Techno-Utopian Society Demonstrated in Black Mirror
In November 2018, millions of iPhone users got their hands on Apple’s new product. The iPhone XS was created to run better, faster, and smarter than past products. The 21st century world craves the desire to obtain a techno-gadget with the newest features.
Walking through Times Square in New York City or Islington in London, it is easy to observe hundreds of thousands of individuals starring down at their rectangles of phones. This observation is what sparked Charlie Brooker’s idea to create the hit television series Black Mirror. The title of the show was inspired by the black screen that appears when a techno-gadget is turned off. It represents a dark reflection of a technology obsessed society.
Black Mirror is a science fiction British television series that was created to represent the drastic changes in technology that have occurred over the past ten years. Brooker noticed in modern contemporary television themes of romance, crime, and other timeless genres encapsulated every channel. But no show reflected a techno-modern culture in a way that was intriguing to viewers. Black Mirror takes place in an allegorical future but is supposed to show frightening similarities to current societies, representing that it is a near future. Black Mirror has the ability to discuss uncensored issues since it does not take place in current time. Another hit television series, The Twilight Zone’s ability to have freedom fascinated Brooker, which he discussed in many interviews and articles.
Serling, a brilliant writer, created The Twilight Zone because he was tired of having his provocative teleplays about contemporary issues routinely censored in order to appease corporate sponsors. If he wrote about racism in a southern town, he had to fight the network over every line. But if he wrote about racism in a metaphorical, quasi-fictional world suddenly he could say everything he wanted (Brooker, 2011).
Brooker desired that same freedom in his series, Black Mirror, which explains why each episode exaggerates new social norms and challenges current ones.
While Black Mirror originally aired on the British television program Channel 4, its themes are meant to represent western culture as well. It originally aired on Channel 4 in December of 2011 but after two seasons Netflix bought the program and aired two more seasons starting in October of 2016. Viewers are currently anticipating a fifth season which was announced in March of 2018. Since airing on Netflix the show has gained more popularity especially among young adults, both male and female.
Throughout this paper, the system’ in Black Mirror will be in reference to the state controlled power of technology that enables citizens to behave and abide in organized ways. Additionally, the lower class’ will be in reference to the class of people who are not in control of the system. Although each episode in Black Mirror is different from the next, an overarching theme of the consequences of a technology driven world is present. The consequences arise from conflict that lies between the existence of two social classes. There exists a controller and a subject, where the controller holds power in the system and the subject is submissive to the system. The utopian societies in Black Mirror demonstrate the double-edged sword of technologya vehicle used by those in power to manipulate and used by lower classes to rebel.
Upper Class Manipulation
The state control in Black Mirror creates a system of inequality where abused power is used to manipulate the minds of the consumers of technology. Numerous episodes in the series represent the dominant control of a system run by those in the highest class. The fifth episode of the third season, entitled Men Against Fire, explores absolute control in which the system forces the middle class to believe in a pseudo apocalyptic world that they have to defend. Main character, Stripe, plays a solider in the military. Like similar Black Mirror episodes an implant is put into their brains. The implant, MASS, is only for those in the military and manipulates them into seeing certain people as zombie like figures called roaches, who are believed to be genetically inferior. Regular citizens do not have the implant but believe in the roaches by falling into the misconception of argumentum ad populum based off of propaganda. Stripe and the rest of the military are instructed to find and kill the roaches. During a battle between a roach and Stripe, the roach shines a LED light into Stripe’s eyes causing it to counteract with MASS. Stripe begins to see the roaches as humans and realizes the deception within the government. Stripe is brought to a room where the state exercises their control by forcing Stripe to either allow them to erase the memories of his new found knowledge or incarceration. The ending of Men Against Fire reflects the unbeatable power of the system. Stripe had no way to escape and had to surrender to control. In a techno-utopian society the difference between classes would cause destruction of democracy. In Lee Drutman and Yascha Mounk’s article, Will Robots Kill Democracy?, they argue that advanced technology will dissipate the middle class causing democracy to fail.
Advanced democracies like the United States would be transformed by the rise of two widely different strata of society with very little to keep them connect: A smaller upper class would largely rely on technology to serve its needs. Meanwhile, a large lower class will have very little of value to offer a shrinking labor market (Drutman and Mounk, 18).
Since Black Mirror is meant to similarly reflect today’s society, the message in this episode warrants a conversation to discuss the consequences of technology. Meaning if technology continues to overpower humanity, democracy will fail time and time again and only the small upper class will benefit. Brooker relayed this theme of hopelessness among those not in power in a few of his other episodes.
Nosedive, the first episode of the third season, mirrors a chilling parallel society to current society in which each person receives a rating out of five stars based off their interactions with other people. Everyone is responsible for rating each other and only a certain rate allows for special accommodations for housing applications, airports, hospitals, and other public services. Although there does not currently exists a system in which everyone is ranked, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat exercise different versions of that system. Popularity is based off of likes and followers which can lead to potential branding offers between men and women and high end companies. Just like many social media users, main character, Lacie, obsesses over her rating. She appears overly nice to the people around her but still falls short in meeting the required 4.5-star rating for her dream apartment. When invited to be the maid of honor at her former best friends wedding, where guests are only highly rated, she knew a perfect speech would put her above 4.5 stars. During her journey getting to the wedding, minor setbacks kept occurring, compelling her to change her happy go-lucky attitude to a frustrated and angry version of herself. Her rating quickly drops to where she is no longer invited to the wedding. Showing that only those who oblige by this structure will thrive. The desire to appear happy and content to others through social media is consistently present in today’s society where most social media users only post about the exciting and happy moments of life. The system, yet again, accomplishes the downfall of another subject, in this episode, Lacie. Although Lacie tries to defeat the system, she ends up physically imprisoned, however, paradoxically free from the imprisonment of her own black mirror. Brooker demonstrates what is required to achieve in a techno-utopian culture and can only be done by being in charge of the system or being an obedient subject of the system. In Black Mirror, Brooker shies away from a feel good ending in hopes to illustrate the penalties of a technology driven society.
Another episode that articulates a hyper-capitalized system occurs in the second episode of the first season, entitled Fifteen Million Merits. This episode takes place in a society where citizens, wearing all grey sweat suits, are required to cycle on a stationary bike all day to earn merits’ that can buy extra privileges. Second class citizens take on custodian roles in which they do not cycle and are publicized with yellow sweat suits and hats as well as their excessive weight. Main character, Bingham Bing Madsen, robotically walks through his daily routine where he is constantly surrounded by advertisements of pornography clips called Wraith Babes’ and of the game show, Hot Shot’. The only way to turn off the advertisements is to spend merits, which sounds remarkably similar to how current society buys premium versions of accounts to cut out disrupting ads. Only those who can afford it receive the privilege of an ad-less lifestyle. Throughout the episode, it is repetitively advertised that when fifteen million merits are earned it is possible to enter into the variety show, Hot Shot, judged by citizens of the elite class. The winner of the game show is promised fame and wealth, escaping the repetitive lower class lifestyle of cycling. Bing longs to disassociate from his daily routine. As he finally earns enough merits he overhears his only girl friend, Abi, singing beautifully and pulls a romantic gesture by giving her his merits to enter the show. After Abi’s performance, the judges convince her, along with the virtual crowd of other elite members, to pursue a career as an adult actress on Wraith Babes. Bing watches in disturbance and frustration as Abi accepts her new career. Representing the desperation of a lower class citizen dreaming to escape the confinement of lower class statuses. Throughout the next few weeks, due to Bings lack of merits he is forced to sit through advertisements of Wraith Babes and watch Abi perform on the show. He punches a mirror in distress and pockets a shard of glass. Bing determinedly works at earning back fifteen million merits to earn another spot on Hot Shot’. Once on stage he performs a rebellious speech discussing the corruption of the system all while holding the shard of glass to his throat. Instead of dismissing Bing’s performance the judges offer him a spot to perform his concerns on national television. The episode closes with Bing sipping a class of orange juice in his high class apartment.
[Fifteen Million Merits] portrays state power as being omnipresent within the overall structure of the society in which the main character resides (Huber, 14). The judges of elite upper class status encourage consumerism of technology as well as its dividing implications of class. In Bourdieu and Adorno’s article, Converging Theories in Culture and Inequality, Adorno argues when consumers are allowed the opportunity for artificial satisfaction through technology it breads blindness to the overwhelming presence of an imbalanced society (Bourdieu and Adorno, 43). This drastic imbalance between classes can become dangerous for the current democracy that the United States prides itself in.
Men Against Fire, Nosedive, and Fifteen Million Merits are just a few examples of episodes where Brooker sparks the conversation about the threat technology has between classes, by giving ultimate power of manipulation to the small upper class and depressive imprisonment of the large lower class. Although the ideas of Black Mirror seem so far away from current time, similarities present in every episode insinuate the direction our culture is headed. The terrorist groups that run Palestine, teach children from a young age to hate Israel and neglect aid, which shows the naiveté of individuals conforming to a corrupt society in the presence of war, similar to Men Against Fire. While the struggle with the infatuation of likes and followers’ becomes a competition among young teenagers in today’s western culture, it is evident in the lifestyle Nosedive illustrates. As well as the current options to buy premium accounts and VIP memberships to websites urges the consumerism mindset, only to be free when money is not a concern, just like the grey jump suited citizens in Fifteen Million Merits. In different ways every individual is represented in Stripe, Lacie, and Bing, showing that if the world is filled with technology driven submissive characters, Black Mirror will no longer be a show about the future, but instead about the present. While Black Mirror does show the dark side of technology it also portrays a side of technology that is used by lower class citizens to rebel against the system.
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