USS Callister or “The Revenge of the Greta Cookie” (Black Mirror S4 E1)
Reflections From A Black Mirror Season 2 Episode 4 (Netflix)
Happy New Year, Happy 2018 and welcome to Season 4 of “Reflections From a Black Mirror” (my <pretentious> title for my Black Mirror recaps).
I could have gotten this written earlier but I realized earlier this week that there is no reason to hurry as it will be at least a year (and probably more) until we get a new series of Black Mirror episodes.
In the past, I have used the Pop Art of Butcher Billy (from Brazil) who did a collection of comic-book style covers for all the previous episodes of Black Mirror. Fortunately, Mr. Brooker and the folks at Netflix hired Billy this season and his art is ALL OVER the USS Callister episode (look at the comic book covers in Daley's office and the posters at the end of the episode).
Unfortunately, Netflix and Black Mirror have not released Mr. Butcher's art from USS Callister in a form I can use. I am, however, very happy for Billy (who is one of my favorites). Anyway, as a bonus, here is a link to his Redubble and one of his recent Mr. Robot images:
If you have not seen all the episodes of Black Mirror up to S4 E2 there will almost certainly be spoilers *Spoiler Alert*
A Meta-Critique of Gene Roddenberry?
The plot of USS Callister goes a little something like this:
Robert Daley (Jesse Plemmons) is the inventor/programmer that gave the Black Mirror Universe the full-immersion virtual reality game world depicted in Playtest (and suggested in a few other episodes). His partner Walton, the brains behind the business end of the game and its marketing and everyone else at the company they built together hate Robert viscerally.
If you haven’t seen Playtest the game in question links a human brain to a computer game in a computer-generated virtual reality world. During the time a human is playing the game, they appear to be physically asleep (or unconscious) in the “real world” while they play the game in the computer-generated world.
Despite his status as one of the co-creators of the company he is treated horribly by even low-level employees (at one point the receptionist seems indifferent to even letting him in the building when his ID stops working).
We also learn that Robert Daley is also the Captain of an interstellar spacecraft, The USS Callister and that he is adored (maybe a little too much) by his crew who seem to cheer his every move and decision from the bridge as if he controlled all the water on a desert planet.
These two Robert Daley’s are bridged when we find out that the programmer Daley created a gated game world (where only he can play) as part of the larger fully-immersive VR game his company sells to the world.
In other words, the same Daley that created the game is also the Daley who is the Captain of the USS Callister inside the game (but the rest of the worldwide players can’t see him because his game area is walled off from the rest of the players).
This gated area was modeled after a long-canceled television show (that Daley loved) called “Space Fleet” (clearly Star Trek as Plemmons does a spot-on Kirk impression throughout and all of the sets and settings model first gen Star Trek perfectly).
One other important little detail I probably should mention here...
Daley has also stolen DNA samples of all the people who work at his company and made clone uploads of them in his game world. To get revenge on his real-life employees and co-owner, he humiliates and tortures the “clones” of his employees when he is inside the game.
While I am very familiar with uploading (started reading about the possibility of uploading consciousness into a computer) I had never considered creating a digital clone using DNA and trapping it in an artificially created digital world before seeing USS Callister. As Mike Murphy (another tech-commentator) mentioned recently:
“I feel like if we’re at a point where we can instantaneously analyze someone’s DNA and copy it well enough to mimic their consciousness, we’d probably have achieved the singularity and be able to upload our own minds into the cloud. So we’d probably have transcended making video games.”
It seems like crazy talk to me as well, the best explanation I have heard of how neural mapping would be accurate enough to upload a copy of someone’s brain involved nano-bot sized scanners (Ray Kurzweil of Google suggested this). And even most true believers don’t suggest a DNA digital cloning method.
Anyway, the reason his crew seems so fawning and dedicated to Captain Daley is that inside the game's parameters he has godlike powers (he programmed the game and them) and they are totally under his control.
Nannette Cole (Cristin Miloti), a new employee at Infinity games, introduces herself to Daley and tells him that she admires his code (suggesting she is a programmer). Daley sneaks into the hallway after she leaves and strategically overhears her talking with a co-worker about him saying that she doesn’t like him she just likes his code.
Daley sees her leave a cup of coffee and he takes it home with him and puts it in what looks like some kind of digital scanner. A few minutes later a digitally cloned digital copy of Cole appears in his game world along with digital clones of all the other employees of Infinity Games.
So, why did Charlie Brooker choose to base this in the Star Trek universe?
One obvious reason could be an homage to Star Trek and Captain Kirk. Kirk, for instance, confronted an uploaded adversary in the “What Are Little Girls Made Of” episode of the original series.
But there is something else hiding under Brooker’s criticisms here. Daley makes multiple references to the ethics of Space Fleet and I suspect this is really a reference to how Brooker thinks ethical systems operate in real life and as reflected on Star Trek.
For instance, Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” prohibits Star Fleet personnel from directly interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations but we see Kirk play God all the time when situations suit his purposes or whenever it is necessary to save The Enterprise.
I think what Mr. Brooker is suggesting in Plemmons “homage” to Kirk is that the history of ethics is written by the winners (or at least from the perspective of the people in power). Captain Daley has no problem seeing himself living by the highest standard of ethical conduct at the same time he has created underling slaves that he tortures whenever they don’t please him.
Starfleet's “Prime Directive” is paternalistic and condescending, it presumes that a superior culture can interact with an inferior culture without changing events because of innate superiority (not out of a sense of humility). Kirk’s carelessness enforcing the Prime Directive is being exposed by Brooker as a feature of Star Fleet’s hegemony, not as an exception to Star Fleet’s magnanimity.
"The Revenge of the Greta Cookie"
In Black Mirror S2 E4 “White Christmas” we learn that a company called Smart-Telligence allows consumers to create fully-aware digital cookies of themselves to act as personal assistants for us (SIRI as subject not object).
Unfortunately for these Smart-Telligence cookies they, like USS Callister's crew, are fully aware of themselves and their lives in their previous human forms (they have all of the awareness and memories of the person they are a digital representation of).
Even worse for these cookies, and the USS Callister crew, their overlords (Smart-Telligence or Captain Daley) can torture them into submission in particularly brutal ways (some of the cookies are left in a white digital room with no exit for hundreds and thousands of years with no human contact or forms of entertainment).
In White Christmas, these cookies are entirely helpless and comply because the alternative is torture beyond imagining (eternity alone in a confined space). During USS Callister, Captain Daley threatens digital Nannette Cole with a similar fate (desiring to take a breath but being eternally prevented from breathing).
But, digital Nannette Cole is a digital and aware copy of a programmer and she understands that universes created be people always contain backdoors. Like any good hacker, she immediately starts to capitalize on the systems that real-life Daley created to make his journeys to and from his USS Callister world easier and more convenient.
Ultimately she takes advantage of a pending system upgrade, his in-game real-world interface, and his own narcissism in order to turn the tables and leave him eternally trapped all alone in a dead room (the game was destroyed by the update) while the digital clones of the USS Callister escape into the larger universe of Daley’s Infinity game where they can interact with millions of people playing in real time.
In other words, what Brooker has done here is create the Revenge of the Greta Cookie. Instead of just showing us the possibility for digital beings to be tortured and misused, he is also showing us that they could be capable of striking back.
If anyone is familiar with the Marvel Universe, I think this could have been a much better motivation for Ultron to attack humanity (being digitally tortured repeatedly for not following directives by Tony Stark). It also occurs to me that this could be the real danger we play with when uploading copied human consciousness (a singularity with the ingenuity necessary to replace us).
The Age of Ultron?
There are lots of people who believe that we will soon be able to upload our consciousness, many people who think it is theoretically possible but a long time away, and some people who don’t believe that it is possible for human beings to upload their consciousness at all.
One of those people, Dr. Seth, believes that since we experience the world through predictions made first by our bodies that absent our bodies, our brains could not function independently in digital spaces:
Many of the supporters have some pretty amazing reasons, aside from just extending their own lives in perpetuity, for wanting to upload consciousness. Dr. Randal Koene, for example, wants to upload to make the impossible in exploration possible:
“What would it be like, for instance, to travel really close to the sun?...I got into this because I was interested in exploring not just the world, but eventually the universe. Our current substrates, our biological bodies, have been selected to live in a particular slot in space and time. But if we could get beyond that, we could tackle things we can’t currently even contemplate.”
But, even if this all is possible, there are incredible dangers too, as Conor Friedersdorf explains it would scramble many of our notions of justice which are based on a normal life cycle (see the Greta Cookie argument above):
"Radical life extension would so scramble and confound our normal notions of justice that there’s no telling how future Americans would react to the new reality. Historic monsters might be punished for 6 million years … or just three or four times longer than a 150-year sentence a U.S. court imposed on this obscure money-launderer. It’s hard to speculate even when confining ourselves to descendants of ours, in this country, with moral codes closely resembling our own."
In addition, there are many other ethical dangers that become possible in a world with consciousness uploading (as Friedersdorf continues):
"Future Americans will face countless actual controversies just like those if whole generations start uploading themselves. And it isn’t outlandish to imagine futures where the masses look at us with the disdain that we have for Bull Connor and his analogs. Perhaps the Americans of 2215, with their laboratory-grown synthetic meat, will look in horror at those of us who had animals killed throughout our lives in order to eat them. Maybe they’ll regard a year’s punishment per animal killed to be fair, with a 10-year enhancement for animals kept in cruel conditions before death."
Lots to think about, although I very much doubt that we are on the brink of uploading.
As I mentioned before, I have never read anyone discussing DNA as a method of uploading, I would be interested to hear where or how Brooker and his team found that idea (and if there is science suggesting that it is a probable and possible method for uploading consciousness).
Okay, that is all I have on USS Callister. I am purposefully NOT binge-watching the series so that I can deliver one recap a week until I have finished out Season 4.
This is a 100% reader-funded blog. Please consider following Josh on Twitter, throwing some money into the On Pirate Satellite hat on Patreon, contributing to On Pirate Satellite using Paypal.me, or adding OnPirateSatellite to your feeds.