuze and Guattari would refer to as the smooth spaces of the [digital] nomad. There are no constraints imposed by conventional power mechanisms (at least as understood by children) such as obligations to attend school or to respect parental authority.  The digital world also eludes the direct reach of many corporate or government entities in the Digimon universe. It’s primarily occupied and navigated by digimon and digital natives. It’s an uncolonized space, relatively “wild” and free from hegemonic dominion. Though it’s also, for this reason, a space where threats towards humanity in general can flourish.

Even with the above criticisms of apologism for existing hegemonic infrastructure in mind, Digimon fundamentally encourages the use of ambivalent or otherwise destructive technologies for “good.” The digidestined and their partners work towards growing through friendship and learning, as well as growing stronger to help protect the innocent. The innate affinity for digital partners in the Digimon universe and the digital native’s acute awareness of its potential encourages the understanding and application of technology towards a better future, one in which these technologies are used for the betterment of humanity, rather than as extensions of, or complicity in, oppression. It’s with this in mind, that I’d like to look forward, to take both cyberpunk’s warning of dystopic late capital and postcyberpunk’s potential for creating new, better futures as two halves of the same coin. Whereas cyberpunk is largely concerned with the waning of individual agency and the waxing of maligned technological, political, and economic power, postcyberpunk deals with the inverse. Call says, “Deleuzian ‘nomadism’ does have the potential to identify liberatory prospects in technologies that might otherwise seem strictly oppressive.” He says, imagining and building better, alternative futures “has always been one of science fiction’s most important purposes.”

In Revealing Critical Theory’s Real-Life Potential to Our Students, the Digital Nomads, Jason W. Ellis advocates for digital nomadism as a form of self-empowerment, as well as a means of combating the ever-encroaching dominion of the state and global capital. Ellis explains that science fiction presents a novel pedagogical way of examining the world–one which is vital and relevant in the 21st century that can importantly supplement learning about postcolonial literature or theory. He says that postcolonialism and science fiction often go hand in hand, as they are largely concerned with othered identities: “science fiction is thematically concerned with othered identities, in good and bad ways, but ways that always maintain the tension between subjectivity and objectification.” He also describes the conception of the internet originally as a backlash against networks of power, a form of resistance that is now being either quelled or appropriated:

[T]he computer revolution, which began in the late 1970s, was made possible by hackers and hobbyists who challenged the existing power networks. These late twentieth-century smiths delivered military-industrial complex–derived computer technology to the burgeoning digital citizen. Therefore, the smith is a hybrid who works for power and with the resistance to that power, operating within the margin between the state’s city and the nomad in the wilderness. […] The nomad’s existence is not the assumption of war for war’s sake, but the advancement of nomad life through the force of resistance. Deleuze and Guattari’s extrapolation of revolutionary creation is the critical foundation we may impart to our digital nomad students as a way to combat power networks impeding their “creative line of flight.” (46-48)

While the nomad makes war, it isn’t war for power or for war’s sake, but for resistance against power and the creation of something new. Today, state and global capital continue to build walls of power which threaten the agency of digital engagement. Infringement on privacy by the NSA, black rights activists or Occupy Wall Street organizers on Twitter being classified as domestic terror threats, the manufacturing of corporate news media, and the war for net neutrality are all examples of infringements or seizures of agency which are being levied against digital citizenry and other oppressed peoples. But, we are in a unique position to use our digital nomadism to our advantage to resist the purview of power by creating new spaces and utilities with the tools and abilities afforded to us.

Part of the creation of this website was predicated on the same notions of this essay: that the unique aptitudes and abilities of digital natives as they relate to technology can either be put toward emancipatory and benevolent digital nomadism or in service of global capital and the state. Diginativ aims to articulate compelling discourse for the digital age. Our content focuses on authenticity and quality–an approach to culture and art in a way that only a generation innately immersed in digital culture, from cradle to grave, would possess. We aim to channel the writing talents, awareness, and eager intellect of emerging minds from our generation toward earnest and informed approaches to subjects in a way that only we (collectively) can provide. It’s amazing that by the very nature of the era in which we’ve been born, the giants on whose shoulders we stand have never been taller. It’s up to us to ensure the benevolent application of their achievements, and to lay waste to the elements of those giants which continue to proliferate or manufacture tyranny or complacency.

Works Cited

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/digital-native
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digimon
Person, Lawrence (1998). “Notes Towards a Postcyberpunk Manifesto”. The Cyberpunk Project.
Altintaş, Aciye Gülengül (February 2006). Unitopia a Comparative Study of Cyberpunk and Postcyberpunk.pdf “Postcyberpunk unitopia – A Comparative Study of Cyberpunk and Postcyberpunk” (PDF).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digimon:_The_Movie
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digimon_Adventure_V-Tamer_01
Ellis, Jason. Mcfarland 2010. Revealing Critical Theory’s Real-Life Potential to Our Students, the Digital Nomads from Practicing Science Fiction: Critical Essays on Writing, Reading and Teaching the Genre