The Ghost in the (Black) Mirror: Technology, Spectrality and Magic

Curator's Note

Our modern communication technologies are magical and spectral but their ubiquity has rendered them, along with the world they inhabit, increasingly banal. It’s only when there’s a crack in their seamless operation that we awake to curse that our black mirrors won’t cast our spells.

This utilisation of occult terminology isn’t simply flippant, as Jeffery Sconce documents in Haunted Media, communication technology has since its inception been linked with the spectral; be that a literal belief that they could communicate with an empirically provable ghost-world; to the postmodern condition in which technologically mediated spectres play with our ability to maintain a ‘reality’ distinction from the technological ethereal.

Arthur C Clark’s famous 3rd dictum states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; this shouldn’t be seen to simply apply to science-fiction as it also informs our everyday understanding of communication technology whose language is magical; from installer wizards that setup an interface with the digital ether to tech-gurus that assist us when our digital magic goes awry.

Charlie Brooker literally cracks the surface of a Black Mirror at the start of each episode, in doing so he summons forth the digital ghosts that surround us. Brooker’s catoptromanic divination haunts us by reflecting back uncanny futures from behind the shattered screen. These tales, as with all good science-fiction, are not so much concerned with an actual forthcoming future, for what is presented is a ghost future, a summoning of a present which has not truly existed but has the potential to cross over.

As we look into our black mirrors what we see is a ghostly image of ourselves and our world which is all too uncanny. This thread cracks through the Black Mirror series. What’s most uncomfortable about the show is that it demonstrates how little control we actually have over our technologies, but more than this, who are the real ghosts? Is it those behind the screen, our doubles? Or is it our corporeal selves living in a present age which formally disavows the spectral despite carrying with us everywhere a magic mirror which connects us to a cyber-ether? Is it not perhaps the case that our technologies have in fact always rendered us spectral and that what we find most disturbing about Black Mirror is that it dare show us how entangled and powerless we’ve become in technology’s enchanting web of spells?

Comments

Michael Frazer's picture

Vonnegut, &c.

Really enjoyed the discussion here, Robert. This might be slightly off the track of the uncanny in tech, but when I came across your Clark reference, the first thing that came to mind was Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Specifically, Vonnegut writes “that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.” Thoughts on the idea of the spectral as an arbitrary mystification of the machine? I’d love to hear what you think.

Robert Wright's picture

Ghosts in the Machine.

Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post (and apologies for this late reply). I haven’t yet read Cats’s Cradle, it’s one of those books I’ve wanted to read but it always seems to be get pushed back, in fact I haven’t read anything of Vonnegut even though by now I really should have.

If anything Michael I think it’s probably the opposite of what you state that’s the issue. Technology companies such as Apple and Google over-simplify as if their end-users are that of an eight year old. They’ve made their technologies so smooth and seamless in their surface operation that they by design encourage mass disavowal of the background processes that are at play, in doing so they attempt to blot out thoughts towards the algorithmic ghosts in the machine. The spectral in this specific example then is not so much about arbitrary mystification as it is a tool for tackling the simplified ‘constructed clarification’ that the tech giants provide when explaining their products, the spectral metaphor is used to summon those elements of technology that we are not ordinarily able to perceive. For example it is by no mistake the the tracker blocker Ghostery is named as such.

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