Do digital copies have souls?

The following contains spoilers for several episodes of Black Mirror. Proceed at your own risk!

In 2011 the world was first introduced to Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dark fantasy TV series. Each episode forces the audience to confront some troubling aspect of society, technology, or person-hood. Mostly a combination of all three.

Each instalment has its own distinct aesthetic, and is (more or less) a self-contained story which establishes its own universe, rules, and actors. But, as is so often the case, there is more which unites than divides. Whilst never knowing exactly what you are going to get, you Black Mirror is going to deliver obsidian grade humour, high-minded political commentary (yes even the pig-fucking episode, as history bore out) and, usually, leave you with the sheer, bitter, hopelessness of knowing, in your gut, that humanity is irreparably doomed (last year’s glorious San Junipero and this season’s heartwarming Hang the DJ were welcome exceptions).

In the 19 episodes aired to date, there are 6 which to a greater or lesser extent have asked the same question, framed in a variety of different ways: Does a digital copy of a person have a soul? Looking back over these I think Brooker has gone on an interesting journey which perhaps indicates that his own feelings on this subject have developed. In the first episode I discuss, the concept of a perfect digital copy is only used as a plot point. It is a necessary tool for the narrative, nothing more. By the time we get to discussing the episodes in the latest season, not only are digital copies treated as full characters capable of agency and autonomy, but I think Brooker has already decided that the answer to the above question is an unquestionable yes. Of course the Copies in USS Calister have souls; there wouldn’t be any point in the episode if that was under any doubt!

A quick word on terminology before I crack on with the treatment of this theme in each episode; I do not actually believe in the concept of an immortal soul myself as I have discussed previously. However, I think that the word ‘soul’ provides a useful shorthand for the miasma of agency, autonomy, self-contemplation, and emotions that is inextricable bound up in most conceptions of person-hood. So by framing the question of as whether the Copies have a soul, I am talking essentially about whether or not organic human beings would ever be comfortable treating a perfect digital copy as if they were just another person. Can they feel negative emotions like fear and pain, and if so, should they have rights and protections to stop others deliberately inflicting those feelings on them out of callousness or sadism?

So, on with the specifics. Back at the end of 2011, the season one finale, The Entire History of You, depicts a near-future where an implanted device allows humans perfect recall of all their experiences. Technology has overcome the imperfect, filtered human memory. Instead we (and others) have access to a perfect, digital copy of everything we have seen. As a, possibly unintended, consequence of this, we have lost the ability to lie about our experiences. TEHOY is only really interested in the social consequences of this facility; and the episode is mostly spends its time raising questions about trust and privacy. The concept of a digital copy of our memories only serves as a catalyst for the discussion of the interpersonal fallout in this episode. At this point Copies are not even considered to be valid character vessels let alone something which could be treated as a person.

The season two opener, Be Right Back, introduces us to a walking,talking, digital copy in the form of recently deceased Social Media addict Ash. Death does not have to be the end, promises this episode, if during your living days you pump enough of yourself onto the internet (no PornHub jokes, please). I remember enjoying Season 1 a lot, but not really feeling like I could personally relate to any of the situations. BRB changed all that. Let’s just say the idea of a significant other who spent a LOT of time on social media resonated quite strongly. And should that person suddenly die in a tragic and unforeseen accident, with no preparation or time to say goodbye, well, yes, I could completely understand the desire to have them back. Even if it’s just as a ghost, reconstructed from their digital footprint and a sophisticated AI. Yeah, that hit home. The tragedy explored here is the frustration that this Copy is a diminished version of the original. A poor facsimile, which doesn’t ‘count’ as a real person, much less the real person they are imitating. So already we can see a progression between these two episodes. Brooker has reached the point where a digital copy can be a bit like a person. But in isolation, the answer to our primary question according to this episode is ‘No!’. A Copy is a lesser thing, a shadow, a degraded reflection. We are invited to see Martha as a tragic figure who succumbs to an understandable but ultimately pathetic desire to have even a portion of her mate returned to her. Of course the Ash Copy doesn’t have a soul, Brooker seems to be saying here. The very idea!

By December 2014, however, Brooker seems to have undergone a change of heart. The magnificent special, White Christmas, was BMs first experiment with a triptych format. In one of these interwoven stories, a wealthy and particular woman is in the market for a personal assistant which can anticipate and meet her every need, without her having to articulate them. We can perhaps infer from what happens next that she does not fully understand how this is achieved. She screams in horror as a digital Copy of herself is created, miniaturised, and enslaved. Impotent yet defiant, the Copy rages against her reduced circumstances. Until she is psychologically tortured by an amoral Copy wrangler, who subjugates her into submission and acceptance of her new existence. The Copy is now tasked with running her Original’s smart home (no more imperfect algorithms which don’t quite get things right). This is the first time that the agency of the Copy is really explored. This episode is the first, but not the last, to fully engage with the idea that Copies are People Too. They have autonomy, and when that autonomy is taken away from them, they suffer.

Season 3 marked the move to Netflix, a deliberate effort at making the show more ‘international’ (American), and doubling the number of episodes per season to six. Production values went sky high, and the cerebral content went even higher. Episode 4, San Junipero, is notable for many reasons. For one, its basically the best hour of telly anyone has ever made ever. For another, it blindsided BM fans with an ending that was genuinely uplifting and positive. SJ explores a virtual reality where the Copies can hang out, play arcade games, have sex, and listen to Belinda Carlisle. Back in the real world, we learn one of our two protagonists has locked-in syndrome having narrowly survived a car crash some years previously, and the other is an aged widow approaching death. Going back to our original question of whether Digital Copies have souls, the answer posited is that the Copies ARE the souls. Their originals are broken shells waiting to disintegrate back in the physical realm. But within the synthetic world, they have immortality, at least as long as the servers stay powered on.

Season 4 opens with USS Callister. Robert Daly seeks escape from his real life, where he is unappreciated and undermined by his colleagues, in a modded version of the online game he created. Here he gets to be the Captain of a spaceship, respected and admired. Occasionally he gets to snog his mini-skirted female crew members, in a deliberate Star Trek circa 1966 pastiche. So far so creepy, until we learn that the crew are imprisoned Copies of the very colleagues who disdain him in meat space. The episode is in many ways a retread of the ground covered in White Christmas, but the Copies are front and centre. We spend significantly more time with them than with their fleshy counterparts in the real world. The Copies are presented as fully developed characters with fears, frustrations, and drives. Their vanquishing of the tyrant is an unequivocal victory. By the end of the episode, there is no suggestion that they should be treated as anything less than people, even if they are Copies. Brooker has come a long way since Be Right Back.

The end of Season 4, Black Museum, is another episode with three interwoven mini-tales. The last of these features a convict on death row signing away the rights to his digital self. Post execution, the Copy is displayed as a macabre attraction in the titular gallery. Sadistic tourists get their thrills recreating him frying in the electric chair, which we are informed the Copy feels, over and over again. Horrifyingly, take-away key chains containing yet more Copies, trapped at the pinnacle of agony, are issued as souvenirs. This raises an interesting question. The denouement of the episode has the Copy of the convict released in an act of mercy. But what’s not made clear is what happens to all the key-chain copies. Maybe it’s just a bit of a plot hole, but I think this actually provides an interesting insight into the progress Brooker has made with our original question.

Humans have always put a weird premium on originality. No matter how many prints of the Mona Lisa we have seen, we will queue for hours at the Louvre. We put patents on ideas to stop others from profiteering off our designs. One of the worst insults we can hurl at a piece of creative work is to say that it is derivative of something else. We like to think we are all unique, and get very uneasy when we think something might threaten that. Perhaps its because we haven’t yet got used to the idea that a copy CAN be perfectly identical to an original. We still cling to the aesthetic notion that a copy must necessarily be something less than the thing it’s a copy of. But in a digital sense, that’s no longer the case.

Then there’s the concept of dilution. Up until the end of Black Museum, we had got used to the idea of a single Copy, who had all the agency of the original. Essentially they were being treated as another new actor in the universe, who may have just come along after their Original. And we can cope with the idea of one more character to be invested in. But once you’ve made one digital Copy, you can theoretically make an infinite number of them, which is what happens with the Key Chain Copies. And as an audience member, maybe that’s just too much to handle. Maybe we can just about deal with the heartache of the Copy of the convict getting electrocuted over and over again by the sadistic tourists, because at the end he is finally released. But the idea that every one of those hundreds of Key Chain Copies is a fully autonomous person, suffering for all eternity? Maybe that’s just too dark, even for Black Mirror. And so the only way to deal with that is to convince ourselves that the Key Chain Copies aren’t people. That they don’t have souls. Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 5

9) The Lego Batman Film
The first Lego Movie came out in 2014, and received generally positive reviews, even if yes, it was basically a vector for selling merchandise. One of the best things about it was Will Arnett’s Dark Knight skewering performance as the self-important brooding caped crusader, so we had high hopes for the sequel putting him centre-stage. I can’t remember the last film we both sat through giggling quite so consistently.
This just about merits a spot in the list as Lego has been another cultural touchstone throughout our relationship. In 2009 Terry wrote a blog post about our love of collaborative video games. It started when we had a couple of PCs hooked up to each other over a LAN. When we got our first console, we started on the Lego Star Wars games with their fabulous drop in/drop out multiplayer mechanic. (Actually, those first three Travellers Tales titles, based on the infamous Star Wars prequels, did a lot to redeem the franchise.) As part of our screw-tradition approach to the wedding, we made an early decision not to have any flowers, and instead opted to have Star Wars Lego sets on the tables so our guests could build their own centrepieces.
Lego is about building things, and doing that together with a friend makes it even better. On a basic level, that seems like a pretty good simile for a happy marriage.

10) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

In September 2016 my parents moved to New Zealand. Helping them pack, sell their house, and move was a significant undertaking. This culminated in a three week period with my parents living with us, before they jetted off. When you marry someone, you are also marrying into their family. I will forever be grateful to my beautiful husband for his gracious support both helping me adjust, and helping my parents with this significant undertaking.

Knowing our 10th wedding anniversary would be in January 2018, we had started to think about going somewhere exotic to celebrate (my vote was for St Lucia). But we quickly realised that if we were going to make a trip out to NZ to see how they were settling in, then December 2017 would be the most sensible time to do that.

As cultural preparation, and on the advice of many friends (who now that I think about it were doing a similar thing to our recommendation of The Story of the Weeping Camel) we watched this independent film directed by Kiwi auteur de jour Taika Waititi. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about identity, family, and belonging. By a happy coincidence, the film enjoyed its NZ TV premiere while we were out there, so we got to watch it again.

Although we do occasionally still sit down to watch a movie together, films don’t occupy our attention in the same way, hence the top weighting of this list to the early days. I don’t know if that says more about us, or the films.

Here’s to the next ten years!

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 4

6) The Story of the Weeping Camel.

Bridget Jones frequently laments the existence of the ‘smug marrieds’ who dominate dinner party conversation with unsolicited tales of their holidays, home improvement plans, experience with mortgage brokers and so on. I like to think we were never that boorish (which means we almost certainly were) but I do confess to a period of us evangelising about this film wherever we went. Our desperation to be seen as mature, sophisticated adults by watching subtitled foreign films like the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might just about have come across as charming in 2001 when we were barely out of adolescence and didn’t know any better. In 2009 we were in our mid-late twenties, and really had no excuse. But, no, seriously, this is a gorgeous, uplifting film about a remote community living in Mongolia, and well worth seeking out.

7) The Cabin in the Woods

This list gets harder to compile as we progress through married life. Partly because we stopped going to the cinema as much, as box set binge watching at home became a preferred activity. Also as we’ve got older its become more obvious that we really have quite different tastes. I enjoy action films and TV shows, with well choreographed fight sequences and big explosions. Terry prefers comedies, and, sometimes, documentaries about fonts. Neither of us are particularly big on horror. But this meta commentary on the tropes and cliches of slasher fiction is so damn clever we found ourselves watching it more than once.

Part of the appeal was the casting of multiple actors more commonly found in the aforementioned box sets, including Whedon regular Amy Acker, West Wing alumnus Bradley Whitford, and Dollhouse architect Fran Kranz. Thanks to the assorted recent output of the likes of HBO & Netflix, TV is no longer the poor relation to the world of film.

Also, as we get older and more cynical about the fate of the world, we fully embraced the unapologetic nihilsm of the ending.

8) Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens

Once in a while, if you are lucky, something awesome happens. Something that will stay with you for the rest of your life which will bring a smile to your lips whenever you think of it. And if you are even luckier, you get to share that experience with your best friend.

There was a problem with the intermediate Star Wars films, which is to say the prequels released between 1999 & 2005. They are basically a bit crap. Not wholly crap by all means; there’s a lot of good work in there done by some very engaging actors. But quite a lot of people have written quite a lot of quite angry stuff about the sense of betrayal they felt at the plundering of their childhood memories for profit.

This attitude has become increasingly problematic, as a certain faction of individuals have allowed their disappointment to morph into an entitled sense that they want things to be like they were when they were twelve. Any attempt to refresh material to engage with a new audience, to bring a different perspective, and seek to bring diversity and inclusivity to what were sometimes very homogenous creations, is met with revulsion and fury.

But in the case of The Phantom Menace, the lacklustre response is in my opinion justified. Terry felt differently, which is nice for him. But that didn’t stop either of us feeling some trepidation about the new films. What if they are rubbish? What if they leave us feeling cold? What if we have already grown too old to recapture the giddy excitement of our youth, and we end up spewing bile on Reddit because we want to blame something external for the inexorable march of time?

It’s December 2015, and we have our tickets booked to go and see the new film in Threeeeee Deeeeeee at a cinema in Oxford. We have mostly avoided spoilers, and we are painfully excited. Ok, Terry is painfully excited. I am simply really looking forward to it. Star Wars has become part of the fabric of our relationship. Star Wars fever has gripped the nation, and every time I see a reference to the upcoming cinematic event (which is constantly) I think about our silly, glorious wedding.

The day before we are due to go, I get a text while I am at work. Through his employer at the time, O2, Terry has managed to nab a couple of tickets to the premiere. He really is strong with The Force.

Terry’s own review of the film is worth a read if you didn’t see it at the time.

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 3

5) Star Wars IV-VI

In 2005 I started a 3 year part-time Master’s degree through the Open University. This ran over the calendar year, so my long break between years was from Christmas to the start of February. Just before I started the 3rd and final year, Terry whisked me off to New York for a romantic break away. This coincided with our 6th anniversary, in January 2007.

New York in January is absolutely bloody freezing, so we wrapped up warm and went for a walk in Central Park. Terry proposed, I accepted. Our faces ached from the combination of smiling and minus 11 degree weather.

Having been together for 6 years already, and having lived together for about 4 and half years of that, we didn’t really want a long engagement. We briefly considered hopping over to Las Vegas while we were already in the US, and getting it done and dusted on the spot. (I don’t know if you can still do this, but you used to be able to get married at the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton and someone dressed as a Klingon could be your best man. I still contend this would have been pretty awesome). But we though there was a significant chance Terry’s Mum would actually kill us, so we decided it was best to have a proper wedding in the UK.
Then I remembered I was going to be spending most of my free time in 2007 writing my thesis. Even simple weddings take a substantial amount of organisation, and I really didn’t want to be distracted from my studies. (In the context of the similar situation as described above, I now realise that I perhaps over-prioritise academic merit).

As a pair of feminists, we were determined to avoid many of the patriarchal trappings of wedding lore. As a pair of geeks we wanted to put our own creative spin on the proceedings. As a pair of cheapskates we quite liked the idea of doing this as economically as possible. And as a pair of cool, irreverent, non-traditionalists we really fancied sticking two fingers up at as many wedding cliches as we could. Starting with the whole concept of arranging a wedding.
“Tell you what,” I said, through chattering teeth as we strolled through a frozen Manhattan, “how about you sort it all out, and I will show up on the day and say the right name?”

For all the weird chauvinistic overtones of traditional Western marriages, from the giving away of the bride to her husband as through she were property, to the hymnal cutting of the cake with a massive sword, the wedding industry focuses on the woman. It’s your special day, we are told. Your chance to be a princess. Everything is about you. Your dress, your flowers. The groom is relegated to a supporting part, and countless hours of film and TV have normalised this sidelining. Let her have what she wants if you want any peace and quiet. She’ll turn into a Bridezilla, and this is normal. Just let her get on with it. Your job as the man is to show up and say the right name.

(This is of course hugely hetero-normative. Sadly equal marriage would still be 5 years in the future. I speak from the perspective of a straight, cis, woman, and don’t intend this commentary to ignore all other forms of partnership, only to recount my own experience).

So, sod all that we decided. Terry can initially have creative control and as and when we come to the big decisions, we’ll discuss them together. As it turned out, there were only a few small details where I had practical concerns. And so it was on 26 January 2008, we got married in Newbury, Berkshire, in a Sci-Fi and Fantasy themed wedding with the happy couple and guests in fancy dress. Taking pride of place, Terry wore a full replica Darth Vader costume, injection moulded from the on-screen original. We walked down the aisle together to the Emperor’s theme. The tables were named after various Star Wars locales, and in place of centrepiece flowers, we had individual Star Wars Lego sets for the guests to build. Various guests dressed in other Star Wars themed outfits, and following the ceremony we engaged in a mock light sabre fight outside.

If that wasn’t surreal enough, it turned out one of the guests had called the local newspaper and gleefully informed them that a couple of nutters were having a Star Wars themed wedding at the nice hotel in Donnington. In a single concession to tradition, we decided that getting a package deal from a hotel who could provide the venue, food, rooms etc. was the easiest and sanest way to do things, saving us the brain-ache of coordinating the logistics ourselves. So the duty manager (who must have thought we were all quite mad), discreetly approached us during the reception, and to his credit, with an entirely straight face informed us that a couple of journalists were outside asking for an interview, and I did we want him to tell them to get lost? Instead, on an adrenaline and bubbly high, we garrulously invited them in. We chatted away happily on camera about our inspiration for the event, and a few other guests got interviewed as well. We didn’t think anything much would come of this, until a week later when Terry’s phone rang with offers to sell our story. Over the next six months we successfully made back about 10% of the cost of the wedding in royalties, our wonderful wedding was featured in diverse publications across Europe, and we got a free wedding video out of it.

The wedding industry feeds off telling anxious and impressionable couples that they are in competition with other couples to have the biggest, most glamorous yet unique day ever. If you manage to show up and say the right names, then achievement unlocked. Anything else is just gravy.

If anyone reading this is getting married; I hope you enjoy your day as much as we enjoyed ours. You don’t owe anybody anything else.

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 2

3) My Little Eye

In comparison to some of the more lurid torture-porn offerings from the past couple of decades, this low budget claustrophobic horror probably seems pretty tame. However to my rather cosseted sensibilities, watching it was a grim and distressing experience. It didn’t help that we thought we were actually going to see a different film entirely (The Eye – a Japanese thriller about a woman whose organ transplant has unexpected consequences. To date I’ve still never got around to seeing it). I think we both wanted to show a bit of bravado, but the truth was that the film really got under our skin, and neither of us handled it well. On the way back from the cinema we had our first really proper fight and said some very unpleasant things to each other. We were both far more rattled than we wanted to admit, and lashed out at each other as way of trying to deal with it. As horrible as that was, we learned two very important lessons from this. First, fear looks an awful lot like anger. In most subsequent arguments over the years, we have realised the importance of distinguishing between the two. Anxiety often manifests as irritation, and remembering that (as difficult as it may be sometimes) has helped us to diffuse tensions before things get really fraught. The other lesson was learning that having a fight wasn’t the end of the world. We said things we didn’t mean in the heat of the moment and afterwards we apologised and talked it through. As people, we sometimes regress to dumb, panicky animals. But we don’t have to define our relationship through our worst selves. We aren’t perfect, and it’s inevitable that we will screw up from time to time. But we also have the capacity to learn from our mistakes, and to forgive others and ourselves. My Little Eye is a nasty, crappy, little film, and I will always hate it for sparking such a painful occurrence. However I am forever grateful for what we learned as a couple as a result.

4) Moulin Rouge

Before I even left school, a trip had been arranged for me to spend the summer between my first and second year of university in Australia with family. Terry and I had been dating for less than 6 months and we were still in the first bloom of love. So much so that I was seriously trepidatory about going away for 10 long weeks. What if we lost interest in each other? What if we met someone else? Or what if the pain of separation was too much to bear? But I also remember feeling that on a non-romantic level, this was probably a very good thing. When you are 19 and in love, and to paraphrase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all you can see of tomorrow is your paramour, it is easy to lose perspective. I’d seen enough rom coms by this point to understand the value of knowing yourself before you commit to a long term relationship. A bit of distance, (well a lot of distance in this case) would be healthy. If we survived this enforced break then all well and good. If we didn’t, it probably wasn’t going to last anyway. So I convinced myself it was all for the best, and I hopped on the plane.
And it was a bit heartbreaking. I missed Terry like a limb. I longed to be back in his arms. I ached for his lips. I pined for him like some kind of gothic heroine. My aunt, quite reasonably, was somewhat amused by my teen anguish and did gently point out on more than one occasion that I was very young to be so sure that this was The One.
However having spent a significant amount of money on what was supposed to be an enriching and valuable experience, I wasn’t actually going to spend the whole time crying into the red, fluffy heart-shaped pillow Terry got me as a leaving present (he’s all class that one!) So I went to the movies with my cousins.
5 years previously at the even more tender age of 14, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet plunged me into the depths of despair as I longed for a boyfriend. (This would take a further two years – late bloomer). But despite it’s effect on my emotional well-being, I bloody adored that film. So I was delighted to see his new movie, Moulin Rouge, which came out in Australia a few weeks before the UK release. I was entranced by the riotous, energetic chaos and the doomed affair between Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor was a tonic to my bruised heart. I enthusiastically rang Terry that night, telling his how awesome this film was, and how much I was looking forward to seeing it again with him when I came back home.
Terry was one year ahead of me, so when I did return at the end of that summer he was embarking on his final year. My husband is a very intelligent man, but in academic terms was a little bit on the lazy side, and rather prone to distraction. After a few days of happy and tearful reunion following my trip, I reminded him that he needed to focus on his studies, and I also needed to focus on mine. We could still see each other but we needed to make sure we were sensible about the amount of time we spent together.

Some weeks later I went back to my parents one weekend so he could concentrate on an upcoming deadline. So I was slightly exasperated when I got back to Norwich on the Sunday evening to be presented with a CD he had made for me of the Elephant Medley from Moulin Rouge. Early on in the film, Ewan McGregor woos Nicole Kidman with a series of snippets of classic love songs. Terry had found each original song, and cut them together to recreate the finished piece as it appears in the film. This being before editing software was readily available for PC’s, it represented hours of work. Hours he was meant to be spending on his essay. It was such a lovely, romantic gesture, and I was so touched, but also infuriated that he had allowed our relationship to distract him. I thanked him for the gift and told him that it was very thoughtful. Then we had one of the least romantic conversations we have ever had. I explained that he was a smart guy, and if he applied himself (I think I may have actually used that phrase) he was capable of achieving a 2:1. And a 2:1 would open doors that a 2:2 wouldn’t. I told him I loved him, and I very much hoped that our relationship would last. But if he could pull the stops out and get a good degree he would have that for the rest of his life. Whereas statistically, there was every chance that we would fizzle out. So it really didn’t make any sense for him to prioritise this relationship over his whole potential future.

It did the trick. We saw a bit less of each other over the next few months. Terry wrote a brilliant dissertation and graduated with a 2:1. He got some work experience the following year while I finished my degree, and was then accepted onto the Vodafone graduate training programme, which shaped his career, and by extension, our lives together.

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 1

One of my primary pleasures in life is making lists, so over the next five days,to celebrate our upcoming 10th wedding anniversary I decided to write about the 10 most significant films in mine and Terry’s relationship.

1) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I can remember the very first conversation I had with Terry very clearly. It’s October 2000, and I have just started as an undergraduate at UEA. Following a perfunctory look around the Fresher’s Fair, I joined Drama Soc since acting was my favourite hobby at the time. A few of us gathered at the bar one evening in preparation for a bowling night, which is where I first set eyes on a strikingly handsome chap with long black hair.
It was around this time that key casting information was starting to come out about the first Harry Potter film, and Julie Walters had just been announced in the role of Molly Weasley. I used to joke that I only really went to University to have something to do while I waited for the 5th Harry Potter book to come out. This isn’t exactly true, but is significantly less offensive than Boris Johnson’s assertion that women only went to University to find husband’s, which in fact did turn out to be slightly more accurate in my case. At the tender age of 18 I lived and breathed all things Potter, and would happily chat for hours with anyone who shared this passion. After just a few short minutes of small talk, Terry and I were enthusiastically discussing the latest developments with the film and who should get the remaining roles. Terry was quite insistent that Alec Guinness should play Dumbledore. I gently reminded him that the Alec Guinness was no longer on this mortal coil. Terry felt this was a mere detail, and that since marvellous things were being done with green screen, all that was needed was to pull out the relevant lines which that most prolific of actors must have uttered at some point in his illustrious career. I countered that he probably hadn’t used the word Quidditch in his back catalogue…
And so the conversation went on. Terry was charming, clever, and funny without his humour being at anyone’s expense (the slight irreverence of Sir Guinness’ demise notwithstanding) and if I were more romantically inclined I would say I fell a little bit in love with him that evening discussing this film which did not yet even exist.
As it is however I was actually seeing someone else at the time, so really was just out to meet new people in a friendly capacity, and in no way on the prowl for a sexual partner. To his credit, my lack of availability didn’t cause him to turn his attention elsewhere at the mention of my boyfriend, and we stayed as good friends throughout my first term.
About 18 months down the line I had a poster of this film on my wall. Again, if I were a romantic I would say it was in honour of that shared cultural interest that first sparked our relationship. More pragmatically, the poster had the release date of film on it 16.11.2002, which was two days before his birthday, and served as a handy reminder.

2) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

It’s February 2001, and we are sexy young things who are utterly convinced of our own worldliness. Not for us those stuffy conventions of chaste courtship. We are still enjoying how Austin Powers describes the 90’s as “freedom and responsibility – very groovy times baby!” As such our first proper date happens some time after the point that we hooked up. But some traditions are worth observing for practical reasons. Go see a movie and then have dinner. If you realise during dinner you have nothing else, you can at least talk about the film before you can get out of there.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a bit of a shibboleth for the sophisticated wannabee film connoisseur at the time. Watching it connoted an appreciation for the finer points of film making; the cinematography, the choreography, the heartbreaking romance between Michelle Yeoh and Ang Lee. And, obviously it was a Foreign Language Film, and watching anything with subtitles automatically elevates the activity to a higher plane of intellect. We are high brow culture aficionados but like, totally, in a post-modern, ironic, self aware way. God we must have been insufferable.

All that said, it is a brilliant, beautiful film. Amongst other things, it’s a coming of age tale as Zhiang Zhi begins to understand the humanity and fragility of the adults in her life. It seems appropriate therefore that this film marks the nascent relationship between two proto-grown ups who for all their youthful bluster are still learning who they are as people.

Benches! Benches! Benches!

So the whole blogging thing kind of dried up for me a couple of years back.
It’s not that I don’t still feel ways about stuff, and I certainly haven’t lost my fondness for absurdly long, multi-claused run-on sentences that make readers think, ‘Christ, are you, like, allergic to full stops or something?” whilst gasping for breath should any of them be daft enough to attempt to read this shit out loud.

But everything is so noisy these days. (I turned 35 recently, so I am half way through my allotted 3 score years and 10, and consequently feel entitled to use terms like “these days”.) The online space, infinite though it may be, seems to be filling up with everyone and their cousin’s hot take on the news of the day. Sometimes this is thought-provoking, engaging, and provides valuable contribution to the global discussion. More often… well, not so much.

So I decided to stop shoveling content into the void, unless I felt I had something real and substantial to bring to the table. And, crucially, that I had the time and energy to reflect on it, and hone it to my satisfaction. All of which is a very plausible way of justifying to myself why I wasn’t going to spend my time on this anymore. Plus Dragon Age: Inquisition came out, so that was 200+ hours gone right there, and then I got super in to the whole Elder Scrolls thing having picked up Oblivion and Skyrim for something like £7 total in CEX, and, well, you get the idea of how I’ve spent my leisure time recently.

But there comes a time when even a dedicated gamer like me wonders if there might not be more productive pursuits through which to while away the hours. A few months back I had suggested to Terry that I would really like to collaborate on something with him. Terry always seems to be doing something interesting and cool, and I fancied getting in on that.

I was anticipating quite the challenge in picking the right project. Something multi-faceted that would provide an opportunity for me to develop new skills. Something involving actual, real-world, meat space, AFK interaction. I wanted a quantifiable way to measure impact. And yeah, I liked the idea of doing something nice. Not particularly clever, or lucrative, but the sort of endeavor that would make people go “Oh, what a lovely idea”.

About a decade ago Terry and I went to a sort of geo-caching type event that entailed running around the Covent Garden area looking for the mosaic tile renderings of Space Invaders which had appeared on walls around Europe. Some years after that we got into the habit of snapping photos of the blue memorial plaques that adorn various buildings, and uploading these to And then last year the Pokémon GO craze swept the globe. All of these somehow percolated into a simple but immensely rewarding idea: let’s build an open database to track the location of memorial benches.

We aren’t the first people to have this idea. The skeleton came from a hack Terry encountered at a Bath hackathon which we married to parts of the openplaques model.

We liked the idea that this would produce a totally open data set. That anyone could contribute to it or access the content. We also wanted to make the code freely available, so if anyone felt so inclined they could suggest improvements, or even spin it off into a project of their own.

We also decided that this was a great opportunity for both of us to learn and develop new skills. Terry decided he wanted more experience working in the Agile methodology. I wanted to learn some proper programming. So we started with a bunch of user stories. I learnt how to use GitHub, and some HTML, and PHP. I also learned the dirty little secret that a big chunk of learning to code is literally googling whatever you are trying to do and copying off someone else who has done it already.

We built a database in MySQL. We built an interface, and dumped the whole thing online as a rough-and-ready Alpha product. Terry wrote a ReadMe file acknowledging the filthiness of our code and inviting improvements. We took a wander around our local area and uploaded a few pictures of memorial benches situated around the Iffley lock. And was born.

Terry tweeted to his 7,000 odd followers that we had done a thing, and in a surreal turn of events we were invited to record an interview with the BBC in July 2017.

Openbenches was all of about 2 weeks old at this point, and we had barely figured out what we were trying to achieve with this project. But we gamely trotted along to the BBC Radio Oxford studio and recorded a 5 minute interview with Radio Orkney who were interested in what we were doing. Pretty much on the fly we came up with a rationale for our endeavors: famous people get plaques when they die, and other people get benches, commissioned by their nearest and dearest. Memorial benches appear in local beauty spots; in parks and gardens, near canals and rivers, in cemeteries and coastal paths. And we decided to capture that data, and make it available to anyone. It creates an opportunity to get to know your local area, and to connect with the history of your local community. And a way to share the commemoration of loved ones more widely.

The broadcast went out at the start of August 2017 by which point we’d had about 400 records uploaded. A month later and we are closing in on 2,000. We’ve managed to convince friends, family, colleagues, and random strangers to get involved. On a mini break to East Anglia a few weeks ago we photographed dozens and dozens of benches dotted throughout Cambridge, Kings Lynn, Downham Market and along parts of the Norfolk Coast. A couple of weekends ago we took a day-trip to London and systematically documented the 140 or so benches in Berkeley Square. Over the course of several lunchtimes I recorded the benches in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. We took photo after photo, and then at home we would curl up on the sofa together with our laptops and upload the pictures.

It’s definitely turned into a labour of love. Some benches have made us laugh with their bittersweet gallows humour. Others have been more sobering – particularly where you can tell from the dates that someone has died tragically young. Some inscriptions are already fading to the point they are barely legible. Interestingly, this has added an additional aspect to this project: the physical bench and/or the printed information might be lost, but as long as we have a functioning server we can preserve that memory, and the data is freely available to be copied by anyone. Even if no-one is left who remembers the commemorated individual directly.

Death is sad and painful and inevitable. As an atheist and a rationalist I don’t believe in the concept of an immortal soul. I do not believe that there is any such thing as life after death. But people are connected, and the extent to which we interact in each others’ lives, and the effect we have on other people after we are gone is incontrovertible. So in a small way, is a way of paying tribute to that fact. Gone, but not forgotten. In loving memory.

Thoughts on the post-factual democracy

I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head since the Brexit result was announced last Friday morning. Beyond a few sardonic comments expressing general dismay, I refrained from posting anything more substantial until I’d had a chance to think things through a bit. I wanted to let the initial shock and anger subside before committing anything to a public forum.

As per the 3rd point in the excellent comment written by Nicholas Barrett in the FT, it’s the notion of a ‘post-factual democracy’ that really chills me. Democracy is frequently described by political wags as the least bad form of governance. But to function properly, it needs an informed, engaged electorate.

However this process becomes polluted when misinformation is allowed to be perpetuated unchecked. The collected works of certain newspaper salespeople have dripped a steady diet of poison into the information system, masquerading as news and helpful discourse, and very little is done to prevent this. On the rare occasions they actually get caught in a genuine factual error, misrepresentation or lie, the apology is usually placed somewhere nicely unobtrusive. (Seriously, if nothing else comes of this, can’t we at least require the correction to have the same prominence as the original statement, and not get buried in the middle pages?!)

Then there are the ‘promises’ made by politicians and campaign workers themselves. It’s almost comical how little genuine recourse there is when someone says something untrue as part of a bid to get them (or their idea) elected.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there was some coverage of people who admitted to voting leave but claimed to be aghast at the result. There was, predictably, an outpouring of amazed horror from some remain supporters at this. How can people be so callous, foolish and stupid they wondered? And in response came the vitriol and disgust from the leavers. The metropolitan elite, patronising the working classes and rubbing their very disenfranchisement in their faces.

For me, one of the saddest aspects about this is that the post-factual democracy made this clash almost inevitable. If you tell someone they are being lied to, you are accused of condescension. If you try to stop the lies at their source that’s an attack on free speech. If you attempt to counter with your own information it’s propaganda.

I don’t know how to participate in a dialogue where this is the case. I don’t know how to engage in a discussion where neither logic nor truth has a place, but where pointing out their absence makes you the out-of-touch arsehole.

I don’t have a good solution to this. All I know is that if we want to recover a democracy where information and expertise are valued commodities we need to engage with people. The people that Gove claimed were ‘sick of experts’. And we need to do it in such a way so as not to patronise or belittle them. Because I really don’t see this getting better any other way.

Cosplaying Link at Warwick Castle

Hi! It’s… been a while!

As many of you know, gaming is a huge part of my life. It’s my safe place, keeping me sane when other parts of my life feel like they’re spinning out of control. It’s what I do to relax, and to have fun, and accounts for a reasonable quantity of the past 18 months or so since I last posted anything here.

After a rough few weeks, culminating in my failure to get a job I *really* wanted, Terry went onto that Internet they have nowadays and bought me a little present. Cos that’s the kind of husband he is!

I am now the proud owner of an officially licensed Legend of Zelda Link cosplay hoodie! It features an embossed Hyrulian Shield on the back, a long tapered hood and detailing on the front to represent a satchel & belt. It is AWESOME!

On a related note to the disappointing past few weeks, we decided to treat ourselves to a night away. Which is how we came to Warwick Castle on an unseasonably chilly April Saturday ready to explore, learn, and basically tear around the place like a couple of loons!

It should be noted that thanks to an encounter with the hotel Nespresso machine I was bombed out of my head on coffee and sugar. I was so hyper I clocked a few middle age parents with a gaggle of unruly tweens giving Terry a pitying look. I didn’t care. I was Link! Hero of Time! Defender of Hyrule!

But I’m not much of a hero without a sword. So first stop is the gift shop where I get the ‘blue’ sword, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Master Sword itself! The texture of the foam makes it look really cool in the photos, almost like it’s been added in using old fashioned cell animation! Sidebar: Lots of Merlin Entertainment’s signage refers to Knights and Princesses – bleugh! But the toy sets in the shop have been labelled as ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ which is progress of a kind I guess. #lettoysbetoys

Sword in hand, I pose for a couple of photos in the courtyard

And under the portcullis

And get a cool shot next to a display of shields.

We walk around the state rooms and found the dining hall – almost a dead ringer for the one at the Knight’s Academy in Skyloft!

Me having slain an army of Darknuts!

We join in a free tour which covers some of the history. For our slightly exorbitant entrance fee we want to learn something!

We paid extra for the Dungeon tour. They won’t let us take our own photos in there, so sadly no opportunities for me to pose slaying a ReDead. I’m totally in character by now, but I get the feeling the actors in the exhibit think I’m scene stealing a bit. C’mon guys – haven’t you ever heard that improv is all about saying Yes!

They have a display of the birds of prey on. We watch the show, which is included in the entry price and frankly way better than the dungeon, and includes an owl just like the one which hangs out near Lake Hylia!

Over at the bird enclosure, Terry took this awesome photo which looks like the Eagle is perched on my arm.

Lots of walking through gaps in hedges!
Secret Passage

Then we’re off climbing the ramparts!
Skyward Sword

From the top of Guy’s Tower I survey my kingdom!
Top of castle

We’re pretty exhausted by now. Last stop is the maze where we got two of the best photos of the day!

Shout out to Windwaker!

And finally no Zelda level is complete without a jumping puzzle!

Took my wife Cosplaying at Warwick Castle

Thanks to Warwick Castle for a great day out, and Merchoid for fantastic customer service! And to my truly wonderful husband for buying the hoodie, taking countless photos and generally being the best Squire a Knight could ask for!