The Philosophy of Black Mirror
Throughout history, everyone as a whole has transformed society from a period of primitive technology to an era of instant information. This allows the production of new equipment that makes people’s lives more entertaining, easier, and proficient. It ensures the health and safety of others in times of trouble. We are to the point where people are consumed in virtual reality, bionic implants, and artificial intelligence.
We’re in the stage of the evolution of artificial intelligence in which the technology has surpassed our formerly rock-bottom expectations. When this happens, as has happened with other emerging technologies in the past, we start leapfrogging those expectations to cause two problems: We produce dystopian stories of future state. In this case: The machines destroy us or rule us. [Secondly] we start looking to cash in by applying the new technology in the most haphazard ways possible (Procopio).
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All of this brings an ethical question into play: “How far will we allow [technology] to go before it pushes us back?”. The potential dangers that could be bestowed upon people can be seen in Charlie Brooker’s anthology series, Black Mirror. The show as a whole gives them a foreshadowing of what’s to come in the near future if they continue in this path. Most of the technological advancements shown in the series include things such as the Z-Eye, DNA digital scanner, Arkangel, and the Corroborator. Each episode is unique regarding the character development and the way the story is planned out. Majority of the time, there is a lot of suspense that make others question the way they’re living because the events that happen to the characters in the show can lead them to their ultimate downfall.
Black Mirror is essentially a parallel to our world to some extent. Most of the similarities arise when people see teens and young adults today with their eyes glued to their phones. They do not pay attention to their surroundings and one focus on communicating with one another. This interaction is solely for one thing for some people: popularity. Everyone sees the challenges and memes that make the local trend. Others are faking their videos by creating unnecessary drama and staging it. Rarely, there are genuine individuals who post content because they are very passionate about it. The world also has advertisements to where companies compete with one another to get their viewer ratings through the roof.
To connect this part of the parallel, philosopher Jean Baudrillard mentioned that everyone is so drawn to social media that “images have become more real than physical reality in which simulations of reality have displaced their originals” (Britannica). Even though media can’t be trusted due to exaggeration, Black Mirror, despite being a science fiction show, people are inclined to believe that everything in there is real; what the characters go through might happen to us one day.
Nosedive is the central point of how technology is used in the modern world. It is the closest connection to how it could affect anyone. In this episode, the setting is in a dystopian society where your rating determines one’s status in society. Bryce Dallas Howard playing as Lacie, aims for a higher ranking position as she exaggerates on her behaviors in order to get people to give her high ratings. This too is seen amongst the citizens as they try to keep a straight face no matter who they encounter. “Users make their ranks by using a smartphone-like device, and their rankings are saved to their implant” (Hornshaw). As Lacie makes her way to a wedding to give a speech, she come across many obstacles where she cannot maintain her façade as she loses her composure when she does not get what she wants. It’s to the point where she’s below average and the bride does not want her there anymore. Lacie makes it to the wedding where she has a total meltdown, fully expressing her true feelings. This sends her to prison and the consequence is to remove the rating implant in her eyes. She finally feels relieved as she finds contemporary solace with her cellmate, who also is not afraid to let the words run out of his mouth.
This episode shares many aspects of philosophy such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of existentialism. This particular universe in where people rate one another does not seem like it fits existence preceding essence since it deals with no predefined pattern that we must fit into. We live our lives, and that in turn defines what we truly are, not any idealized set of characteristics. This idea is the heart of Sartre’s version of Existentialism. The implications are that we must create our own meaning, place our own value on our acts, and that our individual freedom is absolute and unbounded (Kitoba).
In order to have meaning in our lives, we must make the decisions ourselves and live life to the fullest. Lacie and everyone else however, displays inauthenticity because they conform to the norms and values that the society offers in order to get a higher rating. This reminds me of the many YouTubers who make videos. Their comments section being dissatisfied puts them in a state where they do something out of place in order to get many subscribers. It is when Lacie is thrown into jail that she becomes her authentic self when the implants are taken off and she can see the world clearly. Viewers see that the only person in that episode that’s living up to Sartre’s expectations is Susan the truck driver. Although she accepts the fact that her rating is low, she does not care what others think.
If this device was implemented in today’s world, many people would not be able to function in society. Most of the popularity concentrates on the younger audience and it feels forced having to go out of one’s way just to take pictures to increase the ratings. No one would be able to speak their minds. It’s amazing, yet scary to know that the ratings can turn anyone against each other if they do something that upsets them. As realistic as it seems, nobody in today’s world can turn away from the fact that they see people’s account and think they have it all. As mentioned earlier with Baudrillard, they give viewers a false sense of perception.
Most of the episodes have their moments where the characters do not live up to the idea of deontology. Viewers see this in Nosedive, as it was Lacie’s duty, set by her best friend since childhood, to be supportive of her by being the bridesmaid. However, due to Lacie’s outbursts, her ratings were low to the point where her friend takes the privilege away from her, thus failing the task at hand.
Other episodes that tie into Nosedive is White Christmas. But what I am referring to is the technological device that is used: Z-Eye. Think of it as an enhanced cellphone where “Users are able to broadcast what they see and hear to other people”, as we see to what seems to be our protagonist (Hornshaw). The aspect of the retinal implant is amazing because the communication is phenomenal. With the Z-Eye, people would have a surplus of the materials used to make modern day phones, which could be made to make new things. The only problem with this is who the person chooses to speak to. Basically, if you block someone with the Z-Eye, you get a distorted, blurred image of the person; you cannot hear them as their voice is muffled. In today’s technology, it similarly works the same, only the effects do not occur in person. Towards the end of White Christmas, viewers find out that he’s incriminated with a serious charge, and his punishment is to be blocked by the rest of the world. How is he supposed to communicate with anyone at all?
In the present day, the technological advancements that’s made are mostly abused for personal gain, pleasure, and/or stalking. Another episode that deals with false perceptions and the way technology is used is Arkangel. Marie has a daughter named Sara, who is the only person that she has in her life. Due to an incident where Sara went missing, Marie is concerned about her safety. She gets an opportunity to trial the Arkangel, “a technology used in children that connects their senses and vitals to an external monitoring tablet” (Hornshaw). With this in mind, Marie is able to see and control everything her daughter sees. This is what we know as helicopter parenting. Although Sara lives a normal life, her visual perceptions are deceived when there’s something dangerous or inappropriate. In her teen years, she experiences sex and drugs, which leads to a confrontation with her mother. Sara realizes that her mom has been watching her all this time and destroys the device and runs away. Without the Arkangel, Marie is in a state of paranoia as she frantically shouts for her daughter’s name, knowing she won’t find her.
This episode explores the dangers of being addicted to technology. Marie is too focused on watching Sara that she does not pay attention to her surroundings but to her only daughter. This oddly reminds me when Pokemon Go released. There was a lot of incidents where people were murdered or badly injured since they were paying a lot of attention to the phone. “Too many of us have become slaves to the devices that were supposed to free us, giving us more time to experience life and the people we love” (Brody).
We also see this issue in The USS Callister, when world-renowned video game producer Daly is obsessed in a colleague that he recently met. He abuses technology by collecting the DNA samples to create a conscious out of them and place them into his own creation of a game.
An interesting aspect of Black Mirror is how they use the advancement of technology that’s displayed on the show to attract the audience. This connects with how it fits with people and society. The YouTuber Wisecrack mentions that throughout all the episodes, visual representations can be seen. The different screens shown gives the audience glimpses that philosopher Guy Debord called spectacle.
Debord suggested that understanding spectacle was critical to understanding society. [In his book] “Society of the Spectacle”, Debord wrote that in the decades following the industrial revolution, images and appearances had begun to govern the world. […] According to Debord, “The spectacle is not a series of images, but a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”. To over simplify: we’ve been numbered by years of advertising and mass culture and, because of that, live shallow, disconnected lives (Wisecrack, The Philosophy of Black Mirror).
In other words, the images shown on the screen is one of the major reasons why people in the world are addicted to technology. Either if it’s a series of propaganda or the next big movie or game, people are connected to its message that comes from the image itself. Unfortunately, they become ignorant as they forget about the dangers of being hooked to the internet, as Wisecrack mentioned earlier about living in “disconnected lives”. Usually we have our older relatives, who are not use to this kind of technology, that try to If people were to stick to their primitive roots, mostly likely none of the historical breakthroughs would’ve happened; But the development of technology is inevitable.
Black Mirror, as phenomenologist Martin Heidegger would have put it based on his book “Being and Time”, that it “[focuses] on how we exist and what basic human experience tell us about who we are as a class of objects in the world” (Phenomenology, Slide 8). Once again, this can be seen in Nosedive. The higher the rating, the more “functional” people are to society; they are classified as The Being.
Black Mirror is not hesitant on showing how technology exploits the character’s weakness. Overall, Black Mirror shows how much of an impact technology could have on everybody. They share aspects of existentialism, deontology, spectacle, and false images. The answer to the ethical question mentioned earlier, it solely depends on the people who uses it. If they are prepared, the world may be ready for useful devices such as the Sympathetic Diagnoser, a sophisticated augmented reality game, and the Corroborator. However, if others continue in this path without any consideration or caution of the developmental process, then everyone would face their ultimate demise as machines take over the world. If anything, another nuclear war may ensue if its possessions are in the wrong hands.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Jean Baudrillard.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 July 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Baudrillard.
Brody, Jane E. “Hooked on Our Smartphones.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/well/live/hooked-on-our-smartphones.html.
Call of Duty. “Official Call of Duty®: Black Ops III ‘Ember’ Tease.” YouTube, YouTube, 23 Apr. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bfr053KdD6w.
Hornshaw, Phil. “’Black Mirror’: Every Weird, Futuristic Device From the Show.” TheWrap, TheWrap, 3 Jan. 2018, www.thewrap.com/black-mirror-every-weird-futuristic-device-show/.
kitoba. “What Does Sartre Mean by ‘Existence Precedes Essence?’ What Is Essence and Existence? What Makes Him Conclude This? What Further Effect Does This Have on Meaning, Value, and Freedom?” Ask Me a Philosophy Question, 26 Aug. 2013, yes.kitoba.com/2010/10/existence-precedes-essence/.
Procopio, Joe. “The Problem With Artificial Intelligence Isn’t the Science, It’s the Application.” Medium.com, Medium, 10 July 2018, medium.com/@jproco/the-problem-with-artificial-intelligence-isnt-the-science-it-s-the-application-3c640a1bbecf.
Wisecrack. “The Philosophy of Black Mirror – Wisecrack Edition.” YouTube, YouTube, 8 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=R50b5aoYgkM&t=177s.
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The Philosophy of Black Mirror. (2021, Jul 06). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/the-philosophy-of-black-mirror/
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