Article by Frank Memmesheimer
Are you comfortable right now, in your favorite chair or on your non-judgmental sofa, slumped in comfort, digesting the festive season’s dietary abundance? Are you grateful for what is and what was… waiting for what is to come, hopeful with expectation, having your resolutions for 2018 all lined-up?
Well, don’t be.
The future is a dark dark place, and it’s lurking just around the corner.
Now in its fourth season, the anthology series Black Mirror explores the effects of technological advances and dependence on modern society, individuals, and relationships. Every episode shapes a new vision of a not too distant future that confronts “the dark side of our gadget addiction”, as Charlie Brooker, the creator of the series, puts it. The episodes are “about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: we’re usually clumsy.”
Black Mirror’s strength is this combination of what is and what could easily be. It weaves aspects of viewers’ daily experiences with the dreams and nightmares of the future that permeate society as a whole. The show ponders matters of life and death and a (digital) life beyond, issues of guilt and punishment and forgiveness, and topics such as voyeurism, memory, control, free will, and the illusion thereof; memory, the perception of self and others. Black Mirror does not stay well clear of controversial social issues – contemporary or emerging – it confronts them by placing them in an alternate present or near-future setting that allows audiences to engage and discuss them from a point of relative safety.
Despite their often heavy to stomach content, many episodes feel light-footed and like an inescapable consequence of a choice no one consciously made. Depicted societal chances will occasionally chase shivers down your spine; changes, whose unobtrusive beginnings are not too unlike the ones we hail as innovation and cherish in our everyday lives.
So, is the future going to be favorable or devastating?
Black Mirror’s argument for the latter is as strong as ever.
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What follows is spoiler country. Read on at your own peril.
Season 4 Episode 1 “USS Callister”
Meet Robert Daly, programmer and sole mastermind behind Infinity, the next-gen ultimate immersive gaming experience that grants its users an out-of-body gaming experience. Infinity allows its users to explore a cloud based, infinite, and procedurally generated universe via some unexplained neural uplink technology. As inventor and CTO (chief technical officer) of Callister Inc., Robert is one of the two leaders that run the gaming company of the future well, at least technically. The socially inept and sometimes awkward Robert feels right at home in his office, behind a screen of code and surrounded by Star Fleet memorabilia, a quirky and naïve TV series that replays some of Star Trek’s greatest moments on screen. Shunned by his employees and pushed around by his friend and business-partner Walton, we feel sorry for Robert who seems to find solace only in his own private Star Fleet mod of Infinity, where he proudly commands his spaceship, the USS Callister, to explore and “boldly go where no-one has gone before”, surrounded by a crew that cheer his every decision and eerily look like the people from work.
Enter Nanette Cole, coder on her first day at Callister Inc., and admirer of Daly’s coding work of art. Unbiased by the office ins and outs, she engages with Daly on a professional basis, unaware of the attention she attracts and the repercussions: she finds herself waking aboard a spaceship without any recollection of how she got there. The ship is crewed by her very colleagues and mercilessly (over)ruled by a tyrannical Captain Daly who tolerates no opposition and takes the silly missions he embarks on way too seriously. Another invention of Daly’s makes the involuntary inhabitation possible. Supplied with a real person’s DNA, the gizmo creates a virtual copy of the person; consciousness, memories, and character traits included.
While the real Nanette, who is blissfully unaware of her digital copy’s suffering, continues to work with Daly, the latter returns to his phantasy world after work, to go on yet another mission where every aspect of the story is subject to his very whim. Again and again and again. Death, the only promising escape to the imprisoned inhabitants of Daly’s digital dream world, is unreachable without Daly’s consent. Disobedience is severely punished by the all-powerful creator.
With his newest addition, however, Daly introduces a yet unbroken and strong-spirited rebel, who disturbs the carefully balanced self-adulation. With her spirit of defiance, Nanette rallies the crew and together they undertake the unthinkable escape of their virtual prison.
“USS Callister” begins as the pitiful tail of a genius outsider, who is being taken advantage of. Rather quickly, however, the viewers’ allegiance shifts, as we stand before the abyss of a psychopath’s lifelong dream. The episode’s first achievement is the unsettling shift of a short but heartfelt allegiance.
Daly takes ‘escaping reality’ to a whole new level – both figuratively and literally. The difference between his real self and Captain Daly, his imagined self, is staggering, not only in his display of confidence, behavior, and language fluency; it’s impressive right down to the details of posture, haircut, and facial skin texture. One again, Jesse Plemons delivers. (And a word of praise is due for the make-up department.)
“USS Callister” makes use of an intriguing narrative device to tell its story. Narrative metalepsis refers to the concept of a transgression of narrative boundaries that usually are in place between instances of stories – a “paradoxical contamination of the world of the telling and the world of the told”, if you will. If we trust our real-world experience, a reader, for example, can find himself engaged in a story to a point where he forgets his real surroundings (-> ‘immersion’) but he cannot descent into the story itself and become part of its ensemble and join their adventures. Similarly by default, no fictional character can leave their story to influence events in the reader’s reality. One of the many variations of metalepsis – ‘breaking the fourth wall’ – like Deadpool so masterfully does by having its main character address the viewers (and sometimes seemingly interact with them) is an example of a narrative that (seems to) overcome(s) the boundary between the fictional and the real, without any ‘real’ consequence however. By placing one story in the context of another story (a story within a story), however, ‘really’ overcoming boundaries is suddenly an option. Jumanji, for example, tells the fictional story of four people on game night who are transported into and become part of the fictional world of the game they play. To return to their (level of) (fictional) reality, they have to escape the fictional world (of the real game within their (fiction) reality). Still with me?
Metalepsis predominantly occurs in fantastic stories and is often achieved by using magical items or practices. “USS Callister” manages to transfer the concept to a techno-centric story that does not seem far-fetched: immersing oneself into the world of a game at the price of losing situational awareness (‘signing out’ from reality) is an all too familiar experience for many. The clue of this episode is the ascending metalepsis, as the USS Callister’s crew are able to impact Daly’s world by accessing the same technology that allows him to intrude on theirs.
After all, Daly should have respected the one universal truth: An initiator of addictions (‘drug dealer’) prudently doesn’t use his own product.
Back up your data.
Keep your DNA close.
Don’t accept pizzas you haven’t ordered.
MG Rating: 8/10
S4 E2 “Arkangel”
After losing her daughter Sara almost twice – once right after birth and once more during a moment of parental inattention at a playground – Marie decides to have her offspring equipped with an Arkangel surveillance chip. The chip, once painlessly inserted, offers access to a wide range of monitoring functions: from locating the child’s whereabouts, checking up on her vitals and nutrition levels, dialing into her optical feed and even applying optional controls such as the pixelation of stressors for the child. A full-grown barking dog, for example, is muted and pixelated behind its safety fence, saving the passing child from a scary encounter, yet leaving her guessing at what hides behind the impenetrable visual visor. Arkangel is irremovable, its activation unnoticed by the child, and thusly allows the holder of the handheld parental control hub full access to the child’s perception and experience of life.
Sara grows up and her mother protects her, follows her every step on the way to school, checks her vitals and filters her visual and auditory experiences. Everything to keep her daughter safe.
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters”, Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote. (Although not quite in line with the rest of the original poem as I read it,) one could conclude that childhood ends when someone dies that matters in the kingdom of a child. A grandfather, for example, who fulfilled the role of the sole male attachment figure in the single-parent family. Sara feels the loss, yet is blocked from seeing her mother’s expressions of sadness, as they disturb her vitals and activate the content control feature. The sight of blood, an overly expressive fight (with words or fists), videos that make their rounds on the school yard – Sara is blocked from experiencing it. Everything to keep Sara safe and to keep Marie’s peace of mind.
When constant infantilization, frustration at missing out on certain experiences her classmates make, and her natural curiosity culminate Sara’s conducting a self-harming experiment, the unintended side effects of her mother’s well-meant measure become apparent. Marie comes to her senses and stows the control unit on the attic after unlocking all blocking. In a few weeks’ time, the pre-teen Sara catches up on the tough to stomach aspects of growing up: scary dogs, reckless drivers, school yard fights, slasher movies, inappropriate adult content, and gruesome footage of real-world atrocities. After overcoming an initial period of missing the comfort of being accompanied and protected, Sarah enjoys her newly acquired freedom and grows up to be a ‘normal’ teenager – whatever ‘normal’ means, if it means anything at all.
No harm done, right?
Years later, when the trust between mother and daughter is shattered in both directions by adolescent lies and maternal fear, Marie reactivates the long-discarded control hub and interferes with Sara’s life. Everything to keep her daughter safe. Once she discovers the extent of her mother’s betrayal, Sara takes to her heels in an act that discards all caution.
“Arkangel”, directed by Jodie Foster, taps right into some of the fundamental questions of parenthood.
How do I keep my child safe?
How do I prepare my child for the dangers of life on this earth?
Are the two mutually exclusive?
Parents inevitably find themselves in situations where they have to find a balance between two aspects of the same coin, over and over again: safety versus freedom, trust versus control, good and bad experiences versus stagnation and no experiences at all. Technologically achieved parental omnipresence in a child’s life promises physical safety, emotional integrity, and ultimately, piece of mind. But does it really?
Granted – feelings of fear, pain, disappointment, and loss are unpleasant experiences for those, who go through them (as well as for those who have to watch a loved one struggle with them) but they’re part of life. They hurt, but as a human we can learn to face and overcome them. A child can learn to cope with and live through it. We can deal with it. The message mustn’t be: “You’re fragile and you need protection because you can’t protect yourself.” It rather should be: “You’re worthy of protection but you can (learn to) deal with it.” Learning to be resilient is more important than remaining unharmed.
The growing up of a child is a process that involves and changes a parent, too. Learning to discover a child’s personality and his/her own will, learning to transfer responsibility, to accept their decisions, learning to let go – all that takes and makes one stable adult.
“Throw the parental hub away,” a child psychologist advises Marie. “Problem solved.” Far from it. The problem lies not with the technology, the problem lies with its users. (Whether this statement holds true and surveillance technology like Arkangel should exist in the first place is a worthwhile subject of discussion for another time and place.) Even after years of abstinence, Marie finds herself returning to Arkangel. After all, there’s comfort in knowing your loved ones are safe. And some satisfaction in knowing what they’re up to without them knowing, right? Wouldn’t it be nice to know your invested trust and all the lessons paid off? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some guaranty that everything will work out alright, even if you let them make their own mistakes?
I am not parent, so my ‘insights’ are born out of nothing but hot air and idle ideas from behind my big screen and a reasonably comfortable chair. Any issue tends to feel black-or-white when you don’t find yourself in the middle of it. But if you do, and my guess is many real parents will at least agree with me on this, grey is a much better color to describe their daily struggle.
A lesson learned:
Trust is a scary, risky thing but there’s no substitute for it in a relationship.
MG Rating: 7,5/10
S4 E3 “Crocodile”
What would you do to atone for your sins, to pay for your misdeeds and shortcomings in full? Well, penal legislation around the world formulates pretty detailed ideas about that – but what if you were inclined to not go down that path, to not turn yourself over to the appropriate authorities and proceedings? What would it take for you to take your very own punishment and reparation upon yourself and outside of, let’s say, tradition punitive measures? What would you be willing to do?
Would you quit drinking? Get your life together and become a better person? Start a family? Find a job that changes the lives of others for the better? Learn to look yourself in the eyes again?
None of the above can even begin to remedy the vehicular manslaughter accident Rob and Mia covered up fifteen years ago after a night of clubbing and being under the influence of various substances. Nothing can change what happened in that split second on that mountain road all those years ago – but Rob and Mia try to move on with their lives. People change and grow apart, familiarity turns to reminiscence, reunions become ever more infrequent, sometimes paths don’t cross for years. At last, the past relationship remains the only indelible reminder of the event they both live to forget.
When Mia, nowadays a successful architect, is in town for a conference, Rob pays her a surprise visit in her hotel room. Mia seems to be a different person; successful in her professional life, well anchored in her private one with a family of her own: husband, son, and a respectable modern home in the snowy countryside dark stoned, icy mountains. She successfully moved on and off into the distance both figuratively and literally. Rob, who has been barely getting by for better or worse, is finally sober, and his conscience speaks louder than ever.
Push comes to shove, and as Rob’s proposition to write a letter of apology to the still hopeful and unsuspecting widow of their never discovered victim threatens to pull apart Mia’s effort and new life, we learn why the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (The Art of War) advises commanders: ‘When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.’ When backed into a corner with no way out, self-preservations sets in and it is a relentless instinct and not to be trifled with.
With Rob dead next door, Mia stares out into the night sky from her dangerously well-lit hotel room, only to catch a glimpse of an unspectacular accident between an autonomous pizza delivery vehicle and a pedestrian, while – and this is the crux of the matter, as they say, – a glimpse of her (standing in the window) is caught as well by someone uninvolved.
In the future, eyewitnesses are key to solving crimes for law enforcement and assessing accidents for insurance companies. The ‘corroborator’ technology accesses a wide range of senses and recollections any interviewee perceived during the event in question. An unobtrusive button, placed at someone temple, projects the interviewee’s visual recollection like a movie to a handheld screening device. If even thoughts and glances aren’t free and private any more, what is?
When Shazia, a diligent and eager insurance broker, follows the chain of potential eyewitnesses to the unspectacular traffic accident, she eventually lands in Mia’s living room, unintentionally discovering Mia’s involvement in (now) two deaths. The third is quick to follow, as, once again, Mia finds herself backed into a corner. Once she crossed the line, there’s no turning back for her. Retracing the insurance broker’s journey, Mia sets out to erase all potential traces and silence all individuals with potentially stored visual recollections. Like the titular “Crocodile”, Mia’s bite is strong, and once the sharp teeth sink in, a mighty jaw holds its prey tight until its inevitable perishing. Neither shazia’s family can run from this particular crocodile, nor can that crocodile run from itself. Lies bear lies, and murders apparently bear more murders when one feels the heat around the corner.
“Crocodile” is the most disturbing episodes of this season. Andrea Riseborough walks the line between being a disarming business leader and a present (yet slightly fragile) mother on one hand and being a methodically cold agent of death on her search-and-destroy mission on the other shockingly well.
“What about justice?” you ask.
There’s none in “Crocodile” – just a cold, hard truth:
People are (capable of being) monsters.
No technology needed.
That’s the disturbing realization of “Crocodile“.
The clue of this episode seemed credible enough that I decide to not look up whether pets and little critters have visual memories that are ‘stored’ in some way or other that would make the accessible by using a ‘corroborator’. Mia screwed this one up and I’m glad she did.
A lesson learned:
The Foo Fighters already said it in 2015: “There are no secrets anymore.”
MG Rating: 6.5/10
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All six episodes of Black Mirror’s season 4 are available on Netflix as of December 29, 2017.
MonkeyGoose and your local hermit strongly advice against binging this series. Instead, subject yourself to one healthy dose of well-adjusted dystopian disillusion per session to not risk mood swings or the urge to dispose of the latest electronic gadgets that were most recently gifted to you.