Reflections From A Black Mirror: A Quick Response to Kathryn VanAryndonk

The Case Against Black Mirror?

Kathryn VanAryndonk wrote a very impressive criticism of the television show Black Mirror in Vulture that has been getting a great deal of attention all over the web over the last few days.

Not surprisingly, while I am impressed and was entertained by her article, I disagree with many of her arguments about the show. I certainly agree with her, however, that the show has a very bleak view of humanity.

As usual, I will freely admit that she is a much better writer than me. I have nothing but respect for her work, this is not personal.

Black Mirror = a Cynical Criticism of Technology (and a Shallow One at That)?

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Ms. VanArendonk starts by arguing that:

"Black Mirror’s messages are usually pretty simple. Cellphones? Bad. Reality shows? Bad. Social media? Really bad. Politics as entertainment? Definitely bad but not ultimately as disturbing as entertainment-style justice. Oh, sure, the setup and the execution of those ideas is impressive, but the show’s primary crutch is too often that it uses thought-provoking and fascinating foundations in order to reach the simplest, most alarmist possible conclusion about a variety of technological innovations."

Unfortunately, almost universally, the show is not really about criticizing technology and it is certainly not really about describing a soon to be found dystopian future.

The logo says it all really. The writers distort reality through a cracked screen (made up of technological progress and dystopia) but it is a black mirror that we are looking into.

As Charlie Brooker himself said in a recent Reddit AMA:

Soylent Green is people and Black Mirror is about us (not technology).

Black Mirror is mostly about what we do to those we as a society decide are or have become disposable (now).

Stark Trek's episodes about racism were not really about what kind of racism might exist in a possible future. Yes, they had interesting things to say about how that future might look but the writers were creating ironic distance by using genre devices to expose things about the racism in the audience itself. 

Yes, technology makes it easier and in many ways can act as an accelerant, but science fiction, futurism, and dystopia are part of the mirror not what is reflected in it or by it.

When, for instance, Paula Dean exposed herself as at least a part-time racist we did not just hold her accountable for her words we also took massive and surplus enjoyment in trying to destroy every part of her life and in watching her life burn. 

When Justine Sacco made the inappropriate joke on the plane. It only took minutes for her to learn upon landing the rubble her life had been reduced to.

And this is not entirely new, as fun as it is to watch Rudy Juliani and Newt Gingrich pin the entire tragedy of what happened to Monica Lewinsky at Bill Clinton's feet (and much of the blame does belong with Bill) they seem to forget the cultural orgy nearly everyone full-heartedly participated in from Ken Starr to Newt himself (reflexivity never being one of Mr. Gingrich's strong suits). 

We blame people for their mistakes, and we hold them accountable, but then we feed on whatever remains like cultural carrion until virtually nothing is left. We do give second chances, and people can recreate themselves, but it is often after nearly everyone has taken a pound of flesh and the people have been left in a state of near cultural death.

Black Mirror is about how our ethics (or lack of ethics) are magnified by new technologies.

The Science Fiction trappings are used to make us more likely to ignore that we are the people depicted on the show's episodes. 

Black Mirror is using Science Fiction and dystopia to make it more palatable for us to swallow that the Black Mirror is reflecting us culturally NOW. 

What Ms. VanArendonk is mistaking for cynicism is actually sadness and terror about now not cynicism for some increasingly terrifying future. It might be dark, but there is a method to this madness. I suspect that Mr. Brooker hopes that be separating us a slight distance from ourselves we might consider acting differently.

We are the face in the Black Mirror, not our technologies. The show hopes that we will see what the so-called "characters" are doing and act differently than the people we see on the screens.

Ironic distance (not necessarily cynicism).

Social Media "Makes Us" Do Terrible Things

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Ms. VanAryndonk continues (with what has been the most quoted of her paragraphs to date):

"But that depth is not actually all that deep. The things Black Mirror uncovers about the nature of people and technology are pessimistic visions of humankind, and they’re also remarkably absent of nuance. Guess what: Reality shows are dehumanizing. Social media makes people say and do horrible things. Documenting every single moment of our lives has downsides. It’s like stepping through the wardrobe into C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, but instead of a magical land full of fauns and evil queens and talking beavers, there’s just a note that reads, 'This is an allegory about Jesus.'"

Except that this has Black Mirror's point precisely backward, reality shows are not dehumanizing us, we are inherently engaged in the dehumanization of others on purpose and we create reality shows to satiate our desires to feed on other people's pain.

Social Media does not make us do and say horrible things, it allows us to feel safe enough to say and do the horrible things we secretly desire but only feel safe enough to do behind the often illusory mask of anonymity social media seems to afford us.

We manufacture these tools to satisfy the desires we already have.

Again, the point is NOT what we are heading towards it is to expose what and who we already are.

It might be more productive to look at Black Mirror as not coming from a place of cynicism and more as coming from a place of genuine horror. 

Which is why it is even more shocking when she next says:

And the nature of Black Mirror’s vision of the future is that it can also feel like a cop-out. Its very simplicity—cellphones = bad!—is so misaligned with the much more complicated, multifaceted role technology plays in our world that we are almost let off the hook.:

In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, the whole show is only about exposing the hooks that we are all hanging on.

An Ironic Conclusion

Ms. VanAryndonk concludes:

"Even without that element, though, it’s too easy to imagine what the Black Mirror episode about a more popular, viral version of itself would look like. We'd become glued to a fictional account of a near-future horror, dazzled by its audacity and sharpness, and we'd be so entranced by it that we would fail to notice its superficiality. We'd tweet about it. Maybe when we picked up our phones or used a trending hashtag, we would get a tiny jolt of depression, remembering the dark prospect, Black Mirrorforetold. But nothing about our behavior would ultimately change—we’d just left with the tiny jolt of depression, and another episode of Black Mirror."

I find this a bizarre conclusion to draw since this is an amazing description of how Black Mirror depicts our current state. What she has just described is exactly what Black Mirror is showing us in the reflection from our own black screens, a clear view of our superficially entertained vampire-like faces.

I believe, the whole subterfuge is designed in the hopes that even if we fail to recognize ourselves in the faces on Black Mirror's screens we will see something terrifying enough to make us want to change.

I believe the show is a terrified plea for us to treat each other better, to be kinder to each other, not the dystopian vision of some paranoid Luddite Director trying to push us away from the use of our much-loved technologies.

My Conclusions

I hope that this is taken in the spirit it was offered. I could certainly be wrong, and I absolutely mean no disrespect to a very talented writer.

However, I could not disagree more with Ms. VanAryndonk's criticism of Black Mirror. Even if you disagree with me, it is certainly more productive to think about the show my way (less cynicism and more hope).

In my world:

"The National Anthem" is about Paula Dean or Gary Hart

"The Entire History of You" is about nostalgia (and certainly also the uncanny valley). I would suspect in the end it is about nostalgia as a refusal to face existential realities. Interesting enough, it fills some of the same territory South Park is covering using "memberberries."

"White Bear" is about our social treatment of criminals and, in particular, mentally ill convicted criminals and also about our notions of what justice is.

"The Waldo Moment" predicted Trump. Oddly enough, VanAryndonk seems to think this was a weakness of the show (except that it predated his presidential run). Yes, it was actually much worse than Brooker predicted.

Anyway, Black Mirror is a pretty crazy and often depressing series for sure, I can certainly understand why it is not to everyone's taste (which was ultimately Ms. VanAryndonk's point I think).

I also hope that it is very clear that I am not exempting myself from what I see to be Mr. Brooker's criticism.

What do you think about the VanAryndonk article?

What do you think the "point" of Black Mirror is?

Let me know what you are thinking, leave a comment!