We’ve seen digital consciousness cloned or transferred in multiple Black Mirror episodes. And after learning in Black Museum that at least some of these episodes are connected and occupy the same universe, we’re more interested than ever in exploring how digital consciousness cloning and transfer is addressed throughout the show’s timeline. So here’s a look. (Warning: This post has major spoilers for Season 4 episodes’ Black Museum and USS Callister, along with spoilers from previous seasons. Don’t read on unless you’re caught up.)
The Creation of San Junipero Tech
Of course, San Junipero is the ultimate example, when people have the option of either dying or letting their consciousness be transferred to a digital afterlife manned by TCKR. In Black Museum, we learned how this technology came about. First, a Diagnostic Symphasizer was created and used by Dr. Dawson. This technology implanted a receiver in the doctor’s brain, letting him feel everything his patients were feeling. But when he was connected to them when they died, everything went haywire. Somehow, this tech helped TCKR bridge some issues and eventually create a low-fi method of consciousness transference later displayed in Black Museum. This tech allowed someone’s mind to be transferred into another person or into an inanimate object (but the latter was eventually banned by the UN.)
For this transfer to happen, though, the original person also has to die, just like they must before they can be fully transferred into San Junipero.
A few questions remain regarding this tech. Once someone is transferred into someone’s mind or an inanimate object, can they still have the option of going into San Junipero if they prefer? And why wouldn’t they? Is it simply because they can’t interact with the outside world? In Black Museum, we learn that this low-fi consciousness transfer exists simultaneously with the high-fi San Junipero transfer.
Creating a Digital Duplicate
But beyond transferring your consciousness, you can also duplicate yourself and create a digital version of yourself that is self-aware and operates independently of you. We see this version in White Christmas, when cookies are transplanted into someone’s brain for a week, and are then used to create digital clones. Then, in USS Callister, we learn that this tech has really moved forward and digital clones can now be created simply from a sample of someone’s DNA, like drinking out of a coffee cup or licking a lollipop.
Just like in White Christmas with the cookie tech, the new digital beings in USS Callister start out with all their memories and absolutely no idea that they aren’t the original. They are perfect, digital clones. In Black Museum we learn that these digital cookies are eventually given human rights (which we also learned in a previous episode). But these digital cookies can also be mentally damaged (as we learned in White Christmas, USS Callister, and Black Museum.) At one point in the past, damaged cookies might have ended up in games or military training. But now that they have rights, that’s likely no longer the case.
The Immersive Technology Leaves Us with Disturbing Questions
But the immersive tech we’ve learned about is leaving us with some disturbing questions. Playtest, USS Callister, and San Junipero all have technology that is so immersive, you feel like you’re actually there. But only one actually involves transferring your consciousness. So how do they actually know that these technology transfers are actually transferring the person’s soul versus just creating a cookie copy? Is there any way to know?
Compare, for example, the different technologies that we’ve seen. Here’s how someone looks when they’re hooked up to the Callister game:
And here’s how they look when they’re hooked up to San Junipero:
Even the devices used to facilitate the transfer are essentially the same! And here’s the device that was used to create the cookie copy in White Christmas:
One has to wonder, at what point is the line drawn and the difference known? TCKR transfers require the host to die when they finally, fully transfer over. But they can be immersed in the reality in the meantime, using the same type of device used for Callister. And digital copies are created using a similar device. Is there any chance TCKR isn’t really transferring a consciousness but it’s all just a digital copy, and we’re made to believe it’s a consciousness because the host has to die to participate?
In a previous interview about San Junipero, Brooker seemed to indicate to Nerdist that this wasn’t the case. He said that the couple in San Junipero does end up together, indicating that they really, truly are transferred into the digital afterlife. But how could you effectively tell the difference? It seems that there is still a lot left to debate when it comes to digital clones and their sentient rights in the Black Mirror universe. Until Brooker gives us more clues in a future season, there may not be a way to truly understand why San Junipero transfers actually transfer a person’s unique self and why other copies are just that, copies.