What follows is a guest post from Laura Di Summa, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
Black Mirror, the TV series created by enfant terrible Charlie Brooker, is often described as the quintessential embodiment of grim poststructuralist criticisms of the ideology. But this, I believe, is just one way of looking at it. One, if I may, that has little to do with how it actually looks.
In Black Mirror, the look of technology – tones, hues, colors, set design, etc. – coupled with the extensive use of satire and the implementation of unorthodox narrative rules, reveal instead that while it may not exactly remind one of the Instagram unicorn craze, it is not the dystopian nightmare critics have depicted.
The technology is gorgeous. First, implants look like jewelry, surfaces are sleek, the design of each single gadget is unobtrusive, minimal, classy with an edge. It fits the body and seems to naturally belong to it. Black Mirror shows you a technology you suddenly recognize as familiar, but it also makes it sexier. It’s the 2.0 that does not yet have a release date, but that you are likely to pre-order anyway. In Nosedive, which is about a frightening world in which human beings rate each other as we rate Uber rides and restaurants, everything is in pastel colors. It’s cute. If anything is dark there, it’s the subtle irony with which Brooker makes us love, hate, and laugh at the whole thing.
From the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”
Second, it’s captivating, something you need to master. Technology is a game: it is not just about using it, it is about learning how to use it. Following the progression of each episode is similar to learning how to use a new device or to figure out how to productively employ the latest app, which is what the characters in Black Mirror often seem to be doing. Black Mirror’s popularity on Reddit is a testament to this point. The people – and especially young audiences – contributing to such threads, have very little interest in the dark and nefarious consequences of a technology-driven world. After all, it is the only one they have, and their main curiosity is learning how it works. There is a certain detachment, one that puts aside evaluative claims and instead focuses on strategy, on the workings of these products, on, once again, what to do in order to “play well.” After all, even when characters do not appear to enjoy the technology they have in their hands (or, as seen, implanted in their bodies), the importance of mastering it, of learning how to use it, remains a key narrative component.
Third: we need to think of life-hacking. Ninety percent of my personal life-management depends on an app: dinner reservations, pilates classes, dog-walker, meditation sessions, grocery shopping, shopping of any kind, dry cleaning, etc. are possible courtesy of my iPhone. I am not a very organized person; I became one because of the technology I use and learned to use. Technology can be scary, but it is also outrageously helpful. It can save your life. And Black Mirror does show this aspect quite well. Think of TCKR, in St. Junipero. St. Junipero is a small beach town people get to inhabit in their afterlife, if they so desire. A gorgeous little implant, designed by the aforementioned TCKR, allows the two main characters, Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to experience it once a week, for a few hours, as a way of preparing them for what their life after death will be like. Both had extremely difficult lives, both are terminally ill, and yet both will be, in a way, saved by technology. Technology allows them to meet each other, it allows for their relationship to develop, it gives them eternal youth and the kind of love that life, without technology, could not give them.
From the Black Mirror episode, “St. Junipero”
Four: technology depends on technology. Black Mirror started on British television, but it boomed on Netflix. Its charm became inescapable largely because of Netflix distribution system. You can watch it on your phone, you should binge-watch on whatever device allows for an internet connection. Black Mirror exploits the very environment in which it was created. But while it exploits it, it also makes us aware of how much we need it. We need it because without it, entertainment would not be the same. It makes us aware of the inescapable necessity of technology, but also of how useful it can be and of how its usage is linked to our entertainment. To enjoy Black Mirror we need the technology, and while our level of technological dependency may not be exactly the one we see in the series, it is unmistakably close to it. It is familiar, it is ours, and it is our main source of entertainment, of quotidian joy.
Herbert Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, saw technology as the privileged means for totalitarian regimes and ideology to subjugate society. Technology is powerful and numbing, it indoctrinates and manipulates. Even better, it does it so well that you stop noticing it. In his words, it promotes a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood. This strikes me as true, for the most part, but with a bit too much pathos. A show like Black Mirror is more likely to temper, as opposed to support this claim. While we live in the age of surveillance technology, face recognition technology, Meitu, and a million other things I don’t even have to mention, it is undeniable that these are parts of who we are and will be. We know technology is there and while we may want to criticize it, while we should probably criticize it, we also accept it.
I have so far focused mainly on the look of technology, on the kind of images that Black Mirror presents us with. I do want to maintain that those images are the primary reason justifying the lighter take on the show I have defended. But those images also work in tandem with other aesthetic means. One of them is Black Mirror’s use of narrative. Better, it is Black Mirror’s refusal to abide by the rules of narrative. Such refusal is philosophically interesting; it is interesting because it directly contributes to the debate, in the philosophy of motion pictures, on whether film can properly do philosophy.
Is that possible? Can films do philosophy? Aaron Smuts (responding to Paisely Livingston’s attack) says yes. This is typically referred to as the “bold thesis”. The bold thesis says that movies can, at times, do philosophy, but for them to do philosophy they need to fulfill two criteria, one epistemic, the other artistic. The epistemic criterion asks for a novel, or at least innovative philosophical position. You have to advance philosophical discussions. This does not mean that a movie is supposed to articulate a new Hegelian ideology, but simply that it should open a new debate, or add a new thread to a debate, like a new and creative viewpoint. The second condition is known as the artistic criterion: movies are not just supposed to advance philosophical discussion, they have to it through means that are specific of motion pictures. Because, otherwise, one is probably better off writing an essay.
The epistemic criterion gets the spotlight, always. The second criterion is typically overlooked. For discussion of the artistic criterion, and here we are getting back to why Black Mirror is so interesting, tends to be limited to one or the other of these two: narrative structure and empathic or sympathetic engagement with the characters.There is nothing wrong with this. Without any doubt the two can prompt philosophical reflection. In traditional TV series these means are absolutely crucial. They allow for the kind of engagement that makes it virtually impossible not to binge-watch, but also for curious phenomena such as our ability to sympathize with outrageously evil characters such as Tony Soprano or Walter White.
Yet, as mentioned, Black Mirror uses neither of these means. The series lacks narrative structure: there are no visible connections among episodes, characters do not reappear, and it is hard to grow attached to them. Sympathy and empathy are hardly the emotions overtaking viewers. Characters do not develop; their emotional make-up is usually limited to a few traits; the audience is not asked to discover them, to get closer to who they may actually be. Black Mirror is a series of vignettes we watch with detachment, a detachment that may in turn trigger our critical abilities and willingness to engage in a deeper reflection on its content and specifically, as I pointed out here, on what technology is for us.
Black Mirror’s viewers are dispassionate: when watching the show they are asked to embrace its sarcastic attitude, to make it theirs. We do not fear the kind of technology we see in Black Mirror. If anything, what we fear is the screen going black. I fear forgetting a charger. And this, I think, is also why Black Mirror simply cannot be the visual embodiment of poststructuralist criticism. It’s one step past it: it is critical of that very criticism. There is mockery, there is beauty: surprisingly dark, surprisingly fun. Look at it.
Notes on the Contributor
Laura Di Summa is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. Her research focuses mainly on aesthetics, the philosophy of motion pictures, and on aesthetic practices that affect our daily life and identity. She lives in New York City with her dog, Ludovico.
Edited by C. Thi Nguyen.