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Black Mirror and the Prison of Eternity

Frank Kermode noticed with typical astuteness that “Apocalypse is part of the modern Absurd.” We have no trouble imagining tidal waves decimating shores, plagues depopulating cities, or aliens enslaving the species. In fact, we’re even saved the burden of creative heavy lifting by letting Hollywood sell apocalypse to us directly. Others can imagine reality-shattering cataclysms for us. And no recent cinematic depiction of apocalypse has been as warmly received by a viewing public hungering for a taste of the “modern Absurd” than the Netflix (via the UK’s Channel 4) show Black Mirror.

Not every Black Mirror episode is strictly apocalyptic. Show creator Charlie Brooker doesn’t always present eschatology on a platter, with life as we understand it irreparably altered and the dawn of a new age foisted upon us. Brooker’s fascination with social technology run amok—contact lenses that record everything, lives determined by social score, cartoon hologram politicians, etc—gives us something more like a dystopia. Premises for iconic episodes, such as an implant that allows you to track and edit the sensory input of your children, are already here in embryonic form. The show gets under our skin because we can clearly see the route from here to there. Everything seems so plausible.

But the show treads water a bit when it depicts an actual apocalypse. Forbes called [1] season four’s “Metalhead” episode featuring human-hunting robots gone berserk “not terribly deep” and “kind of boring.” It’s difficult to imagine the apocalypse. But it’s arguably even more difficult to imagine paradise. And I think this is what disturbs most about Black Mirror: not the terrifying portrayal of a world gone wrong, but the empty and ultimately nihilistic evocation of the good.

No episode was more celebrated as a feel-good rejoinder to an otherwise dour program than season three’s “San Junipero.” The Cliff Notes plot is that two women meet and fall in love in a simulated beachside Californian town where it’s permanently 1987. The place is literally haunted by ghosts, with the simulation acting as receptacle for the minds of the “dead” and the elderly. It so happens that one of the protagonists has locked-in syndrome back in the “real” world and wants to be euthanized so that she can inhabit San Junipero permanently with her new love, despite having a husband and daughter who have passed away without having their own consciousnesses “uploaded.” The women get married and live in San Junipero, one assumes, happily ever after for the rest of time. The show went on to win two Primetime Emmy Awards and was lauded by critics. David Sims at The Atlantic called [2] the episode the “standout of the season.” Salon released a guide [3] to the “best Black Mirror episode yet.”

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In the infamous words [4] of Greil Marcus, “What is this shit?”

Uploading human consciousness is a pretty important point of fixation for Charlie Brooker. In the show’s four seasons, an entire stable of episodes has been created featuring the human mind digitized and then uploaded like software, “San Junipero” being only the most praised among them. But the idea reveals a void at the center of Brooker’s vision of the world, simply by virtue of defining human existence in such reductive terms. Simply put, mind can’t be uploaded onto a computer because a mind is much more than data, and a person is much more than his thoughts. Psychologist Robert Epstein writes [5] that humans have a history of using technologies as metaphors to describe human thought—from clay tablets to pneumatic pumps—and adds that “[e]ach metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software.”

But the metaphor is just that. Our brains don’t literally “store” symbolic data and our thoughts themselves don’t consist of code. Epstein says that “[t]he faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism—one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.”

It’s a categorical mistake to think that our entire selves inhabit our thoughts and those thoughts can be reconstructed and allowed to “live” somehow in a machine that crunches numbers. Humans exist inside of human bodies the same way that a tree exists inside of its form. Trying to extract the vegetative essence of the tree from its physical being would be a horrifying mistake. The German philosopher Josef Pieper writes in Death and Immortality that “It was finally expressed by Aristotle…that it is not the soul which is the ‘real man,’ but the existential configuration, the unity of soul and body. This thesis has become the model for a broad strand of Occidental philosophical anthropology.” It’s a lineage that includes Thomas Aquinas arguing homo non est anima tantum, man is not soul alone but is created as a physical being and so physicality is part of his nature. “The soul does not possess the perfection of its own nature except in union with the body,” reasoned Aquinas. Brooker would seem to believe the opposite. We can infer his thoughts on the incarnation.

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But for the sake of further argument, let’s momentarily assume that somehow a higher self called “mind” can be extracted from a human body and uploaded as data. The question of death still pursues us in at least two ways. First of all, this virtual California city presumably relies on an exterior physical world to function. It exists on servers, requires power, etc. And so this paradise is really only as eternal as the exterior world that it feeds off of. We still have to reckon with an ending, it’s just been postponed.

But the characters in San Junipero behave as if their new lives will be eternal, a slightly more disturbing prospect than death delayed. What is the meaning of a life that doesn’t end? Terry Eagleton writes in Radical Sacrifice that “Death is one of the few residues of the absolute in a secular age,” and one doesn’t have to be Christian to understand that we interpret life through the grave. It’s the ultimate trajectory that gives shape to our days. Death grants poignancy and heft to our experiences. This is probably one of the most basic precepts of all wisdom writing, secular and religious both. From Socrates insisting that death is a frontier we’re required to bravely face, to Walter Benjamin insisting that existence “unfolds from death, which is not, to be sure, its end but its form,” life has long been considered synonymous with death’s reckoning. It makes about as much sense to talk about life without death as to describe a human without a body.

If anything, a perpetual digital existence sounds more like hell than heaven. The soul-numbing tedium of living the same human life, with no hope of redemption or transcendence, forever, sounds like a punishment. It takes a dedicated narcissist to convince himself that it would be paradise to exist in his current state of mind for all of eternity. Should we really even call it eternity? Surely that term should be reserved for Christian heaven, in which, to quote Eagleton again, “there is no time to be bored because there is no time.” David Byrne was wrong about heaven being a place where nothing happens. It’s a place where “happening” ceases and things are resolved in a permanent unity. Eagleton again: “The Christian idea of heaven involves not immortality in the sense of life without end, but the transcendence of time itself. This is why it is not a question of an ‘afterlife,’ in the sense of an infinite stretch of time in the wake of one’s death. Besides, ‘afterlife’ or ‘survival’ also suggests a placid continuity with the present, which for Christianity is not the best way of trying to grasp the cataclysmic event of the transformation of the flesh.”

All of Black Mirror’s ideas about death and freedom stem from a repudiation of the complex nature of reality itself. Humans are atomized individuals, more free when they’re separated from their bodies and dissociated from the larger symbolic order that gives life meaning. No reckoning with death is required. No transcendence unifying the self with a higher order is wished for. It’s just a dance floor playing 80s pop tunes forever. The freedom that Black Mirror embraces is a “liberation” from meaning itself.

Frank Kermode was only half right. Not being able to imagine heaven is a part of the modern Absurd, also.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris ReviewBookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Black Mirror and the Prison of Eternity"

#1 Comment By Ken T On February 21, 2018 @ 12:10 am

I’m sorry, but I really don’t see any substantial difference between “eternal life in heaven” (or it’s non-Christian variants such as Valhalla) and “eternal life as a digital upload”. One is just a modern technological reinterpretation of the same concept. BOTH are nothing more than narcissistic imagining of death not being “The End”.

The time we have here on Earth is what we’ve got – that’s all there is there ain’t no more. When it’s over it’s over. Make the best of it.

#2 Comment By Celery On February 21, 2018 @ 1:07 am

There’s the difference between science fiction and theological thought right there: Sci-fi exists to stretch a person’s thinking; theology seeks to contain it. Science fiction says, “What if?” Theology says, “This is all there is.”

Perhaps the Booker tech that allows one to live forever, also contains the ability to keep one happy.

It’s a story. Imagination running riot and all that. Entertainment.

Next you’ll be trying to say AI shouldn’t be imbued with the Three Laws!

(Not that Christians are ever seen as grim and humorless…)

#3 Comment By muad’dib On February 21, 2018 @ 8:20 am

Wait ’till you see [6]

#4 Comment By Quimbob On February 21, 2018 @ 8:36 am

jeeze, it’s just a TV show

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On February 21, 2018 @ 9:03 am

What’s the different between Heaven and the upload-to-the-Matrix except that the latter has a very loosey-goosey “technological explanation” as to how it might be carried out while the former just throws the whole thing on the supernatural?

I think the author’s distaste at the upload-to-the-Matrix idea is because he realizes it shows the problems with an upload-my-soul-to-heaven idea. They’re equally unrealistic.

#6 Comment By Kent On February 21, 2018 @ 9:35 am

“Eagleton again: “The Christian idea of heaven involves not immortality in the sense of life without end, but the transcendence of time itself.”

Couldn’t find that in scripture anywhere.

#7 Comment By Matjaž Horvat On February 21, 2018 @ 10:53 am

“The time we have here on Earth is what we’ve got – that’s all there is there ain’t no more. When it’s over it’s over. Make the best of it.”

There are actual centuries-old arguments for why the human mind is immaterial and the human soul immortal. If you disagree with them, that’s one thing, but you can’t pretend they don’t exist.

There are also arguments for the Resurrection, and following from that, for the truth of Christianity.

From what I’ve seen so far, noone has managed to effectively refute them.

#8 Comment By Gabriel Oak On February 21, 2018 @ 10:55 am

“It’s a categorical mistake to think that our entire selves inhabit our thoughts and those thoughts can be reconstructed and allowed to ‘live’ somehow in a machine that crunches numbers.”

It sounds like the true problem with the episode (I haven’t seen the show) isn’t the reconstruction of human thoughts within a machine, but rather that the machine’s inhabitants are fully aware their reality is a simulation. For me, this awareness sets up an impossible situation; in order to function, the simulated nature of such a reality needs to be opaque to its participants. An argument like the one you’ve presented, for example, is precisely what we’d hear from a philosopher in a truly durable simulation, rather than one living in the show’s San Junipero. This then begs the questions, is Scott Beauchamp evidence we are already programs in a machine world, and if I subscribe to Netflix, will I gain any insight?

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 21, 2018 @ 11:50 am

“Couldn’t find that in scripture anywhere.”

I am that I am.

Eternity is not really a measure of time but existence for which there is no end and no real beginning.

The closest human understanding gets to eternity is the term infinite, but is a measure of time from a particular starting point.

Not the same as eternity or eternal.

#10 Comment By Mike Garrett On February 21, 2018 @ 11:54 am

THE difference between the wise men who directed ancient civilisations and the European barbarians who now run the world is that the former knew with certainty that all empires and usury-built economies crash. It always happens, and usually after not many centuries. This is why in civilisations women are kept in the home, so that families have something to fall back on when the trade economy periodically crashes. This whole Star Wars inspired sci-fi narrative is just the fantasy of the barbarians. This whole Western empire will soon go down rather violently. They think they are going to never go down, will push on until they control the universe, fighting all the way like good little soldiers going a Viking. Yes, to Vik it is a verb, meaning to steal.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 21, 2018 @ 11:56 am

I have attempted to watch this program. The episodes I watched had some very intriguing ideas. But in the end, they cart wheel into some nihilistic foul mouth, crude, creepy sexcapade romp in various forms.

I just decided the interesting ideas weren’t worth the jolt.

Twilight Zone is nothing like it and far sight more enjoyable, intriguing, thought provoking and enlightening to watch.

#12 Comment By Anon On February 21, 2018 @ 11:58 am

To be clear, the reason that the San Junipero episode is so popular has nothing to do with eternal life and everything to do with the sexuality of the main characters.

#13 Comment By Howlvis On February 21, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

Take-away quote: “It makes about as much sense to talk about life without death as to describe a human without a body.”

#14 Comment By TG On February 21, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

Interesting post. Some thoughts.

1. We don’t know, of course, but there is a lot of support for the idea that a computer could ultimately think like a human. The universal theory of computation says that any computation can be performed equivalently by any assemblage of matter – be they transistors, vacuum tubes, mechanical levers, or, presumably, neurons. To repeat, we still don’t understand human level intelligence, but the idea that a human mind could be sustained in an electronic network is not currently absurd. And anyhow, if there is something magical about biology, well, one could make a computing network out of biological-style neurons that were made to last forever…

2. An eternity in your current mind-state would not be tedium (unless that is your current mind-state, of course!). If consciousness can be manipulated, we could surely experience the same day over and over, realize it, and yet have it seem fresh and new and exciting, forever. Not that we should, mind… I think any sane person should recoil from any man-made eternity, what if we get it wrong and can’t get out? Death is the ultimate ‘dead man switch,’ no earthly horror can last forever.

3. If in fact the human mind can be sustained on a computer network, it would be incorrect to talk about ‘uploading’ it. It would be copying – and presumably destroying the original? Which raises an old philosophical problem that will probably never be answered.

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On February 21, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

P.S. There’s some pretty good arguments out there that intelligence can’t even exist outside matter. It all comes down to exploring the free energy surfaces and quantum mechanics.

(Then there’s the idea that consciousness is due to quantum computing in brain tubules. Okaaayyyy….)

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 21, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

” . . . to do with eternal life and everything to do with the sexuality of the main characters.”

No doubt.
———–
“It would be copying – and presumably destroying the original?”

No if the the substance of human existence is electronic or a tiny thermonuclear dynamo.

I think this the where the crux of chrstian ethos will fail for many. The idea that self is static, the essence of who a person is will not change. Character may change — but the essence remains. The attack by nonchristian ethos, say that of Hindus, Taoists and others is that human essence is not static. And that introduction into psychiatry, philosophy and other branches of social sciences and the arts is a serious challenge to the notion of object existentialist belief.

An example of what I mean, reincarnation – even to an entirely different species, identity dysphoria (born into the wrong body- short version). These idea are reeking havoc on the human social understanding. Because they have no clear frames — they are hard to challenge, but if we are going to maintain some manageable order they must be.

#17 Comment By sketches by boze On February 21, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

After watching San Junipero I couldn’t help wondering if the ending was supposed to be subtly creepy. That final shot of the computer servers on which the simulation is stored are a reminder to the viewer that the world itself is going to end eventually, and that a human-made eternity can only last so long.

#18 Comment By Bruceb On February 21, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

@Matjaž Horvat said
“There are also arguments for the Resurrection, and following from that, for the truth of Christianity.

From what I’ve seen so far, noone has managed to effectively refute them.”

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The onus is on you.

#19 Comment By Ken T On February 21, 2018 @ 6:18 pm

Matjaž Horvat:

I could argue that there is an invisible leprechaun sitting on my shoulder. Can you refute that? And please don’t say that invisible leprechauns don’t exist, because my answer to that will be that the one on my shoulder proves they do exist. See how it works?

Any “argument” that has no factual basis to begin with cannot be refuted, because it is not really an argument, it is just a fantasy. So go ahead and “argue” all you want for your religious beliefs, it means nothing.

#20 Comment By Mr. Morningstar On February 21, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

If one can create a digital Heaven, one can create a digital Hell.

#21 Comment By a spencer On February 21, 2018 @ 9:32 pm

The only thing I know about this show is a Prime Minister and a pig, or something like that, but

sketches by boze (spoilers):
“That final shot of the computer servers on which the simulation is stored are a reminder to the viewer that the world itself is going to end eventually, and that a human-made eternity can only last so long.”

Wouldn’t artificial intelligence anticipate a human-less world? Especially after it wipes out all the humans (without warning, but it will be over quickly – AI will have knowledge of the Terminator movies and the friendly robot that walked across Europe and was completely destroyed within hours of setting foot in the US, you get my drift). If AI figured out cold fusion or something that sustains it perpetually, wouldn’t it get rid of us immediately?

#22 Comment By snake On February 22, 2018 @ 2:53 am

Imagine yourself inside a computer chip without a body. Then imagine your wishes to touch, or hold, or caress someone, to enjoy a meal or a drink, but without the ability to do so, without the sensation that accompanies the many pleasures of life There is no immortality. This would truly be Hell. The universe itself will come to an end. Furthermore everyone who seeks immortality just assumes that the world needs them forever. People should accept the fact that they are mortal mortal. There is no afterlife either, so work to give meaning to the one life you have.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 22, 2018 @ 3:27 am

“I could argue that there is an invisible leprechaun sitting on my shoulder. Can you refute that?”

I have seen that leprechaun, and I have no idea how you keep your balance.

That left lean is very noticeable, though.

#24 Comment By Ken T On February 22, 2018 @ 7:57 pm

EliteComminc:

Very good! 🙂

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 22, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

“Imagine yourself inside a computer chip without a body. Then imagine your wishes to touch, or hold, or caress someone, to enjoy a meal or a drink, but without the ability to do so, without the sensation that accompanies . . .”

Assuming that said sensations are due to being encased in a corporeal body, I can imagine having no such desire, since I have no body. And there’s no reason why a spiritual caress, touch interwoevness would not feel as or even more fulfilling.

When I was a young Catholic and I guess I still maintain the view that our physical expression is insufficient for what we sincerely wish to express. That surface connection is an attempt to entangle oneself to something richer among loved ones — hence the longing for an inadequacy of physical expression.

I remember the intense hugs of mother which were on occasion to hard and too long. Surely that would be an indicator that the corporeal expression might be insufficient to the meaning for something deeper and more meaningful.

Hence the refrain, “I could just eat you up.”

But that in my view requires not even being constrained by the plastic, gold, platinum and diamond of a computer chip.

#26 Comment By sam On March 18, 2018 @ 12:06 am

Life inside a machine? Sounds like a death to me.