“Social exhaust” is what marketing professionals call the information and data trail that people leave online, via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on. Every status update, every photograph, every snippet of sound or video, builds up into a social profile that can be used by brands to target their products to a niche audience. It’s a slow, almost imperceptible accretion of detail that ultimately builds into a valuable picture. Valuable in the right circumstances, of course.
From the opening few scenes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Be Right Back, the first episode in a brand new series of Black Mirror, is about to head down a dimly-lit, deserted road toward slasher-flick horror territory. In actual fact, the secluded farm house that Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) arrive at is the setting for a different sort of tragedy. Martha is soon faced with a choice, one that the isolated location only serves to manipulate her inevitably towards.
Like Neo in The Matrix, Martha takes a path that changes her reality forever (and, in fact, similarly blurs the line between reality and computer simulation) as she uses Ash’s social exhaust to communicate with an electronic avatar of him after his death. However, unlike The Matrix, this is sci-fi that’s light on the science and heavy on the (romantic) fiction. Black Mirror has been pitched as “a sarcastic vision of the future” and nearly all of the last series’ episodes included something for gadget fans to get excited about. Although there are nods here to “safe drive” cars, curvy iPad-esque drawing pads and, at one point, a rather over-enthusiastic pregnancy test kit, Charlie Brooker’s latest self-contained story is less a cautionary tale about technology than it is the opportunities technology makes available. The question of whether Martha’s decisions constitute a moral compromise is what forms the centre of the drama.
Be Right Back’s central conceit isn’t too far-fetched, either. Only a year ago, the journalist Jon Ronson found himself at war on Twitter against a version of himself. Software engineers constructed an unsanctioned avatar of Ronson called a Weavr, a “bot” that harvested his social exhaust and attempted an impersonation of him online. Ronson cried foul and demanded the Weavr be taken offline. But its creators demurred. Yes, they admitted, it was just an algorithm, but now it had a “life” of its own wouldn’t deleting it be akin to… murder? Hmm… maybe this is slasher-flick horror territory after all.
BLACK MIRROR returns to Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.