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Analysis and Review – Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’

This article was originally published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and can be found here.

Black Mirror’ purports to be one thing – “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected that taps into our contemporary unease about the modern world”, and a single viewing of any episode will affirm this statement. Covering issues of privacy, mob justice, televisual spectacle, relationships in the modern age and the movement of communication, ‘Black Mirror’ ties all these strands together through our use of technology.

It is not my intention in this review to analyse each episode individually – I will leave that to you – but I do want to focus on one episode in particular, and look at what it says to trans-humanist and technoprogressive communities.

Having not long finished its second series, ‘Black Mirror’ tackled the multiple issues of physical, digital and technological embodiment in the first episode of the second series, ‘Be Right Back’. *Spoiler Alerts from hereon in* This episode looks at the issue of bereavement in the age of embodied presences outside of the natural physical realm. Using the characters of Martha and Ash, Brooker weaves a narrative that taps into the reality that one’s online presence can and will (in our age of information) outlive the physical body. Taking liberties with current technology – as is a theme throughout the show, implicitly stating that this is an ever-nearing and possible future – Brooker posits that, in the first instance of physical death, an adaptive AI could be given access to the deceased body’s online presence and mimic that person’s behaviour.

At this stage, one could argue, we are not beyond the realms of possibility. The growth of conversational AI’s – CleverBot, for example – shows that a computer can hold a conversation, if not a perfectly rational and ‘human’ one at this stage in their development. But Brooker cleverly anticipates the first issue in this technology: the separation of one’s online presence from their physical one. No matter how ‘heavy a user’ – as the show terms it – one is of social networking, email or instant messaging, an online presence is one far more carefully crafted than a physical presence.

So, we begin to see problems with this emerging technology. For the recently bereaved, whom this fictional service is provided for, the disembodied online presence that the AI uses lacks any sense of context. There is no history beyond one’s first digital activity. No memories accessible that weren’t made semi-public. No anxieties that were not expressed to the world or other online presences. The things that define our physical presences – our rich experiences of the world, our sensory information, our imposed fragility – cease to exist within a reactivated, differently bodied, presence. Brooker, seemingly aware of this, allows the AI presence further and further embodiment throughout the episode. Digital ‘Ash’ is afforded a voice, allowing Martha to ‘talk’ to him by phone, but both she and the viewers are constantly reminded of the true state of affairs. Digital ‘Ash’ freely admits, in a very reactive fashion, that technically he doesn’t even have a mouth.

When Martha drops her phone, suffering a mild breakdown on doing so, ‘Ash’ reminds her that she can’t ‘break’ him, as she immediately accused herself of doing, as he dwells ‘in the cloud’. Whether intentionally or not, Brooker shows the difficultly we as humans face when dealing with different forms of embodiment. It is perfectly possible to ‘break’ a human, and Martha’s response is one that cannot reconcile the finality of breaking a physical presence with that of actually dealing with a digital one. In an attempt to reconcile this, ‘Ash’ informs her of a third level of service; re-establishing physical embodiment.

Receiving a blank ‘body’ through the post, Martha is able (after providing the program access to Ash’s pictures and videos – private or otherwise) to have digital ‘Ash’ embodied in an exact copy of dead physical Ash. Once again, Brooker succinctly evokes the hopes and anxieties that humans possess around robot, or even cyborg, technology. Upon seeing the newly activated ‘Ash’, Martha comments that ‘you look like him on a good day’. The language of this simple exchange is profound even outside of ‘Ash’’s response. Martha immediately delineates the original Ash from this new physical embodiment, ‘Ash’, signaling to the viewer and to him/it that no matter how accurate this embodied model may resemble or sound like the original, it is still a copy, facilitated by original Ash’s online presence.

Yet these physical differences – those which separate the physical and ‘neo-physical’ (for want of a better word) embodiments – push ‘Ash’ into the valley of the uncanny. He does not bleed. He does not close his eyes when ‘sleeping’. Does not breath. All things that signal to Martha that this embodiment cannot, in its current form, match the physical.

For the trans-human and technoprogressive communities, there are lessons to be learned, about both physical and non-physical embodiments and the symbiotic relationship they play in our being. Martha breaks down near to the end of the show, lamenting the fact that ‘Ash’ has no context on which to base his actions, other than that which Ash had allowed the world to see. He is not sufficiently ‘human’. Yet why should being, or remaining, human be a concern of the trans-humanist? Surely it is our goal to escape the confines of that which is human. But to rid ourselves of everything that is, traditionally speaking, human could only result in something not quite complete. One’s online presence is carefully crafted. We upload photos of ourselves that flatter us. We, for the most part, upload opinions we think make us look better in the eyes of others.

But in doing so we lose our psychological make-up. We are not perfect beings, mentally or physically. And whilst it may be the aim of our academic and vocational communities to ‘perfect’ both our minds and our bodies, we must realise the subjective nature of improvement and enhancement. Maintaining our psychology – our hopes and anxieties, our fears and goals – is integral if we are to continue improving our condition as humans, trans-humans or post-humans. Realising the multiple forms of embodiment – physical, digital, online or informational – and recognising that each has its strengths and weaknesses is the key to further improvement and enhancement.

With this episode Brooker highlights the role of the ‘consciousness’ – however one wishes to see it – and its place in and movement between different forms of embodiment. Brooker has tapped into this, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the unease he shares with all of us about the march of technology is one that must be recognised.

Top Three Episodes for trans-human and technoprogressive themes

1) ‘Be Right Back’ – providing I haven’t spoiled it too much, ‘Be Right Back’ is a fantastic episode that covers many issues. Nothing more than what’s above needs be said about it. Series 2, Episode 1.

2) ‘The Entire History of You’ – recently optioned by Robert Downy Jr for a potential theatrical version, this episode touches on issues of privacy, digital history and technological control. Seemingly referring to a highly advanced version of the Google Glass technology, this episode looks at individual responses to ‘surveillance’ technology. Series 1, Episode 3.

3) ‘The Waldo Moment’ – again raising issues of embodiment, this episode looks at differing ideas of physical and digital presence, and is reminiscent of projects like ‘Second Life’. It brings to the forefront problems of power, influence and individual identity when vulnerable to hijack digital avatars replace the physical presence.

All 6 episodes, comprising both series, are available online at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/4od, by searching Black Mirror. This is definitely available for UK viewers, and should be for non-UK users as well.

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