Friday, February 13, 2015

Black Mirror

Black Mirror is a British TV sci-fi series that takes a serious and provocative look at the unintended consequences of technology. Writing for The Guardian, Charlie Brooker, a creator of and co-writer for the series, noted

”I coo over gadgets, take delight in each new miracle app. Like an addict, I check my Twitter timeline the moment I wake up. And often I wonder: is all this really good for me? For us? None of these things have been foisted upon humankind – we've merrily embraced them. But where is it all leading? If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
Though not prolific (seven shows in two seasons so far),  Black Mirror has won numerous awards, and its viewership around the world is growing tremendously. At least one episode is being turned into a movie, and an American version is sure to show up soon. 

After watching Season One, I was struck by the notion that Mr. Booker is a secular voice crying in the wilderness. Black Mirror is prophetic in the same way that Brave New World was ominously prescient. There are a lot of reasons to fear that the things we love will destroy us, and Mr. Booker has shown himself capable of pulling back the curtain on a future that simultaneously fascinates and terrifies. If you watch an episode without getting very uncomfortable, you're not paying attention.

However, by the time I finished Season One, I had this gnawing sense that something was missing. Though thought-provoking, each episode left me with a vague sense that there was more to be said. That will obviously be the case when one uses a television show to wrestle with the deepest questions in life, but it went deeper than that. I finally realized that my unease came from the sense that there is nothing greater or better for which the Mirrored Prophet prepared the way.Yes, we need to be aware of how our own creations may destroy us if we aren't careful.

That's a warning shot that needs to be fired. But what if that shot is nothing more than a startling distraction as we continue our charge unabated? Has human history given us any reason to believe that we will voluntarily rein in our propensity to drift toward ruin? Even the show seems to recognize this.
  • An episode about voyeurism, terrorism and performance art shows us the madness that has entered the world, but cannot show us what we are supposed to do about it. At the end of the day, the artist is a celebrity, the politician is more loved than ever, and the millions of people who leered at the screen carry on, silently hoping it will happen again. (S1 E1)
  • An episode about a culture in which people are simply commodities to be exploited shows us the dehumanization that takes place when people are reduced to their utilitarian essence, but fails to find a way to break out of the trap. Sure, you can strike a blow against the system, but the system not only absorbs it, it turns it to its advantage. (S1 E2) 
  • An episode in which memories can be re-experienced forever shows us the dangers of living in the past, and yet the very tool that kept betrayal always in the moment was also the only means by which truth could clearly be discerned. (S1 E3) What if we could always know the truth? We would like to think it would set us free; in reality, it will probably destroy us. 
Neil Postman once noted that technology giveth and taketh away. There are always winners and losers. In Black Mirror, there are individuals who very clearly lose. The Prime Minister’s wife is devastated by his choice. The consumers and participants in pornography and human exploitation are losing their souls. The adulteress is both consumed and crushed by her affair while her husband is devastated by a past that cannot be put behind. There is a very real human cost that cannot be denied.

But what technology giveth clearly matters more to the people in the show. In Brave New World, the Savage complained that nothing cost enough. In Black Mirror, everything costs too much – but nobody cares. I suspect the majority of viewers of would have watched the Prime Minister and the pig (S1E1); most would see the a world with porn on the walls of their room as a win (S1E2); many would think that the benefit of recording sexual trysts would outweigh the cost (S1E3). Even if (or when) the things we love wound us, they offer us something to numb the pain. After viewing Season Two, Martin Saunders wrote, 

“Brooker becomes the modern-day Dante, illustrating the Inferno that awaits people if they continue on their path of self-destruction. This is what I find really interesting. Like many atheists, Charlie Brooker is in danger of only offering nihilistic deconstruction. The way we live now has consequences: a broken future; a future we deserve. There is no sense of hope or redemption most of these tales conclude with a bleak assessment that things are likely only to descend further. There’s never a sense that these situations could be saved or improved; no illustration of a better way. At best, Black Mirror is a great big warning sign; at worst, it’s utter defeatism." 

It’s as if the siren warning us of impending doom is the same Siren that lures us to our doom. The mirrors in the show’s title are black because the power is off.  I’m not sure how much brighter they are when the power is on. 

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