Sunday, November 27, 2016

San Junipero and Artificial Paradise

I grew up watching the original version of the television anthology series The Twilight Zone, and I still consider it one of the finest television series ever. Now there’s a worthy successor to it in the brilliant British anthology series Black Mirror. It focuses on the dark side of modern technology.

Last night, I watched an episode from the series that I found extraordinarily moving. It was titled San Junipero. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to before reading the rest of this post.

The basic storyline can be found here, so I won’t bother offering my own inferior summary. But what I will say is that right after I watched this episode, I felt so moved--overwhelmed with emotion actually--that I posted the following to Facebook: “I just finished watching one of the most beautiful and moving stories I've ever seen on a TV or any other kind of screen! I am just blown away with equal parts sadness and joy! It's an anomalous episode from the third season of "Black Mirror," the brilliant British TV anthology drama series usually focusing on the dark side of technology. The episode is "San Junipero," and I recommend it in the strongest terms to anyone reading this who can watch the show on Netflix or some other way, because it's THAT extraordinary.

I watched this episode last night because I wanted to hear afterward what the Very Bad Wizards had to say about it in Episode 102 of their outstanding podcast series. I listened to the podcast this morning.

I must say that I was so overpowered emotionally last night that I didn’t spend much time reflecting on the deeper issues raised by “San Junipero.” But Sommers and Pizarro spurred me this morning to ponder the story in more depth.

Until last night, all the “Black Mirror” episodes I’ve seen have painted gloomy if not frightening portraits of technological dystopias, but “San Junipero“ seemed much more upbeat and ended with Heaven is a Place on Earth (lyrics here) ringing joyously in the sonic background as the two protagonists drove blissfully off together into their cloud-based paradise. But is the story really as happy as it seems outwardly?

What would it be like to have one’s consciousness posthumously uploaded to the Cloud where one could experience for as long as one wished a place or era or perhaps any number of places and eras as though one were still embodied but know that one was not?

Tamler and Somers surmise, and the episode reinforces this, that at least some of those who choose this fate could end up jaded, bored, and emotionally numb in an “afterlife” where one can do pretty much what one wants without consequences and eventually runs out of novel experiences to spice up life and make it worthwhile, finding oneself trapped in empty, hedonistic decadence.

This reminds me of a famous Twilight Zone episode in which a petty criminal dies in a shootout with police and ends up in a place he thinks is heaven because it’s filled with every hedonistic experience--like having beautiful, adoring women at his beck and call and always winning at gambling--that he craved in life, yet he quickly becomes bored and even miserable and jarrringly discovers that he’s not where he thought he was.

Not only that, but knowing before one dies that one can be transported to cyber-paradise and even being able to preview it on a weekly basis beforehand could cause one to look forward so much to the artificial reality of the afterlife that one ceases to be fulfillingly engaged in the reality of this life.

Yet, come to think of it, how different is this from the monotheist focused on escaping this earthly vale of sin and tears into everlasting heavenly bliss? Moreover, the people who ended up in San Junipero were already old and/or dying before they went there, and many of them, like Kelly, had lost their spouses and/or children to the grave. They had very little left to look forward to in their current lives, and poor Yorkie had been a motionless quadriplegic for forty years and now had the chance to run joyfully across the sand with her gorgeous lover for as long as the two of them wished.

By the way, everyone who elected to be uploaded to the Cloud after they died had the ability to opt out and die completely or, perhaps, to change their artificial locale, era, and circumstances whenever they so chose. That is, if heaven turned into hell, they could exit into a new virtual reality or into oblivion at any time.

So, it’s hard for me to see “San Junipero” as a typical “Black Mirror” dystopian nightmare. And if I were given the chance to do what Yorkie and Kelly did, I’d probably take it. After all, not so unlike Yorkie, I’ve lived a life that, while very comfortable by worldwide and historical standards, has been quite bereft of rich experience. If I could artificially reinhabit my youthful body and go back to my teenage and early adult years of the sixties and seventies knowing what I know now, I might have quite a time of it. And when I got tired of it all, I could do what I suspect we all end up doing anyway.

The only thing that might give me pause would be uncertainty about just how trustworthy and foolproof the process actually was. For if we humans are intrinsically flawed, it would probably be foolhardy to assume that any of our technologies are impervious to failure or, perhaps, misappropriation, and a failure or misuse of the technology discussed here could conceivably turn San Junipero into a ghastly nightmare one could never escape.

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