Black Mirror sex tech: dreams, reality and forever

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

Almost any advance in technology has a sexual application. Smartphones? Porn, obviously. Virtual reality? Porn, obviously. Internet of things? Connected sex toys. Which you can synch with your porn. Obviously. So in any good sci-fi, there are plenty of examples of tech that either has been or could be used for filthy, sexy purposes. Given my love of creepy phone-fest Black Mirror, I have some thoughts on the latest series, and how the gadgets that features could have a sex tech application. Consider this post to be very spoiler-heavy for 3 episodes: Men Against Fire, Playtest and San Junipero.

Playtest

Playtest’s technology is essentially extreme virtual reality. VR that plugs directly into your brain, affecting not just your ‘audio-visual’ experience, as the game developers in the show claim, but every aspect of your perception. It can create giant terrifying spiders, the sensation of being stabbed, and the flavour of non-alcoholic wine.

It could also, naturally, create a roomful of hot people masturbating while looking at your naked body – for the exhibitionist narcissists among us. It could conjure visions of your favourite film star performing a strip tease in front of your eyes. On a bad day when you’re wallowing in pain after a break-up, it could torture you with visions of your still-beloved ex having vigorous sex with that person from work you’d always been jealous of.

Pick-up artists could use it to offer ‘training’ to willing saps, letting them walk around a virtual bar and practise their ‘game’ on CGI women. Qualified sex therapists could use it to help clients face some of their worries in a safe environment. Sex workers could sell access to it as an add-on to particular services: no longer are you just paying for an hour of time with one person, you’re paying extra for an hour of time in the game with them, where both of you will dress like Roman aristocracy and direct the activity of a virtual orgy.

In short: Playtest‘s game tech can be used for most of the things we currently use our imaginations for. And it comes with all the attendant problems. No doubt you’d be happy for me to sit alone in my bedroom, plugged into the system to judge a hot indie boy beauty contest. There are no consequences, so I can’t truly offend the guy who loses. But what if my tastes were more shocking? If we can create hyper-real sex we can also conjure hyper-real sadism and brutality. No one can police your thoughts, but hyper-real virtual reality is all about making those most intimate, private, often terrifying thoughts come to life.

And we’d do it, you know we would: I’ve watched The Walking Dead.

Men Against Fire

Men Against Fire isn’t sexy on the surface – it’s about soldiers who have implants that give them certain battlefield upgrades: heads-up displays of maps, direct links to drone cameras, that kind of thing. Their displays also turn so-called ‘roaches’ (human beings who the government has decided are undesirable) into terrifying, evil-looking monsters. Without the implants these people look like what they are: people. With the implants, they look like a nightmare. The idea is that it’s easier to pull the trigger on someone who doesn’t look like you.

There’s an obvious sex tech application of the brain implants which is spelled out in the show, so I won’t go into it in too much detail. The idea is that you – or someone else – can program your dreams, giving you a filthy night with the perfect lover, an orgy with ten clones of them, or anything else your pervy brain can imagine. Naturally that’s pretty hot, but the implications of it go beyond just ‘you can shag who you like while you sleep’ – a Men Against Fire world would, I suspect, lead to renewed demands for censorship and regulation, as angry conservatives become horrified by just how far you can go in your dreams.

Beyond the dream thing, though, imagine if the ability to edit appearance was an optional ‘sex tech’ upgrade? Having a brain implant that allows you to see people differently could have some super-hot implications at orgies and events. If anyone could program their digital avatar to appear different to others, fancy-dress sex parties would suddenly become extraordinary: real-life Jessica Rabbits hopping on sex swings at fetish clubs; Luke Cages wandering in to Marvel-themed orgies; all the different Batmans hanging out together for a gang-bang? The possibilities here are amazing.

But most great sex tech is about more than just surface level horn: on top of simple appearance-editing, tech like that in Men Against Fire could also be incredible for relationships. It could, in fact, do the opposite of what it’s intended for in the episode, and increase empathy rather than obliterating it. Imagine if you could alter your digital avatar (or those of other people) so that what you see makes you look more alike, rather than less? It could give you the experience of inhabiting other bodies, and seeing how people react to them. You could experience what it’s like attending a party looking like your partner, while they look like you, and see the world from the eyes of people giving their first impressions. Those ‘We Showed Men A Video Of Their Girlfriend Getting Harassed On The Street’ videos which did the rounds about 6 months ago could be played out in real life – giving people the chance to not just believe but truly comprehend what it’s like to be someone else in public.

You could have sex while inhabiting the body of someone with different genitals or smaller tits. You could go online dating as someone older, younger, fatter, whatever. And you could experience the rest of your life knowing that someone’s physical appearance may be wildly different on any given day, depending on their mood. After long enough with that kind of technology, where you’re never sure what other people look like without the implants, what happens to your relationships? In my opinion, likely you’ll start to care less about the ‘truth’ of someone’s looks, and far more about how their digital avatar represents them as a person. How they interact with you, whether your kinks match rather than your ‘hotness rating’, how kind they are or how good at dirty talk. For want of a better word: their soul.

San Junipero

What exactly do we mean by ‘forever’? As a non-religious person, realistically there’s no ‘forever’ for me except ‘until death.’ San Junipero – the Black Mirror episode which imagines a digital afterlife, where you can upload your mind to the cloud and live forever in a nostalgic/hedonist paradise – is by far the one that got me thinking the most.

‘Forever’ is scary to me. While there’s a beautiful romance in San Junipero, much of it triggers a huge anxiety in me. It’s the same anxiety that’s triggered by the idea of having children: a decision which – once made – cannot really be unmade. Permanence is frightening.

On the sex tech side, there are definitely benefits of San Junipero: you can visit the hedonist paradise on a temporary basis, meaning that your actions when there are almost consequence-free. You can fuck whoever you like, however you like, with no nerve-wracking STI check the week after or even soreness after a particularly vigorous fuck. No wonder so many San Juniperans spend time at terrifying BDSM nightmare club Quagmire. If I lived there – or visited – you can bet I’d enjoy the club too.

But while temporary visits to a hedonist video game definitely sound appealing, the idea of a permanent home in San Junipero gives me chills. Technically, you can leave any time: you just switch yourself off. In practice, I think there would be a hell of a lot of pressure to pick the right person with whom to spend ‘forever’, and then stay there once you’d decided. Sure, you’d get amazingly fun servers full of friendship groups who were close and happy – who enjoyed having sex with each other and being open and enjoying the freedom of forever. But you’d also get a lot of people, I think, who would feel pressured to sign up to San Junipero because ‘we’ve agreed to be together until the bitter end.’ Whether through guilt or indecision, there’d be some seriously unhappy couples living out their forever, too kind or scared to break things off when they realised paradise was anything but. What’s more, while I could switch off whenever I liked, if I were miserable because of the company I was keeping, having to choose to either live with it or die doesn’t sound like a decision I’d want to have to make.

And perhaps this is my cynicism or commitment-phobia, but San Junipero makes me uneasy. I’d visit for a while for fun, and I might opt for a permanent home there. But I’d be terrified of doing so hand-in-hand with a lover.

The permanence. The eternity. The aching guilt if it doesn’t work out.

At a push I could promise to love someone ‘forever’, but only if I knew there was no such thing.

If you’re not into Black Mirror or if – like a few people I know – you watched the pig episode (National Anthem) and it put you off, here are the episodes I think are the most interesting/cool in terms of what they do and how they do it: 

Entire History Of You, White Bear, Be Right Back, White Christmas, Playtest, San Junipero

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *