In case anyone thought I was normal, allow me to disabuse you of that notion today.
Recently I’ve been watching all of the Digimon series in chronological order, mostly as a time killer while I continue to work from home. This turns out to probably be the right choice as it looks increasingly likely that we are going to go back into lockdown, but I digress.
Today I finished Digimon Adventure 02. This is the second season of the original Digimon Adventure, which made its breakout debut in August 1999 on American TV, almost to the anniversary of this post. If you’re only nominally acquainted with the show, the basic premise is: Young children (the “digi-destined”) get sucked up into a fantastical and mysterious world known as the Digital World wherein they meet, befriend and work with fantastic creatures called Digimon. These creatures are fragments and outputs of the data in this digital world but seem to have consciousness. They can be manipulated to do evil or sometimes they are innately evil. Digimon may also evolve, but not in the linear way of Pokemon, but with a series of branching outcomes catalyzed by their specific circumstances.
The 50 episode second season builds off of the 64 episode first season, set three years later and involving an updated, rotating cast. The dubbing and voice acting is decidedly better than the first one but the storytelling is a little lackluster comparatively. It feels more akin to a sort of “monster of the week” Shounen that would have been popular in this era. The topic of this post doesn’t address the show at large but the implications at the end of this season.
Looking back on these kinds of shows, I always wonder how they would work in their given physical world. I like to figure out how the physics and philosophy come together to make up a cogent world where stakes and powers make sense because its a fun exercise in detail-oriented problem solving. The questions are going to surround the nature of digimon and the digit world and how we interface with it from the physical world.
Different seasonal arcs assert different, sometimes contradictory ideas about what exactly the digital world. Some opt for a more sci-fi “naturalist” conception trying to stick with the idea that the world is an emergent property of the super-complicated internet. Digimon game producer Habu Kazumasa asserts that digimon can be taken in an occult direction. Other content still suggests a fully “dualist” conception of the world where digimon function in a spirit world and are stand-ins for Yōkai or Japanese demons. My conception is somewhere in the middle. I assert that the digital world and digimon are emergent properties of a physical thing (the internet) that are interfaced through occult, mystical or psychological means.
Starting backwards; I think the idea that digimon are spirits from a spirit world weakens the world considerably. Subjectively and critically, it makes it challenging to set it apart from lots of other media in the same genre. Anyone well acquainted with anime from the late 90s or even the modern day is well aware of the proliferation of spirit worlds and journeys through them. Adding on the thin veneer of “computer aesthetics” cheapens the world. If we go with the assumption of a spirit we can assume a Platonic (rather than property or substance) dualism wherein spirits exist on a separate “plane” and do not interact with the material world, we have the classic philosophical problem of how souls interact with the material. That is, if we cannot detect the mechanism through which those spirits interact with the world, what makes it functionally separate from magic? This pushes Digimon too far into the fantasy category and runs up against being just another “spirit Shounen”.
The sci-fi “naturalist” approach appeals to me right away. As a software developer, its hard to ignore the fact that networks and software, while complicated, aren’t at the point of being a true universal mesh that has the complexity of something with emergent properties like consciousness. The digital world is a wholly immersive otherworld sustaining a whole ecosystem yet regularly subject to change by powerful forces. Panpsychism gives us some explanatory power here. We can assert that software, like matter, has some fundamental building block of consciousness that can be incremented to complexity. Once it achieves a certain complexity, that panpsychic result is the digital world and digimon. This is closer but we need to fill in some gaps to make it work.
Let’s say that the sufficiently complex internet of clients, servers and complicated software are so extremely complicated that some emergent consciousness-like properties could emerge from them. I could shamelessly steal the Panpsychism idea as an excuse for the emergent consciousness to arise. I think Neutral Monism could also work here where we reject the dualist split by introducing a unified substance of mind and matter:
In this third substance we can come up with some sort of bridge between the worlds if we assume that digimon act as sort of occult egregores that we can interact with. The visual representation here shows some potential applications of Platonic idealism or Neutral Monism. This opens a question about digi-vices (hand held units the main characters use) and the digi-destined kids. Are they manifesting occult powers? Perhaps they are, and by sharing their knowledge with their parents and others, they also become attuned to the knowledge of digimon and can perceive them.
The graph above suggests Platonic idealism more so than neutral monism but we can see the “idea layer” as the monistic bridge between matter and mind. That is, we visualize digimon in our collective unconsciousness rather than them literally existing in the physical plane. Furthermore, the occult and secret knowledge of digimon can spread like a sort of mind-virus to people who can see them as more than just monsters or weird phenomenons.
Perhaps the digital world is purely a product of the collective unconsciousness, an imaginary world wherein we project our desires and fears into creatures we can relate to. The ending of Digimon Adventure 02 suggests as much where everyone in the world can have digimon partners. The concept of occult psychological projections into monsters has been asserted in Pokemon. I suggest listening to this video by Placebo Magick that dives into the Pokemon application of the concept.
It’s easy to stretch this little thought experiment way past the breaking point. Overall it leaves me thinking about how we can apply psychology, occultism, mysticism and philosophy as a whole to popular media either as a fun party conversation (maybe…) or to deepen our understanding and interests in different subjects.
Shoutout to this reddit thread for inspiring the original post.