The Intimate, the Uncanny and the Double in the Digital World
By Vera Lamanno Adamo
On the path of Be Right Back, an episode of the TV series Black Mirror created by Charlie Brooker, the author considers the ways we relate with death and with “life” after death through the digital world, based on Freud’s formulations of the uncanny and the double.
Be Right Back (2013) is the title of the first episode of season two of Black Mirror.
Each episode has a different cast, a different set and a different aspect of reality, presenting, through speculative fiction, sombre and sometimes satirical themes that examine modern society, especially regarding the unforeseen consequences of new technologies.
The Black Mirror series explores the tech-savvy individual, but in doing so goes a step further. It shows above all, the uncanny, sombre and disturbing side of the human being. It shows the ‘unheimlich’: that category of the scary that refers to the known for a long time, and yet sinister, although very familiar (Freud, 1919).
In the episode titled Be Right Back, we witness the familiar uncanny intimately related to the double, the individual who unfolds in his double. Something so fleeting that fiction proves it better, since the author has more means to create effects of strangeness, without the necessity of subjecting them to the test of reality.
This episode begins by showing, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) and Martha (Hayley Atwell), moving to a remote country house. In the first few minutes we come across the usual scenes of a young couple creating an intimacy. He is stuck on his cellphone, distracting himself with the possibility of sharing ideas and photos with others, while Martha tries hard to be heard by him.
In these moments, we see the intimacy of the couple being built in impenetrability, in the growing tension created by the realisation of the uncanny in himself and in the other, and in the singularity of each. The uncanny refers to what is most intimately familiar. The uncanny assuring the intimate and vice-versa.
Nevertheless, Ash and Martha's ordinary life, portrayed in the first minutes, is interrupted in the next scene. The next day, Ash suffers a car accident and dies.
We have witnessed the love and loss story more than once, but the difference in the script created by Charlie Brooker is based on a situation in the real world, specifically on the scope and dimension of the digital world in our lives, or rather, in "life" after death.
The use of social media networks after death is a subject that has gained importance in recent years, so much so that Facebook allows the user to appoint a "legacy contact", that is, someone who can manage their profile after their death, instead of simply maintaining the "frozen" account or deactivating it. This and many other ideas are part of a movement that aims at "increased eternity" using artificial intelligence to convert a person's digital traces into a chatbot with personality, with the ability to answer questions and engage in a dialogue, imitating the conversation style of the deceased individual (Pedreira, P. 2017).
Several companies, to meet the growing demand for protection of the digital legacy, offer a kind of funerary concept of the future. Remember Me and The Hereafter Institute, using the Facebook profiles of people who have passed away, produce a video with their story, all accompanied by a soundtrack generated exclusively from the data of the deceased (Pedreira, 2017).
Be Right Back does not bring about an absolute rupture with reality, but it borders on its limits, thus provoking an indefinable strangeness, different from the feeling of panic in the face of an overwhelming and catastrophic phenomenon.
The "life" after death
The daily life of Martha is abruptly interrupted by Ash's death in a car accident. Her integrity is threatened. Undeterred by limitations and mortality, Martha constructs an android version of Ash that is benevolent at first, as it protects her from fragmentation and annihilation. They form a unitary couple, are practically one. Ash’s android is the reflection and complement of Martha.
Delivering herself to the omnipotence of thought and through the artifice of the digital world, Martha tries to keep Ash immortal to satisfy her narcissistic desire to fill the nostalgic expectation of the ideal. But the benevolent double, who was once enough to protect her against loneliness and helplessness, is not entirely effective. Ash’s android ends up becoming the representative of death: a strange announcer of limitation and alienation.
Ash's android does not bleed, acts on a programmed sex and only revolts when requested by Martha. She cannot handle the role of Ash’s android’s manager just to satisfy her desires. This leads Martha to want to destroy him: "you are sinister," she says.
The final scene of Be Right Back takes place several years later and shows Martha taking her seven-year-old daughter (Indira Ainger) to the cottage where she is keeping Ash’s android locked in the attic. She allows her daughter to meet him on weekends. While her daughter is in the attic with the android, Martha waits with tears on her face before joining them.
Although efficient and so close to reality, the double did not eliminate the anguish. The copy did not replace the original and was not entirely satisfactory. To create a double is only a psychic device used to neutralise the fragmented self, in the process of annihilation, until one goes on.
The double, both exterior and intimate, is right there: in the next room, in the attic, on the same road, in the black mirror, able to represent everything that denies the limitation of the self, able to stage the fantastic script of desire.
Vera Lamanno Adamo
- Training analyst in the Brazilian Psychoanalytic Society of São Paulo and in the Psychoanalytic Study Group of Campinas. PhD in Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Unicamp. author of several articles published in national and international journals and the books Trabalho do Negativo (Work of the Negative) published by Casa do Psicólogo, São Paulo, Brazil and Vivendo na Fronteira: Psicanálise e arte (Living in the Border: psychoanalysis and Art) published by Appris, Curitiba, Brazil, 2018.
Freud, S. (1919). The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII, 217-256.
Pedreira, P. (2017). Enfim, imortais? Como a tecnologia pode mudar a noção de morte. (Anyway, immortals? How technology can change the notion of death). Recovered in 12 Mar. 2017, from Linkedin.
Black Mirror is available to watch on Netflix.