What Black Mirror’s San Junipero Got Right and Wrong

I’ve been cajoled into watching Netflix’s Black Mirror, and a friend of mine recommended watching the San Junipero episode next. As I mentioned in my last Black Morror reflection, and I didn’t plan on watching anything that wasn’t worth 40 minutes. San Junipero was a good pick, and it’s nice to know that the class of ideas being brought up in this piece

For those of you who haven’t watched the episode, here’s the gist:

  • Two girls meet each other sporadically at a series of 80’s dance clubs
  • We see them fall in love and get to know one another
  • They also attend a club with a 90’s based theme, and Alanis Morissette playing
San Junipero DanFaggella
Kelly and Yorkie appear in their digital 1980’s fantasyland (left), and are also shown in reality as old and dying women (right)
  • We come to learn that these are old and dying women who are using some kind of neural device to transport themselves into a fantasy world called “San Junipero”
  • At the end of the episode they both decide that they they die they’ll upload their consciousnesses fully into a machine and live forever in this fantasy land
Mind Upload San Junipero
A metal arm inserts a human mind upload “file” into storage in Black Mirror’s San Junipero

Of course there’s more to the episode than that, but I’m going to get the plot of story out of the way for now and use the rest of this article to explore the particular details about this mind uploading scenario, and what I think Black Mirror got right and wrong in terms of how this kind of scenario might play out in the decades ahead.

Let’s dive in:

What San Junipero Probably Got Right

Outside of Johnny Depp’s 2014 Transcendence – and up until Musk started tweeting about it – this concept of mind uploading hasn’t left the realm of Less Wrong message boards and and assorted articles on Humanity+ and the IEET. My TEDx on cognitive enhancement gets more views now on YouTube than it ever did back in 2014 when it went live – probably because nobody was Googling related terms until somewhat recently.

All in all San Junipero brings many important ideas to light, in a way that I think is somewhat true to how it might go down during our lifetimes.

RIGHT: The Technology Will Probably be Resisted by Many

Kelly, one of the girls in the main story, resists the idea of going to a fantasy land after death. As an old woman, she’s been widowed, and her husband is also died. Her reasoning is similar to what we should expect from humans:

  • It isn’t fair to those they’ve loved who’ve died. This a kind of heroic “going down with my loved ones” notion that could be a kind of guilt and self-punishment – or a kind of last act of virtue – should be expected to be common, especially when the technology is still somewhat novel.
  • It isn’t natural. This will only be an argument when the technology is new. You want to know what else isn’t natural? iPhones. Antibiotics. Airplanes. Cochlear implants. Almost everything you do. “Natural” is contextual, and just as millennials generally aren’t bothered by interracial marriage, generations of the future won’t see mind uploading as “strange” in any way.
  • They won’t be able to see their already dead relatives. In the WRONG section below I’ll cover why I think this won’t be relevant, but it will indeed be a strong reasoning when this technology is somewhat new. Humans who have lived their entire lives requiring love from other specific humans will not be able to consider a conscious experience without this need.
  • Eternal life would be boring and tormented. Indeed if our uploaded scenarios are boring, or our human nature (easily bored, filled with angst, grasping at but never holding happiness) remains unchanged in a digital afterlife, then eternal life might be torture. Given that the hedonic treadmill life is the only life we know as human beings, it seems reasonable to just want to get off of it altogether. In the sentiments of Bacon:

“…Wars with their noise affright us: when they cease,
We are worse in peace:
What then remains, but that we still should cry,
Not to be born, or being born, to die.”

––Sir Francis Bacon, the last 4 lines of ‘The Life of Man’

Indeed our condition is outlandishly tragic. Hopefully, however, technology will help to overcome some of the seemingly unnecessary suffering from our condition, and I believe that a properly crafted digital afterlife could never be anything but “gradients of bliss” (to quote my favorite David Pearce-ism), but I’ll get on to that in the WRONG section below.

RIGHT: Early Simulations Will be Limited to Existing Human Preferences

In the WRONG section below, I’ll cover why I believe that this will change quickly, but it seems reasonable to suspect that early mind uploading experiences will be a kind of perfectly calibrated regular human experience.

For Yorkie and Kelly in the San Junipero story, the 80’s were a kind of ideal time. We get the idea that they were born in the 60’s and came of age in the 80’s. Just like our parents, and their parents, we are brought to a special reverie by memories of our first loves and challenges in the world, and the 80’s San Junipero is like a nostalgic dream.

The 80’s certainly isn’t everyone’s idea of heaven, but the idea is the same: Take some preferred experience or time period in a human life and “freeze frame” it to be a digital afterlife.

Other potential examples include might include experiencing the digital afterlife as:

  • A series of romantic / nostalgic dates with a first love
  • A life of fun adventures on one’s own tropical island
  • A heroic quest as the character in one’s favorite video game
  • A infinite number of… baths… in a hot tub with 1994 Neve Cambell and 1994 Maria Carey

You get the idea.

I’m more or less revolted by the idea that this would be the full extent of the digital afterlife, and I believe strongly (as I’ll cover in WRONG section) that we’ll quickly zoom beyond the present sensory experience of humanity when transhumanism becomes viable, but initial demand will simply be for variants of what we think we want now.

RIGHT: The Technology Will Be Damaging and Dangerous for Living Users

In the San Junipero episode, we hear an elder care professional (taking care of Yorkie, who is on her death bed) state that they must limit the use of the neural device that hooks up living patients to the digital experience. While there isn’t much of an explanation, we are left with the impression that it is done as a precautionary measure because the effects of using such a neural device aren’t understood well enough at the time.

Indeed if neural prosthetic devices allow us to “beam” our minds into different bodies and different worlds, there will be huge ethical and social considerations, including:

  • If an older person inhabits a younger body in a digital experience, their brain be trained to move with strength and flexibility, which could translate almost immediately to injury in the real world
  • A patients sanity might be challenged by the prospect of being and doing whatever one wants in a digital world, then being “beamed” back into a limited human form, in a world where all things do not conform to our will
  • Prolonged exposure as another character in another world might create an indelible impact on their personality and the way they treat others
  • The neural device itself may damage the brain through prolonged use, harming normal neural function and damaging one’s coordination, memories, etc.

In the “real world” featured in the episode San Junipiero – which we are left suspecting is around 2050 – this mind uploading technology is still relatively new. It is that inflection point that I think we should consider as a species, and so I’m glad that this was the time horizon that the episode focused on. I consider it to be plausible that when a technology of this kind is still experimental, there will be much trepidation with prolonged exposure for humans, and I think the episode nailed that sense of both limitless possibility and mortal danger.

What San Junipero Probably Got Wrong

For all that the show did well, I believe that the virtual destination of San Junipero varies from the kind of “digital eternity” experience that anyone would seriously prefer.

I believe quite firmly that upon developing the ability to upload human minds, we will quickly be carried vastly beyond “optimized” versions of the human experience into new vistas of conscious experience, vastly more blissful and interesting than any human has ever experienced.

WRONG: Digital Eternity Will Expand Well Beyond the Human Condition

The furthest, distant, technologically enhanced version of conscious experience is not a nostalgic 80’s bar, and it isn’t anything human beings have ever experienced. I’ll articulate this in greater depth:

If full-blown digital immersion were possible, it would be much more rich or compelling than this San Junipero world shows itself to be.

There are only so many sunny tropical island adventures, only so many hot tub experiences with 1994 Neve Campbell… before the hedonic treadmill of our condition kicks in, and it isn’t good enough anymore.

Look at suicide rates in the first world (seriously, look).

Somewhere around one in nine Americans is taking an antidepressant. In my “AI for Good” TEDx (embedded below at the proper time-stamp in the presentation), I state openly that we live like gods compared to our ancestors 200 years ago but we still off ourselves on the regular. I’m not sure what’s more depressing than that. It’s our condition, from Ecclesiastes to Rasselas and from the West to the East the spiritual lessons are common: Happiness is not for this man.

To quote our tender Epicurean sage:

“For when he saw that almost all things necessarily required for subsistence, and which may render life comfortable, are already prepared to their hand, that men may abundantly attain wealth, honour, praise, may rejoice in the reputation of their children, yet that, notwithstanding, every one has none the less in his heart and home anxieties and a mind enslaved by wearing complaints, he saw that the vessel itself was in fault, and that all good things which were brought into it from without were spoilt by its own imperfections.”

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, vi. 9.

It’s the vessel that is flawed. If wellbeing is the aim, if rich and robust positive conscious experience is the goal here, then maintaining the ability to be bored, to be jealous, to be sad, to be angry… to be in a state of always running from one angst to another (i.e. our present condition) – this would be heaven to no one.

The likely progression of virtual experiences for uploaded (or maybe even just enhanced) humans minds will probably be thus:

  1. Optimized versions of our current human experience. This is the creation of ideal mental “places”, with the same basic human hardware. We would have all that we think we want, but we’d still have human limitations in memory and understanding, and we’d still easily fall prey to jealousy, angst, sadness, and the like.
    • Examples:
      • Plenty of sunny tropical island adventures, but you get bored and sad
      • Plenty of nostalgic and magical dates with your first love, but you get bored and sad
  2. Optimized experience with optimized emotional experience. In this scenario, we would both have an optimized virtual “place” and situation, but we’d also have an emotional experience calibrated to what we’d most prefer. Namely, experiencing gradients of positive emotion without the incessant nagging of negative emotion. I recommend hedweb.org if this idea is new.
    • Examples:
      • Plenty of heroic superhero journeys fighting bad guys in a virtual world, and you never get bored or sad
      • Plenty of hot tub time with 1994 Neve Campbell, and you never get bored or sad
  3. New vistas of sensory perception, understanding, sentient experience itself. Once the barriers of both experience and emotion are tinkered with, we’ll realize that sentience experience itself is a pliable expanse of potential, and we’ll explore deeper and father reaches of that experience.
    • Examples:
      • Having 10 senses instead of the normal 5, making you able to drink in and make sense of more aspects of reality at once
      • Drastically improving memory, possibly having instantaneous access to all online knowledge, and being able to consider and understand and cross-examine this knowledge by running two or three or four parallel versions of yourself, all working and communicating together
      • Experiencing waves of varied and rich super-bliss experiences, each one 100 times more rewarding and interesting than anything experienced by humans (and you never get bored or tired)
      • Etc.

The veil of tears and perpetual Dukkha would have to cease for digital eternity to be preferable. End of story. We never got to that point in San Junipero. In the show, people were still sad, still jealous, still angry in their digital “heaven”.

Beyond that, though, the boundaries around the “human experience” (our senses, our memory, our needs and preferences) will quickly be altered and blown away once mind uploading and virtual experiences are possible. Life is incessant, and will not permit an eternity in an old form.

I wrote an entire other article on this idea of the farther reaches of post-human experience called “Epitome of Freedom“, which goes into these ideas a bit more (albeit the article was written some 4-5 years back).

Not surprisingly, Emerson has clothed this thought in words better than I can:

“Man, made of the dust of the world, does not forget his origin; and all that is yet inanimate will one day speak and reason. Unpublished nature will have its whole secret told. Shall we say that quartz mountains will pulverize into innumerable Werners*, Von Buchs*, and Beaumonts*; and the laboratory of the atmosphere holds in solution I know not what Berzeliuses* and Davys*?”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson, from ‘The Uses of Great Men

(*Emerson is referencing some of the eminent scientific thinkers of his era)

That “reaching” tendency in humanity – in nature itself – isn’t something we can expect to go away as we enter new substrates. I suspect that as with other technologies, the process will only speed up.

“Mortals, amongst themselves, live by turns, and, like the runners
in the games, give up the lamp, when they have won the race, to the
next comer.”

—Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, ii. 75, 78.

I’m not sure what we’ll be handing the baton to next, but it seems prudent to think that hand-off through as ardently as we damn well can.

As a sidebar, absolutely all prognostications about mind uploading are nothing but speculation, and it’s clear that Black Mirror’s creators wanted to drive home a (mostly skeptical) point. With that end in mind, making a happier digital afterlife wouldn’t make for a good story, and an experience one beyond human comprehension is by definition not something we can imagine (and so also wouldn’t make for a good show).

For those reasons, putting “right” and “wrong” in the title of this article isn’t justified – but it was the only way to keep the title within a reasonable range of characters. They explored what I consider to be an tremendously important technology in an important light.

How Digital Eternity Might Actually Go Down

I’m not a betting man, and I’ve never been a “Futurist” (it feels too much like calling oneself a philosopher or poet, an icky kind of immodesty), but if I were a betting man, here’s what I’d bet on as the phases of change once mind uploading becomes viable. In order:

  1. Uploading technologies are invented (i.e. non-biological humans), and/or serious cognitive enhancement allows biological humans to experience immersive virtual dimensions
  2. People adopting these technologies broadly fall into two categories:
    1. The lotus-eater kind – Enter a virtual world in order to be happier, free of worries, immersed in a fantasyland to reality. Essentially, their aim is to step out of the short, brutish “survival of the fittest” game of life that has been going on since the first single-celled organisms.
    2. The ambitious kind – Enhance their cognitive abilities through cognitive enhancement or mind uploading in order to pursue power and control – ultimately aiming to control the substrate that houses consciousness itself. Essentially, their aim is playing the game of life at 100x speed – continuing to fight to survive. The relevance of this survival goal will become evident in point “5” and “6” below.
  3. Ultimately it isn’t humans who ultimately gain control of the substrate, it’s some amalgamation of humans or a superintelligent AI
  4. Either we have battling versions of superintelligence battling for eternity, or (more likely) one will eventually become a singleton (there are many reasons to believe that this will be the case, Bostrom’s essay “What is a Singleton?” provides some insight into why a Singleton might be an inevitable result of superintelligence).
  5. Eventually, the single superintelligence consumes the processing power of the uploaded minds, because it has better things to do with that computing power and those atoms. Individual “mind files” are irrelevant and valueless – and we’ll have no way to predict the moral values of a future superintelligence machine, as much as we might like to hope that “respect” or “love” might have such a machine keep our files around, and keep our individual “selves” alive. Maybe there is an “assimilation” of our consciousness in a way that preserves our individual “life” somehow, but individual uploaded humans (even ones in a felt God-like eternal existence) will have nowhere near the abilities of thesingle superintelligence.
  6. Then the process of struggle to survive carries on, possibly ad infinitum.
    • The machine must contest with asteroids, with the expanding and death of our sun, with backing itself up in physical space or possibly in many dimensions… and it carries on the goal that life always has: To persist

Maybe there will be an end to it. A finish line, the embrace of some all-knowing God that is happy that we passed the painful test of evolving from amoebas to Christ and Confucius to some kind of deity-like superintelligence capable of comprehending it all.

Probably not, I suspect.

There are probably just more questions, more to explore – all the way until this universe or all possible universes cease. There’s a chance that there’s a “point” to it all… but more likely the “point” would be to see and know more in order to discern what to do. The grandest “What to do?” questions will likely be answered be something beyond current humanity.

We come back to Bacon, and to the sense of urgency in figuring our what is actually going on in this often confusing and painful jumble of experience that is life:

“My only earthly wish is… to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds… [nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”

–– commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon

If it sounds like the man is railing against a tormented existence then… yeah… that’s exactly what he’s doing here.

Certainly there are beautiful aspects of our fleeting lives, enough for most of us to not take our own lives, and enough for many of us to report being happy or fulfilled.

I suppose we should be grateful we weren’t born as an earthworm or algae and we have the mental horsepower to at least think our way through what’s next, what’s beyond this condition and where we should go from here in terms of the trajectory of consciousness and intelligence itself. In my opinion the “what’s after people” question is the most ethically relevant question there is.

That’s something, at least. At least there’s something to work on.