Black Mirror and Identity

Black Mirror and Thoughts on Identity (Crisis?)

Musings Feb 6, 2022

A few weeks back, I came across the show “Black Mirror.” Each episode carries an independent storyline and could hold up an entire conversation by itself, but most of them follow an overarching idea of technology and humankind evolving together, the differences and dilemmas they face. The season two opener, “Be Right Back”, sent me on an absolute tangent, the result of which is this article. I must preface by saying that this article isn’t directly based on the show or the episode mentioned previously. It’s more of a thought that offsets from watching the episode. I think this goes without saying, but spoilers ahead.

So, the storyline of the episode goes like this:

Martha and Ash are a young couple who just moved to a remote countryside. They seem to be a happy and realistically portrayed couple. And as it must happen, Ash is soon killed in a car accident. Martha realizes soon after that she is pregnant with his child. Martha is paralyzed by grief. Her friend signs her up for a service that recreates dead people from their social media interactions. Martha reluctantly starts using the app. The more videos and personal recollections of Ash that she uploaded onto the app, the more realistic it gets. Things got more warped as Martha took the next step and decided to go through with an upgrade that created a human-like droid to look and behave like Ash. The resemblance is simply uncanny. But not enough to replace Ash forever. She realizes she has lost her loved one and technology cannot quite replace him, his flaws, and his quirks, the little things. These are things that only her memory could recreate now.  She slowly starts her journey to deal with her grief in a way that she could best do.

The plot takes us through how Martha deals with her grief. This is a very condensed summary and does no justice to how so realistically presented, better articulated, and devastatingly beautiful the episode is.

There are so many moments throughout the episode that just makes you pause and think but not for too long because captivity is definitely its selling point. While there are so many things that can be discussed about this plot, there was one idea that I just couldn’t quite get out of my head.

As the AI picks up Ash’s traits, emulating his behavior, it got me thinking, What really defines our personality? Our personality makes us who we are. It has an impact on essentially every aspect of our life, including our career choices, how we connect with our families, and who we choose as our friends and romantic partners. But what aspects of life have an impact on our personalities? Is it possible to change our personalities or do our overall characteristics remain the same throughout our lives?

Our personalities are most probably our most intrinsic human characteristics. No other species that the earth has witnessed has achieved this feat. It seems intuitive that our personality is dynamic, that is, as we make our way through life, we pick up from our experiences and memories, the pieces that define who we are.

The Field of Personality Psychology might be one of the most intriguing niches in human psychology. I think what adds to the interest is how unresolved the various hypotheses are. Some theories are still being explored, while others have become outdated. Some theories compete with one another, while others complement one another. A look at some of the most influential theories in personality psychology, both contemporary and traditional, gives you a feel of the different ways to think about and analyze this complex subject.

While there are many categories under Personality Psychology, the one that caught my attention was the psychoanalytic perspective of personality.

Psychodynamic theory, originating with Sigmund Freud, says that human behavior is the result of the interaction among various components of the mind (the id, ego, and superego) and that personality develops according to a series of psychosocial developmental stages.

Neo-Freudian theorists, including Erik Erikson, emphasized the social elements of personality development, the identity crisis, and how personality is shaped throughout the entire lifespan.

According to Erikson, a person goes through eight stages of development, each of which builds on the previous one. We are in the midst of a crisis at each stage. By resolving the crisis, we build psychological characteristics or character traits that help us become confident and healthy individuals.

While each stage is essential for the holistic development of a person, I think the crisis of identity v/s role confusion might be the most tricky one to navigate through. Am I biased because I am currently going through it? Possibly. But it still doesn’t take away from its intricacy

Social identity is a part of human personality. Social identity is about how you present yourself to others. This social identity is often in conflict with our personal identity such as our values, beliefs, and goals that help shape and guide a person's behavior. The software used in the Black Mirror episode bases most of Ash’s personality on his social identity. We often find ourselves trying to make sure our social identity amongst our peers stays intact, sometimes even at the cost of our personal identity. Because like it or not, we’re social beings, and making sure we stay part of the pack is our most primal instinct. It is during this phase that most young adults face an Identity Crisis, compelling them to ask questions of themselves like - Who am I? What have I become? Am I the same person I used to be? During this phase, most individuals then try to find a sense of self and an appropriate role in modern society. An identity is what makes you unique in the eyes of others.  Identity develops over time through relations with others. For many people,  the development of identity follows a period of experimentation, but for others, it happens more easily by adopting ready-made social roles.  

Life in our world is unpredictable. Our surroundings, situations, and the people around us are always changing, but our personality is something we always take with us. It influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions regardless of where we are or who we are with at any one time. Personality helps in adjustment. Your personality assists you in "surviving" and dealing with the daily problems that you face. More recent studies reveal that your personality is psychological but also partly physiological. This is something that “Be right there” explored, as Martha gets her human-like Droid resembling Ash. This idea that our personality is partly physiological is not as intuitive but the show does a great job of portraying this without making it seem too forced or scripted. As Martha put it, “You look like him on a good day.”

A common saying in the field of personality psychology is, “Some things change; some things stay the same.”  While our experiences and memories are ever-evolving, at the very core of it, we behave consistently in accordance with our personal values and beliefs.

In the last million years, humankind has undeniably progressed, made strides in understanding the world around him. But almost ironically enough, we are yet to understand the ways of our basic existence - life, death, love, fear, and relationships, all seemingly a sheepish way to feel like we’re part of a pack huddled together in an otherwise cold and uncaring world.

The world around is complicated and contradictory, but humans are a fair play themselves, with frightful potential and the unknown depth. We are complicated contradictory people ourselves. But when our lives are broken down to the most basic equation possible, they could be described as a quest to find ourselves and our place in this world to conquer our most primal fears. Our personalities and the people we associate ourselves with ground us and help us make sense of the ever-changing world around us. All set against the backdrop of death,

“Be right there” does an amazing job of exploring this idea and presents it in a way that never loses sight of humanity as it navigates through modern technology as a way to deal with the inevitable. So, what’s the lesson here? What’s the meaning of all of this? There isn’t really one. Because even through all these years of progress and study, we are yet to understand what makes us who we fundamentally are. A lot of these theories may seem vague and difficult to understand but trying to find answers to these incessant questions are in part what sets human personalities uniquely apart. Almost like a personality paradox.  I suppose this is the point where I take a step back and simply appreciate the subject for what it is, vast and unending. But isn’t that what keeps this subject flourishing? If we had all the answers, it just wouldn’t be as fun.

Regardless of what led you to this article and what your takeaway from this is, if you were looking for some recommendations, I think “Black Mirror” definitely deserves a spot on your watchlist.


Anita Priyadarshini

Quiet in new crowds, quiet-loud amongst friends. Anita works as an unpaid intern as a professional overthinker and serial people pleaser, She spends her time mainly watching, making or consuming food.