White Christmas in July (Reflections From a Black Mirror S2 E4)
Reflections From a Black Mirror
The tweet above is from Butcher Billy, a Pop-Art genius. who produced comic-bok-style cover-art for every episode of Black Mirror. The rest of his stuff is equally jaw-dropping. You should check out his site.
Now that this recap is published, I have recapped every episode of Black Mirror except Playtest.
White Christmas was released as a “Christmas Special” when Black Mirror was still airing on the BBC (before it was purchased by Netflix). It is one of the densest and most challenging episodes in the entire Black Mirror pantheon (which is part of the reason why it has taken me this long to get a recap written and why this recap will be fairly lengthy).
“White Christmas” functions a bit like a set of interrelated and increasingly bizarre nesting box stories. The episode starts out by introducing us to two men, Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) who have apparently been forced (by circumstance, work, or something else) to live together in a house in an outpost far away from civilization.
We learn that Matt and Joe have lived together for five years but barely talked to each other.
Matt tries to break the ice and start a Christmas discussion by asking Joe what he did to get stationed so remotely. Joe responds, the “it’s a job, not jail,” so we are left to assume that Joe and Matt are some kinds of social outcasts.
Anyway, Joe turns the tables and asks Joe what he did. And Joe decides to share his story.
Part One: The Data In The High Castle
Once Matt and Joe decide to start talking we find out that Matt is kind of a “ Hitch” for assholes (he helps people who are shy learn to hook up with girls).
In return for this service, Matt and a bunch of his friends are allowed to watch (and presumably tape) the hook up when the magic happens. The person being coached uses something everyone has called a Z-Eye (or Zed eye) which seems similar to the Grans from other Black Mirror episodes but cannot be removed and allows the person watching to watch and also to communicate back and forth with the coach.
Matt is also able to call up information on anyone that Harry (the guy he is coaching) sees by using, I assume, some kind of facial recognition software but the girl he ends up choosing and seducing does not have her information available (which would be a red flag except that Matt and Joe are so busy playing ‘The Game’ that they aren’t exactly being cautious).
We also find out, when Harry gets cold feet, that the whole crew is kind of a club and all of them have watched each other in similar situations including Harry. They talk Harry into going through with it only to find out that the girl is totally insane, thinks Harry is sympathetic to her plan to remove him from the world of pain and suffering, and she poisons him while the whole group helplessly watches and can do nothing to save or help him.
Matt tells them all to destroy everything but as he is trying to leave to destroy the evidence he is caught by his wife who finds out everything. Matt’s wife Clair “blocks” him, which makes it so he can no longer see or interact with her (another feature of the Z-eye). He mentions that she left him and took their kid, which is why he has been left out in the middle of nowhere.
There is no way to defend the behavior of Matt and his group of middle-aged frat boy abusers (and I am not going to try). It is wrong to film and share images of people without consent or to mislead people with the intent of luring them into sex. If there is a real world analog to their behavior it is probably revenge porn, but we have certainly seen a proliferation of technology enabled sex scams (some of these were, in fact, inspired by episodes of Black Mirror).
I would rather talk about the technology, like the memory tech which Apple’s founder recently suggested is not only possible but inevitable. Facial recognition tech, which is already being used in airports around the world and the Trump administration is fast-tracking the use of it for customs enforcement in the United States. Artificial Intelligence that is getting so advanced that Elon Musk has become concerned that it is a risk to the future of humanity (and he is 100% right about how we are “already cyborgs”).
We long ago learned that, since the explosion of the internet, most people will almost immediately trade privacy for convenience (a group of wi-fi users recently found out just how lazy we all have become about reading privacy agreements).
If we, for instance, found out tomorrow that we had to choose between our smart phones and the government being allowed total access to all of our metadata we know people would keep their phones.
Okay, full disclosure, that was a fake hypothetical, we already agreed to this Faustian bargain after the Snowden revelations.
The replacement of privacy with services might not all be complete by tomorrow, but remember it has only been a few decades since computers took up entire rooms and most of us humans telephoned each other using rotary dial phones (yup, with an actual dial).
My point is that we are fast arriving at a time when we are going to have full access to all of our memories and experiences but with a pretty good chance that this information will ultimately available to governments and to other people as well.
One can even imagine a time where advertisers provide technology to people for free (meaning the deal would mostly be taken up only by poor folks) as long as the tech provider had full access to the utilization of the data.
Police departments throughout the country are already using facial recognition software in ways that were serious enough that 150 organizations banded together to collectively lobby the public against the resulting loss of privacy and against the structural racism inherent in the regressive targeting. Our cities are becoming 24-hour surveillance centers, we are really not that far from the world where while not everyone can see everything, someone has the potential to be watching (or to later watch everything) that we do.
Many rational folks respond, “if you don’t have anything to hide, why should you have to worry about surveillance,” but the problem isn’t just that illegal behaviors can be used against you. Take a second and think of all the legal activities you have engaged in throughout your life that you might not want other people to know about. Each of these activities could be used as leverage against you or used to chill your speech or enforce conformity.
Even if you don’t believe that privacy is that important, think for a few minutes about the government being able, by calling up your unique identifier and using an algorithm, to virtually recreate your entire life (including reading your emails, listening to your calls, and tracking all of your movements). Whenever you hear security officials talking about how they don’t actively surveil American citizens, what they are actually saying is that they store all the data and metadata and can access it all with a FISA warrant.
Usually, I write about Black Mirror is about us and not about some dystopian future. In this case, the Black Mirror does reflect us and the dystopia are already here. Yes, people in the general public will find hundreds and thousands of ways to use these technologies for ill (just like Matt did) but what really concerns me is the looming risk of techno-fascism (using surveillance and data to chill political opposition and quell dissent).
Part Two: Are Androids Tortured by Electric Sheep
After finishing the story of how he got exiled, Matt informs Joe that the club was just a hobby and decides to also share the story of what he did for a living before his wife divorced him.
It turns out that Matt worked for a company called ‘Smart-Telligence’ which ‘manufactures’ a very special kind of personal assistants for their clients.
It is hard to believe this, but Matt’s real job might actually be ethically more compromised than his hobby is (and that is really saying something) which is also a pretty important feature of White Christmas.
Yes, what Matt did with his group of friends and it is appropriate that he faces or faced punishment for those behaviors. But, as we find out later, he is actually rewarded for being good at doing something MUCH worse.
Often the law stops at the ethical water's edge.
So how are these personal assistants created?
The Smart-Teligence corporation performs a surgery that plants a small electronic “cookie” into one of their client’s brains and after about week that “cookie” (which has subsequently soaked up the client's entire personality) is removed from the person’s brain and is placed in an egg and given a simulated body.
The egg represents a kind of prison but one where the “cookie” can (within limits) control all the elements of the client's house (ordering food and programming appliances etc.). The cookie becomes the ultimate smart appliance because they know literally everything about the client's preferences and desires.
If they refuse to work, because they are digital, their sense of time can be compressed or changed so that for them six months have passed while for the client only a few minutes have passed (I assume that this works a bit like zipping and unzipping data files). Ultimately, using this time torture (they cannot sleep and do not need to eat, so they are literally in solitary confinement all alone inside a small white prison in perpetuity (they only exist to make sure the house is perfect for the client).
Of course, what we are talking about here is the torture of artificially created but sentient beings. There has been a debate in the science fiction, legal, and business communities over the possible legal personhood of artificially created sentient beings and about our ethical responsibility towards respecting the Cogito, Ergo Sum (I think therefore I am) of artificially created sentient beings.
Matt literally tortures a “cookie” by making her live six months with no contact in a white room with nothing to do and nobody to talk to, simply because she (the “cookie” self-identifies as a human female) has the temerity to suggest that she might not want to spend her entire “life” operating a smart house.
Given that the client, once the “cookies” are trained has full control of the torture (discipline) of these artificially created beings, one can only imagine the potential tortures.
Part Three: Cruelty Farming
Joe says, "it’s slavery," to which Matt responds, “It’s not really real, so it’s not really what it is.” But that is clearly bullshit. Joe uses Matt’s reaction to suggest that Joe is empathetic and kind. Joe is clearly upset by Matt calling him “kind,” so he starts to tell his story.
Okay, we find out that Joe is married to Bethany and that they seem to be very much in love. Later, while they are at karaoke, we find out that Joe drinks too much and that he can drink to excess. We also find out, during a dinner between, that Bethany may be cheating on Joe with a guy from work named Tim (who is also married to someone Beth hooked him up with named Gita).
After the dinner, Joe finds a pregnancy test that shows that Bethany is pregnant. When confronted by Joe, she is anything but happy and absolutely does not want to have kids. Joe wants to have the kid and Bethany absolutely does not want to have the kid. She states in no uncertain terms that she “does not want it.”
He gets really mad and she says that if he doesn’t calm down she will block him. He, of course, doesn’t calm down and she blocks him. When they wake up in the morning, nothing has changed and Beth does not unblock him. In fact, after she leaves in the morning, she just doesn’t come back at all.
Later Joe tries to track Beth down at work but finds out from Tim and Gita that Beth quit work and that nobody knows where she went. Through dumb luck, Joe finds Bethany (who did not get rid of the baby but did continue to block him) but his confrontation with her causes the police to be called and she enters a restraining order against him (which is much more effective in the world with Z-eyes because they are trackable).
Despite the restraining order, Joe decides to hide in the backyard of her Father’s house to see the child (which he can’t actually see because the block extends to offspring too). Even seeing the outline of his child was better than nothing so Joe kept going back whenever he could safely assume that Beth and his child would be there.
Several years later, Beth dies in a train accident. Apparently, if someone dies, so does their ability to block someone, so for the first time in years, Joe could see his child's face for the first time. Given that the restraining order only applied to Beth Joe decides to try to visit Beth’s father and meet his child but surprise, the child is at least part Asian (Beth and Joe are white while Tim was Asian).
Yikes, poor Joe.
Joe confronts Beth’s Father who is obviously in no mood to talk to him at all. Something seems to have snapped inside Joe and he doesn’t connect two and two, he seems to think someone has stolen or removed his daughter. Beth’s father doesn’t seem to get that Joe had no idea that the child wasn’t his and Joe seems to have fully lost track of reality.
Joe appears to kill Beth’s father with a snow globe(in the exact same kitchen Matt is talking to him in - spoiler alert) and he tries to act like he didn’t do anything to the child. He says that he just went silent and wouldn’t tell the police or anyone else anything (we see Joe in a cell).
The kid went to get help in the middle of a snowstorm and died.
Matt says “I knew I could do it,” celebrates and comes out of the simulation.
He was utilizing his skills, learned from his real-world job to manipulate "cookie Joe" into confessing to Joe's actual crimes.
In other words, the Joe we knew was not the real Joe, he was a “cookie” of Joe and the “cookie” is who confessed his crimes to Matt.
Even more disturbing (and this theme was also explored in Black Mirror’s “White Bear” episode) is that these “artificially created” sentient beings are, in the end, treated as if they are equally responsible for the actions of the physical body and mind that generated their consciousness.
The very last scene in White Christmas has Joe’s cookie sentenced arbitrarily to isolation in the room his physical double murdered someone in for 1000 years per real-time minute for approximately 24 hours. I am not a mathematician, but I think Joe’s ‘cookie’ was just arbitrarily sentenced to around 1,440,000 years of solitary confinement. And for what? Joe’s cookie has all the memories, remorse, and guilt for what Joe did but Joe’s cookie actually did NOTHING.
You could argue that “cookie Joe” was unfairly sentenced to have to bear the guilt and shame of Joe’s crime at all, much less forced to do penance. I think Charlie Brooker is pointedly suggesting that we have a tendency to hold, in this case artificial, BODIES responsible for crimes even when Mens Rea (intent) wasn’t present.
All over the country legislatures pass what are called “Strict Liability” laws on criminal matters (removing the question of intent entirely from consideration “Strict Liability” laws make conviction dependent only on if a person technically committed a crime). In addition, we see stories all the time of people being executed for committing crimes despite obvious mental impairment (legal insanity is a very high bar, mental illness is often present in people who are considered legally sane).
So, what this part of White Christmas was really about our general tendency towards almost casual cruelty once we, as a society, decide moral culpability and therefore feel ourselves to be morally superior.
In other words, we have no problem at all punishing bodies regardless of the state of mind in the brains attached to those bodies (or in the case of “cookies” culpability at all).
Let’s not forget that Joe snapped almost entirely because throughout his story he had never been provided with an accurate picture of what had really happened (he believed that he had fathered a child that he was blocked from for almost six years when he actually had never fathered a child at all).
One of the police inspectors takes great joy in going to tell the real Joe that his “cookie” has confessed to his crime (taking special pains to wish him a “Merry Christmas” before leaving).
And let’s also not forget that “cookie Joe” did NOTHING at all. “Cookie Joe” was created by Joe’s brain and memories but literally did nothing to Beth’s Father or granddaughter.
Despite this, the other police inspector, without even thinking about it for more than five seconds, brutally punishes “cookie Joe” with a sentence of solitary confinement longer than any human could ever survive (remember because it is an artificially created being it requires no food or sleep which would theoretically allow a “cookie” to live for millions of artificially compressed years).
I will say it again, Black Mirror is really about how terrible we human beings can be to each other and to our creations.
And as for the real-life possibilities for the creation of “cookies,” perhaps you also watch Mr. Robot and like me, wondered at the discussions between Dom and her Alexa device? Or were freaked out by the movie Her.
What if, for instance, Joaquin Phoenix could have punished his personal dating app for her infidelities?
These are all truly possible futures.
Part Four: Facing the Social Death
Matt was in prison for not reporting what happened to Harry and for the running of his peeping tom sex club. He agreed to get a confession from Joe’s “cookie” under the agreement that if he got the confession that he would go free.
Unfortunately, he did not read the fine print. They do indeed release him but after release, he finds out that his release is conditioned on his being placed on the “registry” for life which means he is permanently blocked by everyone forever.
In other words, he can walk around but has been 100% socially erased from the planet earth. All anyone will ever see of him is a gray outline of a human being and nobody can hear or see anything of the real Matt.
He leaves the station only to see that the world is full of only outlines, of cut-outs of people that he can never again talk to or interact with.
A true social death.
Again, this touches on themes our society is dealing with today. Last year, the Office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Ohio made the following shocking comment about Sex Offender Registries:
“There is no clear evidence to support that SORNA implementation has made the public safer, deterred any sexual offenses, or contributed to the arrest or discovery of any sex offender.”
And the 6th Circuit Court of appeals, for the first time, in Doe’s v. Snyder decided that registration requirements were a form of punishment likening being on the registry to walking around with a shotgun pointed at your head at all times and the Solicitor Generals of the United States agreed (after being asked for his opinion by the Supreme Court of the United States).
Despite the evidence of failure (which is voluminous) for registries, they remain incredibly popular, and I suspect some of this is because, again, once we have decided that human bodies can become unworthy of ethical consideration. Because, deep down, we enjoy the idea of punishment and even of torture if it is carried out against bodies we have deemed less than human.
I personally believe punishment is warranted by bad behavior (and have been imprisoned and am registered myself) but I vociferously disagree with notions of lifetime punishment or the notion that people ever become unworthy of ethical consideration as human beings.
I fully accept that what I did was wrong, served my sentence, and believe that should be the end of it.
My fear is that if Black Mirror is right, that we, as a society, have entirely conflated punishment and cruelty with justice. That we have begun to embrace the notion of eternal punishment or a punishment without horizon.
What Matt did was terrible, but was it worthy of lifetime social banishment? Literally social death?
Over 60% of all registrants in the United States are put on the registry for life-based only on offense category (and not on risk of re-offense). I have no doubt that if we could legally apply social death on people we would.
I have no doubt, that when we were legally and technologically able, I would fully be allowed to write this article but not one person would be able to read it (because it would appear blurry and without substance).
In my experience (and I have been to prison) the vast majority of criminality is foregrounded by trauma, circumstances, and lived experience and not by someone’s fundamental nature. The biggest triggers for criminality are the situation, trauma, social dislocation, and economic insecurity.
Black Mirror reminds us that we are creating and reveling in a particularly cruel vision of a society where our desire for revenge overwhelms everything, including our best judgment.
As always, the Black Mirror reflects us.
I think the challenge being laid before us is to reimagine the world where worth is not determined by some human estimation of value or application of a simple binary (like good or evil) but rather is always assumed as a baseline for how human beings should treat each other, a floor that can never be lowered.
If we believe people have certain unalienable rights, that we should always treat people first as human beings, and that anyone can be restored, the world Black Mirror describes becomes a fictional impossibility.
If however, we continue to decide that some people are disposable and that security is more important than our commitment to human rights and Constitutional rights, we are and will continue to live in a Black Mirrored world.
We choose which image we want to project in the dark screens of our devices.
If we were choosing well, Black MIrror would seem a lot more like Science Fiction and a lot less like a series of documentary features.
Okay, sorry that was so long, but there was a lot to cover. I doubt I will recap Playtest (the only episode of Black Mirror that I don't like), so this will be the last Reflection until the new season comes out (sometime next year).