Black Mirror’s Scathing Social Commentary Is A Wake-Up Call for Contemporary Democracies

Black Mirror

Black Mirror does best when it shows how, in a world that’s almost this world, mass media and social media cause problematic behaviour at the mass level.

Premiering in 2011 in Britain, before taking the world by storm on Netflix, Black Mirror blends science-fiction with social commentary to galvanise discussions of how technology and human behaviour intersect in unforeseeable ways.  British humourist Charlie Brooker named his brainchild after the shiny black screens of electronic devices that dominate our lives.  But the show quickly reveals its real locus of interest: technology merely allows existing human urges to surface and wreak havoc.

Hewing close to this umbrella theme, Black Mirror has explored a range of subjects. How do we interact with technology? How do we love, live with, and fight each other in a world increasingly shaped by mass media, social media, and virtual reality?Black Mirror has experimented with subject-matters and genres.  Love, parenthood, celebrity, death.  Satire, love story, mystery, horror.  Some experiments have succeeded better than others: fan favourite episode “San Junipero” explores the risks and heartache of love; “Playtest”uses themystery/mystery structure to explore deepseated fears, but loses in clever tricks and fails as both storytelling and commentary.  But this experimentation itself is praiseworthy.  Black Mirror has told beautiful or disturbing tales of individual lives: tales about losing love (“Be Right Back”) and about finding love (“Fuck the DJ”).  But Black Mirror does best when it examines how, in a world that’s almost this world, mass media and social media cause problematic behaviour at the mass level, building on existing human tendencies.

In “The National Anthem” (Season 1 Episode 1), an unknowncriminal kidnaps a British princess. The ransom he demands: the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig on live national television.  The P.M. dismisses the idea; his staff, having exhausted other ideas, goad him into submission.  The people love the Princess; the people are turning on the P.M.; the P.M. must yield.  Over the course of one long morning, journalists hungry for a story at any cost interfere with police investigations and leak Cabinet information; social media kindles into a fire of easy outrage; opinion polls swing.The criminal proves to be an artist, and this episode his life’s greatest artwork.  “Anthem” challenges our notion of art.  Is art the finished product of a singular imagination?  Or is it merely a stimulus that unearths our own subterranean impulses?  Notably, after the criminal’s initial demand, all the action in “Anthem” is produced by the vocal, half-informed, faceless public.Passing, from bedrooms and break-rooms, judgment that affects not just a nation, but the P.M. and his family.  They have their way: the P.M. yields.At the key moment, “Anthem” turns the camera away from the sex-act onto the nation watching in pubs and workplaces.  This is what they wanted. Now they’re disgusted, or contemptuous: still they can’t look away.  We’ve always been fascinated with other people’s humiliation.  Today, we have the power as anonymous masses to cause humiliation that’s then available for public consumption.

“Anthem” is set in this world.  It calls upon no new technology, no new social structures.  The events of “Anthem” could happen tomorrow.  That’s what’s scary.

The world in “Fifteen Million Merits” (Season 1 Episode 2) is, superficially, different from ours.  In a dystopian future, the mass of peoplenever see sunlight or grass: they spend all day in gray uniforms pedalling stationary bicycles to generate electricity for society, and ‘merits’ for themselves.  ‘Merits’ are currency: they buy toothpaste and food for the physical person, and a host of accessories for theiravatars.Physical lives have become impoverished; consumer capitalism has shifted target to people’s virtual lives.While the physical persons spend their nights in cubicles whose walls are screens barraging them with ads, it’s these lavishly-customised avatars who venture into the world.  To attend, for instance, episodes of Hot Shot: a reality talent-show.Hot Shot winners get entertainment contracts, and escape bike-riding to live ‘on the outside.’“Merits” follows Abi and Bing, who dream of this escape froma despicable system.  They discover the nastiness involved in this escape.  Abi is a singer, but Hot Shot’s judges persuade her to become a porn-star.  For Bing, this is the last straw.  He makes an impassioned denouncement of the whole system.  The system that keeps us trapped in a gray grind, just so that we can buy goods and consume media that are a mockery of reality.  In an ending chillingly ironical, Bing is coopted by Hot Shot’s judges: he accepts a contract to denounce the system, every week, as a performance.  “Merits” exposes capitalism’s ability to coopt its critics: the escape from capitalism’s desk-grind cannot be resisted, and capitalist societies get credit for supporting free speech.  “Merits” also analyses the manufacture of compliance.  Hot Shot’s contestants must down a drink called, simply, ‘Compliance.’  But they’re also guilt-tripped into compliance by the audience, composed of the virtual avatars of their fellow-slaves: How dare anyone who has the chance to escape the proletariat refuse it?

Superficially, “Merits” is set in a different world.  But the psychology it calls upon already exists.  We all dream of escaping capitalism’s grind.  Once we break free, we’re easily coopted to support the system we despised.  The physical structures of “Merits” already exist.  Sweatshops.  Universities, conceived as sanctuaries for free speech, colluding with governments in the manufacturing of consent.  Livesphysically impoverished, spent in virtual reality.(Virtual reality is the new opiate of the masses.)  The structures and pyschologies that produce the terrifying fantasy of “Merits” already exist.  That’s what’s scary.

In “The Waldo Moment” (Season 2 Episode 2),Waldo is a foul-mouthed, willfully ignorant, motion-capture cartoon created by comedian Jamie.On the campaign-trail for a seat in the British Parliament, Waldo– with his relentless, popular, but empty attacks on serious candidates, and his calls for violence – is a textbook demagogue.  He attacks his establishment opponents, and declares himself to be ‘one of you’ – but lacks any positive agenda of his own.  This episodepremiered three years before Donald Trump became US president.

What’s key in “Waldo” is, again,the role of the public.  As Waldo hounds his fellow-candidates, drowning them out with sheer volume,scattershot insults, and bathroom humour – the public warms to this childish populist.  Serious candidates, flawed as they are, accuse Waldo of taking the easy path: of eroding serious political engagement, however flawed, with no principles of his own to defend.  But it’s Waldo’s side the public takes.  Colourful loudmouthswho give The Establishment the middle finger and swear they’re different capture our hearts, and have risen to power around the world.  What’s scary about “Waldo” is that caricatures appeal to us.As leaders.  What’s scary is that in real life as in the episode, well-organised systems stand ready to package and market ‘political entertainment products’ that replace political engagement.

In “Nosedive” (Season 3 Episode 1), Lacie navigates a dystopia where surfaces have become everything.  Outdoor cafes, countertops, clothing – everything is pastel and spotless.  Every interaction between two individuals: from ordering coffee to greeting a stranger: terminates in rating one another on social media.  A person’s cumulative rating is this world’s currency: it determines access to services, access to other “quality people,” and thus one’s status.As Marie Antoinette turned up her nose at poor people, so the characters in “Nosedive” turn up their noses at persons of low (social media) rank.  The aptly-named Lacie practices in the mirror a smile sickly-sweet as honey; produces unobjectionably pleasant giggles even when ruffled;and navigates every encounter with the goal of being liked,rather than honest.Lacie acts as almost everyone else in this mad, pastel dystopia acts.  “Nosedive”’s ending is a brilliant and rare ray of hope: after Lacie’s nosedive through the social ladder, two fellow outcasts show Lacie the path to becoming a person again.  Raucous, goal-blind self-expression.  Unusually for a Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive” offers a solution to the mass problem it examines.  A solution from personal choice.  A simplistic solution: given than the problem, as the episode insightfully shows, is a structural one.We can look at these mad pastel people and laugh at them: but to escape from any structure is itself a madness few of us choose or can afford.

The social structures of “Nosedive” already exist.  Social media consume our time, deluge us with targeted advertising, and have reshaped our goals and attention-spans.  One’s social media presence has already become a barrier to entry: e.g. for book-publishing contracts.  We ‘like’ each other on a numerical scale that pretends to be objective: but on what basis and to what end is that ‘liking’?  A potent tool for social change, social media is just as often used to beat ourselves into pastel-sweet compliance.

“Hated In The Nation” (Season 3 Episode 6)is a murder mystery motivated by one observation: our willingness to attack each other anonymously and in mass online.  The backstory examines the effects of such persecution on one person.

While the advanced technology of “Hated” provides its plot, once again – as in the most powerful Black Mirror episodes – it’s the analysis of how our minds work within existing technologies that makes this episode scary.  We already attack viciously online not just public, but private figures.  We sit in our rooms, at our devices, forming our worldviews by scanning thirdhand rants.  We join the anonymous millions in spewing hate, indifferent to the effects on real lives of #DeathTo hashtag-movements.Sci-fi steps in only to complete the circle: what if our online hate-spewing did come back to haunt us?

“Black Museum” (Season 4 Episode 6) deftly interweaves into a singular mystery a series of stories about technologies for reincarnating human consciousness in machines.Among many ethical questions, “Museum” touches on our willingness to inflict harmon each other.  In “Museum,”the object of harm is a virtual consciousness clearly as capable of feeling harm as a flesh-and-blood person.  But museum visitors pay for the experience of inflicting harm with impunity.A social structure that demands virtual consciousness still relegates it to sub-humanity.  Questions about the rights and autonomy of increasingly sophisticated, life-like robots have already entered the debate.  Questions about how we treat each other – when mass-murder on another continent is one button-push away – linger, unresolved.

“Museum” is scary because existingvirtual reality disinhibits our violent urges.We consume violence in mainstream films, pornography, video games, graphic novels, sports, and art.  Our thirst for each other’s blood is an ancient phenomenon.Are virtual venues a harmless outlet for our bloodlust?  Or does the dehumanisation of virtual entities insidiouslyloosen our bloodlust for flesh-and-blood humans?

“Smithereens” (Season 5 Episode 2) follows a man’s quest for vengeance on Smithereen, a social-media company.  Chris’s social-media addiction caused a car-crash that killed his girlfriend.Chris accuses Smithereen founder, Billy Bauer, of deliberately engineering its apps to be addictive.  “Smithereens” is a strange episode, just skimming its theme: social media’s power to fragment us into addicts blindly stumbling through the world, each alone.

Faced by Chris’s accusation, Billy Bauer confesses: he’s right.  Billy himself conceptualised Smithereen as something positive and unifying; but his marketing people, pursuing maximum profits, reengineered the platform to neurologically hijack users’ attention-span.Sound farfetched?  Neuromarketing already exists.  This field of applied research uses brain imaging to study which products and advertisements elicit promising responses from the human brain.  Research from other areas of neuroscience suggests that our behaviours are strongly predicted by these neural responses: that the ‘free will’ we experience when making decisions is illusory.  Neuromarketing is a reality.  Giant companies collecting our data the better to allow advertisers to target us is a reality.  Social media and mass media hijacking our attentions to enslave us to a never-ending, all-consuming series of quick, empty rewards is a reality.

At its best, Black Mirror forces us to examine what we’ve become as individuals and as citizens.As we watch the under-informed, vocal, easily-manipulated but painfully real people walking around, shouting, making things happen – it’s tempting to conclude that Black Mirror, like Plato, despairs of democracy.  If rule by citizens is the best rule, then Black Mirror reminds us: rule by ignorant masses is terrible.  Today the masses have unprecedented access to information – but not to knowledge.  To action – but not to power.  In an age obsessed with producing Twitter-worthy soundbites and Instagrammable moments, the labour of informed understanding and responsible action pales in comparison with a thousand sources of instant gratification.  But, grim tone notwithstanding, Black Mirrornot a condemnation but a wake-up call.

Amita Basu is a PhD candidate of cognitive science at CBCS, Allahabad University.  Her fiction has appeared in Muse India and The Right-Eyed Deer, and is forthcoming in Star 82 Review and Gasher.  Her nonfiction has appeared in Countercurrents and Deccan Herald.  She lives in Bangalore, India.  She likes running.  Her favourite superhero is Captain Planet.




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