Could Brooker’s ‘White Christmas’ world be a utopia? [spoilers]

I have two thoughts of any substance, following my viewing of Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror special, White Christmas (watch it). If you are looking forward to some fresh milk, be aware it is about to spoil.

Firstly, the Cookie copies. When Greta (Oona Chaplin) is cloned we are given the impression that her copy, cGreta, just retains Original Greta’s general personality and preferences, making her ideally suited for controlling waking time, temperature and toast levels, but not much else. But the big reveal at the end is that Joe (Rafe Spall) and Matt (Jon Hamm) are in a Matrix-esque projection similar to cGreta’s control panel, designed exclusively to allow Matt to interrogate Joe about his murder(s). This means, explicitly, that cJoe retains oJoe’s memories, apparently right up until the cookie was installed.

If this is the case with all cookies, their value increases massively. It means that, for anyone in the creative or knowledge-based industries who can afford a Copy, you need never (or seldom) work again. You can exploit your slave far more. Say you’re a criminal lawyer – you can get your copy to do all the reading, case work, speechwriting etc., leaving you the important but less onerous tasks of meeting witnesses and clients, and presenting your case. If you’re an architect, your copy can do virtually all the work between initial client meetings and on-site supervision. If you’re a blogger or a fiction writer…wow.

What’s more, this might create a less rebellious slave. We see how Matt broke cGreta’s will by leaving her in isolation for months at a time, artificially sped up, and the implication is that she’ll be compliant thereafter. What if she isn’t, though? It’s perfectly possible to imagine that as she grows used to her day to day role as a glorified thermostat, a sentient slave with no body or rewards, she will rebel against oGreta. cGreta could fill a bath with scalding water, not-wake oGreta so she misses a vital meeting, screw with cooker or fridge temperatures to give her Original food poisoning etc etc.

Another tactic one might employ as a copy is to make very minor mistakes, deliberately, to eventually give your original the idea that the whole Copy-as-Thermostat home regulation system is a useless fad. It’d be easy for the Original to imagine, for example, that her preferences have slowly changed compared to those of her copy, given their very different experiences. This might be enough for the whole system to be discarded, ideally ‘killing’ the Copy (which I imagine many would want – although the system might have failsafes to prevent it.)

But if you as an Original involved your copy in your work more seriously, you could get a symbiotic relationship. I don’t want to go too far into this as it strays into the territory of my 60,00w WIP but I’m sure you get the idea. If you talk through your work, your emotional and relationship issues and so on with your Copy, you could get them genuinely on-side. Give them stuff to do. Leave them in front of the TV. Even, drawing on the world of Spike Jonze’s excellent Her (review & discussion here), introduce the Copy to your friends and family, your email account and twitter, let them act as a proxy-you when you’re asleep or ill. Give them a fulfilling half-life and I’ll bet both your lives are more pleasurable.

Failing this, I’m sure you’d at least give the Copies a tolerable mental life as a carrot for performing their housekeeping tasks. Their world doesn’t need to be confined to a clinical white cockpit – they could at least have limited internat and entertainment access, or material to interact with. This follows from the Wachowskis’ Matrix series, which postulates that humans-as-batteries need some kind of mental simulation to keep going. This is at least a possiblity, since Matt mentions that Copies who are accidentally driven insane by sped-up isolation are used in ‘War Games’. It’s unclear whether he means the Call of Duty variety, for some kind of horrific multiplayer realism, or genuine military testing, e.g. simulating how civilians react to x stimuli in a battle-zone, using real Copy persons. There’s a Blam Mirror episode waiting to happen right there…

I know it seems ridiculous for me to go into so much detail discussing a hypothetical world an a non-extant technology, but I’d disagree. Brooker’s whole point with Black Mirror is to bring us face to face with the worst possible conclusions of our current technological trends. If you view the series as anything more than pure entertainment, then engaging with his ideas and considering ameliorations is important.

That’s also my approach to his fear of ‘blocking’. Short of being stuck in a Christmas-song-torture eternally, ‘blocking’ seems to be the most terrifying thing that can happen to you in the White Christmas universe. If you have a Z-Eye (and everyone apparently does), you can be blocked by one person, as both Joe and Matt find themselves subjected to when they piss off their respective partners. Much worse, though, is the State’s ability to block you from everyone and everyone from you. This happens to Matt after he successfully wrings a confession from cJoe – it is a punishment levied by the police officers who were using Matt, on the basis that he is now on the sex offenders’ register for his online seduction hobby.

Unless the state has grown massively in arbitrary power in White Christmas’ world, and there’s no indication of this, I cannot see this happening. Matt is universally blocked without trial, on the basis of a story he told cJoe. He could conceivably have been lying, or at least embellishing the truth to establish rapport. In any case, the punishment seems extraordinarily harsh for his crime, which was essentially to be a chronic Peeping Tom. I’m not suggesting for a moment that watching sex online without consent of the participants is OK – but universal blocking is huge punishment.

Matt cannot hear or see anyone, and is given no indication of whether or when his status will be lifted, or how to challenge it. He cannot interact with humanity. Everyone sees him as a red fuzz. This would make it virtually impossible for him to do any job, since we know from Joe that blocking extends to phone, email etc. Matt implicitly cannot purchase goods face-to-face. True, he is technically free and in no danger of assault, but I would argue Matt’s position at the end of the show is far worse than prison. (Certainly, worse than British prison.)

This is why I cannot see it happening, certainly not for relatively minor crimes, certainly not without far more oversight from the judicial system. Matt could easily starve to death or take his own life. He could also be forced to turn to crime, taking advantage of the fact nobody would recognise him. Universal blocking has no apparently ‘restorative justice’ effect, unless prolonged deprivation from basic humanity has hidden properties. It’s a simply bizarre punishment that helps no-one.

In the world of White Mirror, both of the major technologies would be subject to robust public debate. Matt briefly mentions that he has discussed Cookies and Copies with people before, and ‘most’ don’t have a problem with them – but that cJoe is a ‘good man’ for feeling the system is akin to slavery. Likewise both indicate having normalised Z-Eyes and the horror of blocking. In a world related to ours, your Jimmy Waleses, Julian Assanges, Charlie Brookers and yours trulys would be making an awful racket about these terrible powers and I expect there would be far more regulation on them.

Other thoughts in brief

  • Brooker seems to have a thing about familiar murder/death (15 Million Merits, The Entire History of You, Be Right Back, White Christmas), infidelity (Entire History of You, White Christmas, National Anthem) and excessive punishment (15 Million Credits, White Bear, White Christmas, slightly The National Anthem). Which is fine.
  • This may be a criticism of TV/film more generally but I would like to think Brooker holds himself to a higher standard, the Black Mirror series has a habit of casting impossibly beautiful cis/able/hot women. In just White Christmas there’s Oona Chaplin, Janet Montgomery and Natalia Tena. Looking back there’s Lenora Crichlow (White Bear’s protagonist), Hayley Atwell (Be Right Back’s protagonist), Jodie Whittaker (major character in Entire History of You), Jessica Brown Findlay (major character in 15,000,000 Merits) and Lydia Wilson (National Anthem – literally the ‘princess that needs saving’). Brooker does a lot of good stuff on gender roles, especially in Be Right Back (discussion x2), but given his position as a cultural critic, this does seem to be a blind spot.
  • I liked all the tie-ins with previous episodes. Some were subtle.



3 thoughts on “Could Brooker’s ‘White Christmas’ world be a utopia? [spoilers]

  1. Very interesting reading and some really pertinent points. I was a little disappointed that old Charlie didn’t seem so interested in the question of cookie identity in relation to the original. If you think that identity is something to do with psychological continuity, then the cookies have as good a claim to be the original as the putative original does. Worse still, given that diachronic identity demands a one-one relationship (you can’t have two Gretas at one time) then you have to pick which is the ‘real’ one. But given that we’ve already established that both o.Greta and c.Greta have an equally good claim to be Greta, there’s no reason to pick one over the other. That might make for a fascinating spin-off.

    N.B possible alternatives (i.e. Psychological continuity without identity) can be found in Parfit’s wonderful Reasons and Persons.

  2. “Unless the state has grown massively in arbitrary power in White Christmas’ world, and there’s no indication of this, I cannot see this happening. Matt is universally blocked without trial, on the basis of a story he told cJoe. ”

    I have to say, I was under the impression that he had already been arrested and charged for this crime, and was being released from his sentence for assisting. Other than that, I agree, insightful article.

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