‘Black Mirror’ uses the medium of television to stage ideas that are unraveled but never concluded. As a result you are left feeling generally satisfied with the window of the particular worlds that are presented but always hungry for more. Now that the second series draws to close, it seems to the perfect time to discuss and draw out general themes from the wholes series.
Many of these themes are repackaged Brooker tropes about the economic and cultural farce of the media industries, but set in the frame of science fiction it brings out these truths in ways that are more thought provoking than the dry humor he usually uses to tackle these topics.
As technology develops and becomes smaller, more connected and powerful, the devices featured in ‘Black Mirror’ become less imaginary and more prophetic. Particularly the episode ‘The Entire History Of You’ where a iris camera records your every waking moment. The concept is eerily similar to Google Glass, a technology which has the capability to record your every waking moment.
The fusion of man and machine has always been an attractive proposition to many, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s when the development of the transistor, microprocessor and the internet led many to believe that the future was digital. Just has bronze followed stone, digital technology would be the next stage in human evolution.
Donna Haraway used the notion of a “cyborg” to advance radical ideas of gender and economic equality, by suggesting that in a technologically centred modernity…
Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.
In Brookers vision, technology has trapped us, not because technology is inherently negative, but because it amplifies and magnifies human faults and desires. Haraway’s cyborg utopian visions are earnest and in many ways have come too fruition through successful campaigns using digital technology and human agency to change the world. But just has the Grain forced Liam to literally replay personal moments without the human filter of personal bias, so too does technology take out the human element and replace it with a simulation of reality, be it hyper-real in ‘Entire History of You’ or a simulacrum in ’15 Million Credits’.
In ‘Black Mirror’ the tables have turned. Rather than technology working for us, we become slaves to it, we becomes its nodes. We cycle for it, powering it. We write for it, speaking for it. We capture for it, seeing for it. The last case is based on ‘White Bear’, my favourite episode and one that mashes The Truman Show, Clockwork Orange and Dark City into a beautiful slice of television that expresses Brookers pessimistic take on media culture in a series of poetic images.
The idea of the spectacle was proposed by Guy Debord in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ who noted a shift in culture due to an increase of increasingly mediated experiences:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”
What Debord is essentially saying is that in a society of spectacle, original meaning is lost to be replaced by fleeting representations. In a world full of constant representations, the human subject has no choice but to submit because the action of choice has itself been withered away to become an representation itself. This neutered agency is story of Bing in ’15 Million Credits’, where his radical opposition is used by the powers that be to become yet another product of consumption and docility. His personal rebellion becomes yet another representative sign that becomes repeated and broadcast until only the idea of the idea rebellion is left to act upon.
Back to ‘White Bear’ however, which takes the notion of passive spectatorship to terrifyingly real extremes. Video websites, the defacto eyes of the web, are full of instances of bullying, abuse, gore and other rubbernecking materail. In each case the question has been raised, why didn’t the person holding the camera do anything? What are the motivations behind inaction?
One answer that ‘Black Mirror’ replies with is the sense of servitude the observer holds to the rest of ‘the web’. In many videos of awkward, surprising, hilarious or horrifying instances, someone somewhere can be heard saying “Thats for YouTube!” or something along those lines.
The implicit suggestion of this is that the event is so rarified that it must be shared instantly, on the one level to share in the experience of the event but also to prove the event occurred. The phrase “pics or it didnt happen” sums up the attitude people now have towards events. Whereas before a story well told was enough to convince people now video evidence is needed.
It does beg the question, if a dog said “sausages” but no one recorded it, did it actually happen? The rise of the modern spectacle means that things are only real when they are online and shared, otherwise its just a story. The zombie like videoing of the people in ‘White Bear’ is essentially what will happen when YouTube starts paying people for live streams of memorable events.
In the White Bear Justice centre, spectacle has been commodified under the guise of punishment. The moral issues of the type of punishment used are an ethical debate for another day, but the complicity with which the public follow and record the everything explores the way in which everything has become a spectacle and therefore immediately neutered to normalcy.
Another continuing thread throughout the series has been the idea of a self vs a mediated self. Who are we, what are we and what are we for are all questions raised by by ‘Black Mirror’ particularly in the depiction of the subject in mediated messages, be it social media or technologies of the self.
Nearly every episode deals with this conflict to some degree:
The National Anthem – Why does a world leader have to submit to the whims of anonymous masses? What is the nature of his power and the power of his office?
15 Million Credits – Are we projections of mediated technologies or do we project ourselves on to them? Where is the line between the two?
The Entire History of You – Is a plastic memory a human weakness or a human strength and how does this affect we see ourselves and others around us?
Be Right Back – Social media is nothing but an empty echo of ourselves, and the more we use it, the greater the distance between our ‘true’ selves and the perception of ourselves.
White Bear – We are all spectators, all part of the problem and all victims. How does affect our collective psyche as people in society?
The Waldo Moment – Authorship in a mediated world and the relationship between the producer and consumer.
Each episode deals with debates of individual subject in a concise and approachable way, advancing conversations about our relationship with media and technology. These conversations become more and more important as more of our public and private lives are held in anonymous servers held by private entities.
Brooker expresses a healthy suspicion over the the role of technology and media in society, and ‘Black Mirror’ is a good example of using television to express these ideas and make them concrete in an easily understood format, helping public discourse over these important issues.
I could spend hours and hours pouring over the meaning and significance of every shot of every episode. There are many other themes and angles that I have missed, but hopefully this has served as a good entry point to uncover more readings of the series.