When Black Mirror first hit the air in 2011, it drew invariable comparisons to The Twilight Zone. Understandably so: Both shows dealt with elements of science fiction and psychological horror, and both functioned as anthology shows, with episodes so distinct from one another that an uninitiated viewer could plunge in at random and be as familiar with a given episode’s premise as a seasoned fan. It was a selling point; it made the show easy to recommend to people who might be wary of committing to a complex, serialized narrative.
But since its purchase by Netflix in 2015, Black Mirror has begun to chip away at its episodic edges. Technologies introduced in one installation reappear in another; news tickers on characters’ TV screens chronicle events from previous episodes; musical cues repeat again and again. Call them Easter eggs, or call them clues to piecing together a shared universe—one that creator Charlie Brooker, after years of denying, has finally admitted does, indeed, exist.
The new episodes, released last Friday, are more thematically cohesive than any batch that’s preceded them. They grapple obsessively with the notion of the human mind: uploading it; infiltrating it; probing its memories; preserving it after death. Though the show has flirted with digital consciousness in the past, most notably with its mind-bending “White Christmas” special and the series three darling, “San Junipero,” the new season takes up the thought experiment with zeal. Black Mirror’s episodes still stand well enough on their own, but after this latest installation, it’s possible to zoom out and see a cohesive rumination on the implications of digital immortality.
(Spoiler alert: spoilers for multiple Black Mirror episodes follow.)
Viewers were first introduced to the “cookie,” Black Mirror’s term for a carbon-copied consciousness, in 2014’s “White Christmas,” which followed Jon Hamm as he coerced digital souls into acting as hyper-personalized home assistants and confessing to crimes. But there were hints of this manifestation of the singularity even back in the show’s first few episodes. Take, for example, “Be Right Back,” in which a woman named Martha, mourning her dead boyfriend, signs up for a service that promises to harvest the traces of his online presence to recreate him as a chatbot—and, later, place that AI in a synthetic body.
The uncanny process is flawed, naturally: The android “Ash” can only mimic what he’s been taught, and his lack of human traits (like the need for sleep) is off-putting. But Martha’s desire to resurrect her dead loved one stands as a precursor to the digital rebirth we see later in the series. Her experience is remarkably similar to that of Jack, who we meet in “Black Museum,” the final episode of Black Mirror’s latest season. When his wife Carrie falls into an irreversible coma, he’s offered the chance to implant her consciousness in his own mind, using the technology that we learn was initially developed to help diagnose disease—and, much like in “Be Right Back,” that decision goes terribly wrong.
That casts a new light on the 2013 episode. What if we see it not only as a warning against meddling with death, but also as an early attempt by technologists in the Black Mirror-verse to digitize consciousness? Android Ash lacks a true sense of self; he doesn’t have memories from his previous life in the same way that Carrie does. But, at least for a little while, he passes his girlfriend’s Turing test. It’s a failed experiment, for sure—but maybe a necessary, realistic stumble on the path to true digital reincarnation.
From that first seed of cloud-based immortality planted in “Be Right Back,” we jump to “White Christmas,” where the technology, too, has leapt ahead—and has even more sinister implications. Sure, your cloned assistant might streamline life for the true “you,” but what about the “you” that’s then forced to live out eternity trapped in a Google Home-esque device? And Hamm’s ability to torture cookies by speeding up their timelines, subjecting them to months or years of insanity-inducing boredom, certainly hints at the “human rights for cookies” that “Black Museum” tells us were later enacted. In both “White Christmas” and this season’s “USS Callister,” digital cloning appears largely unregulated: Tech companies like the one that employs Hamm’s character are able to turn cookies into slaves for their “real” selves, while bad actors like Callister’s Robert Daly are able to get their hands on the technology to enact sadistic punishment on those who have “wronged” them—and no one steps in to stop them.
It’s clear that at this moment in the technology’s lifetime, the ACLU hasn’t yet seized upon cookies’ cause, and the mass protests mentioned in “Black Museum” have yet to have any effect. And by the end of “Black Museum,” it’s still not apparent whether those human rights for cookies are actually enforced: The museum’s proprietor is still torturing Clayton Leigh’s cookie, seemingly unhampered by pesky regulations, though his own karmic blowback returns that favor in kind. It also seems at this point that no one has given any real thought to the ethical and psychological implications of what they’ve created: How do you ensure that your cookie doesn’t spend eternity being driven mad by boredom—**** dressed up as limbo?
That brings us to “San Junipero.” No more creepily submissive androids, stimulation-starved home assistants, or uploaded minds trapped in other people’s skulls or teddy bears: Now, upon death, residents of the universe can choose to live forever in a simulated utopia, seemingly without any real drawbacks. It’s the best possible outcome of mind-uploading technology: that we use it not to service our real-world selves or punish criminals, but rather to guarantee life—a good life—after death. There are nods to a similarly happy outcome in “Hang the DJ,” this season’s heart-wrenching, dating app-inspired episode in which hundreds of thousands of cookies form a data set for real-world singles (and though that app makes a sneaky cameo on a phone in “USS Callister,” it’s arguably an earlier, less cookie-dependent iteration, given that cookie technology doesn’t appear known to most of that episode’s characters).
You can take the shared-cookie-timeline theory even further, if you don’t mind some attenuation. Perhaps the memory-capturing technology to which we’re first introduced in season 1’s “Entire History of You”—and which resurfaces in this season’s “Arkangel” and “Crocodile”—helped facilitate mind uploading, creating an easily downloadable reel of a life’s worth of data. Maybe the hyperrealistic augmented reality flaunted in “Playtest” was ultimately adapted to create the virtual paradise of “San Junipero.”
Some fans have seen even more hints of the cookie-verse in “Playtest”: As Redditors SplurgyA and sailormooncake speculate, the character of Sonja in Playtest might well be the real-world version of Selma, played by the same actress in season 1’s “Fifteen Million Merits.” Look closely in “Playtest,” and you’ll notice that her apartment sports a book on the singularity—and because she’s so enamored with game development, Redditors hypothesize, she might well have been one of the first to cookie-ify herself. Which, in turn, might mean that the world of “Fifteen Million Merits” is a reality show or form of punishment for cookies. And speaking of punishment, still others have suggested, the protagonist of series two’s “White Bear” might well be a cookie herself, sentenced to eternal, repetitive punishment. The speculative possibilities are endless.
The idea of digitally replicating a human mind is a much-loved trope of sci-fi novels that’s been seeing renewed enthusiasm recently. Altered Carbon, a novel in which characters are able to upload and download their personalities into new bodies, will be reborn as a Netflix series next month. The Canadian TV show Travelers, which premiered in 2016, imagines a world in which humans send their consciousnesses back in time to prevent an apocalypse. And in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, published last spring, self-appointed outcasts discover how to evade death by “backing themselves up” to the the cloud. The trend is perhaps reflective of Silicon Valley’s own obsession with digitizing the human mind. From technologies like brain-machine interfaces to the pipe dreams of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, many see this as the holy grail of AI—and one that some project might be attainable by 2045. So as we interpret Black Mirror as a cautionary tale about online dating and robot guard dogs and myriad technologies, let’s not lose sight of its larger message: A reminder to center our humanity as we speed toward a world in which that becomes harder and harder to define.