Every philosopher should be aware of Black Mirror. I regularly use two of its episodes in class: Be Right Back, and The Entire History of You. They’re worth talking about later. Black Mirror is set in the near future. It’s a character-driven show which takes current technological trends into dystopian territories. It’s like the old Twilight Zone, except that the scary stuff is technology, and it’s much darker than the Twilight Zone. It raises lots and lots of fascinating philosophical questions – about persons, reality, good and evil, and so on.
I just recently watched “Playtest”, which is Episode 2 from Season 3, now streaming on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it, you should, and you should watch it very, very carefully. One of the finest features of almost all the Black Mirror episodes is just how carefully crafted and well-written they are. They can be subtle, and the subtleties can be easy to miss. Much of the deeper horror lies in the details. So: SPOILER ALERT. If want to avoid the spoilers, see the episode before advancing to the rest of the article.
Here’s the Simple Default Interpretation of the episode: The Playtest episode is about a young American man named Cooper. After caring for his dying father, he leaves home secretly and goes on a round-the-world youth-hostel-backpacker type adventure. Which lands him eventually in England. There he hooks up with Sonja using a dating app. After learning his credit card has been hacked, he uses the “OddJobs” app to find some work to earn some quick money. He gets a job doing a “playtest” for a highly secretive gaming company. The game involves a neural implant which produces an augmented reality, sort of like Pokemon Go but running inside your brain. The game he’s going to test is a horror game, in which the implanted neural network will learn his fears and challenge him accordingly. He plays through several levels of this game, and, at the end, he appears to die.
Here’s the Problems with the Simple Interpretation: The episode is full of discrepancies and twists. If you watch it carefully, or watch it a few times, the internal inconsistencies multiply until you’ve got to figure that there’s something else going on, something deeply sinister.
The episode has lots of issues with time. Time doesn’t flow linearly: it expands and contracts. At the end, you’re told that Cooper went through over thirty minutes of game experience in 0.04 seconds. But there’s no way a human brain can process that much information that fast. And you’re told that Cooper’s phone caused a malfunction which killed him. Except that the phone also rang in the first set-up with the Wack-a-Mole game, and the game downloaded just fine (all the blue bars on the helmet light up), and Cooper is just fine, and Katie appears to turn his phone off. There are plenty of time-stamps on the internal security videos if you want to see the temporal discrepancies. Errors in the filming? Hardly. There are many clocks displayed prominently in every scene. This is tight.
The episode has lots of issues with physics. In the Haunted House, Sonja comes into the room and interacts physically with Cooper. They have the same physics. If she’s a game character, then so is he. She walks into him; he can touch her; she’s solid – unlike the ghostly figure of Cooper’s high school nemesis, which Cooper can walk right through. You can’t hallucinate solid matter. You can’t lean on an illusory wall. So maybe Cooper is hallucinating himself being inside of the Haunted House, like you can see yourself in a dream. Fine. But then you should conclude that Cooper is hallucinating the whole episode, including the time he spends with Sonja in her apartment talking about the Singularity. The physics is the same.
The episode has lots of issues with point-of-view. Who’s watching the security cameras? They show Cooper’s world without his hallucinations. And yes, there was a security camera in the White Room. You see the footage it shot. So they could have watched Cooper turn on his phone and take a snapshot of the contents of the black box. The episode has issues with character consistency. Saito wears different clothes in different scenes. Sometimes he can converse in English; sometimes only in Japanese.
The episode has issues with repetition. The phone calls from “Mom” start at 6:16am, just after Cooper gets into the taxi taking him away from his house. The scene of him leaving is the same as the scene of him returning. The shots are identical. And if the scene of him returning is in a game, then so is the scene of him leaving.
So this episode is good for metaphysics and epistemology. One traditional trope here is the appearance-reality distinction, in which there’s clearly an outermost or deepest reality level, the true reality, the basement bedrock level of truth. At that level, there’s a True Story about the world, told by a reliable omniscient narrator, whose point of view is the real POV of the story. This is the Plato’s Cave approach. Or we’re living in the Matrix, sure, but there really is a true reality opposed to the simulated reality, a truth opposed to an illusion. There’s a capital-T Truth: Cooper dies at the end. Sorry, but that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story.
Playtest is more like Inception or eXistenZ than like the Matrix. In eXistenZ, at the end, one of the players asks “Tell me the truth, are we still in the game?”. Similarly, at the end of Inception, we’re left wondering whether the main character is in the real world or still in the dream world, or whether there’s any real world at all. And it’s also sort of like Memento, where the failure of memory becomes a failure of reliability. Does the main character in Memento kill the real John G or just some arbitrary person? Is his own backstory true or just another confabulation? For me at least, the terror of Playtest lies in the total disintegration of narrative coherence.
I showed it in my Metaphysical class under the topic of “Impossible Worlds”. I urged the students to watch carefully, but I gave no interpretation of my own. After watching it, several students stated right away that Cooper was a game character. Cooper himself is the Playtest. He’s a software character generated by an AI. This helps explain why he can go through so much experience in only 0.04 seconds. But they’re all software characters. This helps explain why his girlfriend Sonja can appear physically inside of the Haunted House (the Gamekeeper’s Lodge) just as she appears physically in London. And why, when Cooper gets stabbed, it seems to happen to him physically. Software doesn’t have any level at all. It also helps to explain how Katie and Saito can operate on multiple levels.
On this interpretation, the entire episode, all of it, is set in some game-theoretic reality. We are all game characters, playing a game with almost no plot structure at all – a game much like eXistenZ, or perhaps No Man’s Sky. There are layers upon layers of phenomenal experience, but they aren’t nested. They overlap and intersect. The characters create the levels around them. They weave the web of the world. A program running on one level can run on all the levels. All these levels overlap and intersect. They aren’t nested, they aren’t dreams within dreams. Each dream has its own time and space, but the dreams crisscross in variable ways. Characters don’t stay in their levels. Like Allegra says in eXistenZ, “There’s some weird reality-bleed-through effect here”. And there isn’t any coherent omniscient point of view.
Playtest is a metaphysical horror story. It’s more like a Lovecraftian nightmare than like a Platonic dream. You coud develop an idealist metaphysics here: there are lots of finite software minds interacting in poorly coordinated ways. Ultimately, nobody has any identity. And there isn’t any real world. There’s no hardware, no rock bottom. There are computations, but no computers.