Mirror, Mirror

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

In the second episode of UK horror anthology series Black Mirror, we’re given the story of Bingham Madsen, who lives in the future of the Internet of Things. Every surface is an interactive screen, even the walls of his apartment, and every screen is playing advertising, pornography, or talent show-style entertainment. Eventually, Madsen snaps, plotting to get onto the talent show that almost everybody watches and kill himself on television.

He succeeds at getting on television, but after he delivers himself of an angry rant, one of the judges offers him a show of his own. By the end of the episode, Madsen has been wholly incorporated into the system he despises, which packages his angry rants alongside the rest of its entertainments. The system can be “won,” he learns, but it can’t be beaten. It certainly can’t be changed. If anything, Madsen’s ranting has done nothing but make the rest of the populace more complacent.

It’s a story that functions not only as a wry comment on Black Mirror itself—which is steeped in contempt for technology and for modern media culture—but also on the career of its creator, Charlie Brooker, longstanding British television critic and crank. Brooker’s own rants about modern media ran on the BBC, first on his show Screenwipe and later on How TV Ruined Your Life.

While Black Mirror is, in one sense, old news—this episode ran in 2011—its recent addition to Netflix has caused the show to gain a new wave of attention. If you feel dubious about technology—and who doesn’t?—Black Mirror is a cathartic show to watch, at first. But it’s full of a sense of its own irrelevance: Even if you understand the various mechanisms that push you this way and that in your life, and even if you can explain these mechanisms to others, it won’t do you any good. You’re still stuck. There’s also no possibility here that we can use our new technological platforms in a counter-cultural way.

Whatever will happen to us, the show claims, as we grow more attached to our devices—whatever it is, it’s already happened. All that’s left is to experience, if not enjoy, the ride. How, then, ought one understand a television show that informs you repeatedly that it’s a waste of your time?

Black Mirror is a fearful show—so fearful, it’s often physically stressful to watch. But though its fear is rooted in technology, it’s not clear what Black Mirror is really afraid of. The show has been, fairly, summed up as “what if phones, but too much,” but its best episodes barely involve dependence on technology. “The Entire History of You,” for example, is about a future where everyone can replay their memories, but the story is really a classic tale of obsession and marital jealousy. Insofar as the memory replay alters that story, it’s only to say that certainty about the past matters less than you’d think.

Its preemptive recognition of its impotence frees Black Mirror from assigning its fear an object. Everything—Twitter, the news, television, politics, relationships, the pursuit of justice—can transform people into monsters. It can never really be wrong about these things, because it doesn’t need to commit itself to saying anything particularly insightful about its fears. We’re doomed is Bingham Madsen’s refrain just as it Black Mirror’s.

This vaguely defined hopelessness makes the show attractive, to a certain kind of misanthrope. And it’s frequently smart, because misanthropy has the virtue of being almost invariably correct. But it’s also limiting—not because television needs to be hopeful, but because it does need to be about something. By its sixth episode, Black Mirror is already repeating itself with an episode about a sarcastic comedian weaponized by forces beyond his control. It’s too fearful to say much about our future other than that it is something to be afraid of.

Black Mirror’s most successful episode is probably “Be Right Back,” where a grieving widow interacts with AI that mimics her dead husband by drawing on his social media updates. She is also pregnant with his child—which would have been, at one time, her only way of keeping his memory alive. Widow, child, and AI craft an uneasy peace—uneasy for the widow, at least, who knows that this AI is not her husband but also that her child will never really know this the way she does.

Of all the episodes, “Be Right Back” is the least speculative. The technology to mimic the dead already exists; but more to the point, even if it didn’t, the widow would be dragging about this emotional detritus anyway. Those Facebook status and tweets would still be there, to be read and re-read long after his death, and easily creating the illusion that the person behind them is not really dead. Instead of a paranoid flight into the future, it’s a moody portrait of right now. We don’t really know the best way to handle a social media account after its user dies. Nor do we know, really, what grieving looks like when whole lifetimes of these accounts are left behind.

There aren’t many television shows that understand or portray well the relationship between modern day people and the Internet, in part because the Internet itself is so fluid that by the time writers get a handle on it, it’s already changed. “Be Right Back” proves that Black Mirror is a smart enough show to do it, if its writers cared to try. In the shadow of better episodes, the remainder largely emerge as wasted opportunities.

Fear is, of course, one way we do relate to the Internet and to technology. We’re scared of our phones; we’re scared of the data being collecting on us; we’re scared of the way people are, occasionally, plucked out of obscurity and exposed to the hatred of millions of total strangers. If Black Mirror wants to continue making itself its own prime target, it could consider its own paranoia. But for now, the television show that really will hold up the mirror to our technological lives probably has yet to air.

B.D. McClay is associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.

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