The show Black Mirror has been blowing people’s minds since its debut in 2011. Originally conceived as a Twilight Zone-esque scifi series for Britain’s Channel 4, the show is now officially a “Netflix original.”
The show is rife with common themes, including the idea that reality and/or consciousness may be illusions. It’s an idea that is intimately entwined with the Salvia divinorum experience, and it’s my intention to explore that connection in this article.
We’ll start by documenting the numerous times Black Mirror explores artificial, simulated realities, then circle back around and explore the common experiences people have on Salvia that suggest our reality doesn’t exist the way we think it does, much like many a Black Mirror character.
Be warned: Major Black Mirror spoilers follow. This article is best suited for people who have watched the entire series to date.
Black Mirror’s “cookies”
One of the recurring concepts in Black Mirror is that of the “cookie” — a slang term for a digital duplicate of a human consciousness.
The first time this concept is introduced is in the 2014 episode White Christmas. The episode is a three-part story, and it’s in the second part that we’re first introduced to “cookies.” The technology is used to create a duplicate of someone’s consciousness which is then uploaded to a computer, where they become the original’s “digital assistant.” The idea is this: Who would know your schedule and preferences better than you — so who better to be your digital personal assistant?
The concept raises some troubling questions about the nature of consciousness that have been explored in science fiction since the genre’s exception. But Black Mirror raises these questions in the context of a world where such technology is actually on the horizon of an Alexa- and Google-Home-filled world, and it comes across all the more chilling because it hits so close to home.
The “copy” made in this episode is essentially a prisoner, with a mind identical to that of the person it’s forced to serve, but with none of the freedom. Could we one day create digital personas that are essentially sentient, alive, yet be completely unaware, forcing them to do our bidding even though it’s torture to them?
But the question that goes unasked in this episode is whether it’s possible that we are also digital replicas, an idea that goes back to Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument. And as it just so happens, Black Mirror has a lot to say about simulated realities, too.
Black Mirror’s simulated realities
In Black Mirror, you can never be sure that what you’re watching is real (much like the reality one finds themselves in after smoking salvia).
REMEMBER, this is a spoiler-laden article, so if you haven’t already, watch fourth episode of season three, San Junipero, before reading ahead.
The episode appears to take place in the 1980s, but it’s later revealed that the 1980s world we’re seeing isn’t the 1980s so many of us have lived through. It’s a simulation of a 1980s city, a kind of testing ground for a new technology that offers its customers a sort of immortality.
The young woman we see at the start of the episode is not actually a young woman. She’s an elderly woman, and the 1980s world we’ve encountered her in is actually a free trial of a computer program. So far, it’s been her in there, like someone plugged into the Matrix. But she’s on her death bed, and when she dies, the company will copy her consciousness, where it will be able to continue living indefinitely in the digital paradise that is 1980s-era San Junipero.
That’s just one example. In the opening episode of season four, we’re introduced to what appears to be an episode of a 1960s-era episode of a Star Trek-style sitcom.
From the beginning, it’s an odd sight and seems out of place in a show exploring the effect of technology on human society in the near future. But soon, we realize that this Star-Trek-style universe is actually a simulated reality. The self-styled captain of the ship is actually a computer programmer at a gaming company. He created this digital universe, modeled after his favorite sci-fi TV show, to fulfill his deepest desires. And the fact is, he’s the only one in this universe who is actually real. Everyone else is a digitized version of people he knows in real life, aided by stolen DNA.
It’s a horrific realization for these digitized copies of real people. They feel alive. They’re conscious. As far as they know, as far as they feel, they are “real.” But they live in a fake world. We watch them come to the terrifying realization that they’re a digital copy.
This simulation theory that Black Mirror explores so well is one of many such concepts I explore in my book Armchair Philosophy: An Accidental Shaman’s Musings on Life, Reality and Consciousness. And all of the concepts I explore in the book are related to the revelations I experienced after smoking Salvia divinorum.
Salvia’s revelation: Nothing is real
If there is one common thread that ties together hundreds, if not thousands, of Salvia divinorum experiences, it’s the sensation that so many Salvia users have that our reality isn’t real. That someone, or something, is purposefully concealing the true nature of reality and instead presenting us with the facade that we call our everyday life.
In my book, Summer of Salvia, I describe part of my first (and only) Salvia trip like this:
I’m riding along several layers of reality that are rapidly peeling away, one right after the other as if someone’s peeling off a potatoe’s skin, except once they peel off one layer of skin, there’s another beneath it, so they repeat the process again and again. Each layer is a level of illusion. Each layer has been carefully placed on top of the other to conceal the true nature of reality. Each layer is a deception, a dream, a mask. A little more truth is revealed with each one’s removal. The truth becomes clearer and as it does I grow more and more apprehensive.
Later, I write:
Suddenly it all makes sense. I always thought my life was significant, that God existed and had a purpose for me. But salvia reveals to me that our lives are completely and utterly insignificant and not one of us is alive.
I could go on and on, and cite at least half a dozen examples of people realizing that reality doesn’t exist in the way we think it does after smoking Salvia divinorum. But I’ll leave you with just one more example, which I cite in my book and which has always astounded me in its similarity to my own experience on Salvia. The following was written by Jeffrey Allen in his book, Get Laid or Die Trying: The Field Reports of his experience on salvia:
I smoked that shit, and it’s irrevocably changed everything forever, peeled off the veneer of my life, which was, in fact, not “real” at all. THIS is real. … My life was all a lie, but it meant something. My whole life was an elaborate joke, or a game.
The feeling one gets when tripping on salvia and realizing that their life may not actually exist reminds me a lot of the realization Black Mirror’s cookies come to when they realize they’re just a digital copy of someone else, someone that’s “real.” The show almost seems to suggest that the carbon-copy life is still a life, that in the end, the only difference is the medium it exists in. Is that the case for us? I can’t say for sure.
Maybe someday we’ll find out.