Reflections From a Black Mirror: S3 E6 “Hated In The Nation”
Reflections From A Black Mirror
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 "The Waldo Moment"
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Send In The Drones
The Walt Disney Company has started integrating drones operating in unison to supplement it's amazing end-of-night fireworks extravaganzas at their theme parks.
One reporter, who has seen an early demonstration of the technology (using one controller and Intel's "Shooting Star" drones), called the use of these drones, "absolutely amazing."
But, Intel is trying for a much larger future for their drone project.
"Intel envisions a future where drones fly in fleets to accomplish tasks. The same software that Intel and Disney are using to put on a colorful aerial show could be used in search and rescue operations or inspecting equipment and goods.
In a sense, "Hated in the Nation" is about the dangers of developing exactly these kinds of seemingly innocuous drones to help deliver public goods and services. On Black Mirror bee drones have been created to compensate for the potentially catastrophic loss of actual Bee populations around the world (otherwise known as CCD or Colony Collapse disorder). Bees are important for many reasons, but in particular, because they are important pollinators.
Most of the food that feeds the vast majority of people on the planet is pollinated by bees. The total loss of bee populations would be catastrophic for human survival and for planetary health.
So, on Black Mirror, to counteract the problem of CCD, the UK decides to build autonomous bee drones that are programmed to carry out the pollination tasks which would be normally carried out by living organic bees.
Sounds great right? But no, the British Government only agrees to back the environmental project if the designers of those bees build in a "backdoor" so that they can, when necessary (only in "times of national emergency" of course), see what the bees see.
What could go wrong? I mean the bees have military grade encryption, right?
This is Black Mirror, what do you think happens?
So, of course, a disgruntled and crazy employee of the company making the bees expands the back door and leaves himself the ability to take control of the thousands of bees the government deploys nationwide.
So what does this technologically talented disgruntled employee do with his army of bees?
The South Park Boogie
On South Park this season, they are mostly dealing with and parodying some of the problems caused by Social Media (at the same time two of the six season 3 episodes of Black Mirror were more direct treatments of virtually the same subject).
Throughout the season, one of the secondary characters Gerald Broflavsky, the Father of one of the South Park kids, has secretly risen to become one of the most infamous internet trolls in the world (screen named Skankhunt42).
On one of the more recent episodes, Gerald explains that the "art" of trolling is sending a message that tweaks one "at risk" group of people just enough to draw out enough other trolls to inspire people insulted to overreact. He goes on to suggest that if the overreaction is perfect, other groups will react to the overreaction in a never-ending social media vortex.
To Gerald, this is the "art" of trolling and he is trying to teach all the rest of the trolls he meets to dream bigger and sit at the big trolling table.
On Black Mirror, the person dreaming big is one Garrett Scholes (Duncan Pow). Mr. Scholes produced:
A manifesto called "The Teeth of Consequence" in which he suggests that people should be held responsible for their behaviors in life and on the internet (that is what I gathered from the episode - the actual manifesto was not produced for obvious reasons).
A game that Scoles seeds online, including the following rules and procedures:
* Players should pick a target they don't like
* Publish that target's name on social media using the hashtag #DeathTo
* At the end of every day, the target whose name has gotten the most #DeathTo mentions will be killed
* The game resets each subsequent day.
The episode "Hated in the Nation" actually sequentially begins (it technically starts after the events of the episode in recitations of the events that transpired ala Goodfellas) with the first murder by Bee.
In other words, as you have seen or guessed, Scholes sends the bees to attack whoever "wins" the #DeathTo game every day.
The first victim, Joanna Powers (Elizabeth Barrington), was targeted for death after she, as a popular and outspoken newspaper columnist, wrote some unflattering things about the suicide of a disabled activist.
The second victim, a popular Hip-Hop artist named Tusk (Charles Babalolo), was targetted because he had the temerity to suggest on national television that a nine-year-old boy who produced a viral internet video imitating him, had no talent.
And, the third victim, was a regular citizen whose picture of her pretending to urinate on a veterans memorial went viral.
Most of "Hated in the Nation" episode is told using a traditional Detective Story arc. Two detectives one a hardened and cynical old-school veteran named Karen Parke (Kelly MacDonald) is taking a new Detective named Blue (Faye Marsay) fresh from a rotation in computer crimes under her wing.
Parke is the Detective on the scene for the Powers murder and starts to connect the dots once she and Blue get read in on the Tusk murder by someone higher up in the Security Services division once they all figure out that Autonomous Drone Insects (the bees) are the culprit and that other are at risk.
Throughout the episode, they do typical Detective show things, they visit scenes, they uncover evidence, they fail to protect people (in this case the third victim) despite their best efforts. All the actors do fine work. The pacing, direction, and acting were all great, but for some reason, I don't really care much about discussing all of that today.
The short form of what happens is that Scholes is not only sending the bees to kill the #DeathTo "pick of the day" but his endgame is to send his bees after everyone who ever participated, in any way, with the game itself.
In other words, everyone faces the consequences of their own actions (The Teeth of Consequence). This sounds neat, but the ethical problems here go far beyond Scholes simply setting up a murder game.
Scholes is, for all practical purposes, not very different from South Park's Gerald Broflavsky and the similarities point to one of the real problems of internet trolling demonstrated also in Black Mirror's "Shut Up and Dance" episode. The problem of being anonymous behind a screen allows you to feel almost Godlike ethical purity.
Scholes, like Saint Peter at the gates, and like many trolls, think they are somehow separate or above the games they set-up for the people they target. In the case of the "Shut Up and Dance" episode of Black Mirror, the trolls decide it is perfectly acceptable to use social media to play judge and jury on moral lepers while also watching the results with glee (they utilize a drone to film a fight to the death that they set up between two people guilty of viewing sexual images of children.
Recently, I had a long talk about vigilante justice with a friend in the context of the show Dexter (which sets up a similar ethical conundrum, "can a serial killer be ethical?"). The problems in each of these examples are the same, it is wrong to take joy in creating suffering and it is wrong to treat humans as objects.
Regardless of what people do, a society that takes pleasure in committing cruelty is a criminal society.
The only difference between the criminal and the punisher is the rules they use to take pleasure in committing evil acts. And in some cases, when the "criminal" doesn't have the capacity for reason, the civilization that takes pleasure in punishing that "criminal" is arguably more at fault than the person punished.
At best, the decision to punish someone and to apply punishment should always be something that we do grudgingly and with great sadness. To take glee and to be cruel says as much, or more, about us as it does about them.
At one point during the "Hated in the Nation" episode, Detective Blue says something like (referring to a smartphone in her hand), "These things absorb who we are."
Scholes or Gerald B. would, I suspect, describe themselves as revolutionary or as people finally taking a stand for online justice or against political correctness but when you looked at their internet histories, what would you see?
Most likely, you sould see, cruelty, anger, rage, and self-righteous brutality.
Gerald admits many times that he does what he does for the rush and fun of it all, even his troll sidekick (who became a troll because he was bullied) keeps looking at him and saying things like "that's really mean." In addition, at least one person that he targets commits suicide as a result of the cruel things he said about her cancer.
In Scholes case, he extrajudicially kills hundreds (maybe thousands) of people who never, absent his intervention, would have likely killed a single person. One of the people who uses the hashtag is a police officer using it to try to draw him out into the open. Others, like a featured school teacher, might have taken it too far, but never intend to actually kill anyone.
Like I said before, there is a God-Like arrogance to this kind of moral decision making and I suspect also too much self-righteous anger and too little careful consideration.
These things all happen behind our electronic "anonymous veils of ignorance" that make honest and careful reflection nearly impossible.
We can't see the Black Mirror because we are looking so intently at everyone we judge through its lens.
After meeting hundreds of people at many extreme and different levels of moral distress over the last seven years, I have learned that all of us see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. Most of the time, we find it impossible to see ourselves as the villain. In Gerald's case, he doesn't seem to care or have much empathy for people outside himself but Scholes thinks he is acting justly. Scholes thinks he is the hero of this story.
What I am suggesting is that it might behoove us to judge ourselves while we at least consider using our internet histories as well as our self-esteem when doing our personal ethical housecleanings.
I realize this begs the question of justification, and that many people feel that everything they do can be justified and explained. So, perhaps a corollary might be that the more you have to explain a behavior to make it seem ethical, the less ethical it probably truly is.
I am certainly nowhere near perfect, but my life has changed a great deal since I started taking a total moral inventory of my own actions.
"These Things." after all, "absorb who we are."
Whenever I see that "future is bright" meme it reminds me a bit of this scene from the movie "Buckaroo Banzai" where they are heading to Yoyodyne propulsion headquarters and a sign outside the facility says,
"The Future Begins Tomorrow"
Black Mirror is not about the future which starts tomorrow, it is about the ethical situations that we face today. At the very least, it is about the moments we constantly face as the past continuously cycles into the future.
As I have said before, I believe that Black Mirror wraps its messages in distant futurism to make the pills it feeds us more palatable (for easier swallowing).
There was a ton of stuff going on in this episode and many valid questions about technology were raised.
In a sneaky kind of way, this episode was also a commentary on the mandatory backdoor the US Government wants to be standard design in every cell phone and wireless connectivity device.
I believe, that the entire idea of making things secure, this notion that we can ensure security through technology, is mostly a process of creating new vulnerabilities. I believe that the opposite of fear is connection, not security.
The entire basis of most internet "protection" systems is really shared information and working together to solve problems. Security is the false notion that you have made yourself invulnerable, which given the inevitability of our deaths, seems unlikely.
The idea of security kind of reminds me of South Park's Member Berries (representing an obsessive nostalgia for something that doesn't actually exist).
I think this episode raised some legitimate fears about the growing availability and use of drone technologies and the "internet of things" creating vulnerabilities easily exploited by hackers. But, just like in "Hated in the Nation" banning the internet (or drones or connected washing machines) probably isn't the answer.
At first, I was glad to see that Blue had found Scholes, but when I thought about it, it seemed just as likely that she, herself, was about to unleash vigilante justice on him.
And I suspect that was intentional as well.
There was also a subplot on both shows (Black Mirror and South Park) about the social death that using social media can cause. But, that will have to wait for when I cover S3 E1.
That does it for "Hated in the Nation."
What were your takeaways from "Hated in the Nation?"
Why do you think Charlie Brooker nestled this episode inside a traditional Detective story arc?
How do you perceive Scholes vs. Broflavsky?
Let me know, leave a comment!