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The Terrifyingly Prescient ‘Serial Experiments Lain,’ 20 Years Later

How the anime classic predicted the obsessive and compulsive habits of our online life

Getty Images/Pioneer LDC/Ringer illustration

At the onset, Lain Iwakura’s father warns her about the social perils of the internet, alternatively known as “the Wired” in the parlance of Serial Experiments Lain. “When it’s all said and done,” he says, “the Wired is just a medium of communication and the transfer of information. You mustn’t confuse it with the real world. Do you understand what I’m warning you about?”

Lain is young, and doesn’t yet know how to use a computer, but she knows better than to place her faith in the older generation’s rigid distinction between real life and online performance. “You’re wrong,” she responds.

At age 14, Lain was extremely online. Yes, she’s a fictional character—a cartoon, even — but there is no more frightfully prescient web parable than her story, Serial Experiments Lain, the 13-episode anime series that first aired in Japan in July 1998. Twenty years later, Lain is a distressingly faithful portrait of online life in the 2010s—a hellscape of warring avatars, self-serving mythology, catastrophic self-importance, compulsion, and inevitably, disillusionment.

At his young daughter’s sheepish request, Lain’s father installs a state-of-the-art personal computer—a Navi—in Lain’s bedroom. Lain’s father takes pride in his daughter’s budding technological interest. “In this world,” he explains, “people connect to each other, and that’s how societies function. For communication, you need a powerful system that will mature alongside your relationships with people.” Curiously, Lain’s father doesn’t seem to have many enviable relationships of his own. His conversations with his wife are cold, and his enthusiasm for his daughter is born conditionally from her interest in her father’s profession. Lain’s father wears glasses that are frequently filled with a monitor’s awesome light, even when he’s sitting on the couch with just a newspaper in front of him. He sees the screen at all times.

Fearfully, Lain regards the new, glowing screen stationed at the far corner of her bedroom as a haunted portal. But she’s chasing her former classmate Chisa — a young girl who kills herself in the show’s opening scene only to email Lain the day after she’s thrown herself from the roof of their school. Inevitably, Lain’s search for Chisa leads her into “the Wired,” whence Chisa claims to have retreated. By Episode 3, Lain is assembling a desktop fortress without her father’s supervision. As the series progresses, Lain develops her technical proficiency exponentially, and her hardware expands to turn her bedroom into a dim, electrified jejunum.

Through intensive study and ingenuity, Lain accesses deeper, darker levels of the Wired, which is to say, the internet. By Episode 7, Lain—a character who predates the following phrase by nearly a decade—is glued to her proto-smartphone; her eyes glow, too, lit constantly with a forum troll’s fervor. Online, Lain builds a second life, and she even cultivates a fan base—but her interactions within the Wired mostly anger her. Online, she hacks and bickers. Offline, Lain ditches her friends and stalks through her suburb defensively, evasively, in paranoid silence. Gradually, Lain realizes that the Wired is a disaster and a trap.

For Lain, the web portends intrigue, delusion, and death. In the Wired, Lain is an altogether different person—a much darker person who is easily moved to vengeance. Quickly, Lain sees that her digital presence is a cruel and gutsy perversion of her true self; a cunning doppelgänger who’s already cultivated some fearsome mythology about the girl named Lain Iwakura. As the real Lain watches in shock, the digital Lain confronts a delusional young man, addicted to nanomachines, who shoots up a nightclub. “No matter where you go,” the digital Lain tells the gunman, “everyone’s connected.” She means it as a threat, and the gunman is so horrified by the Wired’s ubiquity that he then turns the gun to his mouth and takes his own life. The digital Lain is a bully, and the real Lain struggles to comprehend her personality and her mission. The real Lain—the meek middle school student who avoids human interaction and confrontation—greets the digital Lain with a gasp.

Throughout the series, the real Lain’s struggle to reconcile herself with the digital Lain drives the former toward a full and fateful resemblance of the latter. The real Lain ditches her friends, taunts her father, and barks back at her pursuers. She turns to a permanent state of obsession and rage. The web bolsters her personal mythology while ruining her mood and disposition. But she cannot log off; nor can she tell her friends or herself why. Without predicting social media as a popular mode for online life, Serial Experiments Lain nonetheless prefigured its addictive and ruinous qualities. The protagonist, Lain, and the antagonist, Masami, both cultivate self-importance and an illusory “control” that the viewer recognizes as a disastrous loss of self-control. They can’t stop posting.

Admittedly—for all its prescience—Serial Experiments Lain looks quaint. The technological sprawl that overtakes Lain’s bedroom includes big fans, black tubes, and bulkheads. There are wires everywhere—from the show’s opening credits through its twisted climax. There’s a great fondness for the word “cyber,” such as the popular nightclub being named Cyberia Café & Club. There’s text-to-speech interludes and ominous command prompts, all recalling so much other Y2K cinema, from The Net through The Matrix. Visually—to an amusing degree, honestly—the series fails to anticipate the great shrinkage and stylistic minimalism of the present century’s consumer electronics. Essentially, however, the Wired is an astoundingly prophetic depiction of the World Wide Web—especially its lawless, anonymizing communities—as a cipher of misinformation and malaise.

Many critics find that Lain often pales in comparison with Neon Genesis Evangelion, another turn-of-the-century anime series that culminates with lengthy ruminations on the self and a sad, messianic transcendence for its weepy protagonist, Shinji Ikari. Evangelion came first, and it’s far more acclaimed than Lain for its dramatization of the subconscious; Lain is widely seen as a smaller, lesser successor to Evangelion’s intellectual pretensions. Their shared existentialism aside, Lain is uniquely and definitively concerned with web obsession. Literally, Serial Experiments Lain is about a young girl’s reluctant march toward digital martyrdom. Today, Lain’s story resonates more so as an allegory about the perils of forging one’s identity—an alternative identity, however false, misguided, perverse, delusional—using the internet. The Wired is Lain’s world. Other users just live in it at her mercy.

Eventually, Lain dispenses with her real-world pursuers, the Knights of Calculus, the Men in Black; so Lain and Masami export their conflict to the web exclusively. That’s where they live. That’s where they wrestle for singular, godly dominance. It is understood, then, that the web doesn’t require conventional, physical grunts to enforce threats against a human being. The web is perfectly equipped to destroy a person on its own terms and within its own structures. Despite the web’s many catastrophes, Lain never unplugs. Rather, she burrows deeper into the Wired, convinced through equal parts deduction and delusion that humanity lives and dies by her unique participation in the Wired.

Ultimately, Lain’s will wins out over Masami’s plot to demolish the distinction between the material world and the Wired. The series doesn’t climax with Masami’s gruesome disintegration in Lain’s bedroom, but rather with Lain’s friend Arisu barging into her room to drag her from the buzzing cave. Laughing, the real Lain reasserts herself, and she embraces her fearful friend. Serial Experiments Lain ends with a teen girl sobbing over a madeleine, regretting her terminal investment in digital life. In the final scenes, Lain shows no hardware or wires, yet the worrisome murmur of electricity resounds in every corner of civilized life. No matter where you go, Lain feared, everyone’s connected. Presumably, the sound is Wi-Fi.