Black Mirror explores how its characters interact and react to their heightened technical world. Another thing the show likes to test is how we, the current-day audience, would react to this advanced technology and what we would do with it if we had the choice.
In some Black Mirror episodes, we may not have a choice (think “White Bear” with Lenora Crichlow), while others investigate the consequences of what we have done (i.e., “White Christmas” with Jon Hamm). In the episode of Black Mirror titled “San Junipero,” we’re presented with the question: do you want an alternative to Heaven?
Black Mirror’s ‘San Junipero’
(Spoilers Warning) “San Junipero” is essentially a love story between Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis). Kelly and Yorkie meet in the virtual city of San Junipero, which is a virtual reality where people can upload their consciousness a bit at a time until they die. Before that, they can decide whether they want to “live” in San Junipero after their death or not. The main conflict that comes up in the relationship between the two newly formed lovers is that Yorkie wants to stay in the party city that you can jump to different eras in. However, Kelly does not believe in the afterlife.
In the end, Kelly changes her mind. However, this could be artificial intelligence since the elder Kelly tells her nurse she is ready to move on to the next stage before she gets euthanized. She has mentioned before that the city is a nostalgic world. Therefore, it is not “new.” It is limited to 2002, as mentioned by Wes (Gavin Stenhouse) when he tells Yorkie that Kelly has visited the ’90s and ’80s, but he specifically mentions the year 2002, indicating that San Junipero is limited. The afterlife is often seen as unlimited, and it is something that the living have not experienced before.
Outside of the virtual city, Yorkie is in a vegetative state and has been so since she was 21 years old. She is in her sixties or seventies in the real world, but in the virtual one, she is forever 21. Therefore, San Junipero makes sense and lets her live out the “life” she could never have. Kelly, on the other end, lived a long life with her husband, who passed away two years prior.
Can We Actually Create a Program That Can Keep Us Conscious?
The question that arises is how can we get into the virtual world without the use of our bodies? Current VR requires players to move to play the game and not just sit there as they do in “San Junipero.” A few things would need to happen for San Junipero to become real:
- The technology would have to “separate” the mind from the body, as if in a more realistic dream state, where the body would be “still” while the mind would be moving. However, this is the subconscious, which is a different ball game from the conscious. Every mind is different, so would there have to be extremely personalized devices? What if something changes in the mind (like the neurons light up differently)? There are many questions on a deep level that have to be worked out.
- The amount of electricity that would be needed to keep the system going. In the end, we see countless tiny devices to indicate the number of dead people living in San Junipero. What if there is a power cut? There could always be some kind of malfunction.
- How would they update the program to go beyond 2002? How would the people in the virtual space handle glitches?
San Junipero is an interesting concept, and the episode has outstanding writing, but it will probably not become a reality within our lifetime. Would we trust it if it did? (See San Junipero fully explained)
What Could Be the Challenges in Creating San Junipero?
The main question is — are they souls or computer-programmed avatars that think they are “alive”? Are they conscious of the virtual spree, or are they programmed to believe that they are? These people are alive when they visit San Junipero, but what if the permanent residents are just programs? They can give the illusion of being real, but what if that is all that it is? And would it matter? These are the kinds of questions that might bug you if you believe that Kelly did not stay, i.e., that she passed on.
Then, there’s the question of senses. The party city can be compared to a video game that offers sights and sounds that people may not have experienced before. However, it does not seem to replicate taste. And what about smell or touch? True, the mind can fill in the gaps of what something would feel like from outside situations, but it’s not the same.
Kelly says she cannot taste her cigarette, but Yorkie can taste the rum with her coke. There could be a logical reason — Kelly has never had a cigarette in real life; therefore, her body does not know what it tastes like. Yorkie could have had rum on her 21st birthday (or even before), meaning that her body does know what it tastes like. So how would the program create something new on this personal level?
Heaven on Earth
This episode of the TV show brings forth the idea of the afterlife in a virtual world. This could mean that a person would be able to choose their “Heaven,” much like how Kelly and Yorkie were able to jump between different eras. What if it could be taken a step further?
What if, instead of different eras, one can experience different genres, such as fantasy or Sci-Fi. This is the upside of the virtual world since it is like a video game (well, in terms of visuals and audio sensations). Therefore, people could choose what they want to experience within the limits of the program. Another thing to consider is storylines. Some people may want to live out their fantasy of being an unstoppable action hero that feels no pain with programmed avatars to work with. They could be living out a “real life” movie where they cannot get hurt if their pain slider is at zero (something that is possible, and it was mentioned in the episode as well).
The human brain can be imaginative, but the problem lies in bringing these inner ideas of the mind to real life in the way you want. This is more likely to be done with the use of virtual reality. A system and program like San Junipero could achieve this. Well, maybe not the current version since it seems to be limited to going to 2002, but maybe their next update is Star Trek-inspired?
The Idea of the Afterlife
The old-fashion and stereotypical idea of the afterlife outside of virtual reality is terrifying. It is the unknown, while San Junipero (as it stands) is familiar. However, a real-life afterlife, such as the idea of Heaven, would be new to the deceased. As Kelly mentions before her death, she is ready to go to the next part. That is what Heaven is, the next part of life. It is called the afterlife for a reason. What if it is new, completely new, to the point that you can taste and touch something that does not rely on your memory? This afterlife is unlimited, while San Junipero is not.
However, San Junipero can work for people with Yorkie’s condition where they can experience the “real world”. Maybe it would not work for people like Kelly, who have already lived in the real world and would just be on repeat.
Do you want an alternative to Heaven? Well, it can depend on your life. Yorkie wants it; Kelly has already had it. We will certainly not get it any time soon.