Yes, admittedly once again I am very late to the party!
I have only just discovered the brilliant ‘Black Mirror’ another much-lauded television series which first aired on Channel 4 for two seasons between 2011 and 2014 which was then subsequently purchased by Netflix who added the existing Seasons 1 and 2 to their catalogue and consequently commissioned 12 more episodes with a much bigger budget, that formed Seasons 3 and 4 and which aired on Netflix in 2016 and 2017.
It is owing to Netflix that I am now devouring my first few episodes.
I know it must seem like I have a full-time relationship with Netflix.
I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking that I am a lazy cow, who sits on my arse binge-watching season after season of fictional entertainment and in some respects this is true but I like to call it ‘research’ you know, for my ‘work’.
That unpaid job that I do, writing this blog.
For those of you who are yet to discover ‘Black Mirror’, it is a fictional, anthology series by renowned British author, journalist, producer, director and satirist, Charlie Brooker, specifically examining, broadly speaking, society and culture and our fixation or growing dependency on technology and the resulting consequences.
Often set in a very near future or perhaps alternate realities where more advanced technologies than are currently available are put to use, it gives an insight into what it might be like if technological innovation continues to advance at the current pace and we continue to abuse the results and further claw away at our very ideals and moral fibre. The fact that this first aired some seven years ago is quite remarkable since it is all too easy to forget how much technology and social media has evolved even since then. The creators of this set of series seriously had their fingers on the contemporary pulse. In fact, I am certain, watching it as belatedly as I am, that some of these technologies and cultural behaviours have actually come to full fruition since the show’s commencement.
Morals are questioned, again and again, advancements in technology are once more thrown into the limelight as both our saviour and our greatest downfall and our social media obsessed culture is given grim and stark coverage.
It is certainly not a new concept that this tide of obsession with social media is the basis for our debasing as rounded human beings but Black Mirror’s raw, edgy and often disturbing portrayal is about as subtle as a punch in the face and equally impossible to ignore.
I am not watching the seasons in order since, as an anthology, each episode has no correlation with the next and therefore I have decided to watch the episodes as ranked from best to worst (according to vulture.com, that is where I found the first list, had I looked at the episode ranking on DigitalSpy I would be watching them in a very different order).
So far I have watched, ‘Be Right Back’, ‘USS Callister’, ‘Nosedive’ and ‘The National Anthem’.
I could be forgiven for thinking, having watched these four episodes back to back, that one of Charlie Brooker’s social experiments was to raise awareness for ‘Justice for Gingers’ by casting all redheaded actors in the lead parts.
From (left to right) Jesse Plemons (who looks more like Matt Damon than Matt Damon does), Domhnall Gleeson and Bryce Dallas Howard it was a significant distinction, but perhaps not intended at all and purely a fluke because I happened to watch these particular four episodes in one go.
In dialogue lifted directly from Gavin and Stacey, The Christmas Special :
Pam to Dawn: ”You like the gingers, don’t you?”
Dawn: “I do. I always have, Pam. Not too ginger, like Chris Evans. I like them more Charles Dance or Anthony Worral Thompson”
Anyway, I digress, regardless of the similarity in hair colour of the lead actors, these four episodes could not be more different from each other, yet each one provides the very strong sense that as a species we are set or perhaps intent on a course of creating technologies that are as destructive as they are initially helpful and in doing so we are spiraling ever further out of control with regards to our moral conduct.
WARNING: Story spoilers exist ahead, for which I profusely apologise but it’s entirely impossible for me to discuss themes and topics raised by such poignant artistry without giving some of the game away.
Be Right Back – in a nutshell, this story focuses on a young widow, who utterly lost in her grief, enrols (or at least is enrolled by a well-meaning friend) to the services of an online Artificial Intelligence company that effectively replicates your lost loved one. Initially, this is achieved with messages and phone calls by utilising archives of information from the broad spectrum of social media uploads, comments, posts, blogs, pictures, videos. You name it, it’s out there stored on huge hungry servers and it’s a stark reminder of the enormous online footprint that most of us have now amassed.
In effect, such an event like this is already possible with current technology and I daresay there are plenty of unscrupulous tech companies who would not think twice about cashing in on people’s grief, how many of us have already uttered the words “What I wouldn’t give to have one more conversation with my husband/my wife/my Mum/my Dad/My Nan……”
It doesn’t stop there though.
The next available upgrade is for a fully self-learning, physical, synthetic replica of your lost loved one. Again, not a new concept in the realms of science fiction but how long before this is indeed science fact?
In essence, it is the revisiting of the age-old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for’ and for me yet again throws up the many moral and ethical questions surrounding Artificial Intelligence as a whole, my main two being:
Should we even be considering AI in the first place?
If an artificial being is created, shouldn’t it then have the same rights as a human being if we are to avoid a return to situations of ‘slavery’?
USS Callister – a successful high tech company has a stellar product called ‘Infinity’ a multiplayer, cerebral interface, online game, but the brilliant brain behind it all, a nerdy, geeky, Sci-Fi fan, who has written the code uses a ‘secret’ and privately modified version of this software for his own pleasure.
By day, he is the socially awkward, somewhat undervalued and largely disrespected second in command of the company despite his enormous contribution. Ignored by women who find him creepy or just not worth a second glance and the butt of jokes from his male colleagues he sits alone in his office, a brilliant mastermind who is failing to make the impression he wishes on those around him. He cuts a lonely, slightly sad figure and when he returns home, each night, he disappears into an online world that he has created where he is Captain Daly, Captain of the USS Callister, a homage to his favourite programme Space Fleet (which in our reality is essentially Star Trek and Captain Kirk). At first glance, his little fantasy world seems rather innocuous and wholesome and there is certainly sympathy, empathy and pity for his character but as the story unfolds and the true horrors of this alternate reality that he has created is laid bare, we learn that his desperation to be both respected and adored is carried out with a brutality and twisted wickedness that far outweighs any social misdemeanors inflicted upon him in real life.
To me this focuses not only on the moral dilemma of Artificial Intelligence again (this seems to be a common theme in Black Mirror) and the use of technology for personal retribution; at the moment we are all too aware of cyber-bullying, internet trolls, keyboard warriors, revenge porn and the many different ways in which technology can be used to harm others (there has been a significant rise in bullying on social media which makes it that much easier) but it also highlights a common theme we see in todays society, in that people can be so overtly offended by some small slight or action by others that their counter action is far more excessive and way beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. How often have we read stories about a rejection or rebuffal of someone who then goes on to commit dreadful crimes whilst consumed in their outrage? These actions are not wholly a modern issue or one born purely from technological advancements, admittedly, but the crisis we are approaching whereby “offending” someone is tantamount to a criminal offence is very much a modern issue and whilst a few years back we had perhaps hoped that a modicum of ‘common sense’ would prevail, it now seems highly unlikely.
Nosedive – for me this has been the most resounding of the four episodes I have watched thus far, probably because it is already, in essence, at play in our world. This episode was first aired more recently in 2016 so it is bang up to date in terms of current behaviours. This is a world where the social media ‘like’ button has become almost a universal currency. Where people rate each other from one to five stars with regard to every interaction they have, whether it be a simple “Good Morning” or an actual customer service requirement. It is, in reality, an in-depth exploration into a selfie-obsessed culture where nothing is real, where life is wholly about image and the brief self-gratification that is achieved when likes are received, even if we know them to be meaningless. It is an undeniable and unapologetic stab at Facebook, Snapchat and any other social media that has, perhaps unintentionally, resulted in the promotion of falseness, falsehoods and insincerity.
In many ways it was lighthearted and not quite as dark as the other episodes, I imagine it remained lighthearted so as to really provide the sense that it was wholly taking the piss and to not get too hung up on the theme but again, like the other stories, it provides a grim glimpse into our dystopian future if we do not make attempts to stem the madness of our social media obsession, our celebrity culture and our constant focus and attention on being unequivocally politically correct to the point of being terrified to say anything genuine at all.
Though thankfully that’s not me in the slightest. It’s all a load of old bollocks if you ask me and I’ll happily say that to anyone.
The National Anthem – a story in which a prominent member of the royal family, the ‘nations Darling’ is kidnapped. The kidnapper issues just one demand to be met so as to keep the Princess alive. The current Prime Minister must have full, non-simulated sexual intercourse with a pig at 4 pm that day and it must be broadcast live, across all networks on terrestrial and satellite television.
The story is tense, repugnant and you are wholly sympathetic to the Prime Minister who is seemingly left with no choice but to carry out this revolting act. The initial moral question in this story for me, is of media interference in news outlets worldwide, how they are more desperate to be the first to report a scoop than to report conscientiously or simply not report at all. There is no denying the depths they will stoop to and we are all aware of many occasions where news crews have made tense situations far worse in their desperation to report rather than just stepping aside and refusing to be a part of it. The second iteration is that we are all capable of seeing these glaring flaws in news agencies, hacks, paparazzi, but not so great at recognizing similar ugly behaviours in ourselves. With social media, it is now even easier for us to share pretty much anything and we have access to a whole world at our fingertips. There is something almost titillating about sharing or being ‘involved’ in bad news, a disaster, a tragedy and it seems the quicker people jump on the bandwagon, the more titillating it is. Regardless of whether people found the idea disgusting, preposterous or amusing is irrelevant, for it seems that no one can refrain from being involved!
I’ll leave it there for this episode but suffice to say that it makes you think about what is right and what is wrong and how often we choose the wrong path even when we fully know it to be wrong. Even the most level-headed and law-abiding of us can get swept up in a craze or simply go along with the crowd feeling that just because everyone else is doing something means its ok for us to do it too as if blame is somehow diluted when involvement is en mass.
If it is wrong, then it is still wrong regardless of how many people are involved. Mass involvement does not indicate that something is somehow ‘less’ wrongful, it just tells a sorry tale of human nature and how people are more willing to be complicit in something if they can do so as part of a flock.
By the time you read this I will, no doubt, have watched several more episodes. Some may be more poignant or better placed for discussion than the four above, I will probably like other episodes better or for different reasons and I probably won’t have covered your personal favourite episode. For this, I apologise but I certainly don’t want to be providing spoilers for an entire four seasons of someone else’s brilliant and creative work.
It does make you think though.
Just winding it back for a moment…..
The internet was created over a period of three decades from the 60’s to the 80’s, initially for use by government and research and education institutions to share information but by the time the world wide web was created in the late eighties and the internet boom had occurred in the early to mid-nineties, it did not take long for this new technology to be rapidly diversified.
Fast forward twenty-five years and it is now impossible to think of life without the internet. It has innovated and exploded exponentially. Now almost everyone has an internet presence and we rely on it for so many aspects of our life, it is inconceivable that it will ever go away and many of us would not want it to, but in many other respects, it is such a huge invasion on our lives. Stealing us away from people that we are in the same room as, interrupting conversations as our phones ping and ding with various alerts, creating enormous distractions in what would have been an otherwise productive day.
Social media is actually responsible for a plethora of new anti-social behaviours and whether it be mildly irritating to downright obsessive and every shade in between, it is true that the internet has invaded and infected almost every household on this planet, yet it is only now that we realise that many of these sites and services that we long ago signed up for are only just showing their true colours. Commercialism, storing information on each and everyone one of us to better target advertising campaigns. Harvesting personal information on us all for various databases. Tracking our every move with every journey we make, every check-in we carry out, every upload we post.
We have become an entire society of experimental guinea pigs.
What’s more, we are utterly willing in our compliance, or should that read we are utterly ‘complicit’ in our compliance?
The Virtual Recluse
“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.” Charlie Brooker, the Dark Side of our Gadget Addiction, The Guardian
Taken from one of my Facebook posts in 2015:
I have a question for you all.
Imagine a world without the internet.
It was not that long ago that it came to exist.
Certainly in my adult lifetime.
News coverage(to name but a few,): fracking, aliens, migrants, extremists, terrorism, corrupt governments, Monsanto, corrupt banks, war, fear, lies, Kim Kardashians shiny arse .
How can anyone genuinely sift through what is real?
How can anyone really believe anything they see, hear or read on the internet these days?
The ‘news’ is only the news they want us to see. We now live in a culture where nobody knows what or who to believe.
I’m convinced all social media is actually fed by the secret services agencies in an effort to keep everyone distracted from real issues.
So, again, imagine that world without the internet……..it isn’t hard to do.
Without these infinite daily distractions…..and no Facebook too.
Imagine all the people
Just living for today… ooooh ooooh..
Was it actually better before?