Reflections From a Black Mirror: S3 E3 “Shut Up And Dance” (Netflix)

Reflections From a Black Mirror

That tweet is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. If you get a chance to look through all of Mr. Billy's work you have to do it. His stuff is all amazing. He did comic-style cover art for all of his favorite Black Mirror episodes, but the rest of his stuff is even more jaw-dropping.

Anyway, Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to the Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

Unlike my other writing about television, I think this will probably end up more commentary than the usual recap.

My last "Reflection" was the episode "Hated In The Nation"

Missing The Forest (Because Trees)

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My biggest frustration with the coverage of Black Mirror is that the vast majority of writers seem to think that Black Mirror is about the frightening implications of new future technologies. 

Yes, Black Mirror does caution us about the future implications of certain new technologies, but it sees these futures less as a cause of the problem and more as pouring new gasoline on the happily-burning ethical tire fire we all cheerfully (and often uncritically) inhabit.

The technologies reflect us, not the other way around. The mirror is the screen of the device, and what it reflects is our own morality.

I believe that the point is that we are already willing to kill (hurt each other), even if we have yet to find the most efficient gun for the job.

Yes, sometimes the episodes are placed in a foreseeable, even predictable, future. Yes, it sometimes uses new technologies much like the show Star Trek used it's space travel as a metaphor for the failures of social justice and governance. 

I think the idea is that if we suspend realism for a few minutes, some ethical realities might seep through our societal defensiveness.

The main point of the show is that we, the human beings living in Western Industrialized Societies, really suck.

We suck because (especially online) we treat each other terribly, we suck because we only care about ourselves and our own entertainment, we suck because we see other people (especially people who have 'failed') as sub-humans we should treat differently and cheerfully use or make public spectacles of. 

We suck because we think ethics stops once and where anonymity starts.

We suck because we take joy in other people's pain (especially social pain).

And, mostly we suck because we have lost all perspective about how we would look if we really took a deep look at ourselves and our behaviors in the mirror.

Black Mirror is asking us to take a deep look at ourselves in whatever mirror we can find, even the mirror of the screens of our own devices.

There is a reason MANY of the events that transpire on the show have replicated themselves in our current timeline. The reason? 

We suck.

Black Mirror is dark because what it reflects is dark...If we want a happier Black Mirror, maybe we should start acting better towards each other ourselves.

Sometimes, however, creator Charlie Brooker gets a bit too prescient for his (our) own good

Shut Up And Dance

Black Mirror's "Shut Up And Dance (SUAD)" episode asks the question, how far could trolling + phishing scams go?

The answer is not nice at all.

A young adult named Kenny (Alex Lawther) gets a virus and has it fixed. However, when he gets his computer back he turns it on and gets a blackmail message from a cyber-terrorist letting him know that they had captured/hacked his laptop and webcam and they know everything he did (including something very incriminating and shameful) and will share the captured video with everyone on his contact list if Kenny does not do what he is told to do.

The cyber-terrorist then proceeds to force Kenny to embark on and complete an increasingly disturbing and awful set of tasks promising that once he completes them, he will be set free. To give you the basic idea, at one point he has to fight another man to death while drones watch them and record what happens. 

It turns out that both Kenny and the person that he was forced to fight had both been caught committing a very inappropriate sexual crime. 

And, do not get me wrong, what Kenny did (watching underage pornography) was awful and is generally punished with a decade in prison these days.

But, again, I don't think this was meant as an exercise in "Kenny torture porn." 

The point to this very hard-to-watch episode was to highlight how societal judges and vigilantes themselves become criminals.

How when taking enjoyment watching and reveling in even the justified punishment of our fellow human beings we reveal ourselves to be equally monstrous.  

At the end of the episode, after Kenny has finished all of the tasks and survived, instead of setting him free, the cyber-terrorist releases all of the information anyway and Kenny returns home to a driveway full of police cars and a pair of handcuffs. 

Right before he gets home he gets a single image sent to him on his phone, the classic Trollface image.

When Does Trollface Pay The Toll?

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I have had what I wanted to say about this episode for a long time but haven't wanted to write about it because it unleashed some very bleak real-world results.

At least four people have committed suicide as a result of real "Shut Up And Dance" scams being run on them in the real-world. 

The craziest thing, I know someone who recently fell for one of these scams. 

And it isn't even the so-called "Sextortion" scams. Just two weeks ago, I saw a man send out a Tweet saying that "He didn't want anyone to kill his ex-wife, but if someone wanted to....and then gave out her personal information etc.

People, how we treat each other is getting really scary.

And when we talk about SUAD the point isn't just that a few people are really awful, it is that we all love seeing the "people" that we have decided are "sub-humans" dragged out for the cameras and the lions in our social-media coliseum. 

The reasonable implication of the drones watching the forced "fight-to-the-death" was that people were paying to watch the two men kill each other.

The unspoken truth, the people involved (most likely cloaked in anonymity) were creating bloody entertainment and taking enjoyment in carrying out an extrajudicial murder using living human beings.

How much of the coverage of say Paula Deen after we found out she had hosted her now infamous Plantation Party, was about sadness or concern over what she did and how much of it became about our enjoyment in watching her suffer (over and over again).

When Justine Sacco sent her Ebola tweet, was most of the response about trying to rid the world of privileged racism or in taking enjoyment from participating in the suffering of another human being?

Did anyone even know Justine Sacco well enough to decide that her Tweet was so reflective or her racism that worldwide approbation was appropriate or necessary? Was the response less moral than any part of her so-called crime?

This is in no way a defense of racism, or whatever the guys in SUAD did, when you break laws or hurt other people, you should be and will be punished (if anyone knows this it is me). But, what SUAD is really about is how we manufacture punishment as entertainment and even start to make our entertainment part of the process of what we consider to be just.

SUAD is about when we start to enjoy punishing "sub-humans" that we start to crave it and produce it. Where, in the process of punishing, we sacrifice reason and measure and gorge on emotion and drinking in the pain and sorrow of others.

We have moved to an era where we not only vote people off of human island but where we also enjoy watching the sharks feed (or enjoy becoming sharks and feeding ourselves). 

I have written about the parallels between S3 of Black Mirror and the most recent season of South Park before but South Park just ended its excellent season by concluding that we might fundamentally be incapable of the change that Brooker seems to be calling for.

Which brings me to another dark depiction of humanity, HBO"s Westworld.

The Hosts Rule...Humans Drool?

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One thing that Brooker and the writers of HBO"s Westworld apparently share is a very low opinion of humanity as it is currently constructed.

Is there even one human on Westworld worth rooting for more than we root for the "Hosts?" I watched Season 1 of Westworld less concerned about the William/Man in Black twist and more about why anyone would ultimately root for anyone aside from the hosts.

Westworld has garnered a ton of critical praise and it is well acted, mostly well-written, and beautifully filmed. But, where Black Mirror tries very hard to point out and emphasize the pure horror show we are creating, Westworld seems to enjoy producing Soylent Green. I have a hard time watching Westworld (but do) because all of it's horrors have become normalized before we ever arrived at the dance.

I always feel a strong, almost a shouting, Brooker behind the Black Mirror episodes while when watching Westworld, I feel the violence reduced to sausage making. It seems mechanical, mundane, nearly beyond morality, and lazily accepted to the point that it is almost Nietzschean.  

Where Black Mirror seems to be shaking its fists at an amoral world Westworld, to me, seems to accept it as banal (almost like saying "No Duh"). The sight of killing floors for hosts are such a normal part of the show that they almost seem inevitable.

By the end of Season One, I found myself wondering what it was all for? And wondering why I would I want to spend time with any of these people?

I couldn't remember seeing one human person enjoying the park in an ethical manner.

I couldn't remember one time I saw something good in Ford (even when he is revealed to be working to free the hosts).

Even the one human that seemed conflicted at the beginning ends up as a rapist butcher. 

For some reason, at the conclusion, Ford reminds me a bit of an older and maybe wiser Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer, seeing the error of his ways but still having trouble finding a way out of the nightmare that he has created.

He finally has empathy for Frankenstein but knows that his lovable monster stands no chance in a world full of the villagers that he works for.

Meanwhile, I think Brooker is asking each of us to become more like Ford. He is asking us to find empathy and start finding ways to stop treating shunned outcasts as sub-human objects stripped of dignity and reduced to fighting, being used, or publically shamed for the entertainment of the masses. 

Odd that I am writing this as many media sources are much more interested in calling for Dylan Roof's blood than they are in listening to the victim's pleas for forgiveness for him (one of the most amazing things I have seen in recent years was the victim's call to forgiveness after the unbelievable atrocity he committed in that Church).

Once again, we will all feel better and take comfort and even enjoyment from executing a clearly insane person for the crime of being totally insane (but not legally insane, of course not legally insane, because if he were legally insane, we wouldn't get to "Shut Up and Dance" on his grave).

Anyway, maybe somewhere between Shut Up and Dance's almost documentary feel and Westworld's truly bleak view of our future may lie San Junipero (Hope)?

So what did you think of SUAD?

Was Westworld Amoral?

Do you think we can change?

Let me know what you think, leave a comment!

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Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy