[Warning: spoilers ONLY on Black Mirror episodes before this season.]
The ultimate goal of technology is to find a workaround for cheating death. But on the tech-focused British anthology series Black Mirror, the idea that we’ll find a way to digitally live forever is the ultimate fear.
We may not know how close Calico, the Google company focused on health and aging, has come to expanding the human lifespan or whether Elon Musk is making headway toward injecting our brains into robot skulls. In the world of Black Mirror, though, humans can upload their consciousness directly to the cloud—which appears to be located somewhere far from heaven.
Technology is about solving problems. Black Mirror, which returned to Netflix for a fourth season December 29, is about how tech solutions create nightmarish new problems that—whoops—cannot be solved. The show’s first two Channel 4-produced seasons explored the dark terrain of where surveillance, social media, and reality TV might be headed in the nearish future. It wasn’t until the post-second season Christmas special that we got a glimpse of co-creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ ultimate prognostication: that our consciousness will one day be digitally extractable.
In that episode, “White Christmas,” Jon Hamm can transfer a copy of your consciousness from your brain into a remote, egg-shaped module, like an MP3 in a USB port. That module now contains the essence of you, everything that makes you “you”—your very soul—and turns it into a tiny butler for the “real” you. Hamm’s character convinces MP3-you to perform butler-y tasks through a terrifying form of torture: altering time so that MP3-you must experience six months locked away in a tiny module with zero distractions, in the span of a minute. By the end of the episode, we’ve seen the threat of this technology carried out at the speed of a thousand years per minute. Infinite time spent as a ghost in a machine. Welcome to digital hell.
“White Christmas” aired in 2014, and since then, the show has only become more interested in transferred consciousness. And it’s not always a raw deal. The most popular episode in Black Mirror’s history, last season’s Emmy-winning, formula-busting “San Junipero,” takes an optimistic look at the digital afterlife. Two elderly women meet as avatars of their young, ideal selves while sampling immersive afterlife software. They must each then decide whether to let their consciousness die with their bodies, or if they should become each other’s reason to grant their souls extended digital life. The episode ends with the two speeding off into a shimmery, simulated sunrise together. Although the juxtaposition of their drop-top, windy hair frolic and the cold silicon wires in which they actually “exist” as code is a bit jarring, the episode suggests that technology may provide us with the heaven religion could never guarantee.
The new season of Black Mirror doubles down on “San Junipero’s” extractible consciousness, if not its optimism. The concept comes up in episodes “USS Callister” and “Black Museum,” and both instances recall the more torture-y aspects of “White Christmas” over the beachside joyriding of “San Junipero.” (That said, the tech used in both new episodes is an aesthetic callback to “San Junipero.”) So what is it about this idea of captured consciousness that has captured Brooker and Jones’ consciousness? Why now?
It’s probably not because we’re moving closer to implementing similar tech in real life. According to a 2015 BBC article on immortality, we’re still three key breakthroughs away from backing up one’s brain like a hard drive: “Scientists must first discover how to preserve, non-destructively, someone’s brain upon their death. Then the content of the preserved brain must be analyzed and captured. Finally, that capture of the person’s mind must be recreated on a simulated human brain.”
Exactly none of those things is happening anytime soon. Even if such a breakthrough were imminent, though, there’s a big difference between preserving one’s knowledge and memories, and preserving their actual consciousness, as Black Mirror has depicted. The closest we’ve come is merely simulating consciousness with services like Eternime, which sponge up a deceased person’s social media residue to create a chatbot-like digital avatar. (Not unlike the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” which beat Eternime to market by a couple years and takes its conceit to the ultimate conclusion: a chatbot-like digital avatar inserted into a clone body.)
Perhaps the idea of a torturous digital afterlife stuck in Brooker’s craw–he gets sole writing credit on most episodes–not because it seems like that’s where we’ll soon be heading, but because it’s what we’re experiencing right now.
The prevailing fear that Black Mirror exploits with its digital hell episodes is the idea of being hopelessly trapped forever, unable to control anything that happens, unable to look away. The totality of 2017 felt a lot like that.
How many of us lost what felt like whole days last year, relentlessly scrolling through Twitter to find out if healthcare was still a thing? How many of us called our representatives in Congress so many times that, five seconds into a call, we could discern the voices of specific assistants and what kind of mood they were in–only to see whatever we were calling to prevent from happening still happen? How many of us came to know Donald Trump’s thoughts so well, it felt like we were stuck as passengers in his brain, à la Being John Malkovich, Get Out, or any number of Black Mirror episodes? In 2017, purgatorial ennui was the new black. We might as well have been stuck on the deck of the USS Callister, the idea of escape impossible.
For their part, the creators have kept mostly quiet about whether Donald Trump or Brexit had much influence on the new season, or what led them to include transferred or simulated consciousness in multiple new episodes. According to a recent Variety interview with Jones, the team was careful not to rely on any one particular area of technology too much: “We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting a season theme because our job is to say you don’t quite know what you’re going to get so lean in and pay attention and hopefully you’ll enjoy the ride.”
There are indications, however, that the frenzied mood of America and of post-Brexit Britain has weighed on the team’s minds–even if the writing had already begun in the lead-up to 2017. Charlie Brooker told GQ just before the election that he “wouldn’t be 1 percent surprised [if Trump wins]. I don’t want it to happen; I might have to build a bunker. But if I’m honest, it’s what I expect.”
When Brooker’s expectation proved out, even he did not seem ready for it. On the eve of the US election, as the tide turned Trump’s way, Brooker tweeted, “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.”
Just because what he thought might happen did happen doesn’t mean it didn’t turn out worse than he thought. Social media culture had already served as the basis for two Black Mirror episodes in season three–the excellent “Nosedive” and “Hated in the Nation”–but Brooker and his team may still not have been prepared for the experience of being on social media in 2017. Many of us were more Extremely Online than ever, constantly angry at what we were seeing, and despondent over our inability to do anything about it. We were prisoners to our devices for an interminable duration. We could technically log off and walk away at any time, but it felt pointless. The news would find you anyway, and it would be Bad.
In the 2017 movie The Circle, the only popular entertainment more blunt in its tech criticism than Black Mirror, a Luddite eventually feels so trapped by technology that he kills himself. While a bit on the nose, the movie did reinforce the notion that if you’re not on social media, you cease to exist. And that was before Trump’s nuclear-grade goading of Kim Jong-Un made it feel like if you were off social media for even one second, you might miss the moment that led to you physically ceasing to exist.
These new episodes recognize that feeling of being trapped forever, providing both catharsis and terror by showing how it could be so much worse. Black Mirror’s fourth season feels entirely tuned into the moment. The show about our dark future has become more than ever a reflection of our dark present.