Home > english > Joan is Awful > Recursion, Infinity and Real: Bioethical Interest of Black Mirror

Recursion, Infinity and Real: Bioethical Interest of Black Mirror

by Marina Costantini, Silvana Maria Costantini

Marina Costantini is PhD in Engineering, Sorbonne Université, France
Silvana Maria Costantini is MD, Neurophysiopathology Specialist, University of Florence, Italy

With the collaboration of Eduardo Laso (psychoanalyst) and Juan Jorge Michel Fariña (bioethicist), University of Buenos Aires

“More than one spectator asks himself: Since there is usurpation of voices, why not of faces as well? When will the system be perfect? When will we see Juana
Gonzalez directly, in the role of Greta Garbo, in the role of Queen Christina of
Jorge Luis Borges (“On Dubbing”, 1932) [1]

The 2023 season of Black Mirror begins with an episode that depicts the scenario that worried Borges almost a century ago, raising interesting questions for bioethics. It is “Joan is Awful”, a somewhat enigmatic title whose meaning will be revealed in the first quarter of an hour of screening. The episode introduces elements of Generative Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and sophisticated prediction algorithms. [2]

In this new season, Joan is a young woman who works at a multinational technology company, is in a relationship, goes to therapy, and misses her ex-boyfriend. The first ten minutes show us her daily routine, which is not far from the life of any young person, mainly dominated by her work and personal conflicts. At night she gets home and after having dinner, she sits with her partner to watch television. She then finds out that there is a new series called “Joan is Awful”, in which the famous actress Salma Hayek plays the role of Joan herself, recreating the day she has just experienced, displaying it to all viewers. The fictional repetition of the day includes the moment in which she sits down to watch television to find that new series, thus producing a recursive abyss to infinity.

A very interesting element of “Joan is Awful” is the temporal component and how time passes in the different planes of the recursion. A fundamental fact is that in order for the computer to generate a fictitious version of Joan’s life, what is going to be generated must have already happened. However, when the Joan we know (Annie Murphy’s) watches the first episode of “Joan is Awful” we realize that the speed at which the computer generates the simulated version of Joan’s life is extremely fast: when Joan goes back into her house after her boyfriend left in the car, she sees in the episode the scene of the car leaving Salma Hayek’s Joan alone. Therefore, between the event happening in Joan’s life and the event appearing in the episode only a few minutes passed.

But the chapter gives us more information about how quickly the computer simulates reality. In particular, the scene where Joan (or rather, all the Joans) destroy(s) the computer suggests that the computer is capable of simulating Joan’s life at the same moment in which an event happens, or in other words, infinitely fast.

How do we see this? Probably the clearest way to look at it is to think what would happen if the generation of a new plane was not instantaneous. In that case, we simply wouldn’t get to see Annie Murphy’s Joan destroying the computer, for the simple fact that if Joan destroyed the original and Murphy’s plane generation cannot be immediate, the life of Annie’s Joan would be destroyed before she can destroy the computer in her plane. However, we see how Murphy’s Joan destroys the computer and her world disappears at the same time, to find then the original Joan as the destroyer of the computer and Annie Murphy where we had previously seen Salma Hayek.

Another extremely interesting component of the computer destruction scene is that it is the moment when Annie Murphy’s Joan realizes that she is not the original Joan because she loses her freedom of decision. Until this scene, the Joan we knew from the beginning seemed to have complete freedom to choose her actions. However, when she gains access to the computer and is about to destroy it, she recognizes that it is not her decision, that if the computer is destroyed it is due to a decision of the original Joan. A few seconds later we see that she is about to hit the computer for the first time and says “it’s happening! She’s doing it!", which reveals to us that the moment where the times of all the Joans collapse is the only moment where the original Joan has direct control over what happens in all the recursive planes above hers... and she destroys them all at once, simultaneously.

The fact that Murphy’s Joan believes that she is free until the times of all the planes collapse seems to suggest that until that moment, her life did not happen at the same time as the life of the original Joan, but rather occurred with a slight delay. We could think then that the timelines of the original Joan and of Annie Murphy’s look like this:

How do the lives of Salma Hayek’s and Cate Blanchett’s Joans look like in this scheme? Following the recursion for them:

Repeating this pattern ad infinitum we reach a surprising conclusion: not only are there infinite Joans, but their entire stories (from waking up on the day of the series’ premiere to the destruction of the computer) last less and less time (taking as reference the time of the original Joan), until they are arbitrarily short, or as it is usually said in mathematical terms, infinitesimal.

The philosophical reference are Zeno’s paradoxes, especially that of movement, which even though today is considered explained by the infinitesimal calculus, it maintains its force in the episode; and in the chapter, Achilles finally reaches the tortoise. At this moment all infinite virtualities collapse due to an act of a real subject. The "she is doing it" is, in that sense, a success of the script, and of the reading that is reflected in the preceding scheme of the times of the four Joans.


[1Original in Discusión, compiled in Obras Completas, Buenos Aires, Emecé.

[2This text is a partial version of a longer article by the authors in collaboration with Eduardo Laso and Juan Jorge Michel Fariña. In the latter, many other elements present in the episode are analyzed individually: recommendation algorithms and engagement with popular content platforms, deepfakes and generative art, and quantum computers.


moderación a priori

Este foro es moderado a priori: su contribución sólo aparecerá una vez validada por un/a administrador/a del sitio.

¿Quién es usted?
Su mensaje

Para crear párrafos, deje simplemente líneas vacías.

Film:Black Mirror: Joan is Awful

Original Title:Black Mirror: Joan is Awful

Director: Ally Pankiw

Year: 2023

Country: Reino Unido

Other comments by the author: