The latest episode of Black Mirror, Be Right Back, is both a haunting vision of the future, and of what our relationship with technology could become. It is also a reminder of how our relationship with technology has changed since the mid-twentieth century.
Be Right Back, depicts the life of Martha (Hayley Atwell) after she loses her partner Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) to a road traffic collision, and how it is radically changed by a strange new technology. The service is a package of software that mimics Ash through online messages and phone calls, based upon the material available from his online social networking activities, and later his private messages and calls to Martha. The show takes an even more chilling twist later when the service moves into hardware with a full-body imitation of Ash.
Martha soon finds that this technology gives her some comfort in dealing with her loss, but simultaneously imprisons her in a pale imitation of her old life. She lives a lie, failing to admit her true situation to her friends and family, and unable to move on from her loss, which, however painful, she must do. The technology that facilitates this entrapment only creates a hollow set of lies, imitating only the public persona that Ash was willing to display on social media sites. What is left is a handful of witty comments, starved of intimacy, actual feeling or anything of any meaning.
First of all this serves as a powerful reminder to the soullessness of social media, short of private messages, it is generally inhabited by jokes, snide remarks on pop culture, pictures of cats, and cries for attention. All of which point to something, which aren't themselves something. This is fine, social media does not need to be a pool of pathos or raw emotion. But it can't and shouldn't be a substitute for actual relationships or human interactions, it can never replace them. Technology can bridge many gaps, but it cannot bridge the gap for personal intimacy or friendship.
More importantly, and more profoundly, it underlies the conservatism that simultaneously underlies both our societies' relationship with and vision for technology and also our fears about its worst excesses.
Whilst technological change and growth has always been associated with a radical improvement in people's lives, this association has loosened, in favour of a desire for technology that maintains certain aspects of our lives. Facebook was originally conceived as a network for maintaining connections with the friends one already possesses; the king of social networks succeeded a series of contenders which endeavoured to allow people to make friends online in the tradition of forums and online chat rooms.
Smartphones and tablet computers, perhaps the greatest innovation of this technological generation, certainly the most popular, boast their ability to keep consumers plugged-in to the world, up to speed with their lives, connected to their loved ones. These services are incredibly useful, and allow millions upon millions of people access to the incredible amount of information that now exists in the world. However, the effect they have on our behaviour, and indeed the behaviour that created a preference for their services, should be considered. Perhaps people are more thirsty for knowledge and truth than ever before, which would be good, perhaps people have become maladroit consumers of bare information in response to a deficiency elsewhere, which would be bad.
What Be Right Back says about our fears about technology is even more thought provoking. As opposed to generations past, who feared nuclear obliteration in the quest for infinite, clean energy, or a destruction of agriculture as an accident of ridding humanity of the plague of malaria, we now fear social stagnation as a result of the seemingly benevolent technology we have created. We now fear, or should fear, being trapped in a golden-agist vision of the past letting it dominate our future. As a society, we cannot develop a preference for being the old man in the pub, who talks about the good old days, and harks back to being able to buy a round of pints for a quid.
Instead we must seek to liberate ourselves from the excesses of the past, and indeed, where possible, the past itself. We must realise the exciting, dynamic time we live in, indeed, that we will always live in. The world will always change and to try and conserve it excessively is folly, it would be like fighting death by preserving only the most superfluous memories of the fallen.