By Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
We all rejoiced recently when Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” aka The Gay Episode™, was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie. The episode had two gorgeous stars, plenty of We Can’t Be Together angst, and a soundtrack featuring INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” The Bangles’s “Walk Like An Egyptian,” and of course, Belinda Carlyle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.”
Despite the fiery 80s playlist, though, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the finer points of this episode. I feel like in most episodes of Black Mirror, the writers are clearly not thinking as big as they could be in terms of the wider implications of the world they’re creating, and “San Junipero” is no exception—though this one disappoints me more than the others, since I would obviously want The Gay Episode™ to be the best.
The concept of uploading human minds into computers has been around the transhumanism block more than a few times, so it’s been able to mature like a fine wine into a complex cluster of questions—and even a few answers. It’s actually a particular interest of mine, since I’ve always been interested in ways to shed my corporeal form in order to exist as a being of pure information. I personally can’t wait to be uploaded, though I would choose a VR environment set on the East Coast, or better yet, in the Midwest.
In light of these facts about me, it may not surprise you that I was saddened by the lack of scope I saw in the world the Black Mirror team created in “San Junipero.”
My main problem with “San Junipero,” and most pop cultural attempts at transhumanism, is this: when Kelly is explaining why she doesn’t want to live in San Junipero after she dies, she says she doesn’t want to be like the “locals,” who do nothing but hang out at the same three bars, hooking up with each other forever to numb the boredom of immortality. It makes sense—I, too, would rather die than do that.
Constant partying and sex, with short breaks for the fight club at the Quagmire, are a fine way to spend the first week or so of immortality, but as Kelly observes, they would get old pretty quickly. Kelly’s reasoning begs the question, though: is there no one in San Junipero doing anything other than that?
Though I mean, it’s not like there’s very much to do with eternal life inside a computer where you can simulate doing literally anything. It’s not like you’d have to be massively boring not to be able to imagine a better way to spend that existence than going clubbing every night. Right?!?!
Re: other things you could do in San Junipero—there’s of course the nerdy things like learning every language, contemplating the Big Questions of existence, or working your way through even a fraction of humanity’s accumulated knowledge, art, and literature. But then there’s also scaling Everest, visiting the moon, the largest-scale game of hide and seek ever played, et cetera.
Remember Runescape? There was more to do in Runescape, than there is to do in San Junipero! Party town, indeed!
Kelly isn’t realizing that instead of spending her afterlife at the Quagmire, she could go hang out in her sweet beach house and figure out something she’d rather do. Instead of finding possibilities for a glorious post-mortality future, the people of San Junipero spend their eternities literally living in the past—and that’s so sad. What a shocking lack of imagination, for the creators of Black Mirror to try to complicate the idea of immortality just by making the post-death activities too limited to make it enticing.
As those who have seen the episode know, the conflict is eventually resolved, and Kelly and Yorkie get married in San Junipero. This actually is a step up from most stories like this that I’ve seen, where the protagonist would usually accept death—for the same reasons Kelly outlines about growing bored, and about death being more natural than immortality.
But even though the episode is ultimately pro-uploading, the fact remains that the writers of Black Mirror couldn’t think of a more interesting conflict for Kelly than: “Hmmm, do I hang out forever in paradise with my beautiful girlfriend, or do I die?”
There’s so much potential for exploration in stories about what humans would do with eternal life, but we’re holding ourselves back from getting really interesting when we settle for conflicts that boil down to “immortality is unnatural” or “immortality wouldn’t actually be better than dying.” I mean, this is science fiction; is anyone interested in limiting ourselves strictly to what’s natural??
And it’s not just that being “natural” is less fun. Consider: Yorkie has been bedbound since she was 21. San Junipero is her first opportunity to have a normal life in forty years. But guess what? She only gets five hours a week in San Junipero, because it’s not natural for people to spend more time than that in virtual reality, and sometimes they get too attached to a virtual world where they get to live a full life. Are you going to tell Yorkie it would be better for her to just die, when in this life she never actually got to live?
You know what some people think is natural? Heterosexuality, and nothing else. Dying from polio and tuberculosis was also considered natural at one point, as was witch-burning. We’ve mostly moved past these things, because technology and ideology have progressed.
Human history is littered with the bones of things we used to think were inescapable. For a transhumanist, death is in the queue to join these things. It only takes a tiny shift in your conception of what’s possible to put death in the same category as tuberculosis. And if we put taxes in that category too, we might even be able to escape capitalism.
If you’re curious, you might be asking: what could have been a better way to explore the possibilities of San Junipero?
Well: neurologists tell us that the structures of our brains have a huge impact on how we think. An uploaded consciousness wouldn’t have an amygdala to register danger, or a pituitary gland to flood their system with adrenaline—so how would that consciousness experience fear?
Likewise, how does memory work differently when instead of long-term and short-term memory, everything is stored like documents on a hard drive? How would someone fall in love differently if they had 1s and 0s in place of oxytocin and dopamine?
Maybe each person in San Junipero has a simulated brain to replicate those brain functions, like an emulator program that lets you play video games from the 90s on your Macbook. Or maybe people in San Junipero have made their first steps of departure from what it used to mean to be human. Don’t you want to see that, instead of hear about what Kelly’s husband thought about San Junipero, when he never even tried it?!?!
Also, why are the people of San Junipero limited to human avatars? Do they spend any time just hanging out without physical forms? And how does that change how we experience consciousness?
What about mods and plug-ins developed for the human mind? If you lived in San Junipero, you might be able to add on extensions to your consciousness, so you could customize yourself into exactly the kind of being you wanted to be—or you could try on different modes of existence like you used to try on clothes at the mall back when you were made of carbon and meat.
Oh, or: Yorkie and Kelly could have merged consciousnesses and become a digital lesbian hive mind. Put that in your “phones are bad” show and smoke it.