Man vs Technology is pretty easy to define. Something has been built (either by man or by some sort of advanced species, or by some ancient civilisation) and for whatever reason it is wreaking havoc. Usually in the form of mass destruction of humans. As a general rule these are cautionary tales and haven’t really changed much from their use in Greek mythology. Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man and being punished for it. Flash forward to Frankenstein (also subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’), or look at the Alien movie franchise with its installment ‘Prometheus’.
There is one area of ambiguity in this type of conflict in that some of the technology we’re talking about has will. Think about the terminator and self-aware machines consciously deciding to wage war on humans. But other technology in question just loses control or has unintended side-effects (terrible movie but The Core is a great example of stuffing something up with technology and then needing technology to fix it – albeit totally implausible science being applied).
As indicated by the longevity of this type of story and the fact that the basic narrative model is pretty much unchanged, this type of conflict works really well. Why?
01. People fear what they don’t know. As evidenced by our long history of persecuting people for saying things that go against the accepted norm of the time period. We’ve just moved on a bit from arguing about whether the earth is flat or not (or at least most people have) to arguing about whether gene splicing will actually lead to mutant super-powers.
02. A lot of these stories are built on actual technology or ideas in the current society so allow people to connect current trends with the problems in the story. While time travelling robots seeking a single woman to kill might be far fetched, the idea of computers ‘thinking’ is not. And what if they did decide the world would be better if they were in control?
03. Mostly these stories are pretty straight forward. We’re either dropped into the problem straight up or we see the development of the technology that will inevitably go out of control or cause some problem. And we almost always end with some moralising by the characters about how we should respect and be cautious around technology or new ideas.
How does this work in anime?
This is an interesting point because while anime is full of giant robots and the like, almost all of these stories are focussed on the human conflicts being played out behind these. Very few actually directly look at the Man vs Technology aspect. It’s more Man vs Man reinforced by improbable tech. So with that in mind I’m going to look at three anime that each have aspects of a Man vs Technology conflict but none of them are really true examples of this story as they also draw heavily on other types of conflict.
Case 1: Heavy Object
There’s a lot of Man vs Man in this story with different nations pitted against each other but if we look at Qwenthur, the engineering exchange student, the conflicts he faces are almost all (with one or two exceptions) to do with how to stop the seemingly unstoppable objects.
There’s a wide range of objects as each core group seem to have at least one, and they fight on a variety of terrain. Seeing Qwenthur running around on the ground trying to avoid being squished, or clinging hopelessly to the outside of one of these massive structures is fairly engaging. What works well with each of these are the weaknesses Qwenthur exploits. They are the human errors in design or use. There’s a clear message where the military groups have all but put absolute faith in their objects and yet these objects are human designed and flawed because of that. It’s in that respect that this part of the story squarely falls into the Man vs Technology category. It both applauds the achievements of man’s ingenuity and use of technology and cautions us about becoming too complacent because of it.
Case 2: GATE
This is kind of the opposite of a Man vs Technology story, though I guess if you were on the side of the fantasy empire it’s very much a case of completely unstoppable technology in the hands of your enemy. If you haven’t seen GATE, essentially a gate opens up in Japan and from it streams an army of armour clad soldiers and beasts from a different world. They are quickly subdued (though not without fair numbers of civilian casualties because even low technology is effective against families shopping) and Japan organises to send their military through the gate to secure the other side and then… Not sure if they are conquering, friend making, or hunting resources for expansion or some combination of all three really.
Why include this on the list? Because of the gate itself. What is it? Where did it come from? Why did it open? They’ve established a base on the other side but what if it closes? While these questions aren’t addressed in the two seasons of this show, the story and essential conflict between worlds only exists and only continues because of the gate itself. Destroying the gate, assuming anyone could figure out how, would essentially shut down the war. Amazingly, very little attention is given in the story to the nature of the gate and that feels like a lost opportunity.
Case 3: Katanagatari (Not yet reviewed)
This story revolves around Shichika and Togame trying to track down 12 Deviant Blades. There’s a whole bunch of political mumbo-jumbo as to why they should do this but the deviant blades themselves are representative of man over-reaching. Essentially a swordsmith created 1000 swords in practice for the 12 deviant blades. Those who wield the 12 blades are severely effected by their poison. However, as this swordsmith could see into the future, the design of many of the swords surpasses anything that should be possible in the current time and most people wouldn’t have a chance against a deviant sword wielder.
Enter Shichika, the seventh head of the school Kyotoru style of sword fighting (that conveniently doesn’t use a sword). The origin of this style is closely tied to the creation of the deviant blades but I won’t go into details as it is better to find them out as you watch.
What works with this story is that the technology is fantastical for the time period being represented. While some of the swords look like swords, most defy the logic of the time. But rather than reject what they can do, they are still called swords and simply labelled deviant. The collection of these blades dominates the majority of the story and there are some interesting discussions around the nature of the blades and their creation as the story progresses, as well as whether they should be allowed to exist or not.
Yeah, I know, I didn’t include any giant robot stories here. As I said at the start, the issue with most of these is they step squarely into a Man vs Man style of conflict with the technology not being a point for discussion or moralising (mostly). Possibly Code Geass and the F.L.E.I.J.A comes close to where even the characters in that story look at the destruction and cringe.
Still, there are always small cases of Man vs Technology interwoven into larger stories and with the world the way it is, this type of conflict isn’t going anywhere.
Over to you: What are your favourite examples of Man vs Technology conflicts?