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.

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