You’ve seen it all. The future is bright and the future is now. If there is contemporary sci fi series that better understands the time we live in it’s Black Mirror. You’ve seen all the episodes and want to dig deeper into the theories and philosophy that inspired it? Look no further for here you’ll find your one and only, easily digestible, guidebook for Black Mirror the universe and everything else!

To start our guidebook it’s important to discuss which era we are living before diving into the theories behind Black Mirror. Although not so easily defined, part of contemporary philosophers inquire that we moved past postmodernity. When it started and/if it ended is still really debatable and certainly it still influences and coexists with whatever is coming to supplant it. But certainly just by analyzing key postmodern sci fi films like the Matrix in comparison to Black Mirror one can sense that certain preocupations that were present in the late 80s and 90s gave way to new ones that were inexistent before. Just to have an idea, the rights for the Matrix was bought in 1994 and the script was probably written on a computer running Microsoft Windows NT and the closest thing to an iPhone was those huge Motorolas Microtac that sold for a whopping USD$ 3,000!

What does this all have to do with Black Mirror? Just that while the Wachowski brothers clearly rooted the Matrix in late postmodernist theories Charlie Brooker situated Black Mirror within whatever comes after postmodernity. To understand what comes after postmodernity and how it relates to Black Mirror is the focus and objective of this text, but before we do so let’s briefly recapitulate what we went through.

The rise and fall of human mankind

Philosophers deduce that the Homo-Neanderthalis… just kidding… Let’s just focus on the fall of postmodernism since discussing what it is will probably be longer than explaining the history of mankind (and there is wikipedia for those who need to refresh some common basis of postmodernism).

The editors of Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century (one of the most interesting books from the last decade and from which great part of this article comes from) suggests that:

Not only is there markedly less ink given over to the discussion of the postmodern in the early twenty-first century than there was in the late twentieth, but such discussions of it as are written today seem impelled with increasing regularity to the conclusion that postmodernism is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Works of contemporary art and literature seem ever less amenable to analysis by criticism emphasizing postmodernist modes and traits. Philosophers and theorists are no longer as inspired by the question of modernity’s aftermath — some of them (Zygmunt Bauman or Jacques Rancière, for instance) are conspicuously retreating from the notion of postmodernity. Perhaps the artists and writers who do not baulk at being tarred with the postmodernist brush were always few, but their number is apparently decreasing. The postmodern river, it would seem, is drying up. (p. xiii)

Other signs start showing up that postmodernism had run its course. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum ran a very well attended exhibition in 2011 entitled Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990. Of course since postmodernism rejected the thought of closure more than almost any other such closing assumption also seems quite out of place for those versed in postmodernity. Therefore more than proclaiming it’s end it would be more fitted to see the first decade of this century as the sense of the end, the idea that postmodernism is somehow ending and we are sensing it without exactly knowing where it´s going.

In other words our relationship with postmodernity is in the same position when you know your relationship is spiraling downwards and soon something is gonna happen for the final breakup (maybe Trump and the Brexit is the final kick?).

Black Mirror situates most part of its narrative after this great rupture with postmodernity in a near future where society has fully accepted and embraced the changes that we are passing through today. So what are these changes? Surely there are more than those below, but for those interested in diving into the philosophical nuances of the series this may be a good starting point.

Automodernism — The automated autonomy

A theme that is constantly being repeated throughout Black Mirror is the relation between human autonomy vs automated systems. The automodernism thus is referencing to both autonomy and automated. This dichotomy is very rich in controversy for our apparent autonomy nowadays are intrinsically related to our dependance in automated systems.

In the episode Fifteen Million Merits (Season 1 Episode 2) human autonomy is reduced to a minimum in this whole star-centered automated system where the less talented work to keep the machine running for a star-centered political system. In a similar manner the Nosedive (Season 3 Episode 1) goes a step further to talk about the slavery behind the fake autonomy of contemporary society and it’s slavery to an automated system connected to your ratings in social media. Going one step further is the last episode of the series Hated in the Nation (Season 3 Episode 6) where the automated bees kills the most hated person based on a script that counts the hashtag #Deathto in the UK. Ufff…that was a lot of auto**** in a same paragraph! We’ll get back to this particular episode in a second. These examples are just to established that autonomy vs automated is at the heart of Black Mirror. You can find this in most episodes of the series.

Robert Samuels wrote an insightful article about automodernism (Auto-Modernity after Postmodernism: Autonomy and Automation in Culture, Technology, and Education). In his article he focuses on how digital youth uses the power of new technologies to reinforce the imaginary and real experiences of individual autonomy through automated systems. Samuels uses this as a way to discuss how to better adapt education methods for the current generation that was raised into a digital modernity.

It seems that the Black Mirror writers took some notes from his writings. Back in 2007, 3 years before Instagram was created Samuels wrote:

This need for digital youth to have their autonomy registered by others can also be seen in blogs, Web cams, and online diaries. All of these new technologies point to the desire for people to be heard and seen by people they may not even know. Like public confessional booths, these automodern processes allow for an externalization of interior feelings and ideas. However, unlike past uses of confession by religious orders, psychologists, and police, these types of self-disclosure do not seem to serve any higher public purpose other than the desire for recognition.

No need to point out the similitudes between this and the Nosedive episode. Things start getting even more interesting when he goes on to analyze the impact of such autonomy (the bold and the * stands for my personal notes):

I would argue that the PC world of personalized culture absorbs the social construction of information into the autonomous echo chambers of individuated media. In other words, when every user also becomes a producer of media, the multiplication and diversification of potential sources for information increases to such an extent that individual consumers are motivated to seek out only the sources and blogs that reinforce their own personal views and ideologies. Here, the screen truly becomes an automated mirror of self-reflection… (***A black mirror of self-reflection?!***)

In this new combination of autonomy and automation, we have to wonder if this is what direct democracy really looks like, or are these uses of personal opinions just a lure to make people feel like they have some control over situations where they really have very little power?

Powerless in face of the direct power given to the public

The pilot of the series provides an inflection into this by creating a scenario where this fake sense of power is overturned. In The National Anthem a commoner takes real direct power over the prime minister and the government of the UK. The public in rejoice feels that, finally, instead of being screwed over by the lies of direct democracy is now literally screwing the establishment. Having sex with a pig is the extreme way to examplify what direct power is capable of and how it has been used against the population during history.

From an automodern perspective, this question of whether these new modes of participatory technology produce false or real autonomy and democracy can be seen as irrelevant because automodern digital youth usually do not distinguish between real and virtual identity. (…)

It is a well-known fact that the close-the-door button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo which is placed there just to give individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey. When we push this button the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just press the floor button without speeding up the process by pressing also the close-the-door button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is, I claim, an appropriate metaphor [for] the participation of individuals in our post-modern political process.

Taking a pause to get all of this in I want to focus on this placebo effect and go back to the final episode of Season 3. The premise of that episode is to turn what is a fake political participitation (the tweets of hatred) into a real participation by sinisterly turning into reality death threats that weren’t supposed to have a real life effect.

Automated Killer Bees in Hated in the Nation

On the surface this episode talks about the real life effects of trolling and if you’re interested in the topic I suggest listening to this amazing episode of This American Life. But going deeper the question posited is, like all great sci-fi, related to human nature. And what better to understand the human aspect of trolling then looking back to 2016. It was the year where trolling assumed a strong political stance and a candidate trolled his way to presidency. Having a convention for all the trolls that through memes and twitter insults helped Trump get elected (yest that exists) shows the real life example of what happens when placebo online participation trickles into real life.

And while trollers defend themselves by invoking freedom of speach going back to Samuels automodernism one can see some interesting findings on the nature behind such acts:

whenever I try to get students to analyze critically the shows they watch or the computer games they play, they insist that these activities are escapes and sources for meaningless enjoyment. From this perspective, culture is a way of escaping society and the burden of thinking. What then has helped this type of technology and culture to spread around the world is that it is essentially self-consuming, and by this term I mean it denies its own import and value. (…)

While at first glance, this high level of automation and repetition would seem to preclude a sense of personal autonomy, we must see that individual freedom in automodernity often represents a freedom not to do something. Thus, the freedom not to think or not to interact in a social relationship is a highly valued freedom in this cultural order.

Interpreting the automated killer bees within this context is very fruitful. The word troller here is applied in a very loosely way but let’s take it step by step so we can make clear such inticrate connections:

  1. Trollers often express that what they say is not to be taken seriously. I would relate this to the idea of trolling being a form of self-consuming culture, a form that denies its own meaning and devalues the extreme message being expressed.
  2. Most importantly by denying its own message and values trolling is a form of escaping the burden of thinking. In a quite contradictory way it represents the individual freedom to not think. (A great example that applies to society as a whole is sharing news posts without every reading it as a way to show interest and concern without actively engaging with it’s content. By sharing I’m freeing myself of having to think about it.)
  3. Hated in the Nation dives into this dichotomy of expressing self-consuming, devalued and meaningless messages as a way of freeing oneself from the burden of thinking.

Got it? Maybe the creators weren’t even thinking about this but I find it quite enlighting given the political situation andhow we express ourselves through social media.