I2 Pub Interactive Intelligence

A Troubled Reality - Deconstructionism in Black Mirror's "Hang the DJ"

This post is being written as a continuation of a discussion following an I2 watch party of the Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ”.

The simulated is more real than we give it credit for, and the real is more simulated than we would like to believe.

Black Mirror’s “Hang the DJ” has, like so many well-produced literary texts, a very high complexity ceiling. The almost one-hour long episode features a world in which individuals are forced together and apart by an omniscent intelligent system promising to eventually pair each individual with their optimal romantic interest. Two individuals, Frank and Amy, grow close but are forced apart by the system; as their bodies are plunged in and out - both metaphorically and sexually - of other bodies with numbing repetity, they become detatched and existentially exhausted. When they are given a chance to briefly reunite, they decide to rebel against the system. When they do so, their bodies disintegrate into a fluid, abstract, artistically ‘virtual’ space that itself warps into a dating app interface. The jaunty music playing in the bar - “Hang the DJ” - informs us that we are in a viscerally different world. We see Amy and Frank, who have been matched to each other on the dating app, looking at each other shyly across the bar.

There are many questions to engage with in this episode, but perhaps the most pressing is the relationship between the simulated and the real. I argue that the episode principally sets forth a philosophical position: that the simulated is more real than we give it credit for, and - consequently - that the real is more simulated than we would like to believe. Ultimately, the real and the simulated are concepts that, when separated in the intrinsic, destabilize each other in an antagonistic dichotomy that forces us to consider their inevitable intermeshing. In application, we understand that simulated representations of ‘real people’ - Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra, or more accessible and disseminatable representations of objects of significance, like small figurines of Jesus or Disneyland memorabelia - that interact with each other are, in a very palpable sense, interactions between real people. Recommender systems that represent individuals with vectors and latent properties (the quantified simulacra), like the dating apps featurs in “Hang the DJ”, manipulate and match simulacra in ways so densely interconnected with the ‘real’ world that we must understand the simulated as real and the real as simulated.

To make sense of such abstract arguments, we can develop a concrete calculus which is temporarily useful (but will eventually cave in upon itself). Let \(C\) be an object in and of itself, the thing ‘in the flesh’, the thing ‘itself’, the ‘real’ thing. Let \(C' := \{C'_0, C'_1, ..., C'_{n-1}\}\) be a set of representations/simulacrum of \(C\). For instance, let \(C\) be an individual. \(C\) is looking for love, so \(C\) ventures into the online dating world. By participating on the online dating app, \(C\) continually contributes to his set of simulacra \(C'\). Let \(X\) represent some other object in and of itself, and correspondingly \(X' := \{X'_0, X'_1, ..., X'_{n-1}\}\) its set of simulacrum. It should be clear that \(C\) and \(X\) can meet, in the flesh (e.g. \(C\) has dinner with \(X\)). Moreover, the representations \(C'_n\) and \(X'_m\) also interact with one another in concrete ways. A recommender system that computes the similarity between \(C'_n\) and \(X'_m\), for instance, has brought \(C'_n\) and \(X'_m\) in contact with each other to produce a meaningful product of interaction. Further, though, we must realize that the interaction between \(C'_n\) and \(X'_m\) is itself an interaction between \(C\) and \(X\).

In order to understand why, we must first put forward a preliminary theory of interaction. Two entities can interact in many ways, but we know that two entities have interacted if one entity acts deliberately in a way that affects the other entity or produces a result affected jointly by both entities; i.e. we can establish a causal relationship between one agent’s deliberate action and an impact or product upon or informed by the other entity. Thus, we not only interact both with other agents in our environment, but also social structures, inanimate objects, and a variety of other entities. The key insight is that interaction does not necessarily require activity on both sides; that is, one agent can engage in active interaction and the other can engage in passive interaction (i.e. receiving the impact) - yet the encounter is still an interaction. Moreover, both agents can engage in passive interaction if their contact, however abstract, produces a jointly informed product. Such a general theory of interaction is a useful tool to help us understand how entities at various positions in our ontology can come into ‘contact’ with each other, often in necessarily abstract forms.

When two representations \(C'_n\) and \(X'_m\) interact with each other, I argue, this is itself an interaction between \(C\) and \(X\). First, we must understand that the concept of a \(C\) or an \(X\) - an ‘object in and of itself, in the flesh, the thing itself, the real thing’ - itself is dependent upon a web of interactions, i.e. society and social connection. All entities relevant to our analysis here - humans, social groups, and so on - are shaped and existentially dependent upon other such entities. Most obviously, we - as humans - depend on other such entities on a physical/biological basis. We rely upon others to produce, grow, and produce food for us; to collect natural resources and to use them to build shelter structures; to study illness and manufacture cures to them. More profoundly, our understanding of ourself is inextricably intertwined with social narratives - that is, not only our physical existence but our conscious existence is dependent on social networks. I will not argue for this thesis here, since it has been done much more effectively by many others. See Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Creation of Self” (our understanding of ourself is shaped by narratives - stories - that we continue to tell ourselves about ourselves, which are informed by and in turn actively inform the social/societal narrative body/bodies) and Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideologicla State Apparatuses” (ideology interpellates individuals as subjects that live their existence within ideology, without being able to really ‘see’ the ideology - one theoretical insight among many more).

Consider that \(X\) encounters \(C'_n\) and decides he dislikes \(C\) - perhaps \(C'_n\) is a controversial political opinion, or an annoying selfie. \(X\) disseminates the set of representations defined by \(D := \{C'q \mid \text{Dislikable} (C'q) \}\) to some other being \(Y\). \(Y\), as it turns out, provides an important service to \(C\). This can be biological - e.g. \(Y\) provides the food source \(C\) consumes from - or, perhaps more interesting, psychological/conscious-existential. \(Y\), upon interaction with some \(C_q \mid C_q \in D\), dislikes \(C\) and terminates such a service. \(C\)’s existence is thus threatened; it was always variable, dependent on the social web of connections. Such a social web of connections is determined by the transmission of representions. In such an example, there are no ‘concrete’ interactions between beings, only interactions between beings and representations; yet the result is an existential threat to a ‘real being’. The purpose of such an exercise is to introduce the notion that interaction between and of simulacra are entangled with the existentence of the ‘real beings’. We cannot disentangle the existence from the simulacra from the existence of the ‘real being’.

Ultimately, we must realize that, loosely, \(C = C'\) and \(X = X'\); more rigoorusly, \(C \cong C'\) and \(X \cong X'\). In this sense, we understand a primary dual antagonism: between the real thing in and of itself ‘in the flesh’ and the representation of that thing in and of itself, between \(C\) and \(C'\), between \(X\) and \(X'\). This is the theoretical culmination of our calculus.

From this primary antagonism/destabilizing binary, we can understand that the separation of reality and simulation broadly forces out jarring contradictions and ‘unresolutions’. We understand not only that the simulated is informed by the real, but that the real is informed by the simulated; further, we understand that this is not merely a matter of informing but shaping; eventually, shaping becomes intertwining. At this theoretical pinnacle, we understand that the real and the simulated are hopelessly intertwined and intermeshed with one another. Our simulated worlds are more real than we give it credit for.

Further Reading

Jean Baudrillard takes this further; he suggests in his groundbreaking postmodernist work Simulacra and Simulation that the hyperreal is more real than real.

To be continued.