Black Mirror's Artistic Expression of 'My Avatar, My Self: Virtual Harm and Attachment'


Back when I was a graduate student in Strategic Communications at Columbia University, I read a paper from Ethics and Information Technology, July 2007, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 111-119 entitled, "My Avatar, My Self: Virtual Harm and Attachment." The paper, written by Jessica Wolfendale, was ahead of its time.

It analyzed multi-user online environments in which participants use their online personas or "avatars" to chat, fight, make friends, have sex, kill monsters and even get married. But, in these online worlds, participants could also use their avatars to stalk, kill, sexually assault, and torture each other.

The question then became: If you morally wrong someone's avatar in an online environment, have you done genuine harm to him or her in "real life?"

I had almost forgotten about this paper until I watched S4: E1 of Black Mirror, "USS Callister," written by series creator Charlie Brooker and William Bridges. The episode follows a reclusive but gifted programmer who is the trampled-on co-founder of a popular multiplayer online game. The character, Robert Daly, is a spineless dork who is bitter from having his genius coding all but taken from him by a more charming and aggressive CEO--the self-proclaimed "shiny face of the company"--who openly disrespects him in front of co-workers.

Daly takes out his secret frustrations and expresses his inner control freak by simulating a Star Trek-like space adventure within the game, using his co-workers' actual DNA to create digital clones of them. As the captain of the USS Callister starship, he bosses his co-workers around, submits them to his will and mistreats them if they step out of line--by making them faceless or turning them into monsters.

The digital clones of his co-workers, trapped in his personal fantasy and game, become frantic to escape when a cute new hire at work, Nanette Cole, enters the game and convinces the other copies there is a way out of Daly's coding.

For me, this episode of Black Mirror took Ms. Wolfendale's premise to the next level: If we morally wrong someone in our mind, have we done genuine harm to him or her? Similarly, if we fantasize about doing harm to someone, have we done genuine harm to him or her?

I would argue we have.

How many times do we know or sense when someone has sent us a negative thought or feeling, even if it was never spoken? Sometimes it's almost as though the digital clone of that person shows up to deliver his or her negative thought or emotion, and I feel slimed on with the same awful gunk I would if that person had expressed it openly, to my face.

The other thing I found so interesting about this episode of Black Mirror is how much I related to the digital copies who feel trapped inside of someone else's brilliant but sinister coding. The clones are all miserable, knowing they are prisoners to the coder, and hate the roles he's given each one to play. (Side note: I love how they are all friends when he exits the game, despite their assigned roles.) But they are also scared to be turned into something worse, as Daly has done to others, or simply cease to exist.

In the end, however, the digital copies triumph over the evil coder by working together with their human originals on the outside of the game to escape.

So my next question is: What if we, "in real life," are the avatars of something greater? And, if so, how do we work with our original, outside of the game, to escape?

(I think we can all agree this is some brilliantly sinister coding.)

Who's with me?

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