Black Mirror (Brooker/Channel 4)

Black Mirror
“As we contemplate the world converted into a huge machine and managed by engineers, we gradually grow aware of its lack of meaning, and of its emptiness of human value; the soul is stifled in this glorification of mechanical efficiency.  And then we begin to feel the weakness of such a creed when confronted by the real problems of life; we discover its inability to impose any restraint on the passions of men, or to supply any government which can appeal to the loyalty of the spirit.  And seeing these things we understand the fear that is gnawing at the vitals of society.”
– Paul Elmer More
“Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact – which can be established – and that modern man has about squandered his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism.”
– Richard M. Weaver
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(Ed. note: Black Mirror was made available to US audiences on DirecTV’s Audience Network in Nov, 2013.)

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It’s uncanny.  There are different ways in which one can discover kinship with other people.  As a rule, I’ve always found it pleasant whenever I have found like-mindedness in another.  Sometimes it’s a shared taste in literature, film, art or music.  Other times it’s common sports fandom.  And occasionally it’s even a shared understanding of deeper things.  But, now I’ve found that sharing some things in common can also be disconcerting.  I just discovered that director, critic, journalist, and producer Charlie Brooker is a kindred spirit.  And I identify with him because of this one thing that we share.

We share the same nightmares.

I’m a little afraid.  I’ve also just discovered a couple other new facts and I don’t know what to do with them.  (How do we make sense of new factual information?  We certainly have plenty of it.  We increasingly have more information than we could ever possibly absorb in one lifetime.  But sometimes I wonder if we forget that increased information does not necessarily bring increased meaning.  Obtaining information is now easy.  –Understanding what it means … that can’t always just be googled.)

Fact #1: There is a three-year old television show from Britain.  It is entitled Black Mirror.  It’s dark and bleak and brilliant.  The creator of the show, Mr. Brooker, is something of a cultural satirist.  He’s also a self-admitted fan of the Twilight Zone.  As I was watching the first series, which was originally aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in December of 2011, my friend turned to me and declared, “Now this is real science fiction.  This is what science fiction is meant to do!”  What he said didn’t hit me at the time because I was riveted, watching with increasing horror as the plot of the first episode of Black Mirror grew closer and closer to the end.

It was like watching a train wreck.  You want to look away.  You can’t look away.  And, even worse, Mr. Brooker has designed each story in this show to explicitly point out to you the very fact that you can’t look away.  Then, as you’re watching it, his point registers in your mind.  You get it.  He’s critiquing the very fact that you are absorbed with this TV screen in front of you … and then you just keep watching.

But my friend’s point was a good one.  What is real science fiction meant to do?  Of course, science fiction can be used to accomplish a number of different objectives.  In his essay, “On Science Fiction,” C.S. Lewis mentions what he considered to be different kinds of science fiction.  One popular kind that he argued to be of poor quality was when “the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common.  Against this huge backcloth he then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story.”  In other words, there are a large number of science fiction stories which the creators didn’t need to set in futuristic settings.  There seems to be little purpose for the setting in these stories other than merely to profit off the genre’s popularity.  “This seems to me tasteless,” Lewis wrote.  “Whatever in a work of art is not used is doing harm.”

But popularity is not the ends for which the good science fiction storyteller aims.  It is true that a very large amount of science fiction today, in both books and film, consists of merely derivative copy-cat work.  “But we must distinguish.  A leap into the future, a rapid assumption of all the changes which are feigned to have occurred, is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told … in any other way.”

Lewis explained that he was personally interested in the kind of science fiction that could be called “mythopoeic.”  This kind of science fiction is a sort of myth-making derived from “an imaginative impulse as old as the human race” but “working under the special conditions of our time.”  The end result of such stories is that they will inevitably become rather haunting.  They will concern themselves with universal problems that we wrestle with every day as the self-conscious creatures that we are.  And, Lewis adds, because fundamental to who we are is the fact that we have moral natures, a good and truly haunting science fiction story “will usually point to a moral: of itself, without any didactic manipulation by the author on a conscious level.  Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would be an example.  Another is Marc Brandel’s Cast the First Shadow, where a man, long solitary, despised, and oppressed, because he has no shadow, at last meets a woman who shares his innocent defect, but later turns from her in disgust and indignation on finding that she has, in addition, the loathsome and unnatural property of having no reflection.”

Such stories are haunting because they create a myth that leaves a lasting impression upon us.  These stories are impossible, but the way that the persons in them will and act is entirely believable.  In fact, we may often wince at how similar, in this other world, human wickedness, folly, evil, ignorance and despair all turn out to be just the same as that in our own world.  But, by placing the story in another world, the author can surprise us with good and evil.  What would seem commonplace, stands out in a clearer and possesses the quality of appearing in a new light.

I can heartily declare that all three of the episodes of the first series of Black Mirror are these kinds of stories.  Each episode is a stand-alone episode similar to The Twilight Zone.  “But,” Brooker explained in an interview, “they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

Fact #2: This show, Black Mirror, which has been around now for two years, was only made available to the United States for the first time this November (and only for DirectTV subscribers.)  It did not air in the U.S. (on either networks or cable) and no one has even bothered to distribute it on DVD for North America.  It is not available for online streaming on websites like Netflix or Hulu.

Why?  According to the laws of economics, this is because where was no demand for it.  It’s paradoxical because this is the age in which some very intelligent TV shows on HBO and AMC have been gaining in popularity over the last couple decades.  But Black Mirror does something that Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Wire don’t do.  It’s not critiquing a past historical age.  It’s not critiquing any as abstract as “the system,” drug culture, law enforcement or politics.  Instead, Brooker’s show is critiquing us – the viewers.

I fear that if it were to come to the states, it would probably come in the diluted form of so many other Americanized versions of good British TV shows.  Copycat directors and screenwriters would take it, add things to it that are considered more popular in American entertainment with a combination of better hype, better advertising, worse directing, worse writing and worse acting.  Things that in Brooker’s version are quite serious could so very easily, in America, be played only for laughs.  It bothers me to think upon what this says about us.

Are we so far gone as that?  When Neil Postman wrote that our “culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane,” was he right?

If so, then we are in deep trouble.

Another kind of science fiction that C.S. Lewis described was when the story “is satiric or prophetic: the author criticises tendencies in the present by imagining them carried out (‘produced’, as Euclid would say) to their logical limit.  Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four leap to our minds” as examples.  I would suggest that Brooker has also made this kind of science fiction with Black Mirror, except he’s mixed hints of the “mythopoeic” in it too.  There is a glimpse of the sort of story here that you find in Cast the First Shadow.  Some of the “myths” in Brooker’s stories aren’t far away from the myths of Narcissus or Orpheus.

Now, this review is going to be unlike most TV show reviews.  When you look for writing on a TV show, most of what you find will be a Cliff-Notes recap of each episode’s plot.  I can’t do that here.  Half of the power of Black Mirror is all in the surprises.  So instead of doing that, I’m only going to generally summarize the ideas of each episode and discuss some of the philosophy that necessarily intertwines with each story.

The first episode of Series 1, entitled The National Anthem, is rather offensive.  It makes it difficult for me to even be able to recommend the show to many of my friends and family.  Suffice it to say that it explores the effect that mass entertainment media and internet websites like YouTube have upon our politics and upon how we think.  It won’t be easy to watch.  I seriously doubt whether I’ll watch it again.  But it does leave an unfortunately strong impression.

The disturbing nature of the episode is quickly revealed in the first five minutes.  Rory Kinnear does an outstanding job playing the kind and decent British Prime Minister Michael Callow.  He is woken early one morning and informed that the English princess (played straight by Lydia Wilson) has been kidnaped and that she has been forced to read the kidnapper’s demands to prevent her from being executed on a video released to the world on YouTube.

It’s almost too easy of a plot.  If you were to read more about it, you might just think that it’s a stupid joke of an episode.  But Brooker doesn’t mean it to be joke.  The actors play the whole thing straight (something that I suspect wouldn’t happen if it had been produced in the states).  They take it deadly seriously.  The consequences, and the alternative prospects of how the story might end, turn out to be both rather disgusting and profound at the same time.

What have mass media and internet videos done to us?  Do we even bother to think about what is now possible – about what this is already used for now in some corners of the web every single day?

“It is a commonplace,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “that what shocks one generation is accepted quite calmly by the next.  This adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectability: whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.”

I often forget how our culture shapes even my own sensibility.  More than once, I’ve stopped to find myself taking pride in my “knowingness” and my ability not to be shocked.  To be innocent of things that are out there, to not know about them, to not have seen them – is looked down upon in our culture as sheltered and naive.  But what if shame were a good thing?  What if the ability to be shocked was a sign of moral character?  In this episode, Brooker asks us to consider whether shame might still have moral value and that is something I don’t think I’ve seen on TV for a long time.

If innocence, dignity and honor still have value, how often are they scoffed at and desecrated in the mass entertainment culture that we have today?  Does it really please us to see dignity laid low?  Is it really entertaining to see goodness stomped on, laughed at, humiliated and violated?

Neil Postman is famous for his critiques of how we use technology and has consequently built something of a reputation for being anti-technology.  Yet I’ve always thought that he had some very important things to say.  For example, he is one of the best thinkers I know on the subject of what viewing everything as entertainment can do to us.

Postman wrote:

“To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.  No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.  That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’  What for?  One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights.  We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.  Everything about a news show tells us this – the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials – all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping.  A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.”

It could be that men and women from other past ages would be horrified at how callous, desensitized and cynical we all have become in the 21st Century.  It could be that how we view our political news now – in itself another form of entertainment – has a moral and spiritual dimension.  It could even be that we have a trivial attitude towards real goodness and real evil.  As you watch Prime Minister Callow slowly tread through this nightmare of an episode, and as you picture yourself in his or in his wife’s shoes, I would bet that you’ll think of these questions slightly differently than you ever have before.

And that is good science fiction.

The second episode, entitled Fifteen Million Merits, is arguably the best episode of Black Mirror.  It brilliantly takes another look at our media saturated culture, but from a different dystopian angle.  It’s set farther into the future than the first one.  In fact, I will never be able to think of Brave New World orNineteen Eighty-Four quite the same again without also thinking of this episode.  At the same time, it also doesn’t feel as if it were that far into the future.

Imagine a world where everyone stares at TV and computer screens all day (in the morning before they go to work, all day while they are at work, and all night while they are relaxing after their day at work).  Imagine a world where all the food you eat is artificially processed with chemically induced flavor and vitamins.  Imagine a world so full of advertisements that you can’t help but absorb them so deeply into your thinking that quoting advertisements and referring to advertisements in your daily thoughts and conversation is a normal part of who you are.  Imagine a world where physical health and body image determines social classes.  Imagine a world where it is possible to make enough money to support yourself and then spend eight to ten hours every day watching television, playing video games or watching pornography.

Fifteen Million Merits has all these things.  The people in this other world live in what are essentially prison cells covered floor to ceiling with video screens.  Commercials play on their bathroom mirrors.  Pornography plays at their work.  Reality TV shows are what they all live for.  They get meaning for their lives by hoping and dreaming and wishing and working to be … TV stars.

Imagine a world where almost everything natural has been replaced by technology to make it work better and to make it be safer.  Imagine a world where a human being’s value can be measured in how he or she interacts with virtual media.  Imagine a world where technological pleasure and instant gratification is always at your fingertips, always there to temporary satisfy insatiable appetites as many times as you could ever ask for.

The world of this episode also has all these things.  It’s a satirical look at Reality TV and objectification of other people.  But all these latest technological improvements are what everyone likes and wants.  Pleasures are given and given and given as long as the consumer keeps paying for it.  It is a world that has lost any connection between gratification and the existence of a moral sphere.

British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “The idea of ‘evil pleasures’ has slipped from our grasp.  But it is through pleasure, power and glory that Mephistopheles tempts the soul of Faust.  And perhaps our most vivid experiences of personal evil are granted to us in the context of sexual pleasure, when desire overrides, disregards or violates the freedom of its object.”

Cultural commentator, Chris Hedges, wrote: “In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness.  Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown.  They believe these flickering shadows are reality.  If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain.  Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness.  But eventually his eyes adjust to the light.  The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated.  He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality.  The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes.  But he is despised when he returns to the cave.  He is unable to see in the dark as he used to.  Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.  Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason.”

The sinister potential of these powers that Plato feared is precisely what Brooker explores in this episode.  Everyone seems satisfied with them except one character, Bingham Madsen (played first with irony and then with passion by Daniel Kaluuya).  Bingham is confronted with a sanitized, processed, prepackaged, artificial, media saturated world, and yet he is hungry for something more.  Like most dystopian stories, he gets a hint that there could be something more when he meets a pretty girl, Abi (played with considerable charm by Jessica Brown Findlay).  And then he hears her sing.

She is somehow untouched by the sordidness all around her.  Her innocence and naivety are attractive to Bingham, but her singing hints at something even deeper.  Her favorite song is old.  It was passed down to her from her mother who learned the song from her grandmother.  Abi becomes the first person to show Bingham beauty.  In his eyes, she is beauty incarnated.  Her very existence and personality is a light for him in a world covered with dark multimedia screens.

It is mesmerizing how, in a sterile inhuman setting, Brooker directs Kaluuya and Findlay to create something that seems a little magical.  In a sense, Bingham understands something about truth.  Abi understands something about beauty.  When the two of them meet, you get the impression that real goodness is possible.  Their relation to each other is morally good.  But, that’s just the beginning of the story.  In a world devoted to spectacles, false images and appetites, what would such a world so dominated by entertainment do to innocence, truth or beauty?

The nightmare of the second episode lies in how unnatural and abnormal it all feels (at least I hope it would seem that way to any viewer).  Bingham and Abi bring back something normal again, and thus appear to be human beings.  But there are many ways in which normal human relationships can be placed in great danger.

“An abnormity,” explained Russell Kirk, “in its Latin root, means a monstrosity, defying the norm, the nature of things … An abnormal generation is a generation of monsters, enslaved by will and appetite.  To recover an apprehension of normality, then, is to acquire an understanding of one’s real nature.  The alternative to such recovery is not a piquant pose of ‘noncomformity,’ but monstrosity in the soul and in society.”

Remember that when you watch the second episode.  In a world where everything can be a spectacle, where everything can be objectified, repackaged and sold back to an always hungry unsated viewership, what happens to the human soul?  The entertainment we choose to use for our “relaxing,” or whatever else it is we choose to call it, affects our being.  Very often it can and will desensitize us.  You have to be pretty far gone not to notice it, but how far gone are we really?  Isn’t this something we ought to pay attention to?  Weaver writes that “our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases their degradation.  Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens.”

Honestly, one of the reasons why Black Mirror may not have yet aired in the United States is how it takes down the Reality TV show, American Idol, and its other hundred derivatives.  Ranked the number one television show in United States in ratings for eight years, American Idol is watched every week by tens of millions of viewers at a time.  Stopping to think about this for moment, what exactly are they watching?  American Idol is a show where countless celebrity worshipers take turns subjecting themselves to an public exhibition so that they can be judged based on their looks, personality, charisma or popularity.  They will either be praised or shamed.  This exhibition is entertaining enough to become the top-rated show in the United States.

No one that I have ever talked to who watches American Idol has stopped to ask if this kind of entertainment has any kind of moral affect.  What does it mean to value populist praise – or even to care about the popular spotlight?  Chris Hedges writes: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal.  Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show.”

As the characters in Fifteen Million Merits watch “Hot Shots,” whether they will or no, it can’t help affecting what they value.  The desire for fame and publicity is all-consuming.  For someone who desires to enter into the world of the TV show, every decision, every calculation, every single choice they make is influenced by that desire.  When the choice becomes one of mutually exclusive alternatives, their real moral character is finally revealed.

Hedges continues: “Degradation as entertainment is the squalid underside to the glamour of celebrity culture.  ‘If only that were me,’ we sigh as we gaze at the wealthy, glimmering stars on the red carpet.  But we are as transfixed by the inverse of celebrity culture, by the spectacle of humiliation and debasement that comprise tabloid television shows … We secretly exult: ‘At least that’s not me.’  It is the glee of cruelty with impunity, the same impulse that drove crowds to the Roman Colosseum, to the pillory and the stocks, to public hangings, and to traveling freak shows.”

When you spend hours and hours watching YouTube or TV, what is it that you are losing?  I cannot help but be surprised when I think of how much time I have lost in front of the television and computer screen.  Our lives are too short to do all that we ought to do or all that is good and valuable to do.  How many of us have enough time to spend with our families?  How many of us have the time required to spend on even a single friendship in order to make that friendship grow as it should?  I don’t.  And so I spend more of my time watching the television.

Black Mirror’s third episode, The Entire History of You, turns its attention to Facebook and social media.  The main difference is that, in this episode, Facebook has been perfected to its logical and ultimate end.  Do you know how many trivial irrelevant and meaningless details we all share with each other every day on social-networking sites?  Well, in The Entire History of You, the technology finally exists to share everything.  Everyone has a chip implanted inside themselves that records everything they do.  The recordings are stored in your brain with the additional benefit that you can rewind and watch any moment, hour or day of your life again, as many times as you please.

Imperfect human memory has been perfected.

What this means is that social interaction has also been technologically perfected.  Thanks to the chip and recordings, you can also play these recordings of yourself online or on television for others to see and watching.  (Luckily, Brooker wisely decided to avoid trying to explore the infinity loops that would necessarily result from this technology.  Yes, it’s true that you would record yourself watching the recordings that other friends & family were showing you of themselves.  That would mean that, later, you could replay and rewatching recordings of yourself watching other recordings, and so on and so forth.  We do sort of live in a world like this already.  We just aren’t as technologically advanced quite yet (thus the multiple Facebook pictures taken with one’s phone of other people taking pictures with their phones to post on Facebook, and occasionally even the Facebook photos taken of people on their computers looking at Facebook, etc.).

Basically, if we progress far enough, we should be able to spend evenings at the dinner table where, instead of telling each other how our days went, we can just show each other how our days went (with fast-forward and rewind buttons included).  I suspect we can get there.

The initial plot of The Entire History of You, could have, for all I know, have been selected at random.  The point is what happens to what would be a normal story in this setting.  Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell) is an attorney, with the added benefit of working in a court system where witness testimony has now been perfected.  He is married to Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) and begins to suspect that she has or wants to cheat on him with one of her old flames, Jonas (Tom Cullen).  The predictable result is obsession.  The endless rewatching of memories – searching for and discovering little clues in watching yourself and others that you didn’t notice at first – using lip-reading technology to hear conversations in the distance that you couldn’t hear at the time.  Obviously this is going to affect human relationships in a specific way.  It is also bound to directly affect one’s intelligence.  If you can only focus on the now, or upon your own personal experience, then you are not going to be educated in that which is other than yourself.

How does watching video teach us how to think?

In his masterful book, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter warned us that the “person who only processes information beyond their immediate purview in nuggets is not educated in any meaningful sense.  On the contrary, this person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semiliterate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip.  And a culture that marginalizes the didactic potential of a written-style language in favor of the personal electricity of spoken language is one whose media becomes ever more a circus of personalities rather than a purveyor of information and guide to analysis.”

It used to be that being deprived of education or living in poverty produced specific results on a person’s capacity to think.  It now may be that social media can accomplish the same results.  Furthermore, if we obsess over the images that we can create of ourselves, we will, inevitably, begin to compare ourselves to the images that others create of themselves.  This shapes the world of our feelings.  This forms what we want to appear to be doing and feeling.

Richard M. Weaver discussed this phenomenon as far back as 1948.  “The vested interests of our age”, he wrote,

“have constructed a wonderful machine, which we shall call the Great Stereopticon.  It is the function of this machine to project selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated.  All of us of the West who are within the long reach of technology are sitting in the audience.  We are told the time to laugh and the time to cry, and signs are not wanting that the audience grows ever more responsible to its cues.”

It is entirely possible that we use technology that encourages us to imitate each other, that assists us in presenting select images of an apparently perfect life to each other and that allows us to judge the value of our own lives by comparing it to the select perfect images (or videos) of the lives of our peers.  But this brings us back again to the fears of Plato.

Like Hedges, Weaver finds Plato’s cave helpful and illustrative:

“Seen from another point of view, the Great Stereopticon is a translation into actuality of Plato’s celebrated figure of the cave.  The defect of the prisoners, let us recall, is that they cannot perceive the truth.  The wall before them, on which the shadows play, is the screen on which press, motion picture, and radio project their account of life.  The chains which keep the prisoners from turning their heads are the physical monopoly which the engines of publicity naturally possess.  And it is not pathetically true that these victims, with their limited vision, are ‘in the habit of conferring honors among themselves to those who are quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before and which followed after, and which were together’?  The result is that insulation by technology has made the task of disseminating wisdom more difficult wince Plato’s day … The denizens of the cave have never been so firmly enchained as in this age, which uses liberty as a veritable incantation.”

There are different kinds of liberty.  Technology can increase our liberty to do things we couldn’t do before.  It is meant to set us free from human error.  It is now an increasingly accepted assumption that, if technology allows us to do something better, then we should use it.  This notion is so common that people who choose not to use it are laughed at.  In this last episode, there is one young woman who had decided to go without the “grain” or memory chip that everyone else has.  Her decision is met by everyone else with disbelief and yet she is probably the most content and well-adjusted character in the story.

Such are the questions and insights offered to us by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.  It really should be seen and distributed in the United States because our society needs to consider these things.  We have been propelling headlong towards increased technological progress, comfort and convenience for far too long without pausing to reflect.  There are costs and consequences that each successive younger generation, born totally immersed in the latest technological wonders of our age, considers less and less.

We are paying these costs in our capacity for thought and feeling.  We are now experiencing lives that have fundamentally changed.  We view old traditions and ways of life as now hopelessly outdated.  The surrender to every new technological improvement and innovation casts a dark shadow over the past.  How or why should we understand how anyone lived before the iPhone, before Facebook, before the internet or before television?  More and more often we don’t even try.  We are increasingly conscious only of what we experience and what we experience is increasingly present.

Stratford Caldecott writes:

“Our technology also tends to eliminate tradition, and with it the possibility of a truly human living in time.  If human memory and knowledge is evacuated into cyberspace, the past too becomes something we treat as external to ourselves, something other than us, something we sit back and observe.  The self then contracts into a point, and ceases to dwell in the world by being extended through time.  It is no longer fully embodied.  It becomes a detached observer of the grid of knowledge, an insatiable consumer set loose in an infinite supermarket of information.  Technological consumerism at its worst thus threatens to become not just the enemy but the perfect inversion of tradition.”

All three episodes of Series 1 of Black Mirror posit just such a world without restraint.  The lines between how technology is used on this show and how we use technology now are indistinct.  You need not be anti-technology to appreciate the questions that Charlie Brooker thinks we should be asking.  After all, Brooker is using the technological medium of television to ask them in the first place.  Unquestioning rejection of technological innovation is only for the reactionary and close-minded.

But, really, our society today is in no danger of neglecting technological progress.  Generally, those who passionately warn about the dangers of technological progress are like unknown prophets out in the wilderness, ignored and irrelevant.  They can shout and decry and make gloomy predictions all they want.  No one cares.  This is why I believe a show like Black Mirror is so valuable.  It tells stories that expand our awareness of what life in another world could be like.  These stories can’t help but make us pause.  They hold a certain amount of reflective power in how they intelligently play with the imaginable limitlessness of our own immediate future.

Then again, here in the U.S., we could just totally ignore shows like this.  They are just uncomfortable.  It’s too much of a bother to think that much about the technology we enjoy.  Real deep thinking takes too much time anyway.  It’s hard work and who wants that?  And why on earth should we do the hard work of thinking about technology when technology can do that for us?
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References:

– Caldecott, Stratford, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, 2012
– Eliot, T.S., “Religion and Literature,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 1935
– Hedges, Chris, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, 2009
– Kirk, Russell, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969
– McWhorter, John, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, 2003
– Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985
– Scruton, Roger, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, 2006
– Weaver, Richard M., Ideas Have Consequences, 1948