San Junipero: Science Evangelism and the Promise of Heaven

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Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has cemented itself in a post-cyberpunk world of black and gray, where people have merged with tech that’s either already with us or just a heartbeat away. This view of the future is one of passive nihilism, where people accept that everything in the world is horrible and they all share responsibility for it getting worse. So it should come as quite the surprise that Brooker presents the most clear case for Black Mirror’s thesis in a story that breaks away from those conventions, dropping viewers into a bright slice of the past so they may regard the paradise that exists all around them.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

Black Mirror typically revolves around people who lie somewhere on the cyborg spectrum. Even in stories set in a world operating with current technology, there’s an inseparability between people and technology, reflecting our growing inability to function without computers or smartphones connecting us to everything, to everyone. Brooker often turns to love stories to flesh this out, and “The Entire History of You” has a set of circumstances that neatly resemble how we apply technology to relationships.

“The Entire History of You” tells the story of Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell), a lawyer who relies on a neural implant to argue the existence of minute details to expose hidden truths. Grain, which is plugged into a soft portion of the brain behind the ear, allows Liam to record everything he sees and does from his point of view. This gives Liam the option to “re-do” parts of his life by playing memories over his eyes or project them on to screens for his friends to analyze. During a dinner party, Ffion, his wife, exhausted from obsessing over the past, confesses to preferring life without a grain. This sets apart from the rest of the party, including Jonas, a friend of Ffion’s who recently return to town. Ffion’s confession, combined with subtle tells throughout the night, suggests to Liam that his wife had been unfaithful and is trying to conceal a past affair with Jonas. To learn whether or not this is true, Liam wrestles control from those around them, hoping to find answers by infiltrating their grains.

Grains serve as a minimalist progression of smartphones. Video memories and eyeball playback are flashy, but little more than a facsimile for our online lives. The things we do and say, when we’re alone or with others, is recorded in our social media feeds, messaging apps, and our internet histories. Both stand as incredible inventions that can paint a detailed picture of its user, but they’re handed over to mere mortals too simple to comprehend the Faustian bargain they’ve agreed to.

With all this data accessible from one device, the membrane that separates an authorized user from an infiltrator is made thin by the temptation to invade the privacy of others. In the case of a relationship, this lures people to circumvent the natural order of human interaction in search of outcomes that they can influence. Instead of handling dealing with another person, they choose to become investigator and prosecutor, judging all aspects of their partner’s lives and deciding how it can be used for their own ends. It’s an understandable action to take, after all when technology offers up a means to climb over any obstacle the natural world has put in our path we readily accept it. But what happens when Brooker takes the technological element away from the forefront of the story? How does conflict resolve itself without tech informing our decisions and reactions?

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

Wind time back to 1987. San Junipero is an idyllic beach community where high tech means neon lights, arcade cabinets, and soothing synthwave. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) is new to town and spends her first night at Tucker’s, the local hangout. Rather than join everyone else and dance off-beat to Robert Nevile, she sticks to an arcade alcove in the back of the club where she tries her hand at Bubble Bobble. Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) doesn’t want what remains of her Saturday night to go to waste, and thrusts herself into Yorkie’s life. The two quickly make an impression on one another, initiating a game of chase and retreat that results in a whirlwind romance between the withdrawn and the willful.

The uncharacteristically happy ending is arguably the most standout part of “San Junipero” when viewed for the first time. Brooker has stated that he imagines most people watch Black Mirror expecting “to see somebody frowning at an iPhone or something.” It’s probably a fair guess as to what most of us do when looking down at our iPhones, because like everything else digital our smartphones emit anxiety and interest, keeping us distrustful of them yet never entertaining the idea of disconnecting entirely. It’s an observation that Brooker has continued to make through Black Mirror,  showing how the ever-approaching waves of technology crest and crash, eroding bits of our understanding of a shared humanity. It’s no mystery that increased connectivity and isolation are quickly becoming the defining themes of the early 21st century . The simplified setting in “San Junipero” seems to digest the severity of this circumstance; removing technology allowed for Yorkie and Kelly to be content in each other’s company while furthering their understanding of what it means to relate to another human being. But some may have noticed technology’s omnipresence.

Californians of a certain faith may have figured out the technological aspect at play by the title alone. San Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar, made his march from Bajo California (San Diego) to Alto California (San Francisco), forcibly collecting souls of Native Americans through baptism as he went along. He did so through tortuous methods that occasionally resulted in death, and eventually the decimation of cultures, but was comfortable in the belief that those he “saved” would ascend to heaven and receive the full benefit of Christianity’s promise of paradise. For the rest of us we have only to endure three establishing shots before the camera pans over a grinning Kiefer Sutherland on a Lost Boys poster and down to a passing car blasting Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth“. The song seems to lure Yorkie out onto the street where she passes a wall of TVs behind a store window, and she stops to watch Max Headroom on each screen ramble on about his “Paranormia“.

The first moments of “San Junipero” informs us that Yorkie and Kelly are immortal creatures living in paradise, a sophisticated simulation running on video game logic. By removing the limitations of the physical reality, Yorkie and Kelly are free to live like good-natured vampires who can party for all eternity while plugged server powered by TCKR Systems. And they’ve earned such a respite; the program that makes the simulation possible is part of end-of-life care, giving the elderly and dying the option to continue life in a pleasurable way while they wait to die, or continue on for eternity if they wish.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

“San Junipero” is a fulfillment of transhmanism’s most alluring promise, the ability to remove the finality of death from the human experience by leaving the body and inhabiting a machine platform. It is the advent of true cyborgs, the intersection of organic and synthetic systems making a new organism that is indifferent to the passing of time. Black Mirror’s focus on cyborg ethics explores what can go wrong when technology defines what is still a very human existence on earth. But the choice not to shun transhumanism in “San Junipero” lies in the understanding of the universe’s indifference to the lives of humans, which makes the need for technological intervention an ethical consideration. Take Stephen Crane’s 1899 poem A Man Said to the Universe:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

Being ignored by the greater universe that allows reality to take its physical shape has engendered a great deal of resentment in humankind throughout our existence. Yorkie is a recipient of such indifference, which, after learning of heaven’s existence, and how it took man to make it real, feels like outright cruelty: at 21, after confessing her sexual identity to her religious parents, Yorkie drives away from them both in a spell of anger, causing her to crash and wind up bedridden for decades. The anger that she could’ve directed towards the god her parents followed or the universe itself never manifested. Yorkie preferred to reserve her energy so she could marvel at the simulated world all around her. Her trial run allowed her to stand up for the first time in ages, to feel natural air pass over her skin, respond to the presence of someone sitting beside her. Yorkie could now live her youth as it was intended, away from the constraints of a belief system imposed on her, forcing her to limit the scope of her life to so narrow a point that she could never enjoy it. Through technology Yorkie found salvation.

That may sound like about as flippant a statement one could make about a serious medical condition like quadriplegia. But  consider how science and technology has restored hearing to the deaf, given vision to the blind, repaired broken hearts, and allowed the lame to rise to their feet. With medical advancements like these who wouldn’t believe that someone like Yorkie could resume their lives after decades on pause? Who would think that she shouldn’t take advantage of a true second chance at life? Many people, actually.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

Transhumanism has made adversaries on ethical and philosophical fronts for its evangelism of science and technology. Many have even argued that such positions are detrimental to the human experience overall, and Brooker may even be in agreement with some of those arguments. One of the more well-rounded critiques of transhumanism and science evangelism comes from Science as Salvation by philosopher Mary Midgley, who cited futurist projections by researchers across scientific disciplines as corrosive nonsense. When it came to life-extension and possibility of immortality by mind uploading, Midgley called such possibilities as “self-indulgent, uncontrolled power-fantasies.” It had less to do with the technological and scientific capacity of such advancements to develop and more with the quality of life one could have in that highly-probable future.

To Midgley, distilling the human experience to pure rationality, taking science and technology as the primary explanation of what it means to endure life, people, and everything that connects the two, is the height of absurdity. Instead, such considerations ought to be left to the realm of the humanities, using the experience and analysis of other humans to better make sense of ourselves.

Kelly comes to San Junipero with a similar opinion, which informs her rejection of its promise of “forever”. This silicon heaven is something Kelly can’t make sense of. She sees the locals as people so eager to deny reality they can’t even articulate the existence of death, preferring to soften the blow and say they’re “passing over”. Glibly the world around her has argued that death isn’t an end, that technology has usurped the universe and its natural order. But Kelly’s experience with the universe’s indifference has informed an opinion which sees no escape from the loop of nature.

After nearly 50 years of marriage, Kelly found herself without husband or child. While her daughter missed the technology that could’ve given her extra life, her husband rejected the premise entirely, stating that living on without his entire family, the people he loved, would be an insult to the idea this heaven hopes to make real. Kelly enters the simulation with a similar grotesque reaction. San Junipero simply isn’t real the way Carson City is; this simulation is little more than a video game to pass the time before the illness that’s spreading through her body kills her.

The ideological differences between Yorkie and Kelly are opposing arguments in the trial of transhumanism’s worth to humanity. In Yorkie we have someone who comes to understand technology as a force for good that corrects a lapse in the universe’s judgment by giving her an opportunity to live the life that was denied to her. Then there’s Kelly, someone who sees this technology as a distraction fit for fleeting happiness before death claims her like it should everyone else. In order for them to understand what the other is comprehending, and by extension whether or not life-extension is the answer to dying, a change in experience is required. Yorkie found good reason to lean into her fears, taking those first steps in living her life, which meant risking any opportunity of being with Kelly by saying and doing things she knew could be received poorly. But she did so understanding there were consequences to her actions, whether they came from the person she’d fallen in love with or wild circumstance. In Kelly’s case, to understand what it means to be denied life the way Yorkie had, required dramatic action.

Perhaps in a bid to understand how the accident had impacted Yorkie’s appreciation for this place, or wanting truly to die and take a little control from a disease that was killing her, Kelly ran her car off the road, flinging her body on hard rock and rolling towards a cliff. But Yorkie, free from indifference, able to utilize the opportunity technology provides, mastered the supernatural aspects of this reality and manifested at Kelly’s side. Like an angel offering a helping hand, Yorkie appeared to Kelly when at her lowest, as if to say the limitations of time and space pale in comparison to their shared experience.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

Technology as a religious experience is unique to “San Junipero”, but its foundation as a love story tells us all we need to know about Black Mirror’s view on technology and human connection.

“The Entire History of You” sees its technology as a weapon, a tool for destruction. These weren’t people who were fond of one another; the one time we see them in an intimate moment they’re having sex while watching more engaging encounters on their grains, miles away from anything going on in their bed. Without technology this was a marriage doomed to fail, with it he had a means to destroy her while setting himself up as both the victim and the hero in their story. But unlike Ffion, who ran off once her affair was exposed, Liam regretted his role in their separation and ripped the grain from his skull.

Yorkie and Kelly interact with technology differently, using is as a means to untie people rather than divide them. At the risk of losing his job and ruining personal life, Greg, Yorkie’s nurse, worked to give her permanent residence in San Junipero despite her family’s wishes. But Kelly saved him from the responsibility of such a move and married her instead, giving Yorkie the legal authority necessary to pass over. And in a fit of rage, wanting desperately to sever all ties from the simulation, Kelly was shown its ability to give her life meaning again as Yorkie answered her internal cry for help. At each instance of technology becoming more permanently affixed to the definition of who they are, both Yorkie and Kelly find themselves reaching out, not rejecting one another. In many ways it feels like the ultimate fulfillment of technology’s intent–a means to bridge gaps between humans. Yorkie and Kelly’s acceptance and enjoyment of heaven on a server is dependent wholly on their attachment to the humanity necessary to appreciate what technology is able to facilitate between them.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

Black Mirror can give viewers the wrong idea of what kind of guy Charlie Brooker is. For those who know Brooker’s career as a writer would never expect the former and tech journalist to be anti technology. This is a man who believes that video games have fundamentally changed the world for the better and uses VR in pre-production. But those who know him only through Black Mirror may be surprised to hear his thesis behind the series summed up as “Let’s not blame the technology; lets look at how we’re using it.”

When we do so we see a world changing at a pace that has never been matched. How we look at technology and our relationship to it today it’s like looking into the face of an alien nation. There’s a fundamental break from how we conduct ourselves now and the things we value when compared to those same things 20 years ago, not centuries in the past. That’s what made “San Junipero” stand out against all other Black Mirror stories so far, because when we look at how Yorkie and Kelly use technology we’re reminded of its purpose, an implicit promise of closeness to other humans, across time, distances, and even planes of existence.

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