I am a huge fan of the Netflix show Black Mirror. The vision of the future it presents is alternatively bleak, horrifying and (at rare moments) optimistic or joyful. One of the most interesting aspects of the show has for me been its representation of the self.
In the Black Mirror universe it is possible to remove the essence of a person – what the show refers to as the consciousness – from the physical shell. The consciousness in this sense is effectively what we might in religious parlance refer to as the ‘soul.’ It contains all of the essential characteristics of a person: everything that makes them who they are. Prior to the latest season, our best glimpse of the Black Mirror view of the soul could be found in the much-lauded episode San Junipero. Here we are presented with a world in which people approaching death may decide to have their consciousness uploaded to a digital environment in which they can be young and free forever. This may be the most fiercely optimistic episode in the show’s history.
The more sinister implications of this technology are explored in the Season 2 episode White Christmas. It is only in the fourth and latest season, however, that we are asked to come face to face with the callous or nefarious treatment which may face disembodied consciousnesses. The episodes USS Callister and Black Museum are key examples.
Despite the very different tone of these narratives, they share a key understanding of the self. All suggest that a person is more than their body – that they can be disembodied or re-embodied and remain essentially the same person. Thus the death of the body is not the death of the self. Death can be prevented if, just before the terminal moment, the self is extracted from the dying flesh. Such an understanding of immortality is essentially religious in nature. It holds that true death is avoidable if only the person, doomed by birth to die, reaches out to the right saviour. In Black Mirror salvation is possible through technology.
While the self is understood as disembodied or at least separable from the body, the show nonetheless provides the technologically freed self with a new, clearly embodied, form. This is of course necessary for ease of storytelling. Without this form – one that could be described as an avatar – there is no clear delineation of where the self begins and ends. One could envision a consciousness or soul uploaded to a computer where it takes no human form but instead floats freely, experiencing its new life in an entirely new state. But for most of us that is no fantasy. We seek immortality, but we want our immortal lives to look as much as possible like our real lives: bodies included.
Black Mirror, then, offers up a fantasy in which we can escape our bodies, but retain them. We can detach ourselves from the inevitable death which is associated with corporeal form, but retain the image of the very vehicle which most clearly reminds us of the inevitability of death. Our essential self is understood as both disembodied and embodied.