San Junipero is S03 E04 of Netflix’s Black Mirror. The episode is set in a simulated reality seaside town in 1987 but actually takes place just beyond the foreseeable future. The episode takes the perspective of dying lesbian paraplegic, Yorkie, and elderly bisexual with malign cancer, Kelly, who fall in love. We will look at the concept of simulated reality and mind uploading with the context of San Junipero.
Simulated reality involves the complete replacement of real-world sensory experiences with that of a virtual world. Simulated realities, whether they are in the context of gaming, sex or socialising, are intended to provide a fully immersive sensory experience.
San Junipero’s simulated ‘worlds’ are all about the party scene. Described in the episode as ‘immersive nostalgia therapy’, the environments created are intended to look like a glorified version of the party scenes and clubs of the elderly customers’ youths. In the episode, there is some choice in the locale with a number of different decades and genre-specific environments. Interestingly, San Junipero is not a solo environment, but instead contains thousands of people in each party town, with 80%-85% of people being dead in the real world and 10%-15% being ‘tourists’ limited to five hours a week. As far as can be seen, there are no simulated people, but this would be impossible to tell unless explicitly stated.
Another key aspect of San Junipero is the Avatars. In the episode, each user looks like a young adult despite actually all being elderly. Presumably, this is done by analysing the person’s memories and replicating their former physical bodies. These bodies are fully functional, even to the point of being able to drink alcohol (although cigarettes apparently don’t have much taste). They can also change their pain levels all the way down to zero, change clothes almost instantly and do not get physically damaged.
Is it possible?
Computing power has been doubling roughly every two years for a long time. Even if this rate was to slow massively, a couple of decades should allow for even hyper-realistic simulations to be created. If significant investment and research were put in, limited space simulations seem like they would be achievable. This is actually aided slightly by allowing some freedom in the perception of the environment. Perhaps, instead of an explicitly coded universe, the simulated environment could just provide a high definition template that then gets filled in by the brain on its own. This is already how the brain operates in the real world, so it is feasible that a similar rendering could happen in a simulation. Either way, it seems very likely that within a couple of decades, entire-town simulations would be possible, at least in some resolution, capable of supporting thousands of unique users.
One of the big ideas in San Junipero is the ability to permanently stay in the simulated world. This form of mind upload is what makes the episode conceptually intriguing as an alternative to death. In-universe, this is done by connecting a small device to the side of the person’s head and letting that device harvest the person’s entire cognitive makeup. This device is then stored in a huge server filled with all the digital brains of the other permanent residents.
Digital Immortality in a simulated world has many benefits over death. For one, there is no fear of ever running out of resources or money, along with a lot more freedoms. People would also be able to fully customise their digital avatar, something biology could never offer. There would be no disease, no physical suffering unless except by choice, no need for laborious chores or financial concerns etc. Even if the same limited environments got monotonous, there would still always be the option to delete your digital brain at any time of your choosing. This style of digital immortality is far superior to a natural death and would hopefully even act as a holding place until digital brains could be put into robots in the real world.
Limits within San Junipero
However, as it is when you want to convey a concept with a limited context, San Junipero is also underwhelming and restrictive compared to what’s possible. For example, the episode only ever shows young adults, despite theoretically allowing for any form imaginable. There is no reason why you couldn’t instead choose to live as Donald Duck or even Shrek. Furthermore, the environments also seem very restricted, sticking to realistic settings. This needn’t be the case, with simulations of space, underwater or even made-up locations being equally viable. Most of all, though, the episode limits itself with the restriction of digitally uploaded characters to simulated realities and not life as a robotic digital being. All considered, the episode is still better off only hinting at these possibilities, as the theme of the episode is more about the ‘immersive nostalgia’ for the sick and dying.