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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is Series 1 of the television show Black Mirror.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
Back when we discussed the film Her, I commented that it's rather unlikely that supercomputers, should they emerge, would purposely seek to destroy humans; it's far more likely that we'd bore them to (digital) tears. (Of course, some worry that they could accidentally destroy us quite easily...)
The real threat of technology in the near future, as seen through the lens of Charlie Booker's anthology series Black Mirror, is the abetting of the unraveling of society from within. Each episode involves a different element of technological "progress" and its ramifications for our world, from the erosion of privacy, to unstoppable terror drones and "virtual" politicians. What was once considered "sci-fi" is no longer too far off in the distance, and the series, in Booker's words, is "about the way we live now -- and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy."
I'll start by focusing on the world of "The Entire History of You," my favorite episode of Season 1 of Black Mirror:
We've all been to events where we've experienced the joy of having scores of glowing screens in front of us, all recording the action for posterity. Fun times. In addition to my customary internal rage at such affronts, I'm generally filled with pity for these folks; in exchange for what will ultimately be a crappy audio/video recording of the show, they've surrendered an authentic experience. It seems few people can be "in the moment" anymore; everything of note must be documented for later consumption.
Well, what would happen if:
A) All your experiences were automatically recorded in your brain, whether you wanted them or not; and,
B) These recordings was just as thrilling and vivid as the real thing?
Here, the vast majority of the population is outfitted with implants that record all your experiences, and let you play them back in your head at any time. What's more, you can even connect to a monitor and display them to others. Suspect that your spouse is flirting with someone at a party? Well, let's just rewind the ol' internal tape and re-read their body language. And when that couple is later having sex, we see them each reliving a previous encounter... with someone else. Ouch.
With everyone fitted with recording devices, there's a vaguely Orwellian vibe running through this new society. Think of the ramifications. One that's mentioned in the episode's opening minutes -- there are now law firms which specialize in handling lawsuits against one's forebears for parental neglect! Think about that the next time you discipline your unruly tyke.
The theme brings to mind the 1995 Kathryn Bigelow film Strange Days, where people could record their memories and experiences and sell them on the black market. While the film bombed at the box office, it attained some critical acclaim and has now attracted a cult following in recent years. The scope of Strange Days was grand, and at its core was a murder that had major political implications. However, the majority of Black Mirror episodes (and dare I say the best ones) deal with the impact of technology on our day-to-day lives and how we interact with each other.
Clarence, which episodes/themes resonated most with you? Also, the assumption has always been that technology improvements equate to progress, and most of us would think that we're better off today because of them, right? Then why is it that when we witness further "improvements"... we tend to feel apprehensive about what we see?
Watching Black Mirror, I kept recalling something I once heard about money and alcohol: People say that getting rich or getting drunk changes you. But they don't. They just make you more of who you already are.
I think technology fits on that short list perfectly, both in fiction and our current world. In selling their corporations' miraculous devices, business marketers focus on things like customization and ease of use. They don't emphasize how instantaneous worldwide communication can project bits of you and amplify them in your life and the lives of others, for good or ill.
The creators of Black Mirror illustrate this beautifully in all three stories, but most effectively in "The Entire History of You." This was also my favorite of the three stories. I'm still torn as to whether I would want to live in a world where memories can be played back like TiVo. On the one hand, everyone having access to this kind of eidetic memory would help a lot of people, from police to folks who forgot where they parked their car. On the other hand, you will also have the kind of characters depicted in the episode, who give a whole new meaning to "living in the past."
The implanted devices didn't create the feelings of jealously, mistrust and anger in the users. They just gave the users faster, more accurate tools to express their emotions. Twitter and Facebook aren't perfect analogues to this, but I think they're close enough to merit a comparison.
One common theme I found in all three of Black Mirror's stories is how technology destroys personal relationships. In all three tales, human connection suffers because of the presence of technology that either intrudes on existing relationships or prevents new bonds from forming. This isn't my default position on the matter, especially after watching Her. Like you, Kevin, I thought about that film. Its optimistic viewpoint of technology as something that can help and comfort us and even evolve into something more than itself is a stark contrast to Black Mirror's pessimistic take.
I think that's the thing that makes us feel so apprehensive about new technologies in general - WE JUST DON"T KNOW what's going to happen. It feels like whichever direction humanity is headed, it's not going to be slow or gentle. It's similar to the 1950s when World War II and the invention of atomic energy ushered in a new age of speed, dissolution, and fear that reshaped everything from the food we eat to the music we listen to.
One of the men who fought in WWII was Rod Serling. He used his experiences and concerns about the modern world to create The Twilight Zone, easily one of the greatest TV shows (anthology or otherwise) ever created. Serling meant for his stories to ask questions and teach moral lessons about issues like war, racism, and fascism. How do you think Black Mirror compares to that show? Do you think modern TV audiences would put up with such blatantly didactic storytelling these days?
Clarence, it's such a challenge to compare modern narrative storytelling to that of yesteryear. The Twilight Zone debuted in 1959 -- nearly 60 years ago. The Eisenhower administration! There was no precedent for Serling's work, and censors were such that political messages often had to be shrouded (with varying levels of success) within sci-fi elements. And, perhaps most importantly, television audiences* back then weren't nearly as sophisticated as they are now.
[*Something to keep in mind, too, is that TTZ was a program on one of the Big Three networks in a pre-cable era. Thus, it had to appeal to a much wider audience than something like Black Mirror, which started on the BBC and now is a Netflix series, with probably 1/10th the ratings of Serling's creation.]
You couldn't air a series along the lines of the old Twilight Zone episodes today; it would largely come across as pretty hokey. And while I think the show is a classic, let's face it -- landmark episodes aside, there were a number of TZ stories that would challenge even nostalgia seekers today. (Peruse the episode list for Season 1, for instance.) In fact, this is why The Twilight Zone has already been reincarnated twice: in 1985, and again in 2002.
I'd much rather sit down with a new Black Mirror episode, while recognizing the debt that all shows of its ilk (including The Outer Limits) owe to Mr. Serling. I don't think we have much of an appetite for hit-you-over-the-head morality themes anymore, in any genre? Also, in Black Mirror, it's not necessarily that the characters involved make "bad choices," but that -- as you mentioned -- the advancements in technology often let us act out our worst impulses.
Pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman commented once that "our generation has been impacted by technology 10 times as much as that of our parents... and kids growing up today are impacted by it 100 times more than we are." (Chuck's around our age.) Kids in college today don't really recall a Twitter-free world, let alone an internet-free world. Should that worry us?
Here's a question for you -- how many people do you regularly exchange e-mails with? And how does that number compare to that of a decade ago? As a non-texter in a texting culture, I've noticed the evolution in personal communication quite a bit; while I still maintain correspondence with a number of friends, others have dropped off the map. They can't be bothered. And even some of the ones who remain tell me that I'm the only person who e-mails them. In the wake of Black Mirror, I start thinking about where I'll find myself in another decade re: electronic interaction, and it's not comforting.
I don't know when we'll get back around to the series, but there's one other Black Mirror episode I'd really want you to watch: "Nosedive." What do you think of *that* world? I got a jolt recently when I saw an invitation for writers that was predicated on one's number of Twitter followers...
It's not only writers. Nowadays actors are being asked to show proof that they have a certain number of social media followers in to order to be chosen for roles in certain productions. Sure, it's just business. But it's also just sad.
Speaking of which, I just saw "Nosedive." Now THAT is a truly scary scenario. It's one thing to use social media to mess with your own life. Having your choices determined by the constant consolidated opinions of others would be a special kind of hell.
I'm not sure how many people I e-mail with, but that's a good question. After several years, I feel my social media engagement is at a level that works for me. Ironically, it involves me splitting "myself" into several personas. Depending on if you are a co-worker, a family member, a friend, or a fellow CHIRP volunteer, you are going to experience a version of me that fits our relationship. The tone, content, and even frequency of exchanges is going to be quite different.
I think about this in contrast to, for example, a former co-worker of mine who's almost 20 years younger than me and eventually went off to be a semi-professional Web writer. I checked out her blog one day and was shocked by how casually personal she was about things going on in her life. I feel like there's a level of intimacy that folks who grew up with tweets and streams and whatnot are more comfortable with than older people would ever accept. Talking to strangers is not a problem for most of them. It still is for me, to a certain extent.
Like your friends, I don't engage on social media nearly as often as I did a few years ago. I anonymously got into too many stupid arguments with other anonymous users over irrelevant subjects, it just got to be boring. Judging by some trends (example: younger social media users are using Facebook less and moving to newer and simpler apps like Snapchat), I'm not the only one. I'm optimistic in that I think society will eventually find an equilibrium where this kind of technology is still ubiquitous but isn't an obsession, kind of like the telephone.
The question remains, though... is the person on the other side of an online comment seeing the "real" you, or a part of you that emerged because of these specific mediums? And if we ever did reach the kind of world depicted in "The Entire History of You," where YOU are also part of the audience that watches you, would you like what you see?
Did you see this show? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!
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