On Singularity

Loneliness as a conditio humana

From our birth to the moment of our death, us humans can perceive the world only through the filter of our own view, through our eyes and brain. Though you consider an object beautiful, and someone may agree, you can never be certain that what they see is the same as what you see.

Reiko Shimizu, volume 3 afterword

I briefly mentioned loneliness when introducing the MRI scanner and what it brings to the story. There’s a train of thought always present in me that the device drives home on some level: What you and I see is not the same, even when we look at the same thing. In the same vein, my perception and experience of the world differ from yours. That unique quality of every human experience is a source of loneliness. You are the only one of your kind, and we only have limited tools at our disposal to convey what we think and feel. Ultimately, however, any tool, any language, is always an approximation, a translation: imperfect, and coloured by subjectivity on the part of the transmitter and the recipient both. Though this is not the focus of the series, it is certainly a point of origin for various episodes.

Loneliness, in fact, strikes me as a core element of The Top Secret: the loneliness of one’s own circumstances and lived reality, expressed through one’s singular perception of the world — that is to say, one’s very own viewpoint made visible and given tangible form through the MRI scanner, allowing other persons to see that loneliness in all its nakedness.

Loneliness as a key motif of the series is perhaps most apparent in the kind of persons that the story episodes choose to bring to the fore. Every case introduces new victims, witnesses, suspects, culprits, and people who are part of their life. Many of these characters are outsiders, members of a minority group, or otherwise persons who do not get much of a voice in society, or whose issues are considered taboos; among them are victims (of rape, of domestic abuse, of politics), people with disability, including mental illness, the elderly, immigrants, the bereaved.

The Top Secret, by way of the MRI scanner, gives these persons a voice to tell the lonely stories each of them carries with them, sometimes even when they are no longer among the living, sometimes even through the eyes of a deceased third party. By transcending the usually absolute barrier of death in particular, it opens up a window, a communication channel, that may otherwise have remained inaccessible, locked forever. While the post-mortem disclosure of facts and feelings that were, deliberately or not, left unspoken in life may be questionable from the thematic angle of privacy, these revelations are crucial from a narrative standpoint; this holds true even when the viewing of a particular memory sequence cannot be used or is not necessary to solve a case. These memory sequences are specifically drawn solely in pencil for a softer look, often form the emotional climax or conclusion of a case, and occasionally appear as silent epilogues. (There is one such pencil segment in Naoki Urasawa’s Manben documentary episode on Reiko Shimizu starting at 10:24 if you are interested.)

In showing sights that could, for whatever reason, not be communicated while the person in question was still alive, and that allow for us to reconstruct and comprehend the progression of events, the story asks of the audience not to judge prematurely, nor to reduce circumstances to something stereotypical on the basis of an outsider’s superficial look. Such reductions do not do justice to the grim realities some persons are subjected to — circumstances beyond what we know and are familiar with.

Further Reading The series shares some of its thoughtful perspective and thematic objective with the highly recommendable Tokyo Babylon by CLAMP, and to an extent Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara. As with The Top Secret, both manga approach their episodic subjects with considerable sensitivity and empathy, and offer an intimate look into the life of persons who are usually overlooked or silenced. Utsubora by Asumiko Nakamura, on the other hand, captures the subject of differing perception and the unreliability of the visual in a very different manner.

The first three volumes of the series are accompanied by Shimizu’s extensive, intriguing afterwords, wherein she explains how she conceived the series and its technology. In the following, I would like to take those afterwords as a starting point to elaborate on the singularity of our experience by addressing the unreliability of visual perception on the one hand, and of memory on the other.

Visual Perception: Our Very Own Perspective

The Top Secret came to Shimizu after she watched a report on an eye tracking device that allows a third person to see what exactly another person’s gaze is directed at. The employment of the device in conjunction with a letter board enables persons who cannot speak or move to communicate via eye movement. Shimizu imagined that further development could make it possible to visualize what image a subject is thinking of at a specific moment. If that image could be reproduced, and if live images could be recorded around the clock, they could be chained together into a videotape of someone’s life.

As she pondered the area of application of such technology, she recalled a murder case in her childhood that had to be closed with an ambiguous conclusion following the death of a suspect, which had left the investigation team without clues to follow up on. Seeing how the actual brain and memory are quite unreliable, and easily influenced by information received after-the-fact, she conceived a device suitable to be applied in crime investigation: In making use of the brain at 120 % of its normal capacity, and reproducing visual memories in the instant of their being seen, rather than as they are remembered by the viewer, the MRI scanner eliminates biased memory recall of information. As a result, “testimonies” by the dead are not distorted by their memory.

Now, what strikes me as interesting is that even with the elimination of that specific kind of confirmation bias in the series, the clues gained by investigators are far from being cold hard proof, much less absolute truth. The reason for that lies in the deliberate distinction between memory and vision as Shimizu acknowledges that what two people see is not necessarily the same.

For one, what we see can, in many respects, indeed not be the same, as has been mentioned on page 3. Physically, eyesight and colour vision differ from person to person, and something as simple as a person’s height makes a difference in their viewpoint. Situationally, such as from a technical perspective, colour contrast, device size and resolution, and further individual settings may differ.

For another, unlike a camera, our brain is easily influenced by our emotional or mental state. Personal and situational biases determine what we perceive and how we perceive it, not to mention that the brain is easily deceived, as in the case of optical illusions. (A large part of the afterword in volume 3 is devoted to discussing such illusions.) A primary function of the brain lies in processing the world by making continuous predictions and updating these predictions based on previous data, that is, experience. It is in this way that the brain makes models of the outside world in order to minimize the amount of surprise. In other words, by classifying data, this function acts as a shortcut in processing (sensory) input; by quickly determining what to expect, we know approximately what action to take. (Some ways to refer to it are intuition, pattern recognition, and predictive coding. Side note: Some types of brain, for better and for worse, have less of an aptitude for this, such as the autistic brain.) Sometimes, the image that is constructed as a result of that prediction is wrong, and we may see an illusion based on what our brain expects to see. All of this being the case, the images retrieved from the brain of the deceased cannot be used as reliable evidence in the series.

Shimizu points out that in everyday life and especially in interpersonal matters, we have a tendency to overestimate the significance of visual information. This is the case when we judge things by their visible exterior, or when we classify what we see as facts, if not truths, in the sense of “seeing is believing”. As an aside, this bias is more concerning than ever in our digital time, considering how easily information is manipulated with the use of technology, such as in the case of deepfakes; how quickly fake information is spread, especially over social networks; and how internet users have the tendency to believe and spread information without context, all the more so as the digital space indiscriminately gives a voice to everyone.

In showing (in the story) and explaining (in the afterwords) that there are differences in our perception, and that the human brain behind our visual sense is rather delicate and unreliable, Shimizu explores and simultaneously criticizes that bias towards the visual. As a natural consequence of this approach, upon closer examination, the elimination of ambiguity for the purpose of closing cases is not the series’ primary concern. No, as mentioned above, The Top Secret sets its sight on bringing the individual viewpoint including its subjective element to light, and its emotional effort lies in the struggle to understand and come to terms with that subjectivity first and foremost.

Memory: Our Own Vague Narrative

My favourite piece of Shimizu’s commentary mentions one last source of inspiration for the series: a boy she used to like in middle school, and whose face she has long forgotten. She recalls how much she wanted a picture of him back then without daring to take action, and muses that if her eyes were a camera, she could have taken pictures to her heart’s content in secret, printed them out, and stared at them indefinitely. She does, however, admit that if she had managed to print such mental pictures back then, she would probably wonder why she used to love him if she looked at them now. Had he truly been as handsome as she remembered? In the presence of perfect proof of (visual) memory, lies, such as claiming how handsome a crush once was, would no longer be possible. She concludes the volume on the beautiful, melancholic note that perhaps the embellished vague memory is the most beautiful memory.

It led me to wonder, not for the first time, what to make of the fact that, even though we are lonely beings on the basis that we are the sole experts and archivists of our own history, even our records, that is, our memory, are ultimately imperfect. Memory does, after all, form the basis of the identity we construct and reinforce, and may be chained together to form the narrative that we regard our own life as.

I once read in an article on the autobiographic part of memory, however, that that narrative, as a rule, contains many lies — not (just) the (subconscious) kind that serves our integrity, but also the kind that fills the gaps in our memory as a natural occurence. According to research in neuroscience and psychology, it would seem that the function of the autobiographic memory does not lie in the depiction of objective truth. When we recall things, we are not reading, but reconstructing information. Our memory is only functional if it allows us the freedom to reconstruct our narrative in a way that serves us as we go forward.

It reminds me of the necessity to forget, as the full force of detail and intensity of everything we have ever witnessed, experienced, felt and thought would overwhelm us otherwise. In order to pick the parts we consider relevant to our narrative, and attribute weight to them from the perspective of our present self, we need to forget and to be able to forget. Without forgetting, all details would be on the table at all times, which would heavily interfere with our construction of identity. Therein lies another direct link to the technological dangers addressed by the series: With increasing digitalization of our data, and the world wide web, particularly social networks, as potentially permanent and perfect record keepers, our capability to forget and thus our sense of identity are exposed to a veritable threat. In the face of that development, we would all be well-advised to take heed of Shimizu’s closing words as translated by the French publisher:

It might be for the best that memories remain vague, are embellished, and eventually vanish.