Though media technologies and devices have never been ordinary objects, the assumption that new media simply extend their reach–from cinema to living room to pocket–risks blindness to a more fundamental upheaval, in ourselves as much as in the media landscape. For Channel 4 sci-fi anthology show Black Mirror, devices and images are less tools at our disposal than they are instruments that work on and in us, affect us deeply, and structure our most basic relationships.
In “The Entire History of You,” the third and most compelling episode, only sex-workers and survivors–of untold traumas, abusive partners, history–“go grainless,” the story world’s slang for removing the small chip in your skull that records everything you see and do for instant playback. The procedure, self-administered in the final scene, is neither hyperbole nor prediction: rather, it asks us to consider whether every device is an implant–and every act of forgetting, surgery.
“Entire History” begins from a simple premise: middling lawyer Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell) returns home from a failed job interview to find his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) flirting at a dinner party with one Jonas (Tom Cullen). But from here, like a noir thriller, it descends, patiently, into plausible catastrophe. Suspecting infidelity, Liam proceeds to relentlessly investigate her whereabouts, interrogate ‘witnesses’, and cross-check Ffion’s statements, past and present, with “grain footage” evidence. In the most uncomfortable scene, he sits her down to catalog before her, like a lawyer making his case, instances of flirtation and discrepancies in her story, until he produces a confession.
Precarity is usually described as an economic or managerial phenomena–the post-fordist “informalization” and “contractualization” of work, which the rise of smartphones and telecommuting has only intensified–but it is also social and familial: checking your partner’s phone when they’re in the shower, stalking their Facebook activity, installing snoop apps, and the whole nasty ‘politics of suspicion’ that this entails.
If mobile devices permit “work creep” into leisure time, it’s because they permit creeping generally, a different sort of labor but one that invites, all the same, the treatment of social relationships as an enterprise to manage, surveil from afar–and discipline. On the surface, Liam’s character only happens to be a lawyer, but on a deeper level, the modes of investigation and cross-examination proper to social media make of all of us lawyers, hot on the trail and blindly seeking justice.
Whereas Liam, in “Entire History,” is intent only on establishing facts and the truth, with complete disregard for the underlying problems that produce them, “White Christmas”–the feature-length Christmas special starring Jon Hamm as Matt Trent, a dating coach–points to their limit, and source: the abyss of the self and its interiors, endless and incomprehensible. In place of a self–that consolidation of being under the sign of the ‘profile’–“Christmas” is marked everywhere by a multiplication of identities within, such that subjectivity itself becomes a strategy for mastering the “swarm” of one’s being.
In the opening scene, two “multiplicities” meet, making a crowd. Wearing a “Z-Eye” retinal implant–which is like the “grain,” only shared–Trent’s client Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) crashes an office Christmas party as instructed (through his earpiece), scans the room, and picks a target: Jennifer (Natalia Tena), a loner at the edge of a conversation. Intrigued by her unpredictable responses to his rote Pickup Artist tactics, Trent–an “evil Don Draper,” as one reviewer puts it–urges Harry on, missing the signs of her instability. Briefly, at the club, we think the game is up, the conspiracy exposed, when she overhears Harry talking to Trent, until we realize that she thinks he, like her, ‘hears voices’–beckoning. But it’s too late: back at her apartment, with Jennifer looming over him and whispering soothingly, to us, through his eyes, he begins to choke on the poisoned cocktail she’s prepared for him.
That the death of information must be confused, in this regime, for its dearth–a mystery to solve, a special case, an exotic new species spotted in the wild–is an effect ensured by a will for data that cannot be slaked. Trent, and the order he represents, can no more conceive of absolute refusal than he can the inaccessible, love, or madness. Like a pickup line–programmatically administered, (the same) one for every occasion–Trent assigns every affect, however different, the same valence or charge: ‘if you don’t like what is being said,’ you can almost hear him say, ‘then change the conversation.’
But if to profile is to attempt to neutralize, or flatten, enormous variation in power and feeling, it is to be done at your own risk. The real isn’t ‘predictive modeling’–of behavior or trends–but the gullet, the hollow in you, behind the camera, that you fill with poison unawares.
The notion of a profile, as it becomes increasingly horizontally integrated (linking credit, criminal, legal, and now biomedical data), has altered concepts of visibility, surface, depth. Is there interiority, or is it, too, an avatar, an effect, or a particular fold of the outside world? Is there any fundamental difference between an external interface–screens, devices–and an internal one that affects perceptual processes directly, assuming the concepts of direct and indirect, internal and external can be maintained?
That Black Mirror is able to inconspicuously wander between worlds in which implants import media functions to perception and worlds in which relationships mediated by media are ‘exported’, and given material form, is perhaps its own kind of answer. In “Be Right Back,” following her husband’s death, Martha (Hayley Atwell) subscribes to a service that lets users communicate with the deceased. Using all of his past communications and online footprints, which are ample–Ash’s (Domhnall Gleeson) attachment to his phone is presumably what got him killed, driving–the service assembles a virtual “Ash,” and soon after, with an upgrade few could resist, a corporeal double.
Like a zombie–or Her (2013), but with a ghost in the machine–Ash’s return repeats, and intensifies, the process of loss, rather than reverses it. In place of his absence, if absence can be replaced, his form or likeness externalizes internal processes of mourning–or else reveals grief as always embodied: in objects, spaces, and the hallucinations ripped out of you by inconceivable loss. When Martha becomes frustrated with “Ash’s” failures to convincingly simulate Ash’s responses, she tells him to go away, but when she wakes up in the morning she finds him standing at the edge of the property, blankly staring into the distance, because his programming, he tells her, prevents him from going more than 50 yards from his owner.
Neither able to terminate him nor accept the copy as the model, Martha confines “Ash” to the attic–of the house, and of the mind–for their daughter, now a child, to visit on special occasions: there, huddled around him, as if on a stage, props of habitation paint a picture of life. If media, broadly writ, is implicated in this ‘theater of presence’ she performs, it is as all devices are, in their supply of new punctuation for ancient pauses. Like an old photo album you might pull out on the deceased’s birthday, the ‘still life’ in the attic is the no less still for its feeble movements. Are all records haunted by their destiny to become documents of despair? All media a medium: to commune with the dead?
Though the title card of the show is of a screen cracking–the “‘black mirror’ of the title,” according to its creator Charlie Booker, “is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone”–it would be a mistake to receive it as a mandate rather than a warning. The three episodes that concern party politics, or imagine a futuristic new world order, explicitly relate a reactionary technophobia to a reactionary politics, suggesting a connection.
The intermediary, in each case, is an angry, disillusioned artist who disrupts the system, only to succumb in the end to appropriation by it. In the second episode, Bingham “Bing” Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya) saves up “Fifteen Million Merits” to get on the American Idol-like show Hot Shots, where he launches into a long, powerful invective against the “bullshit” they represent–but when offered a timeslot to represent this discontent to the masses, he accepts. The episode ends with Bing plastered across the screens he once resented, holding to his throat the shard of glass–procured from a “black mirror” he smashed–that has become his emblem: once held menacingly before the Hot Shot judges, as a threat of self-destruction if they would not let him speak, now it’s a fetish, or prop, to be returned to its glass case after airing.
According to one tradition, late, consumer capitalism is an appropriation-machine that monetizes, commercializes, and absorbs its enemies: counter-culture, dissent, even communism. What Black Mirror suggests is that this logic is itself digital, or that at the very least it is intensified by a social–but not socialized–media economy: if power is action at a distance, it seems to ask, is media, then, its ideal conductor, the vehicle with the least “resistive loss,” like a high-voltage power-line, only unencumbered?
The mapping of power as a network, a system, is one of the great organizing metaphors of our time, not least for its promise of an outside–and a kill switch, where there is none. In In Time (2011), Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) need only break-in to the headquarters and transfer credits, which here directly purchase time to live, to the masses; just as, in Elysium (2013), when Max (Matt Damon) succeeds in reassigning all non-citizens citizen-status the rights attached to it are programmatically delivered. By imagining power as impersonal–rule-based but context-insensitive–these texts dream of a new kind of heist: instead of robbing the bank, changing its terms-of-service. Instead of revolution, reprogramming.