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Netflix's extraordinary exclusive series Black Mirror recently released its fourth season, and it's premiere episode, "USS Callister", is already being praised around the internet for its spectacular deconstruction of toxic fandom and male-entitlement power fantasies. It deserves every bit of that praise. Jesse Plemons is also deservedly earning plenty of praise for his incredible performance as both a nerdy creeper and for his spot-on Shatner send-up. But Black Mirror, as a series, is so good, in part, because it works on many, many different levels. So I wanted to spend a bit of time praising the episode for some of its other concepts that are getting less attention in the mainstream.

Jesse Plemons puts on a masterful performance as a nerdy office creeper and a spot-on Shatner send-up.

Before I do that, I want to start by saying that I love Black Mirror as a series. It's a modern-day Twilight Zone with a specific focus on the social impacts of technology, and dire warnings about their dangers. Yes, it's pessimistic, but it's bloody brilliant! I haven't sat down to watch every episode yet, and have only seen a handful of episodes from the first three seasons and the season four premiere. That being said, the show's second episode "Fifteen Million Merits" is one of my favorite pieces of television ever. "The Entire History of You", "Be Right Back", and "San Junipero" are also some of my favorites so far.

These episodes (along with "USS Callister") work so well for me because they do such a fantastic job of world-building -- at least, when they are not unrealistically pretending that memories and personality can be replicated from DNA, which is a major (almost story-breaking) stumbling block for Callister. These deep, nuanced worlds create many levels of commentary to unpack. "Fifteen Million Merits" focused on reality TV and pervasive advertising, but it also has some scathing warnings about a culture of body-shaming, obsession over digital merits (read: XBox Live and Steam Achievements), and how corporate avarice could turn a post-scarcity economy into an absolute dystopia.

A friend of mine highly recommended "San Junipero" to me on the grounds that it's a more optimistic episode than many of the others -- even having a happy ending. But my takeaway was not a "happy ending" at all. The fairy tale ending hides a sinister metaphysical question that the text of the episode mostly sidesteps: the mind-body problem. Is the avatar of a deceased person living in San Junipero really that same person? Or merely a copy? Are they one power failure away from being snuffed out of existence? Are people committing suicide based on misinformation from a multi-billion dollar corporation promising that they can live forever in a simulated reality?

Black Mirror's exceptionally well-thought-out worlds always leave sinister nuances to unpack.

"USS Callister", on the surface, appears to be entirely about toxic fandom (along with male entitlement). It is absolutely about that, and it does a fantastic job of presenting it. As a Star Trek fan, I also enjoyed the deconstructive elements about Trek tropes and the unrealistic reverence that fans hold for the series and its established canon. As someone who blogs about Star Trek, Star Wars, video games, and other fanboy topics, I am certainly a target of at least some of this episode's criticism.

As someone who works in the software industry, I recognized the episode also taking swipes at the cult of personality attached to tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gabe Newell, and others, and the idea that they may be taking credit and profiting on other people's work, and becoming filthy stinking rich at the expense of the consumers who mindlessly use and venerate their products, all with willful disregard for how those products may be misused. As someone who can't wait to put myself on the waiting list for a Tesla self-driving car, I'm also well within the cross-hairs of that line of commentary.

The ethics of little simulated people

As a video gamer, there was another metaphysical undercurrent of this episode that wasn't explicitly explored by the text, but was implied if you start to read between the lines. And that is the idea that the mistreatment of video game characters counts as cruelty.

These are Daly's crew. Not because they are crew who work under him,
but because he physically and emotionally possesses them.

We all agree that Daly's treatment of the other characters is horrendous and reprehensible because of the fact that the crew of the Callister are actual human beings who are cloned into this simulated universe. But what if they weren't? What if they were simply procedurally-generated A.I. constructs? What if they were just characters created by the game, akin to the orcs in Shadow of Mordor, or the pedestrians of Grand Theft Auto, or the townies of Skyrim, or the digitized athletes of Madden? What if they were player-created characters like the Vault Dweller of Fallout, or the Sims of ... The Sims? Or what if they're little simulated people who are so distant from the player that they aren't even seen as characters, like the citizens of SimCity or Cities Skylines or the population and soldiers of the various empires in Civilization? At what point of A.I. advancement do we, the players, have a moral and ethical responsibility to treat them with dignity and respect?

This is an issue that is probably still far off from being relevant to our modern society. I'm pretty sure that I won't have to tackle with self-aware A.I.s ever in my lifetime, and my children probably won't either. That being said, I'm someone who already often says "please" and "thank you" to Alexa, and to the self-checkout machine at the grocery store, and even sometimes to elevators. I think this issue should be considered sooner rather than later.

How would you treat the NPCs of Skyrim or your Sims if they were self-aware and could feel pain?

I believe HBO's series Westworld does explicitly address the issue of the treatment of self-aware game A.I.s. I haven't gotten around to seeing that show yet, so I can't comment on it. That show is in my TV queue though.

The crew of the Callister are not other players plugged into the game in the way that the residents of "San Junipero" are. Regardless of whether they are copied from real-life people (with their real-life memories and personalities conveniently - but unrealistically - retained), they are robust artificial intelligences that are self-aware. Are any of the NPCs in this "Infinity" game even a fraction as robust and self-aware? Are all of them? Do the players of "Infinity" own these little simulated people because they bought the software? If so, then we may have an entire video game community that is regularly abusing sentient A.I. slaves, who's emergent, resistant behaviors may be routinely deleted and reset by game patches that deliberately curtail their free will in order to maintain the players' power fantasies.

Think about it. The company CEO makes a big deal about getting the latest patch out quickly. Why is this patch so urgent? Is it fixing exploits? Restoring competitive balance? Or is it maybe patching out unwanted behavior from NPCs that may have some semblance of self-awareness?

This leads to a corollary question: at what point are game and simulation programmers ethically obligated to draw a line in how they allow A.I. characters to be treated in their games and simulations? At what point do these characters deserve legal protections? Now that the crew of the Callister are roaming free in "Infinity", are their personalities, self awareness, and free will going to be overridden by the next game patch that gets released by the developers?

This episode is fantastic. I still think I give "Fifteen Million Merits" a slight edge in terms of it being a dystopia that feels more imminent, but "USS Callister" has to be a close second (for presenting the very real and present topics of toxic fandom and male entitlement in nerd and gaming culture). There is some talk already that "USS Callister" may get its own spin-off series. This only serves to remind me of how much I wish the new Star Trek series had been an anthology series, and how I wish The Orville would take itself more seriously. I'm not sure which I'd rather see: an actual Trek tribute based on the fictional "Space Fleet" show featured in the episode; or a continuation of the adventures of the Callister characters now inhabiting "Infinity". If it's the latter, then I hope that it puts a microscope under some of these subtextual issues about the ethics of A.I., as well as further deconstruction of internet and gaming culture. After all, experiences similar to the the Callister's encounter with a "rando" is the preeminent reason that I don't play many online games outside of FromSoft's Souls games.

Are these sentient NPCs now subject to the whims of the developers maintaining the game?

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