Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Black Mirror's S03E04, San Junipero, is widely considered the series' most hopeful episode yet, breaking the tradition of bleak techno-dystopia that has made the show famous all over the world. Personally, I think that the usual interpretation of San Junipero as a light-hearted episode amidst an ocean of depressing fiction is misguided, and doesn't do justice to the incredible depth of the writing, which explores themes like the meaning of love and the nature of consciousness, among others.

The episode deals with the relationship between two women, Kelly and Yorkie, that develops over multiple weeks, and timelines. They fall in love at a beach resort town named San Junipero, which is advertised as a paradise on Earth, where all desires, even the most obscure, can be satisfied. San Junipero provides entertainment: nightclubs, arcades, bars — or, for the adventurous, the Quagmire, what appears to be a BDSM club for people who want to feel something other than tedium. Whatever your deepest dream is, San Junipero is able to fulfill it. What's not to like?

Being Black Mirror, San Junipero turns out to be a virtual reality created for elderly and disabled people inhabiting a younger and healthier version of themselves. While still alive, they can only visit San Junipero once a week, but they have the option to surrender themselves to the cyber utopia and live forever in the simulated world after their physical death, which many understandably choose. Wouldn't you too?

Yorkie was paralyzed at age 21 after crashing her car when her parents reacted poorly to her coming out, and is now a bedridden elderly woman in an assisted living facility. Yorkie wishes to be euthanized so that she can live in San Junipero permanently, but she needs the legal papers that her deeply religious parents refuse to sign. Kelly offers to marry her and, when Yorkie enthusiastically accepts, she authorizes her euthanasia, effectively passing over her consciousness to San Junipero forever.

Meanwhile, Kelly is dying. She was married to a man for 49 years, and they had a daughter together who passed away prematurely at 39, before San Junipero was invented. Her husband decided to die without uploading his mind to the cloud, because he felt that if his daughter didn't get that chance, neither should he. Perhaps he secretly hoped to be reunited with her in some other, more ethereal place; something that would have been precluded to him if he had chosen the eternal bliss of San Junipero. Kelly on her part feels that moving to San Junipero would be like betraying her former life, all those years of pain, yearning, boredom and overwhelming love that Yorkie, who stopped living at 21, cannot begin to comprehend. Kelly thinks she sees San Junipero for what it really is, an amusement park; a place to satisfy your basic needs without the personal growth that comes from the conflicts, sadness, and tribulations of real life.

Yorkie doesn't really understand Kelly's motivations for being so reluctant in joining the simulation, or her husband's, and desperately begs Kelly to stay in San Junipero with her. Kelly refuses, but has a change of heart at the last moment and finally decides to merge her consciousness with the virtual reality, seemingly forsaking her deeply held beliefs about the meaning of life. The two avatars reunite on a sandy beach and drive away, happy, carefree, while the body of what was once Kelly is buried alongside her husband and daughter.

Is this a happy ending? Is San Junipero a digital heaven or a hedonist hell? Well, as it usually happens with compelling stories, it's complicated. There is no clear answer, and this is exactly what makes this episode so interesting and intellectually challenging. The hallmark of a true work of art, in my opinion, is to spark discussion; I've talked about San Junipero with many friends and everyone has his or her own peculiar interpretation about its meaning, many times very different than my own. Personally, I don't think that the last scene gives us a happy ending, far from it. The ending is very much like the whole episode, multi-layered and nuanced, tackling big themes which escape a simplistic answer almost by definition.

The very last shot is revealing. It shows a massive server room where robots work incessantly to maintain the virtual reality, the mental states of the visitors stored in small computational devices that form a complex network of digital souls. This begs the question of whether the inhabitants of San Junipero are "real" in any meaningful sense or just digital replicas without awareness, simulations of human beings that lack genuine consciousness, and are therefore as inanimate as a table. There are two separate issues here. If you are a religious person, you may believe that there is an immortal soul that transcends the laws of physics and represents the incorporeal essence of a living being. In this picture consciousness would reside in the soul, and it would be impossible to replicate it, or digitize it. The avatars in the virtual world of San Junipero would then be no different than computer-generated characters in video games, albeit much more sophisticated. They would behave exactly like human beings, they would pass all kinds of Turing Tests with flying colors, but without exhibiting real consciousness. San Junipero would then be a show running for no one to see, or enjoy.

I'm not a religious person, however, and I believe in the mechanistic view of the mind. The established neuroscientific consensus is that consciousness is largely an emergent property of the complicated interactions happening in the brain. Consciousness is the way information feels when it is being processed, in the words of Max Tegmark. Or, according to neuroscientists Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, consciousness is part of the natural world. It depends, we believe, only on mathematics and logic and on the imperfectly known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology; it does not arise from some magical or otherworldly quality. The natural conclusion is that mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well. In other words, consciousness is the mathematical pattern that arises in any sufficiently complicated physical system, it has nothing to do with the matter doing the information processing (no wonder your mind feels non-physical). This is the substrate-independence hypothesis that is central to the strong AI program. If you, like me, believe this is a reasonable approach to the problem of consciousness, then you also have to concede that the avatars in San Junipero are as real as they can be. They not only behave in the same way as human beings, but they also perceive, feel, and are aware of their own existence. They are not simple digital copies of real people, but identical instantiations with a sense of self. This makes the moral dilemma at the heart of San Junipero much more complex and fascinating.

On the surface, living in a virtual reality that can satisfy your every desire sounds like an impossibly good deal, one only a fool could decline. Especially if, as science suggests, the virtual experiences would be indistinguishable from the real ones. Who would turn down the opportunity to be the protagonist of an incredible adventure, full of excitement and mind-numbing pleasure? Incidentally, this is also part of the reason why certain types of video games are so successful. Most people merely feel like extras in the drama of life, and the temptation of becoming stars, even though of an imaginary universe, is oftentimes irresistible. San Junipero is seductive enough for healthy young people, but what about elderly people who face the everlasting oblivion of death, or even more significantly, disabled people who, like Yorkie, never got a real chance at life. Should they be denied the only hope they have for a semi-normal life? I don't think anyone would be so cruel to suggest that.

However, San Junipero has a darker side, one that is rarely acknowledged. There is a difference between preference satisfaction and authentic happiness. San Junipero can only provide the former. If I crave something, and my desire is satisfied, I will feel happy. For a while at least, until the next desire starts forming in my mind, at which point I will feel dissatisfied again, and crave some other thing. And when the virtual reality will satisfy that need, another one will form, and so on in a never ending cycle of burning desire and cheap satisfaction. This escalating pursuit of pleasure is what leads many people who are in San Junipero for too long to the Quagmire, a place of excess and self-indulgence. People who end up there have exhausted all other options, and are desperate to feel something that will revive their numb senses.

Profound happiness doesn't come from the perpetual satisfaction of our needs. Quite the opposite, it is a process of becoming, in which our character and our thoughts, and thus our preferences and desires, constantly evolve. And the evolution is primarily due to conflicts, to the inability of the world to grant us all our wishes at once. People that have their needs constantly satisfied are trapped in their own hedonistic cage, a tyranny made of frozen preferences and of a self that cannot grow or develop. In Italian, my own language, the word for happy is felice. Felice comes from the latin felix, which back then was mainly an agrarian term used to describe a fertile or prosperous piece of land. A person, like cultivated land, was happy when they were growing, bearing fruit, positively engaged in the act of creation. Happiness was not seen as passive satisfaction of one's desire, but as the fulfilling of one's own destiny in a constant creative struggle.

Kelly and Yorkie are in love with each other. They both got a second chance at life thanks to an amazing technology that could become a reality in the not so distant future. Will they be happy? It's difficult to say. I don't think they will in any meaningful way, not like Kelly and her husband were. And it's through no fault of their own, it's simply because of the way a computer simulation inevitably simplifies reality in order to run. The complexity and richness of existence are lost, and the set of experiences that are available to them is but a narrow sample of what life can offer. The ugliness of it, the boredom, the sorrow, are all eliminated, but those are fundamental aspects of the human experience that cannot be removed without also radically altering what it means to be human. You will say that Yorkie had nothing before San Junipero, and this is better than nothing, and you would be right. But it is not the full picture.

Through these considerations, the final song acquires new meaning. San Junipero is not Heaven, nor it is a Hell. It is more like a Purgatory, something in between, too nice to be a hell and too superficial to be real heaven. Is there a heaven for human beings? With all its sadness and sorrow, our best shot at heaven is where it has always been. Right here on Earth.