Imagine that you're in possession of a super-duper computer that is able to run those "simulated worlds" so often discussed among intelligentsia these days. (Summary: how do we know that we'renot living in a simulated world as opposed to "reality?" Answer: we don't.) You've got a thousand Clarence Ewings floating around in this magic box, all living out variants of your own life. However, here's the twist -- you can somehow drain their resources for your own use. Come down with a kidney problem? You can purchase pristine health at the cost of kidney failure for one of your sims. Short on cash? One of your sims suffers a financial calamity, while you reap the benefits. They won't have any clue as to why it's happening -- after all, bad luck befalls everyone sometimes, right?
Would you want such a device? What are the ethical obligations involved in dealing with these virtual beings? They may not be "real," but life sure does feel real to them... so, does the difference matter?
This last question, I feel, lies at the heart of much of Season 4 of Charlie Brooker's masterpiece, Black Mirror, which continues to unsettle us with all the ways which technology could potentially serve as a Pandora's box of ill.
In the season's best episode, "USS Callister," the founder of a popular sci-fi themed MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game traps clones of his co-workers in a virtual "Star Trek"-like prison, with said founder living out his dreams as a hero whenever he logs on, Walter Mitty-style. However, the clones don't disappear into the ether when he leaves this universe and returns to the real world. They've got nothing to do but wait until the game resumes... and refusal to "play along" means a fate worse than death, since the founder is pretty much a god in that environment.
The tale -- brimming with lots of dark humor and a thrilling conclusion -- borrows from the classic Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" as well as Total Recall (based on Phillip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.) And later in the season, episodes "Hang the DJ" and "Black Museum" also deal with issues of virtual reality, with the former being a rather clever take on algorithm-based dating services such as OKCupid.
What did you think about this latest Black Mirror season, Clarence? Favorite episodes? And % chance that we'll see a child-tracking device similar to that in "Arkangel" over the next decade? (!!!)
If the concept of conservation of energy holds throughout the universe, maybe we already are diverting energy from alternate realities to suit our own ends? Whichever version(s) of you put the most focus on something gets the resources, or something like that?
Where it get complicated is in the knowing that you're taking something from someone else, even if that someone else is you. In the thought experiment, can the distribution work the other way? If I see that Me #544 is broke and about to be evicted, can I send some of my wealth energy to help him? If that were the case, I would probably aim for some kind of equilibrium among the many mes. Of course, that's easy to say in a theoretical context...!
These days we already have implantable tracking devices for pets, baby monitors are considered standard issue for new parents, and tracking devices for children are widely available in the form of jewelry and watches. I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume in the next 10 years, child tracking implants will arrive, probably with cameras.
This fourth Season of Black Mirror was fantastic all-around. I really liked “USS Callister” (Jesse Plemons was perfect for the lead role), and also enjoyed the black and white photography and old-school horror feel of “Metalhead." The story is based on actual technology being developed by Boston Technology, which makes it even more disturbing.
Jodie Foster's directing work in “Arkangel” was very impressive, especially in how she showed the passage of time and how a mother's concern over her child's well-being corroded into paranoia. The finale “Black Museum” was equally stunning, with its first story in the triptych of tales being perfect for Halloween.
While I liked “Hang the DJ,” I feel it could have been 10-15 minutes shorter. "Crocodile" was probably my least favorite episode in that it took the Hitchcockian style just a tad too far. By the time the protagonist was working on murders #4 and #5, I had had enough.
There is one massive technological leap several of these stories take - the premise that humans can create intelligent, sentient exact copies of itself. While the technology to do this in our reality is still way off, what if we are already creating rudimentary consciousnesses? If you create a SimCity family and do horrendous things to them, is it abuse? At what point does technology become sophisticated enough that moral considerations must be made?
And here's another theoretical: If a hundred perfect copies of you came to your door one day and said “What do you want us to do?,” What would you tell them?
I'm not sure if you were a fan of the brilliant Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, but there was one tale where Calvin creates a "Duplicator," and realizes he can send his clones to school in his stead.
Of course, the left hand has no knowledge of what the right is doing, so if Calvin #5 only goes to school on Fridays, then...
If there were a hundred clones of myself, I doubt they'd want me ordering them around! Kevins tend to get restless pretty quickly when faced with menial tasks. I suppose my immediate concern would be: how the hell would I feed and house all these souls? Also, Kevins are natural introverts who don't do well when denied lots of alone time and quiet, so I'm guessing we'd start to become rather unhappy in short order.
Did you ever watch the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series in the '00s? There, the Cylon opposition was comprised of a limited number of "robot" models, and in fact were typically just named by their number. "She's a 7," etc. When they died, their minds "downloaded" into the nearest base ship and resurrected into a new body -- with all the knowledge that the former possessed. The series was quite brilliant for three of its four seasons, exploring all sorts of questions involving the human experience, before becoming buried in Kudzu Plot problems. (Whenever creators are making up the rules of their universes as they go, it's fairly certain they won't have much of an idea of how to end their stories.)
But I digress. And Black Mirror is certainly an enabler for these sorts of tangents, as the ideas it presents often send one's brain spinning in a dozen different directions. You mentioned "Metalhead," which was my second-favorite episode of the season. Here we have a world where, as we quickly discover, something horrible has gone wrong. But we never do get much exposition, do we? Who unleashed these mechanical hounds? Are they confined only to the area in the episode, or have they overrun the world? It's a very simple concept -- killer robots run amok -- but spun in a way which had me thinking about how close we might be to such devices. (And as you mentioned, we might not be far away at all.)
As for your Sims question... well, we have laws preventing cruelty to pets. In a way, sims in a game are our digital pets? But I wonder if we might actually dredge up more sympathy the closer that "simulated beings" resemble humans in the physical world? In the excellent Robot & Frank, the main character is an elderly man who is given a robot "health care" droid to assist him around the house. However, his daughter thinks that the practice of having robot "servants" is ethically questionable. One would think, "OK, these are just devices which are programmed and have no free will." But... aren't we humans also programmable in a certain way?
"Hang the DJ" got a fair amount of attention as one of the few Black Mirror episodes that don't leave the viewer in the throes of despair by the conclusion; I agree about the length, but it was a slice of interesting commentary regarding matchmaking algorithms and the "disposable" nature of dating culture. It circles back to my question about reality -- the world featured in this episode sure looks rather odd from our vantage point, but who's to say that our world doesn't seem similarly strange to otherworldly beings in the same manner? And in any event, it sure feels real to us!
Do you think the "future" in general is an upsetting topic? Despite the fact that technology has made our lives easier in countless numbers of ways, the prospect of visiting the year 2038 leaves me with feelings ranging from apprehension to dread... and I don't think I'm alone.
How much do I like Calvin & Hobbes? I say Calvin & Hobbes for President in 2020! I wonder how Bill Watterson would have addressed the many weird things happening in our world now through a young boy and his stuffed tiger.
Battlestar Galactica was fantastic. The best TV series reboot ever. It's interesting how that show and so many other TV and movie stories going back to Metropolis depict how the height of technological achievement is to make machines look and act as close to human as possible. We see this now in the real world with advances in prosthetics and wearable technology. At some point, if much of science fiction is to be followed to conclusion, human and machine will be indistinguishable from each other. Which brings us back around to the question you originally posed...how could we know we are not just simulations, but some extremely advanced form of automatons designed by some ancient alien species?
I'm looking forward to the future. The way our current media environment is set up, there's so much emphasis on the trivial aspects of moment-to-moment junk that doesn't matter, it's hard to see the progress that's being made in so many areas of life, especially science and tech. While there are many obvious bumps in the road, I'm hoping the accumulated knowledge and understanding will continue to result in breakthrough moments that will lead to some pretty cool stuff. As Black Mirror shows, though, there's always that shadow nearby. The question is, can humanity's wisdom and emotional maturity keep up with the power? There's only one way to find out...
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