What made last night’s Black Mirror so nightmarish was that it was so believable. It all felt a little too close to home. Charlie Brooker’s futuristic fable series returned to Channel 4 with Be Right Back – a dark tale about grief and social media.
In the opening scenes, we are introduced to Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domnhall Gleeson); a normal couple who know each other inside out. Martha’s not a fan of Ash’s obsession with social media. He’s constantly looking at his phone. He often refers to things he’s tweeted, or makes a note-to-self to update his status with witty sayings. As if life only counts when things are put out into the ether.
When tragedy strikes and Ash dies, Martha is left with a hollow sense of grief. He’s gone.
But then her friend signs her up for the beta-testing of a new app which can make him… not-so-gone. By downloading all the things Ash ever said while he was alive; his tweets, his statuses, his blogs, his voice, his videos – all the Ash-related stuff from the information highway, Martha can speak to him beyond the grave. At first she resists, of course. It’s sick. It’s insane.
Then in a weak moment, wracked with grief, she tries it and is hooked. The app fills the Ash-shaped hole in her life. “That’s just what he would say,” she says to the voice at the other end of the line when the app does its job well. The story takes yet darker turns when her obsession with her dead partner escalates and she grows her own walking-talking Ash in her bathtub. It all becomes a little… unhealthy.
The story makes you realise that it was unhealthy all along. Ash’s addiction to social media while he was alive was unhealthy. Being addicted to your Twitter timeline is unhealthy. Thinking that you can have genuine relationships with people on your computer or through your phone is unhealthy.
The BBC recently dubbed 2013 the year of digital addiction and you can now receive counselling for this new disorder.
I’m a big fan of social media. I could be described as a digital addict. My heart actually starts beating faster at the thought of losing my iPhone. But I fool myself when I replace virtual relationships with real ones. I’ve been watching a new MTV series called Catfish which follows men and women who have been having ‘relationships’ with people via Skype or Facebook but have never met in real life. In a recent episode we meet Kim who has been talking to Matt for 10 years. She thinks she loves him. Until the show arranges for them to meet and she realises that he’s not all she had imagined.
There is no replacement for living, breathing, real-life relationship. You can email and tweet and Whatsapp to your heart’s content, but there is something amazing, something almost otherwordly, about the warmth of a human hug. Maybe that’s because of the way we’ve been created.
Last night’s Black Mirror was a cautionary tale, reminding me to recognise addiction, to be wary of the ‘me’ I’m putting forward online and to cherish real life. Because in Brooker’s fable there is no happy ending. Martha eventually becomes frustrated with Fake Ash when he comes out with things that aren’t quite right. When he doesn’t fight back the way that Ash would have done when he was alive. When he doesn’t cry or get frustrated. She misses all the awful bits about him; the bits that made him human. It’s those bits that he left out of his status updates.