ArkAngel “The Prison of Immortality” (Reflections From A Black Mirror S4 E2)
Reflections From A Black Mirror S4 E3 "ArkAngel"
Huge props, as always, to Butcher Billy, the Brazillian pop-art genius who continues to provide art that deepens the Black Mirror experience. You should really check out his Redbubble site.
Sorry for the delay between the S4 E1 recap and this recap, after finishing Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, and Mr. Robot seasons all in a row I was pretty exhausted.
Of course, since we only get 6 episodes a year, it is not like I was in a time crunch.
We Are Dystopians
Modern life challenges us all in ways we never even considered when we were kids.
For instance, I remember my parents allowing me to ride the bus around New York City by myself when I was just a young kid.
These days, if I had been on sent by my parents alone to ride the bus and anything had happened to me, my parents would have been arrested for neglect (or after just one high profile televised incident, legislators would be tripping over each other to propose new legislation criminalizing this terrible permissiveness).
But, I remember at the time feeling a great sense of happiness and independence at the time.
A common mistake people make when watching Black Mirror is assuming that it is intended as a cautionary tale about a likely technology-driven dystopian future when the show almost always about the choices we are making now (the technology helps to create the illusion of distance).
The ArkAngel episode of Black Mirror is really about America’s embrace and Faustian bargains with the politics of fear.
In short, ArkAngel is about the perverse consequences of our societal obsession with safety at all costs and this is certainly true of American parenting.
GPS devices are being used to constantly monitor our kids, If you type “GPS Tracker for Kids” into Google you will see what I mean and it won’t be long at all before parents agree to implant GPS devices to ensure 24/7 surveillance is possible.
Don’t believe me? Read this:
“At least twice a day, a parent calls BrickHouse Security, a Midtown salon of surveillance, with the same question: Is it possible to implant a tracking microchip in their kids? “If we don’t get a call a day,” the company’s CEO Todd Morris told the Observer with a chuckle, “I’ll probably think our phone system’s broken.”
I am sure I am not the template of how a kid should be raised, but I do know that the good things about me were learned through experimentation and experience.
But, as I will talk more about later, I don’t think ArkAngel is really just about kids. This call to technology to protect and monitor us isn’t limited to kids.
In fact, as Professor Rosalyn Bern has suggested, we are currently in a process of redefining humanity in relationship to how much technology is part of who we literally are:
“Technology is challenging our notions of being human. Indeed; we are living in the midst of another biotechnology revolution, where humans and technology are beginning to merge at the bodily level. Given the transformative and rapidly evolving nature of this revolution, our socio-cultural reality is in flux. As technologies increasingly become more deeply a part of our lives and bodies, there’s a lot at stake in having to determine what is, and what it means to be, a human being.”
Cyborgs R Us
So what motivates this move towards integration between humans and machines.
Mostly convenience combined with fear.
Some people believe that we are facing the singularity (Artificial Intelligence that grows beyond humanity and decides to eliminate us).
I believe we are becoming cyborgs (integrating with our technologies to become hybrids).
I have seen videos of people who are missing limbs using brain implants to bridge and control their new artificial limbs.
I have seen people without the power of speech use technology to allow themselves to speak (I have seen attack ships on fire).
These seem like great leaps forward.
Why wouldn’t we all choose to enable ourselves to simply think a math problem and see it solved or to think about the perfect temperature and have our house or car implement it automatically?
But, we also have a long history of doing things that aren’t really in our own best interest when they appear to respond to our worst (and often imaginary) fears.
For instance, even though we have a higher chance of being struck by lightning than we do of being killed in a terrorist attack, how many times have populations allowed the police to put cameras all over their cities?
<The answer to this rhetorical question is that populations have allowed this a lot of times (if you want to see how this effects privacy check out this incredibly well-conceived infographic>.
Right. So we often sell our souls to technology because it offers the promise of safety but also promises longevity (or even immortality) and that brings us directly to ArkAngel.
ArkAngel starts with Marie Sambrell so terrified by the temporary disappearance of her young daughter that she invests in having a monitoring implant placed inside her daughter’s brain.
Partially, this is probably because parents see their children as a second-best path to immortality or an insurance policy against the existential crisis. Marie is a single mother with one daughter, the idea of her daughter being hurt, being killed, or disappearing is something beyond contemplation, so she (over) reacts.
In a sense, the friendly fascist act of turning her own daughter’s brain into a protective panopticon (not entirely under her own control and on offense curtailing her own natural urges), Marie raises her daughter beyond the possibility of privacy and places her into a jail cell of safety where even her own senses are walled off from experience.
Sara is under total surveillance, unable to trust her own brain, and aware that literally, any action she takes is always open to chastisement.
Sara has literally been permanently infantilized in the name of her own protection.
Later, we see Sara (Marie’s daughter) unable to see potentially disturbing imagery like a barking dog, her own blood after cutting herself, or her Grandfather’s near-fatal stroke (which she is unable to react to).
I think the central question being asked is not just “what price security” but also what quality does life contain without REAL experience?
Not surprisingly, Sara rebels against her implant and her Mom agrees to put it aside at least until when Sara is a teenager when she doesn’t come home on time.
In this moment, Marie totally reverts to her lizard brain and (over) reacts again to ensure her own immortality, interjecting herself to cut out the threat (a boyfriend) to her daughters pure, sanitized, and designed-by-algorithm, safe life-experience.
Ultimately, once Sara finds out her Mother has invaded every private area of her life and influenced all of her most cherished relationships, she destroys the monitor, goes off the grid, and fulfills her Mother’s deepest and darkest fears (life without her daughter).
The Protection Racket
One way of interpreting ArkAngel is that it was not about kids at all but was, instead, a metaphor for citizenship in the protective states of America.
There is a critical political and gender theory concept called “The Protection Racket” which suggests that the bureaucratic and authoritarian engines of military and patriarchal power are empowered by our insistence that the State (or Men) exist to protect us.
In other words, the call to protection is really an extortion scheme where the more we invest in protecting the more dependent we become on the forces doing the protecting.
In this way of watching ArkAngel, Marie is US(A) and Sara represents everyone who is able to chase empty/safe <mostly white> material privilege.
Is Sara really US(A)?
Has our desire for protection from, for instance, terrorism left us totally vulnerable to accepting:
Monitoring devices all over our homes and cities?
Reduced privacy in every area of our lives, and calls for increased monitoring of every aspect of our lives (in the name of protection)?
Is ArkAngel a call for us, like Sara, to start to go off the grid and tell our Protective Uncle Sam/Momma to go F*ck herself?
In a sense, what ArkAngel is arguing is that our core embrace of technology is deeply bound up in our desire for technology to enable our escape from the mortal coil.
In this battle between Eros and the Death Drive, perhaps we need a bit less Eros?
I think, given death is still the only certainty (and perhaps even if it isn't - see San Junipero) perhaps the argument being made here is that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.