'Not enough of him': Technology and Melancholia in 'Be Right Back'

Curator's Note

In 'Be Right Back', technology begins as comfort. The newly widowed Martha is lured into a software simulacrum. The more information she feeds to the software, the more it mimics the voice and mannerisms of her dead husband, Ash. The 'next level' of engagement offers her a synthetic replicant of Ash. But, living with a synthetic person is both uncanny and melancholy. The replacement Ash recalls the concerns of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein dreams of creating a beautiful creature who will be closer to him than a child, but he rejects his ugly creation, abandoning it to a life of subsistence and hiding. Irrevocably saddled with the secret of the other Ash, Martha can neither abandon nor destroy him and instead resigns him to the attic. Black Mirror's ambivlance towards technology is similar to Frankenstein's ambivalent attitude towards science. Martha attempts to assuage the profound melancholy she experiences after Ash's sudden death, but she cannot destroy the new Ash she has brought into being through her use of technology, just as Victor cannot seem to kill his creation.

Black Mirror mourns the utopian dream of how technology might connect us, while meditating on the ways it separates us. Martha initially retains a connection to Ash through the simulation of his voice, but the presence of his cyborg double only reinforces the separation brought on by death. Here, technology is not the miracle. Instead, it is pervasive and unsettling.  It permeates every aspect of our lives, and Martha, blinded by grief, attempts to recreate her husband without considering the long-term implications, She is left with a permanent reminder: the android in the attic.  Brooker's series often presents characters as guilty bystanders, salacious voyeurs or jaded spectators. Yet, it also implicitly asks us to reflect on how we use technology and whether we might choose to use it differently.



Interesting points, Sarah! Have you by chance encountered Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson? As a response to Frankenstein framed in hypertext, it sounds particularly relevant to your discussion. It came to mind when I read particularly: "Black Mirror mourns the utopian dream of how technology might connect us, while meditating on the ways it separates us." It seems Jackson literalizes this: technology as the simultaneous unity and dissolution of the subject. Patchwork girl laments her construction that is both her freedom and torture: her identity is an "I" constructed from multiple persons, genders, &c. Thoughts on the new "consciousness" in the machine and the formation of identity?

Thanks Michael. I have heard about Patchwork Girl many times but never had the chance to engage with it--though it does look fascinating! What interests me about 'be Right Back' is that we see how the character Martha is initially so consoled by the 'new' Ash. The creeping sense of how he is different, how his identity is wedded to hers as the operator and thoroughly shaped only by electronic communications and her commands does not present itself until it's too late. I also find it interesting that the sex she has with replicant Ash is driven by porn, because the 'old' Ash didn't share that aspect of himself through social media.

I was also very interested in the ways in which Martha is initially consoled by "Ash." He doesn't become monstrous or uncanny to her until she sees him "in the flesh," as it were. To me, this may actually be a commentary on the ways in which bots and other algorithm-based computer-based programs can seem, or attempt to seem, capable of simulating conversation or seeming human enough to fool a person (passing the Turing test). Could a bot, if its programming was complex enough and it could process the data set of a life lived mostly online, successfully mimic a human to such a degree that one could desire the physical manifestation of that electronic persona? Black Mirror seems to be saying, in this episode, that while programming may be able to mimic humanity successfully, it can only do so while firmly contained within a screen -- there is something about mimicking the human body that disturbs, that cannot "pass." The show (somewhat desperately) privileges humanity and physicality over technology, as well as placing the two binary opposition. Your post also brings up, for me, the fact that women seem to be particularly ill-served by technology in Black Mirror; they seem unable to properly interface with or deal with technology, because they deal with it naively and somewhat passively/suggestibly.

Great post Sarah. I was very tempted to propose writing something similar myself but I wouldn't have probably made the Frankenstein link even though it is clearly there to be made. For me it's a bit of an odd episode because purely as entertainment I find it the least interesting, yet it's probably the most powerful in franchise in terms of representing our uneasy relationship with technology when it becomes too uncanny. Using your Frankenstein analogy I think the most unsettlingly element of the show for me is the subtext that we ourselves are our own Dr Frankenstein, we unwittingly turn ourselves into monsters when we feed our emotions, thoughts and desires into social media. Consciously or not we attempt to create a better version of ourselves online but that 'image' can unwittingly become grotesque and further more can potentially escape our control; be that by the hands of other people as illustrated by Jon Ronson in his new book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed' or, and more relevantly here, by algorithms beyond the average user's comprehension. I very much like your phrase "android in the attic" but I would extend it out beyond the specific context of the show to say that in creating the monster just mentioned we all now live with 'androids in the attic'. That's to say we all both create and interact with constructs of ourselves and others online on a daily basis that do not require death to be activated. But of course when death does occur these creations in the form of social media profiles live on and haunt those we have left behind. This can best be illustrated by the numerous cases across the world in which people have died yet show up in phantom advertising. (sorry if this is a bit of a ramble)

This is a really good post Sarah, which raises lots of interesting ideas/issues. Some of which I have (lazily) bullet-pointed in order not to hog the page (an unbecoming habit)! - Artificial intelligence mimicking organic intelligence, leading the creation to exist in a state of liminality, neither one thing nor another? The potential growth/evolution of the humanoid is slaved to/stunted by the whims of humanity it is designed to service? A case of the quasi "Real Doll"'s personality needing "firmware updates"? - Watching the episode, I find echoes of themes in Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013) - but where the intelligence "Samantha" has liberty and intellectual freedom (moving around online and evolving at an exponential rate, unbound by the whims of her ostensible "Administrator"), "FakeAsh/Ash 2.0.1" is trapped by the constraints of the physical body and his programming? Dumb smart-meat? - This is yet another contemporary example of science fiction tropes like the unsettling "other", the off-kilter 'double" or even the "uncanny valley" made flesh, facilitating a repulsion or need for distancing from the creation? - "Ash" - an ironic monicker for the deceased, which immediately puts me in mind of Mark Sturkenboom's "art project" (http://www.marksturkenboom.com/works/21-grams/) (a little NSFW, but it does raise an interesting conversation regarding the intersection between sex, death and technology). - "Be Right Back" - Another of Black Mirror's series of technologically-tinged "ghost stories" (which I am assuming is of interest to Robert and his work) - wherein we are haunted by our bad life choices-made-flesh (literally in this instance) by technology?

Thanks Robert! I agree that that the online self can become something grotesque and the link with public shaming is yet another avenue the show explores in the White Christmas episode where one character ends up being both blocked and shamed. I also like your extension of the android in the attic. Where Martha deliberately makes use of Ash's digital traces to resurrect him, when this kind of thing kind of thing happens with ghosted advertising it is a violation. Even if we see our online profiles as separate they are inextricably linked to us.

Thanks Michael--I also thought about the commonalities with Her. I assume the Sturkenboom piece is deliberately creepy in its glamour? Like Ash 2.0 it engages with the sensory realm to invoke memory but underneath its marshmallow scented nutrient gel and cream leather casing, there's no denying that it's a shrine with a sex toy inside. This is also how Martha makes use of the new Ash. Like you say, she then has to live with her regret forever. The organic life in the form of their daughter lives alongside the synthetic life of Ash 2.0.

Sarah, a bit off topic, but have you seen Ex Machina? It's interesting seeing Domhnall Gleeson on either side of the uncanny valley. Though it could be argued that Ash 2.0 isn't actually AI, the idea of containment and preservation of "robot life" are at play with these these two examples, as well as with recent films The Machine (very Black Mirror-like IMHO), Automata, and Chappie. I see your post being able to be expanded into an article.

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