Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) bathed in the glow of new technology.

Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) bathed in the glow of new technology.

Between season one and two the Channel 4’s  Black Mirror, the series creator Charlie Brooker has become a father. This major event on life’s timeline typically has a softening effect on even the most hard-hearted of cynics.

As a screenwriter, broadcaster and columnist, Brooker’s stock in trade is as a satirist with finely tuned bullshit detector. The manner in which the modern world is in thrall to the supposedly liberating qualities of new technology is one of his recurring topics and is the theme behind Black Mirror, the title being a reference to the myriad screens humankind is glued to and how this techno-dependency affects our behaviour and personal relationships.

Episode 1 of season 2 (Be Back Soon) does not show a uniformly utopian view of the near future but it does demonstrate how Brooker’s writing has matured to the point that it doesn’t set out merely to shock but rather wants us to question to what extent we allow technology to intrude upon our perception of ‘reality’.

Dystopian publicity image for the Black Mirror series.

The story revolves around Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), a modern couple contentedly living in a shiny connected world.  She is as techno-savvy as he is but gently chides him over his habit of disappearing into cyberspace, referring to his iPhone as his “love box”.

All his social networking means that his online activity is practically imbedded in his personality. When he dies suddenly in a car accident, Martha is distraught. At his funeral one of her friends notes that the fact that since Ash was such a “heavy user” makes him an ideal subject for a beta software programme designed to ease (exploit?) the grieving process. This involves the replication of his social media profile so that his messaging style, voice and ultimately his whole body can be copied based on the significant digital footprint he left behind.

Charlie Brookner with some old technology.

Martha knows that by reconnecting with Ash beyond the grave she’s just a fee paying ‘administrator’ but because it also seems so real she is quickly hooked.

One irony to this is that robotic sex with fake Ash proves to be better than with the flesh and blood version, the replicant having based his technique on studies of porn movies. Yet the fact that it (he) is programmed to do her bidding is far from idyllic. It means that he has no capacity for confrontation that is part and parcel of any well-adjusted modern relationship. The new Ash will swear at her only  if instructed to do so (“There’s tons of invective in the archive – I could throw some of that at you”).

The timing of Be Back Soon couldn’t be better since so many of the themes relate closely to the  E-Learning & Digital Cultures MOOC I am currently taking. While it has its dark and dystopian side, the ending leaves you to question whether this intrusive use of technology is all bad.

What makes all this so creepy is that the first two stages of replication in particular are so plausible. Technology has evolved to the point that voice and script recognition is now taken for granted. Of course, synthetic skin grafting is also part of our reality, although using texture mapping to reproduce a whole body is a more complex and ethically delicate area so,as yet, this still belongs to the realm of science fiction.

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