Reflections From a Black Mirror: S2 E1 "Be Right Back"

Reflections From A Black Mirror


Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to the Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

Anyway, I am going to write some pieces, under this name ("reflections from a Black Mirror") on the episodes that most profoundly affect me (yes, I just started watching the new episodes - they are coming soon).

Unlike my other writing about television, I think this will probably end up more commentary than the usual recap.

My last "Reflection" was "A very respectful disagreement with @kvanaren about BlackMirror"

What Is In A Body?

One of the themes of my commentary of the "White Bear" episode of Black Mirror was that it was a unique exploration of the nature of the body in relation to guilt or innocence in criminality.

"Be Right Back" is a unique exploration of that undefinable spark that makes us human. 

Martha Powell (Hayley Atwell) and Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleason) are a young couple who are moving into Ash's Mother's house in the country. The episode starts as they drive from a convenience story to the house. We see that Ash has some serious social media addiction problems (barely able to keep his attention on Martha whenever he decides that there is something that he needs to do on his smartphone).

Martha seems to have him in check and tells him multiple times when he needs to put his "box" away and when he can get his "box" again. Given this high level of paternalism, you might wonder at what forms the basis for this relationship.

Then they start talking about the Bee Gees and you find out that Ash is funny and kind of adorable (especially when he breaks into a rendition of "How Deep Is Your Love" - a question of particular relevence to the rest of the episode).

Once they arrive at the country house, you get even more context for his apparent struggle with remaining emotionally present in a world filled to the brim with social media options. Apparently, Ash's brother died followed in close order by his Father when he was young. His Mom responded to each death by collecting all of the pictures she owned of the decedent person and moving them all to the attic.

In other words, grieving involved removal and repression. 

Ash takes special note of the one picture that has survived unscathed in the living area of the house, a picture of him as a young bit taken before a family trip to the zoo that happened very soon after the passing of his brother. A picture of him displaying a fake, and probably pained, smile (as he recounts to Martha). 

Let me quickly tip my cap to Charlie Brooker because this is exactly the kind of exposition I like the most in my television shows. Exposition where the truth about the characters is revealed through meaningful anecdotes and actions not spelled out literally by narrators or through forced (non-organic) dialog. 

So, my guess is that, because his Mom never encouraged Ash to deal with the pain caused by the passing of either Brother or of his Father, he probably has a very hard time having faith that his emotional connections will be particularly long lasting. This probably explains why it is so easy for him to disconnect or be distracted during "authentic" conversations while at the same time being vulnerable, even absorbed, in more transitory forms of communication.

Brooker takes valuable screen-time to let us see what seems to be fumbling and maybe even unsatisfactory sex between them during their first night in the house. Bookmark this because we will certainly return to this later.

Unfortunately, just as soon as I was getting to know and really appreciate Ash, he dies while returning the rental van they were using for the move.

Martha is understandably disconsolate. So disconsolate that she almost entirely withdraws into her deep grief.

I think the point of this foregrounding was for us to get a feel for Ash the person and Ash and Martha the couple. Most of what follows cuts to the core of that indecipherable "whatever" that distinguishes between who we are, how we look, what we do, and what we say.

So one of Martha's friends, named Sara, at the funeral, makes a suggestion. There is, apparently, a new company that helps people cope with grief through algorithms.

The Uncanny Valley Between Ash 1 and Ash 2

So, Sara tells Martha she used a service that let her "talk" to her ex after he died.

Essentially, the service collects all digital traces of the recently deceased and knits them together algorithmically in order to make predictions about how that person might respond to posed questions or react to situations. Ultimately, that predictive power is used to allow live people talk again to dead people.

There are different levels of "mediums' that the service provides for the grieving:

* Write back and forth through email, chat, and text

* Talk on the phone with the recently departed (after you give the service access to all of their private internet communications and accounts).

And after a Martha takes advantage of these tools, we find out that you can also: 

* Build a robotic medium that physically appears as much like the deceased as the voice and text act like the deceased.

In other words, through this service, you can have accurate representations of all the constituent parts that together made up your partner before his or her untimely death.

So, the theory of the uncanny valley suggests that between a person and representations of that person lies an uncanny valley that is often hard for the mind to traverse. To explain that in more plain English, what is being suggested is that robotic representations of people often arouse more revulsion in us than they do empathy.

Martha more or less follows this pattern with Ash 2, the less she is forced to deal with the Valley between who she is communicating with (emails and text) and the reality of loss the more she feels comfortable and comforted by being able to "talk" to Ash. The more time she spends with the robotic representation of Ash (Ash 2) the wider the valley grows and the more she is revolted by his presence.

Don't get me wrong, at first, she is fascinated, comforted, and even turned on by Ash 2. They have sex, lots of sex, and it appears, by comparison, to be, much better sex than she had with Ash 1 (and I suspect that this difference in performance is one of the things that starts to drive her revulsion).

I suspect that nobody likely to be comforted by a stranger who tries to comfort you by wearing a familiar mask, a familiar voice, and a familiar costume. The distance between the costume is apparent the seams that show would constantly reinforce the important differences.

Martha certainly sees the seams in Ash 2. 

She almost orders him to kill himself by jumping off of a famous place where spurned lovers went to commit suicide and ultimately banishes him to her attic forever (also ironic since it was Ash 1's family home in the first place). 

Discover Weekly (Spotify)


As many of you probably know, my passion is curating music into weekly playlists.

So, as you might imagine, I spend a TON of time on Spotify putting together playlists to share. I, in a sense like Ash, provide Spotify with an incredible amount of data about the music and musicians I like. 

Every Monday, Spotify has algorithms that use that data to put together a playlist just for me called "Discover Weekly (not just for me, they do this auto-magically for all Spotify users)."

But, here is the thing, about 95% of the time they nail my taste to a T, and this usually annoys me. It annoys me that they can suggest songs by artists I was just Tweeting about and artists I didn't know that sound like the artists that I was talking about on my site.

Sometimes I really appreciate the suggestions, and sometimes I find new albums using Discover Weekly, but I still find that the overall experience, while helpful, makes me anxious. I wonder at what place the data-points end and I begin.

You might not be able to build a Josh robot using Spotify's algorithm, but you could certainly curate music in an eerily accurate Josh style using Spotify's algorithm.

They say that algorithmic writing programs are getting to the point where they can write very accurately "in the style" of someone after analyzing content too. 

When economists and futurists talk about the "end of work" what they mean is that almost everything that we do can be reduced down to its algorithmic parts and done less expensively by algorithms in the service of computers.

In a sense what they mean is that there is less and less space between who we are and what can be done for us by computers.

Ultimately, residing in these uncanny valley's are the future of humanity. The "future of us" may live in this tiny space. In this revulsion between what robots can do for us and what makes us necessary and meaningful.

I am not saying that we should fight the robots, or that the robots are coming to take over, I am saying that our ongoing value resides in these often undefinable spaces between what robots can do for us and what only humans can be.

It is in these spaces, the one's where only Ash is Ash and where anything else makes Martha sick to her stomach, that humanities ongoing value lives.

It is probably very important symbolically that Ash's fumbling sex with Martha makes her pregnant while she comes to be unable to process positively even the most innocuous of touches from Ash 2 (who after all was a much more satisfying lover but who could not transfer "him" self to her even metaphorically).

Given that we are only a few days away from an election, it never ceases to make me chuckle when people suggest that we need to bring manufacturing back. Even if we brought every factory back to the United States, the effect on employment would be minuscule because most of the work that would be done in those factories is done more cheaply by robots.

What I am saying is that what will matter, what we need to understand going forward, is that we matter because of Ash breaking into spontaneous song, not because he knows the song.

When Ash 2 looks at the photo of Ash 1 he feels nothing because as Martha put it so eloquently, he has no history.

Spotify can quickly catch up on every band and musician I like, but the algorithm cannot ever understand or truly catalog how I came to my knowledge of those bands and musicians just like Ash 2 will never sing a random absurd Bee Gees song or know that Ash 1 wasn't particularly great at sex.

Yes, what I am suggesting is that the uncanny valley is really a defense mechanism and a survival manual.

The future, in my humble opinion, is not about some Matrix run by machines, it is about us losing our motivation towards self-improvement. It is about us becoming a navel-gazing species with virtually all work done for us and almost everything determined by accidents of birth, time, and place. 

In an odd way, S3 E1 "Nosedive" is a companion piece to S2 E1. When we reduce our "value" to only popularity looks or social status, the result is catastrophic fascism and pain for the vast majority of humankind. Life becomes a microcosm of High School or a never-ending episode of The Real Housewives.

Let's face it, most of us are not that pretty, socially amazing, or interesting (certainly not me).

The Blue Fairy

If Stephen Spielberg's AI had only ended with the "Blue Fairy" scene, it could have been one of my favorite movies.

The robotic child David (Haley Joel Osment) wants so desperately to believe that he is "real" that he invests everything in his entire being into putting faith in the "religion" at the heart of the Pinocchio story.

In other words, he believes that like Pinocchio (a wooden toy) he can (because he possesses consciousness) become a part of the human faith that something extraordinary cares about us and will "save" us from the pain of life and from the existential crisis (The Blue Fairy).

David spends thousands of years staring at what he thinks is the actual Blue Fairy In the vain hope that even robots like him, someday in the future, could maybe also spontaneously sing Bee Gees songs.

And in this lies the other half of the tragedy of Be Right Back.

Not only does Ash 2 look a bit like a grown-up David, but he also seems to fully appreciate the problem he faces and to want desperately to understand what it is that he is lacking.

David was trapped in trying to make sense of the uncanny valley too.

David's desire for humanity was, in fact, so strong that he was willing to maintain the encounter with that thing he desired but could not understand (faith, the divine) forever (or at least until his batteries ran out).

If only AI had ended right there, so sadly beautiful (that stark encounter might have been powerful enough to make up for the other Spielbergian excess throughout the film). But alas no, we got aliens (sigh).

Anyway, Ash 2 might never really encapsulate Ash 1 and Gigolo Joe might never really fulfill the women who visit him, but they both are capable of empathy and desire.

David might never be a "real boy" but his faith makes him, in a sense, more human than human.

It was hard for me to watch Martha ask Ash/David to jump. It was sad for me to watch Ash/David trapped looking at the Blue Fairy or waiting for Martha's daughter. I understood it, but it was profoundly sad.

I guess what I am suggesting is that I think it would be a mistake to empathize only with Martha (and Ash 1) in this story. 

In fact, Martha is, in a sense, very cruel to Ash 2 because she cannot traverse the uncanny valley. She becomes incapable of extending empathy towards Ash 2 much like a sociopath is incapable of feeling empathy towards other human beings.

But in Ash 2 you can still see desire.

Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep?

The Poetry of Death

Be right back is also about confronting the existential crisis (the death of self).

Ash (most likely) spent most of his life keeping people at arm's length, as does social media so that he never had to let them come close enough to hurt him and died in love anyway.

Martha spent most of her time trying to recreate her lost love (staving off her own death) that she had to finally accept that people die.

Ash 2 had to find out that human cruelty is part of what inspires human faith and our desire to become better "people."

As much as she loathes Ash, Martha doesn't force him to take the lover's leap. I suspect that is as much because she believes, at the time, that it would sully the spot as much as because she felt empathy for Ash. 

However, she does let her daughter "see" Ash occasionally. Probably out of guilt, but that is a start (maybe hope exists for Ash 2 in that Martha's daughter clearly does not feel the same revulsion in confronting Ash 2 that Martha feels). 

I hope fictional Ash and Martha both find peace and a Blue Fairy.  

I hope we and all of our algorithmic progeny, even the ones we cannot feel empathy towards, find peace and a Blue Fairy.

What did you think of Black Mirror S2 E1 "Be Right Back"

Who Did You Feel the Most Empathy For?

Let me know what you are thinking, leave a comment!

Pinocchio (Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition)
Starring Mel Blanc, Don Brodie, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Cliff Edwards