Language, Identity, and “Be Right Back”

by Rebekah Johnson

Associate Professor of Linguistics and English as a Second Language,

LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 83] After watching my first Black Mirror episode, “Be Right Back,” I loved the questions that it raised and the potential for a dystopian future tech-based society, and knew I wanted to use it in a class. I used the series in my LIB 200 course, which is the capstone seminar class for Liberal Arts majors at the end of their two-year degree at my institution, and which needs to cover the interdisciplinary breadth of the major. For this seminar, we have the shared theme of humanism, science, and technology; each instructor, however, focuses on particular aspects of the theme in which they have expertise or interest. Accordingly, since I am a linguist with a keen interest in innovation and social impact, my section is titled “Language, Identity and Technology.” We explore both microcosm and macrocosm: the construction of identity through language in real life and online; and the larger social implications for technology, both positive and negative, for the fields of science, business, medicine, and the environment, to name a few.

In the unit on “Identity and Social Media,” we talk about the ways that we construct our identities online and how “real” or “curated” they are. We discuss the dangers of online identities (predators and fake accounts) and how we should be wary of how much personal information we put online. During this unit, we watch “Be Right Back,” which shows a future in which a person who has died can be replicated via their social media and lingering data: first by phone, and finally, “in person” via a robotic replica. The episode raises questions surrounding the ethics of using someone’s information, interacting with a robot, and treatment of the robot. We watch the first part, up to the point where the robot arrives in a package, and then stop to process, freewrite, or discuss what we think of the story so far, what we predict will happen, and whether we think we would use such a service ourselves. Then we watch the rest of the episode and discuss it again. Students often have a lot to say: differing opinions on whether it’s good or bad, or what they themselves would have done. Students write a reflective piece about technology and social media after this, and many incorporate “Be Right Back” into their reflection. [page 84]

This episode exemplifies the obsession some people have with social media and posting. It also shows us the problems with the identities that we curate online – showing only certain sides of ourselves, the best photos or perspectives, perhaps avoiding the complexities and paradoxes of our personalities. In the episode, the persona of someone is recreated from their online posts, relying on the wording, topics, and even ways of joking that the person used online. But this curated version is just that – a carefully selected part of one’s personality – and the replica is shown to be lacking in depth and mainly focusing on sarcastic responses, as the social media posts had been. We discuss how we use language in every context, to construct particular identities – including our social media identities – and how we may display different identities in different contexts or with different audiences. Students expand on their short reflective pieces with a “mini paper” in which they compare two different identities that they construct, with an option to compare one of their “real life” identities with one of their online identities. Students find interesting differences and use screenshots of posts to demonstrate the online identities that they curate and contrast them with “real life” identities that they present at work, at school, or with friends.

One student told me that watching the episode in class inspired her to watch the other Black Mirror episodes, and that they were really interesting – and depressing. This led me to add an extra credit opportunity for students to watch one or more other Black Mirror episodes and deconstruct them in another low-stakes reflective writing piece. I am also now planning to have a class activity in the upcoming semester where students will be given time to devise their own dystopian future technology tale and present it to the class verbally, digitally, or as a performance.

Black Mirror is a great series to promote discussion and consider the dark side of rapidly developing technology: its premises seem very plausible, just one new innovation away from becoming reality, perfectly capturing the love/hate relationships between individuals, technology, and society. Perhaps that is why it’s so unsettling to watch. I liked the reference to the show that I saw at the January 2018 Women’s March NYC on a sign: “I Don’t Like this Episode of Black Mirror.” For me, this sign spoke to the dystopian nature of some political actions as well as the role technology has played in recent politics (secure emails, hacked [page 85] elections, fake social media accounts and fake news sites) and in society overall (more corporations hacked, more identity theft, more addiction to online activities), and this resonance with current events makes the show a great starting point for further reflective writing or in-class debates that consider the ways that technology and current innovation can benefit or harm our society. Below are some resources to further enrich these discussions..

Suggested Readings

Bradford, Nate. “Technology: Utopia or Dystopia?” The Odyssey Online, 23 Feb. 2016, Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.

A discussion on whether technology is beneficial or harmful – a good starting point for students for discussion or their own reflection writing. Concludes there are more benefits.

Athanasiadis, Iason. “The Tech Threat: Moving towards a Dystopian Future.” Al Jazeera, 17 Jun. 2017, Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.

Discusses new technologies like AI, AR, BC, VR, and their impact on society, particularly of more jobs becoming automatized. Skews negative. Good for sparking discussion of the technology and society consequences.

Garcia De La Garza, Alejandro. “From Utopia to Dystopia: Technology, Society, and What We Can Do about It.” Open Democracy, 20 Dec. 2013, Accessed 11. Feb. 2018.

This piece is more opinionated and discusses society and humanity vis-à-vis technology and innovation. Ask students if they agree or disagree with the author.

MLA citation (print):

Johnson, Rebekah. "Language, Identity, and 'Be Right Back.'” Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 83-85.