This is one of a series of posts that I am writing alongside a module I am teaching on “Digital Societies”. In this series I have been putting down some thoughts about topics which are broadly relevant to the module but not covered in teaching. In the class this week we are dedicating the session to discussing the TV series Black Mirror. I asked students to analyse an episode in relation to the themes of the module. But this has encouraged me to reflect on the TV series as a whole and what I have been thinking might be the kind of “meta-message”. This post contains SPOILERS for episodes from all series of Black Mirror.
The series is often referred to by students (and by me) in discussions on the module as it seems to encapsulate a lot of the fears that we have about the encroachment of digital technologies into our lives and the potential negative impacts. It has become something of a cliche (which I find myself falling into) to assert that a new app or the actions of a big tech company are “just like Black Mirror“.
Individual episodes such as “Nosedive” (with its cheery dystopian society of social approval) and “Fifteen Million Merits” (showing a thoroughly individualizsed society comprised of people who are little more than energy producing units subdued through reality TV and controlled through advertising) capture specific aspects of the commercially controlled social media saturated digital landscape. But I think there is a more abstract message from the series as a whole which is becoming increasingly evident and makes sense when seen in the context of creator Charlie Brooker’s professional background.
The big message of Black Mirror is not that technology is taking over our lives and removing our humanity (although these are certainly present as possibilities) as some episodes are quite optimistic about the potential of immersive technologies (e.g. “San Junipero“, “Striking Vipers“). Rather, the series seems to be a broader comment on power and “control” in contemporary society.
I use the word “control” quite specifically here in the way the concept was developed by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze specifically in his essay “Postscript on Societies of Control” (although taken from William Burroughs). Here he outlines how we have moved away from the “disciplinary society” (described by Michel Foucault) characterised by “enclosure” within institutions and systems. This older form of power functions through drilling and training individuals to think and behave in standardised ways. In contrast “societies of control” manage people through their freedom by multiplying the ways in which we can express ourselves or move around and directly forcing us to go anywhere specifically or behave in a prescribed way. But we are, nevertheless, constantly monitored and managed by subtly manipulating the parameters of our environment so we engage and develop in desired ways. As Delezue stated in a lecture:
Control is not discipline. You do not confine people with a highway. But by making highways, you multiply the means of control. I am not saying this is the only aim of highways, but people can travel infinitely and “freely” without being confined while being perfectly controlled. That is our future.
Many critical theorists have highlighted the relevance of Deleuze’s theories for understanding the impact of digital technologies and networks. But Alexander Galloway (amongst others) has specifically looked at the ways in which videogames enact and allegorise “societies of control”. By this he means the kind of control Deleuze described is clearly present in videogames. This is perhaps most obvious in the “open world” games such as Grand Theft Auto in which it seems we are free to do anything and go anywhere but in reality in order to succeed we need to internalise the logic of the game and to “play the algorithm”. There are rules and systems within the game which restrict what is possible and nudge us in particular directions. The successful player of the game will eventually harmonise their conscious and unconscious mind with these structures so that they effectively become part of the machine.
Most, if not all, of the episodes of Black Mirror seem to engage with this critique implicitly or explicitly. The Star Trek parody “USS Callister” features a spaceship crew of sentient “digital clones” created by a socially awkward (in the real world) but successful despotic overlord wanting to live out his sci-fi fantasies. Similarly, “Hang the DJ” presents a series of encounters between simulated versions of users of a dating app forced to repeat potential romantic encounters ad nauseam until a good match is found. In both episodes the line between conscious human beings with free will and automated, controlled “bots” is blurred.
Other episodes such as “Playtest” and “Men against Fire” play with notions of virtual and augmented reality and how both use videogame -like interfaces to control our behaviour and perceptions by framing our interpretations of the world (such as who we perceive to be a revolting enemy worthy of hatred and extermination). These highlight how our perceptions are increasingly structured through digital interfaces whether this is our social media feeds or Google maps.
Even those episodes not actually representing virtual reality still engage with ways in which we are subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) controlled through aspects of our interface with digital media. “The Waldo Moment” and “Shut Up and Dance” both present characters who feel trapped, controlled and cajoled into behaviours by the real, perceived or projected opinions of nameless masses on social media.
Perhaps the most sophisticated (or at least meta) engagement with this theme comes in the “interactive” episode “Bandersnatch“. This story of a early 1980s videogame programmer finds the protagonist made increasingly confused and paranoid by what seem to be the interventions of a powerful but invisible individual who has the godlike power to control his life and force him to reset and replay events until a “successful” outcome is achieved. As the story progresses it is revealed that the viewer/player of the episode (who has been making decisions throughout the story in the style of a primitive 1980s “text adventure” game like The Hobbit) is the antagonist of the story manipulating the main character.
Although I don’t know whether Charlie Brooker is familiar with Deleuze or Galloway he is certainly deeply embedded in the “algorithmic culture” having started his career as a video game journalist.
Maybe the overarching message of Black Mirror, then, is that we (like many of the characters in the series) are subject to hidden, abstract and sometimes malevolent systems of control buried deep within the digital infrastructure of everyday life. However, we probably shouldn’t look to the series for any answers to this predicament as the closest it gets to a happy ending is characters taking some solace in the comfort of their virtual worlds with the temporary (or permanent) rejection of reality (“San Junipero“, “Striking Vipers“).