Saturday, December 30, 2017

Cathartic Behaviors for the Maligned Individual

Warning: Spoilers for Black Mirror: USS Callister.




When we started watching this seasons' first episode of Black Mirror, I had a depressing pit of sympathy in my stomach.  I got the immediate sense that it was going to be about lonely, pathetic people who have no happiness outside their online fantasy games.  It's actually very odd that I felt this way, because earlier that day I had deep thoughts about how fiction (via reading and TV) isn't just a past-time for me; it's one of my main sources of happiness and purpose in life.   But anyway....

Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons) is a genius game progammer.  He spends his free time in a created world that's a recreation of a Star-Trek-like old TV show.  In the game, he's the hero—the main star.  In his real life work place, he's disliked and unappreciated. 

We soon learn that the characters in Robert's game are based on the people he knows in real life.  He has found a way to take people who give him grief and turn them into characters who make him feel good about himself.

I liked Robert.  He's my kind of person—geeky, smart, a fanboy, etc.  I felt sad that people didn't appreciate him.  I could relate to his loneliness. I could relate to his resentment. I could relate to his anger.

By the end of the show, I hated Robert and wanted him to die a horrible death. I loved that the show could play with my emotions like that, though it also made me feel uncomfortable.  I always feel a bit shitty when I relate to the character who turns out to be the villain.  

The thing is....

It turns out the characters in Robert's game are not like the Sims we model after our friends and family.  They're not just fictional copies. They're what the show calls digital clones.  It's not the first time Black Mirror has used such a concept, so I was quickly able to understand what was happening once the concept was mentioned.  

In some Black Mirror universes, digital clones are genetic copies of people that are uploaded into the digital world.  They retain the memories of the original person AND they believe they are the real person.  Doctor Who had some similar concepts in some of their episodes.  There's the idea that the clone has a hard time accepting that they're the copy.  They feel as real as the original person does.  

It turns out that the people in Robert's game are conscious beings who are imprisoned and cruelly abused on a daily basis. Though their originals are still out thriving in the real world, this doesn't stop the clones from feeling trapped and miserable. But they have given up on finding a way out.

A new member of the USS Callister comes and changes that.

 When Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) first comes to the gaming company's office, she actually likes and appreciates Robert at first. She's been a fan of his work and gushes a bit with him. This is a nice change for Robert.  But then Shania, a coworker (Michaela Coel) warns Nanette about Robert's creepiness.  She suggests that Nanette keep her distance from Robert.  Nanette immediately takes the advice. The next time she speaks to Robert, there's a coldness in her voice.

Robert later steals her DNA, via a coffee cup, and Nanette ends up in the game.

Nanette ends up being the hero of it all. I won't go into how they all fight back, because I want to get on with what I actually wanted to talk about. 

After I watched the show, I looked at some user reviews on IMDb. Some of them disturbed me a bit.  

Some of the reviewers argue that Robert isn't really a bad person.  One reviewer says...the copies are, in fact, not real people. By using them to work out his anger and frustrations, isn't he really allowing himself to be a healthier emotional person in the real world?  In the end, he is played as the villain and our digital heroes, the victims, but though he may seem like the real creep, his actions were truly reactions to the way the very real people in his workplace were cruel to him...so who's the bad guy?  

The idea that it's okay to abuse people who aren't "real humans" greatly disturbs me.  I think the show made it very clear that these digital clones were sentient beings. They felt pain. They felt discomfort. They felt sadness. They had FEELINGS. 

At this point, we have not created sentient AI or anything similar.

Though it makes me feel guilty when I demand Alexa do me a favor and I don't say please or thank you, I'm probably not hurting her feelings. As far as we know, she doesn't have feelings.  Though I felt awful trying to get rid of two of my Sims via starvation, it's very unlikely that I was actually causing them pain.  Though I felt emotional pain when I couldn't save one of my pets in Minecraft, the only one feeling pain was probably me.

But if we get to the point of having sentient copies of human beings, we all need to give them the same amount of respect we give others.  

I do agree with the reviewer that acting out anger and frustrations in games might be a way to maintain a relatively healthy emotional life outside our games.  Some people believe anger and aggression are bad things that should simply be buried.  I'm not one of those people.  I believe in punching bags and violent video games. I think they can be very therapeutic.  But it's not okay to act out these feelings with humans, animals, or anything that can feel pain and emotions.  

As I mentioned above, we don't have sentient artificial humans yet. But how many times throughout history have humans been abused and killed for the simple reason that their abusers saw them as less than humans?  

I also wonder if some people are using real life people they encounter online as cathartic therapy.

Now I think most of us have gotten into some squabbles here and there.  I try to remember to be kind like Alyssa Milano and Sarah Silverman, but sometimes my bitchy side gets the best of me.  And there are times where I don't feel my wrath is undeserved.

What I'm talking about, though, is excessive cruelty that's used as some kind of cathartic activity.  Let's say there's a doctor. She's kind to her patients. She's kind to her husband. She's kind to her children.  She's kind to her neighbors. She's just very nice and easygoing...at least on the surface. Deep inside, she has some anger and aggression issues. She deals with those feelings by trolling strangers online and saying horrible things to them.  By doing this, she's able to be very emotionally stable offline.  This is great for people in her life, but it causes great pain for the people online that face her abuse.  

Does this woman not have a heart when it comes to certain people, or has she convinced herself (at least subconsciously) that the online people aren't real?

How about Robert?  Had he convinced himself that the digital clones were not real humans and that's how he was able to abuse them?   Or did he just, in general, have a cold and evil heart?

OR is having a cold and evil heart simply a matter of being able to dehumanize our victims?