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The digital philosophy of Black Mirror and the USS Callister

by: Eric -
More On: Black Mirror

Spoilers from Black Mirror and the Season Four episode "USS Callister" are rampant in this article.

USS Callister”, the first episode of the fourth season of the Netflix original program Black Mirror, is already being hailed as a classic, though the season is less than a month old. In the episode, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) is the neglected but brilliant co-founder of a massively successful immersive VR MMO. VR, in this case, is represented as being more advanced than our current technology, allowing users to “jack in” to the game via a small node placed on their forehead. Unbeknownst to the rest of the game company he works with, Daly maintains his own secret iteration of the game, which he has re-skinned after his favorite Star Trek-like 60s science fiction television show. In this secret environment, which he maintains in his apartment, he keeps digital copies of the personalities of people he works with in real life, which he secretly procured without their knowledge or consent. As the episode progresses, it is revealed that Daly lords over his digital NPC slaves (his co-workers recreated as his starship crew) in a cruel manner, forcing them to perform their assigned roles to his liking or undergo severe physical and psychological torture.

The trick of the episode is that these recreations of Daly’s co-workers are fully conscious, and they maintain consciousness when he is not in the game. The digital personalities sense the passage of time, and are able to communicate with each other freely when the boss is not around.  Due to this oversight by Daly, the captive crew are ultimately able to reach out to their real-world counterparts in order to revolt. They escape to the main iteration of the game, leaving Daly trapped all alone in the digital hell he created for others. The digital copies of Daly’s co-workers are then left free in an open game universe, able to explore and adventure. In many ways, they are gifted with the ultimate fantasy that Daly himself so desperately sought.

This concept of “digital copies of people” is one that Black Mirror has revisited several times during its four-season run, and is an idea that recurs over and over again throughout Season 4. In the fiction of the show, these digital recreations of people have no concept of being a different being from the one that they were copied from. For all intents and purposes, from their perspective, they are the same person they always were, only now they are trapped in various circumstances beyond their control.

The episode “Hang the DJ” involves digital copies of personalities being run through a series of relationships, with the end goal of supplying dating app users with realistic dating advice. The season finale, “Black Museum”, invites viewers to examine the horror of putting one digital personality to ride in the mind of another human, a passenger with the ability to communicate with the host, but with no agency over the body that houses them. “Black Museum” also examines the idea of putting a human psyche in an inanimate object, with little-to-no ability to communicate with the outside world. A very rich and complex episode, it also examines the ethics of mistreating a captive digital human mind, and what the repercussions of such behavior might be. Many of the concepts in this season harken back to the incredible second-season-capping “White Christmas”, which culminates with the digital reproduction of one character being left to rot in a digital prison for millions of years, when those in charge of his computerized environment crank his time settings up to maximum speed over a long holiday weekend.

When considering the end fate of the crew of the USS Callister, some viewers might consider their victory to be hollow. While they have escaped their constant torture at the hands of Robert Daly, they are still left in a digital universe, never to return to their own base reality. The “real” versions of these personalities are still in the “base” reality, living their lives and non-the-wiser that digital copies of themselves exist and are off adventuring through outer space. However, this take on the ending of USS Callister shifts sharply in focus if viewers consider the fact that many of the great minds of our time are convinced that we, ourselves, are actually digital personalities living our lives in an unknowable computerized simulation.

Expressed most famously recently by Elon Musk in a 2016 interview, but a prevalent belief in both scientific and philosophical circles, the idea goes like this: The technological abilities of human knowledge are expanding at an exponential rate. If the human ability to create new and more powerful computers continues expanding at the current rate, sometime in the next several decades humanity will have created computers powerful enough to run universe simulation software. This means that computers will be powerful enough to simulate the Big Bang, and pretty much everything that comes after it, including the formation of Earth and the rise of our own species and civilization. When you consider the fact that, if we don’t destroy ourselves in some sort of nuclear or environmental catastrophe first, this is something that is an eventual certainty, the thesis becomes clear. If civilizations are capable of creating computer-housed digital universes, then nothing stops civilizations within those artificial universes from creating their own digital universes. And on the rabbit-hole goes, turtles all the way down.

Under these assumed parameters, the chances that our civilization exists in “base” reality (the reality from which all others are spawned) becomes astronomically low. The above scenario only takes into account one civilization spawning another, but when one takes into consideration the size of our universe (with all of the various civilizations that would rise and fall over the course of its lifetime), and the fact that once digital universe creation is achieved, a civilization might do so over and over again until the activity is commonplace, the scope of possibilities quickly boggles the mind.

The crucial question in my mind when considering all of this is what the end game of our particular simulation is. The crew of the USS Callister are at an advantage over folks in our version of reality (if you subscribe to the digital theory), in that they understand the parameters and purpose of the simulation they find themselves in. The crew previously worked for the gaming company that created the universe they find themselves in, so they probably have quite a bit of insight into how the universe is organized. They become permanent players in a very advanced version of No Man’s Sky, if No Man’s Sky were interesting (and presumably populated by actual sentient characters and civilizations). The USS Callister is a vehicle in the largest imaginable procedurally generated RPG.

If we are in fact constructs floating in a sea of code, the best possible scenario for our possible digitized reality, in my limited view, is that we are unwilling participants in an anthropological scenario being played out in a simulator. The worst possible case is that we are all NPCs in some future teenager’s video game.

Consider the gaming use cases. What is the best possible way to create a realistic response to an alien invasion? Spin up a pocket universe and crank up the time settings to get your relevant planet to the desired technology level, and then unleash the killer aliens and see what happens. How do you increase the AI in Civilization XXI to the point where nations react in a truly unpredictable and human manner? Create a digital universe, adjust the “war-like” settings to 70% and let her rip.

Of course, the concept of living in an anthropological experiment is equally terrifying. Most of the major world religions represent their respective gods as active and present in the world up until a few thousand years ago. Consider the possibility that someone in a comp0uter lab ran a script, and dropped the “Deity Intrusion” meter on our collective simulation from 100% to 5%, just to see what happened. Under a digital simulation, suddenly the possibility that every religion on Earth might actually be based in relative reality comes slamming into play. If you are living your life as an atheist, but you subscribe to the idea that we are living in a digital simulation, you had better hope that no one decides to patch the “Hell” mod into our universe.

Have you ever been slightly bewildered at the sudden leaps forward in technology that humanity has exhibited in the last several hundred years, after millennia of campfires and squirrel hunting? Consider that someone may have been getting bored with our slow progress, and reset our “Tech Advancement” settings to the maximum. Then give yourself nightmares wondering why they might have done so.

The possibilities are endless. I often torture my children with this thought experiment: Close your eyes, then open them again after two seconds. During the time your eyes were closed, it is possible that billions of years have gone by. What scenario would support this? Imagine that our pocket universe is running on a computer that is floating through the blackness of space, running on solar power. Only when it gets close enough to a star to gather energy does it flicker to life. When it drifts far enough away, the simulation pauses as the computer drifts through space, until a new power source is finally reached. Those within the simulation would never be aware of the time that had passed.

“No,” they say. “That’s not real.”

“Prove it,” I reply.

My point is, don’t feel bad for the digital personalities set free aboard the USS Callister. They know who and what they are, and they have a grand video game universe to explore aboard a shiny starship. This gives them one up on us, because they the answers to the ultimate questions already in hand. Who are we?  Why are we here? In their cases the answers are “We are the crew of the USS Callister”, and “We are here because our boss was an evil turd.” Those answers, while un-triumphant, would at least be better than “I will never know.”

If knowing is half the battle, the fictional crew of the USS Callister have won the war. That’s a lot better than any of us can say. And don’t for one moment feel superior to the crew of the Callister because they are fictional. After all, there is a high likelihood that you are fictional too.

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