Humanity, Black Mirror, Utopia
Occasionally I write about TV series on this blog. I try to keep that to a minimum, given that my focus is on written sci-fi, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Shows like Star Trek, Westworld and Black Mirror are just too good to leave alone. They are thought-provoking and invite discussion, which is part of the reason I love them.
In this post I’d like to turn to Black Mirror, which I discussed last year as well. Season 4 is now available on Netflix.
I’ve always described Black Mirror to others as exactly what its title says: a show that reflects our society back to us in a dark way, each episode taking a different aspect of our technology and culture to a logical, dark conclusion. It’s a show that highlights what we could become, and, in fact, what we are becoming.
But something about this definition always seemed incomplete to me. I always felt as though I was missing something even more fundamental about the show and its discrete episodes.
Then I read this article by Wired, one of my favourite magazines, about the show. And I think the author, Jason Parham, hit the nail exactly on the head.
“Humans get into trouble not when we make progress, but when we try to overcome humanity by treating emotion and spirit like science—the quest to articulate and optimize the ineffable.”
Like Parham, I would argue that this is the central thesis of Black Mirror.
Our current technological path is one of optimization, creating seamless experiences with AI that can read and understand our every intention, trying to make life as convenient and clairvoyant as possible.
In season 4’s “Hang the DJ,” we follow two characters partaking in a dating app/system that promises to eventually match them with the right person, but first they must go through a series of timed relationships so that the app can gather enough data and find an ideal match for them. In a twist the likes of which the show is famous for, we learn at the end that the entire thing was a simulation. It’s then that the two characters finally meet each other in real life for the first time. Presumably their real-life selves did not participate in the simulation, only their digital selves, who did all the messy work for them.
This is the kind of life optimization we all crave. What if we could find our mate without going through all the bad relationships and heartbreak? What if we could keep our loved ones alive in a robotic body or even in our own minds, never having to live through the pain of grief and loss? What if we could track our childrens’ every move and never have to worry about them? What if we could upload our consciousnesses to the cloud and never have to die? What if we could literally block people from our vision so we didn’t have to interact with them? What if? What if? What if?
Well, as Claire says in the 2010 movie Letters to Juliet:
“Life is the messy bits.”
And sometimes you just gotta feel the all the feels. And live through the awkward situations, and the grief, and the frustration, and the fear, and, and, and.
It’s what makes us human. Take away all that, well, what are we left with?
This is one of the main takeaways of Black Mirror, as Parham states. We won’t achieve anything other than a loss of ourselves (and our selves) if we continue to try to gloss over and smooth out life’s inconvenient, painful, shitty wrinkles. But more and more, our technology will allow us to do that. And we might think that we should, simply because we can, because it feels like progress. But it’s not.
So let that be our real takeaway.