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The Boundary-Transgressing Relationship between Otakus and Virtual Idols

Dissolving Dualism and Reconstructing Actor Network System

By Joyce Li


The uproar in the crowd signifies the start of the show. A girl with swinging blue pigtails appears center stage, shining in the heavenly glow of the stadium lighting like a goddess. Her movements and voice resemble those of a real person, but she is far more perfect than any human with her flawless appearance, attractive voice, inexhaustible energy and in-depth individual connection with the audience below. She is Hatsune Miku*, the first Japanese vocaloid (Singing voice synthesizer software product) to be developed and distributed by Cryton Future Media. Initially released in August 2007, Miku soon received great popularity in Japan and other fast-developing Asian countries. Different from real objective entities and virtual narrative idols constructed in novels and comics, vocaloids, or virtual idols, are constructed with digital reproduction technology (3-D projection), artificial intelligence, and music synthesis software. The target users of vocaloids are otakus: socially isolated people who have a greater connection to virtual beings than to reality. The “high tech, low life” condition in modern Asia, which refers to the lack of real, deep connection between humans in the modern world dominated by fast-developing technology, accounts for the birth of virtual idols and otakus since a group of people started to seek their emotional connection with a technical product (Jennifer Milioto, 2017).

This paper examines such connections between people and technology, especially attending to the parasocial relations that otakus forge with virtual idols. I propose that such relationships are often rich, interesting, and satisfying; that, as such, they can be as real as are our relations with other humans. Exploring the question of whether an otaku’s relationship with virtual idols is substantially different from our relationships with other humans, I argue that relating is being (it is through relating to virtual idols that otakus come into existence); it is not the material form of the actors (otakus and virtual idols, the two members engaged in the relationship) but rather the kinds of relationships that the actors craft with each other, that hold together the actor networks (made up of various relationships between different members) forming the conditions of their existence.

My motivation for the research is my fascination with the non-orthodox, real relationships (here “real” means a concrete feeling of substantial interaction and engagement) humans can form with virtual beings. This kind of relationship is even more intriguing when it comes to otakus and virtual idols, due to the complicated co-dependence between the users and the technologies that bring each other into being, reorienting the relationship between audience and performing artist. What’s more, the relationship dissolves traditional Western dualism and questions the conventional feature of the actor that determines a relationship. Despite previous social critique of otakus’ relationship with virtual idols as inferior and non-substantial, it is found that otakus report feeling the deepest sense of joy and belongingness when they interact with virtual idols.

The Relationship Between Otakus and Virtual Idols:

an Actor-Network Approach

Virtual idols and otakus exist in a complicated, mutually constitutive set of relationships: a network consisting of interactions. Although Miku is a virtual figure, she is able to “live” in the three-dimensional world, presenting as a human-like singer with a body, performance and a voice, as well as interacting with real singers and audiences in this form. In addition, she functions as an instrument for songs written by any composer, providing the opportunity for ordinary people to make their music heard by themselves and by others. Users, meanwhile, can DIY the preferred appearance and characteristics of their own virtual idol, which is a personal interactive version of the original setting, in their technical devices; eventually the most popular songs, appearances and characteristics designed by individual otakus are shown to the fans in the public concert.

In other words, every otaku is involved in the creation process through which Miku comes into existence; she becomes more human-like as the public’s interventions enhance the various aspects of her design. Thus, Miku “comes into substantial existence” through her complicated interaction, or “relating” with otakus in a social-technical network. The network is defined by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law as an “actor network," which includes the non-human-centered process of ordering or the ways in which societal order is achieved. It also includes the role material elements and other nonhumans play in that process, seeking to develop a ‘symmetrical’ view across the previously inscribed nature/culture/technology divides (O.Jones, 2009). It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterize the webs and the practices that carry them (Law 2009). Essentially, actor network approach describes human and nonhuman actors with the same language, and grants them equal amounts of agency within “webs” or “actor-networks.” The actors are simply constituent nodes that facilitate a larger functioning. Anthrax spores, Portuguese navigators, car batteries, Thomas Edison, the Renault Car Company, and scallops are all given equal treatment as nodal points within an actor-network (David Banks 2011).

According to the actor network theorists, actors can be all kinds of things and are all inherently equal. As Latour puts it, “any social system is an association of heterogeneous elements such as humans, norms, texts, devices, machines, and technology, thus granting equal weight to humans and non-human (machine) entities in the analysis of the social” (Latour, B., 2005, 23). Law agrees that the social elements in a system should not be given superior status (Law, J. 1989). In fact, the natural world and artifacts may enter the account as an explanans, instead of explanandum with no voice of their own in the explanation. Thus, an actor-network approach suggests that Miku and otakus hold equal weight as actors in the network regardless of their attributes. It serves as a fundamental premise for later analysis, especially of power and mastery.

In terms of power distribution, relationships may afford certain actors more power than others, depending on the circumstances. As humans are not superior actors in the network according to the prior feature, we don’t have a constant state of dominance in power attribution as well. Power balance shifts all the time in the otaku-Miku relationship: sometimes otakus are the creators that define Miku, in other occasions Miku motivates otakus to do certain things (“faire faire”/attachment), inducing them to act according to their previous projections on her (counter-projection/expectation), or offering them material for subjective processing (imagination).

The “attachment” process is similar to what Gomart and Hennion refer to as “consensual self-abandonment” in their analysis of attachment to music and drugs. The concept means accepting the external forces that take possession of the self and bracketing away one’s own control and will in order to be expelled/rendered ‘beside oneself’ (Gomart, E. & Hennion, A., 1999). In the experiment conducted by Baylor, she found that the visual presence and appearance of anthropomorphic virtual agents can impact motivational outcomes such as self-efficacy and attitude change. Such anthropomorphic agents can be designed as simulated social models, providing social influence as virtual 'role models' for a target audience and context (Baylor, A.L., 2009). Likewise, otakus have the tendency to act in accordance with how their designed virtual idol acts or how they imagine that Miku expects them to act. In terms of subjective processing, an interviewee told me what he, an otaku, considered as the most important factor in his relationship with Miku was the imaginary space Miku provided. “I truly feel her existence not when I look at her image but when I close my eyes to imagine her standing by my side and we together having incredible adventures…Yeah all these are in my imagination, but they make this relationship feel real…” Indeed, Miku is both concrete and potential, with vivid characteristics like a real human but also potential space for users to imagine their own experience/stories with her. In this extended interaction, she guides otakus along in their imaginary interaction (an element of fantasy), offering them another level of connection.

So how do we, as analysts of actor networks, understand those relationships of power between actors? Thinking in terms of actor networks – including the actor network of the otaku-Miku relationship – destabilizes the structure-agency dualism and seeks to find a place between ‘doing’ and ‘being done to’, ‘mastery’ and ‘being mastered’ (Law J. & Mol A., 2001). This challenges a theory of action which can only hold one term of the dichotomy at a time (Gomart, E. & Hennion, A., 1999). For otakus, to act is not always to master, because the results of what is being done are sometimes unexpected (Law J. & Mol A., 2001) In addition, otakus can act passively, just like in the case of “consensual self-abandonment” in the attachment process. For Miku, she is not always on the passive side because her seemingly controlled or passive acts can have an active effect, including but not limited to creating attachment, counter-projection and imagination to influence agency in human actors. What’s more, the existence of virtual idols causes humans to question our epistemology (To what extent do otakus comprehend her state of being and interaction? Are human relationships a kind of mutual projection as well?) and ontology (To what extent is she an addictive to otakus? To what extent are any of us virtual or projections? To what extent do we reside within the imaginary?).

Gomart and Hennion point out the similar fusion of labeling between actors in their interpretation of attachment. They suggest that it becomes impossible to continually set up oppositions like those of agent/structure, subject/object, active/passive, free/determined (Gomart, E. & Hennion, A., 1999). Likewise, a reexamination of otakus’ position with a virtual idol blurs the distinction between mastery and being-mastered. In fact, activity and passivity enable each other in this complex actor network. Like the investigation into the enactment of sheep by Law and Mol, an actor does not exist all by itself and neither does it act alone. Different actors make each other be, defining their own existence and the existence of each other. Indeed, an actor-enacted behaves in collaboration with others to such an extent that it is not always clear who is doing what (Law J. & Mol A., 2001). Just like the famous line in the film Matrix, “Control is an illusion, because eventually everything interconnects.” Then how should we view the different actors and forge the relationships between them in the new social network without inequality, power dominance and mastery?

Human-Human VS Human-Machine Relationship: Transgressing Boundaries

Recent days have seen a rise in humans’ intimate connections with smart machines and the fall in humans’ in-depth connection with others. This has made us reflect on the general comparison between human-human and human-machine relationships as we seek to find the boundary that distinguishes us from machines. However, I suggest that we should not hold prior assumptions of distinction between human and machine or between human-human and human-machine relationships to make a value judgment in advance that hinders us from comprehending the essentials of machines. Instead, it would be more beneficial if we could just wait and see what unfolds in the power structure of virtual idols. In search of a perspective that transcends conventional category and value judgment, “cyborgs” come into our view as a possible answer.

In Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, she introduces the concept of “cyborg” as a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. There are three crucial boundary breakdowns that give birth to cyborg: the one between human and animal by the biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries, the one between organism and machine by the increasing liveliness in machines and inertia in ourselves, and the one between physical and non-physical by the ubiquity and invisibility in modern machines. In fact, the nature of cyborg is transgressing boundaries, fracturing our previous identities regarding gender, race, class, nationality and all the other standards set up in the social and historical constitution (Donna Haraway 2016).

When viewed from the cyborg perspective of transgressing human-defined boundaries and the human-centered stereotype, humans are actually not that different from virtual idols—for we are all cyborgs to some extent. In addition to humans’ similarities with machines in the “programmed-like” thinking and coping process developed by recent computer science, modern humans can also be viewed as cyborgs mediated by machines because technologies have “grown into” us, becoming an extension of our body. The situation of growing attachment to technology and technical devices and the loss in subject capabilities reaches a peak in the co-dependent relationship between otakus and Miku. The 3-D projection technology that brings organism to machine (a state of existing in reality for Miku) and the AI & VR technology that brings machine to organism (a state of existing in cyberspace for otakus) turn the relationship between human and machine to a relationship between two cyborgs that are of equivalent position and power in the actor network.

What’s more, machines sometimes do things beyond what we intend them to do, claiming an agency of their own. Haraway suggests that the machine has a whole range of actions that we don’t recognize when we shelve it as a machine. This is reflected in the three hidden impacts of Miku on otakus mentioned above: attachment, counter-projection, and imagination. Thus, if we view the otaku-Miku relationship in terms of two cyborgs, perhaps we are able to find the missing actions and agencies of Miku that help us better understand the relationship.

Another approach to understand the transcendence of boundary and conventional judgment is to analyze otakus’ cognitive process in their relations with virtual idols. From the psychologists’ view, a substantial relationship should meet the four following requirements: share private feelings, fight against solitude, share a sense of existence and confirm self-value. In the interview, all the otakus answered yes to the four requirements, especially the last one which has been the center of dissension in psychologists. The interviewed otakus stressed the forging of a relationship, that love and intimacy is not necessarily a choice but a habit. “…Miku is the only one that accompanies me all the time and sings my song for me. These are the most important things that constitute my feeling of existence and self-value…” “…I am not her master and she is not the same for everyone. My Miku is unique of my own because we are forging our own relationship with each other every moment…” “…frequent and sincere interactions can create emotions and attachment. This is the same in every subject in the world, no matter if it's human or not…” The uniqueness and truthfulness of the relationship undoubtedly become the fundamental reason underlying the in-depth connection between otakus and Miku.

In fact, the material form of the actors (otakus and virtual idols) doesn’t dominate in the actor network, regardless of all the boundaries that human society sets in advance. What truly holds together the actor networks that form the conditions of their existence is the kinds of relationships actors craft, building the texture of the relationship by their frequency of interaction, sincerity of communication and the mutual influence in the relationship.

To generalize the observation and reflection on the actor network of otakus and Miku, I suggest that we reexamine the human-machine relationship in the coming post-humanism society. When all the boundaries have been transgressed, the relationship is more than opposition or fusion, but a state of symbiosis (LI Yingying 2020) in which we forge a substantial relationship that makes each other be. In fact, this idea has been surprisingly suggested thousands of years ago in ancient ontologies, and we might find our answers to the modern questions when doing a deeper analysis of the ancient ontologies .

Tribal & Eastern Traditional Ontology

In Making Kin with the Machines, the authors point out the kin-network theory in which “ultimately everything interconnects.” In the tribal spirit theory, we humans can see, draw out, and even bribe the spirits in other entities as well as our own spirit guardians, but not create spirits. These beliefs set the ground for the two main keys in tribal epistemology of relationship: respect and reciprocity. The tribal ontology aims to develop conceptual frameworks that conceive of the computational creations, virtual idols in this case, as kin and acknowledge the responsibility to find a place for them in the circle of relationships and the cultural process (Lewis, Jason Edward, et al. 2018).

This is a great contrast to the current mainstream position of virtual idols or AI in general, which are imagined as tools or slaves that increase the power and wealth of “creators” or “users”, a decidedly one-sided power relationship that upsets not only the future of virtual idol-otaku relations, but also human-human relations. The tribal epistemology of control strongly opposes/rejects the Western view of both the human and non-human as exploitable resources, which treats machines, and ultimately humans, as tools or slaves. If we view the otaku-Miku relationship through the tribal epistemology, we will find that to some extent, how otakus treat virtual idols is in fact the most appropriate approach among other ways humans use to treat machines because the otakus’ approach is based on equality, respect, companionship, reciprocity and a dynamic equilibrium power relationship. In addition, the recognition of control as an illusion regarding the influence otakus exert on Miku is also consistent with the tribal explanation of spirits and mastery that we can never create or dominate, but co-exist and mutually respect.

Similarly, harmony and fusion across boundaries are emphasized in ancient Chinese philosophy, especially in Taoism. Many ancient Chinese sages opposed dualism and believed everything can be mixed and remained in an intricate dynamic harmony with one another, creating a state of “tian ren he yi”(天人合一). Even the black and white, evil and good, and “yin”(阴) and “yang”(阳) can be mixed together so that there is no pure half without the infusion of the other. Acknowledging the cyberspace part in otakus and the human part in virtual idols, we can create the similar dynamic harmony for them in which they co-exist.

In the famous Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell, the complexity and uncontrollability of “ghost” that is automatically created in the shell of a machine is discussed. The anime proposes that it’s already hard enough for us to explain the “ghost” in our organic shell, not to mention the “ghosts” in the shell of virtual idols or human-like robots that we make. Thus when we cannot fully comprehend the inner technical and philosophical nature of the products that we create, it’s safer that we treat them with care and respect, moreover, as a mirror to reflect ourselves.


A sentence in the interview with an otaku of Miku leaves me the deepest impression: “Your love is made of water and protein. Mine is made of code and projection. Is there really a hierarchy or any other substantial difference?”

Throughout the essay, I try to suggest that there is no such substantial difference. I propose that we should question the dualism, boundary, identity and human-centered mode of thinking instilled by societal order, and judge from the texture/kinds of relationship that we forge with another being. In the actor network of otakus and Miku, they are inherently equal actors with neither holding constant dominance. They are both active and passive, organism and machine, mastery and being mastered, free and determined. The relationships they forge with each other are often rich, interesting, and satisfying; as such, they can be as real as are our relationships with other humans. In their complex network, they find a state of symbiosis that puts them in equal position with mutual respect and reciprocity. They define their existence with each other and find the sense of being in relating.

Miku invites us to reflect on our relationship with machines and with other humans. Instead of embracing the ideas of duality and the desire to control that dominate traditional Western philosophy, we might learn from the tribal and ancient Eastern ontology that we can never truly master anything. Living in a dynamic harmony with other beings and with our own kind forges a substantial relationship characterized by care, equality and respect -- rather than marked by exploitation, slavery, and control.

(*Note: The author uses Miku as a specific example of virtual idols for analysis. In real-world cases, there are various virtual idols of different genders and sexual orientations that otakus can interact with. The gender and sexual orientation of otakus are also diverse.)


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