Black Mirror and the new leftist stance on tech Apr 4, 2019 18:54:09 GMT
Post by robinsonjeffers on Apr 4, 2019 18:54:09 GMT
One of the major trends we see in modern discussions on tech is the phenomenon of the “worried technophile”. This individual will usually raise some genuine concern regarding technology, only to reassure their audience that they are no luddite, indeed they are passionately enthusiastic about technological progress. We need, they assure us “better management” in order to stave off any potential pitfalls of technology. Often this management takes the form of a ramping up of the development of key technologies. Thus we see Elon Musk fretting about a possible AI takeover, and proposing the colonisation of Mars and cybernetic enhancement of humans as possible solutions; or Stephen Hawking likewise proposing we become a “two-planet species”. More commonly we see tech enthusiasts proposing a universal basic income to “soften the blow” of mass technological unemployment or trying to deflect blame for the problem of technology by arguing that it should not fall into “the wrong hands”. One of the biggest pop-cultural phenomena of the last decade has followed this trajectory perfectly – the techno-drama series Black Mirror.
There is no denying the show’s creator Charlie Brooker is a master story teller, who has managed to perfectly capture the modern world’s anxiety surrounding technology. Unfortunately the series falls short once it attempts to offer a solution to technological problems.
Black Mirror’s messaging can effectively be divided into two phases, the first counselling despair the second offering diversion. The “despair” message is offered up in the first two series of the show – in each episode we are presented with a potential problem emerging from technology, and then see a protagonist’s life devastated by it. In Fifteen Million Merits a character is faced with the endless drudgery of meaningless work and mass digitised consumerism, his attempt at rebellion is co-opted by the system and he himself becomes part of the establishment. In Be Right Back a woman is able to recreate a replica of deceased boyfriend base on his social media profile, only to find he isn’t quite real – unable to either let go or bond with the replica she falls into despair. In White Bear memory erasing technology is used to inflict devastating punishments on criminals, White Christmas uses digitally uploaded consciousness for the same purposes.
In none of these instances, however, is any effective solution offered to the issues the show raises. Nor is technology directly being criticised. This is no accident, Brooker himself has said: “I am actually quite pro-technology, and I try to be optimistic in real life about where that's all going. I'm hoping it's stuff that we're all going to get better at dealing with and using, because it's not going away” and “only an idiot would want to turn the clock back”. What Brooker critiques is not technology itself, but the public’s use of it. There is a whiff of snobbery in these tales too, the “vulgar masses” are often the source of the problems in Black Mirror episodes; whether it be voyeurism in The National Anthem, trashy game shows in Fifteen Million Merits or tabloid-style attitudes to crime in White Bear.
But it is the later two series of Black Mirror that have really given the game away. The tragic character arcs and gloomy pessimism of earlier episodes are still present in some episodes, but these are interspersed with “lighter” moments, episodes where technology plays a positive role. The crucial difference with these episodes is who controls the technology.
The first example of Black Mirror’s new style comes from the episode San Junipero. Here the same brain uploading technology from White Christmas is now benign, as elderly people are uploaded onto a digital heaven where they enjoy the benefit of youthful virtual bodies and endless pleasure. The story revolves around a lesbian couple meeting in just such an environment. (For extra brownie points they’re an interracial couple, and one of them is in a wheelchair) Brain uploading occurs again in USS Callister, where a predatory CEO of a gaming company is able to upload copies of his co-workers onto a computer game in order to torment them for perceived slights in the real world. He is brought down when one woman who rejected him romantically gets this treatment, she successfully takes over the game and helps the other captives escape into a wider online gaming community. Finally there is Black Museum, where the curator of the titular museum showcases the results of his various technology related crimes, only to be brought down by the daughter of one of his victims, a wrongfully accused black execution victim. She uses the same brain uploading technology seen in earlier episodes to create a digital hell for the curator.
In other words, Black Mirror has shifted from fatalism to leftism, technology was previously depicted as something which would lead to our downfall because humans are fundamentally wicked and cheap; now it is a matter of who holds it – in the hands of the Wicked White Male technology is inevitably bad, in the hands of The Oppressed it is inevitably good. This is confirmed by the cast of the show themselves: Christin Milloti, who stared in USS Callister, descried her role as “a woman in charge [fighting] against a small-minded, misogynist bully”.
I should point out that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with depicting characters from a range of different backgrounds or sexual orientations. I myself am mid-way through writing a novel in which the main character is a lesbian. The problem comes when issues which are trivial compared to the threat technological society poses to the very meaning of being human and to life on Earth itself are treated as the most pressing concern of our time. This is exactly what Ted Kaczynski discussed in his essay The System’s Neatest Trick and in his short story Ship of Fools. Brooker takes our anger and fear surrounding technology and deflects it onto an unimportant debate surrounding the allocation of power and status within the technological system. Ironically considering Brooker’s left-liberal views his insistence that all will be well once technology is placed in the right hands perfectly echoes the NRA slogan “guns don’t kill people, people do”.
In fact Brooker is essentially repeating the same error Karl Marx once made. Marx wrote very eloquently about the problems generated by the Industrial Revolution. His mistake was in imagining that the same forces he derided could suddenly become a vehicle for his utopian dream once the were taken out of the hands of Bourgeoise “villains” and placed under the control of the heroic, oppressed proletariat. The reality was quite different. In our more cynical age Brooker cannot present quite such a detailed or optimistic vision for change that Marx did, and the faces of his oppressed heroes have changed a great deal since the nineteenth century, but the thinking remains the same: “all will be well once the right people control the system”. In reality of course, hierarchy is an inevitable outcome of any complex system, and the destructive potential of technology will not magically go away once the corridors of power become more diverse.
The diversion of revolutionary anger towards leftist causes is of course nothing new. However, what has changed is that technology is now so ever present that the efforts to divert our attention must now tackle it directly. It is, I believe imperative that anti-tech activists tell their own tales, which do not shy away from confronting the real villain, and which do not point their audience towards a paper tiger.