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Project Black Mirror
Michael O'Neill

Hi there Sarah - thanks for your excellent observations, especially in the parallels drawn between “The Black Mirror Project” and the promotional viral videos of other contemporary sci-fi, as well as “The Entire History of You“‘s evolution of the technologies and ideas concerning memory featured within Bigelow’s film.

I have to admit that I am a huge fan of Strange Days, having watched it many many times. I’m not sure if it was the distinct fashion stylings of Lenny Nero, the sub-PJ Harvey wailing of Juliette Lewis or the fact that they were using modified DAT/Minidisc recorders to represent really interesting memory technologies which hooked me in, but the film (and its themes) has certainly stayed with me regardless! Although Strange Days often voices concerns about our anxieties regarding the harmful potential of memory augmentation (mostly through the assertions of Angela Bassett’s character that such technology is going to “fry (Lenny’s) brains”) , I would say that another cyberpunk film made in the same year is closer to the panicked debates that surround such potential technologies: Johnny Mnemonic (from the William Gibson story).

The film has certainly not aged terribly well. However, the notion that computer data being packed into a mind in order to transport information from place to place, with a potentially fatal consequence if not removed, is an resonant one; partially as it espouses a longing to shift from posthumanity back to humanity in order to survive, but partially because it is surmised that carrying around/absorbing that much excess data will inevitably lead to some form of lasting harm (physical in reference to Mnemonic, psychological in terms of TEHOY and both in relation to Strange Days). I believe that the horror and panic over such increasingly realistic “implants”, depicted in newer sci-fi like Black Mirror, crops up when they are portrayed in a light which displays them being taken down dark and abusive paths - our anxieties would be undoubtedly exorcised entirely if such technologies were shown to have a positive impact and were used in moderation. However, excess always makes for a decidedly less dreary and more unpredictably terrifying narrative, no?

Project Black Mirror
Michael O'Neill

Thanks for the kind words, Michael!

Whenever posthumanism is brought up, I always think of Donna Haraway’s assertion that “we are all chimeras” and “cyborgs” now, or Stelarc’s robotic augmentations, or the speculative communities featured in Warren Ellis’s “Transmetropolitan”! However, looking at contemporary (and less invasive than optic tech like the Argus II implants) technologies like Google Glass, the Apple Watch and the iPhone, one could argue that all this wearable technology which monitors us closely - recording/tracking our movements, our heart-rates, our voices, what we see and hear - has already brought us to a “posthuman” state. “The Black Mirror Project”, speculating on the notion that our technologies can monitor and map our brain-wave patterns to the point where it can discern our desires without us having to voice them, therefore represents a more complex version of the versions of posthumanism which we’ve already witnessed (in art, television and real-life), making it all the more convincing (and aiding in the process of fooling the audience). I believe that the underlying panic or unease (which is bubbling under the surface of Black Mirror) is once again linked to notions of autonomy and agency - when we cede power and allow technology to either act as a memory prosthesis (as we do now) or a driver of innovation strategy, then at what point does the process become automated, rendering human input redundant?

Re: “The seed” in “The Entire History of You” - perhaps the point that is trying to be made within the episode is that technology in and of itself is not a dangerous or malicious thing. It’s the consistent ABUSES of technology by neurotic humanity (represented by the lead character’s obsessive playing and replaying of memory), as well as the potential to exploit it for gain (raised in the notion of “seed-jacking” mentioned in the dinner-party scene), which is what makes it potentially harmful. The “seed” is essentially a micro flash-drive with a really slick search algorithm, which, like the fake tech in the campaign video above, is based on technology which not only COULD happen, but is something that is being striven for and desired!

Re: “APPLE TERROR” - if there was a whittling down of corporations to a mere handful and only ONE was responsible for technological or communicative innovation, would you trust that they would not abuse the access that they would undoubtedly demand to your data (and perhaps your mind) for the sake of a more pleasurable/comfortable user/leisure experience? Heh.

Project Black Mirror
Michael O'Neill

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Robert!

I’m glad that you picked up on the deliberate referencing of Brooker’s other television writing work in the examples I gave - this was partially to try and generate reflection on the themes and issues that have cropped up in series that he has previously been involved in (Barley’s satirical depiction of new technologies and web environments; Brass Eye’s destructive mockery of the political elite) and which appear in some form or another in Black Mirror.

Your comment about language as magic (or as plain obfuscation), designed to baffle the technological illiterati and credulous, again ties into Brass Eye, where language was subsequently taken to heightened and absurdist extremes. I would certainly concur that the reason why the video “works” for the layperson is that, despite being aesthetically amateurish, the language deployed sounds slickly convincing and is cleverly scripted - it is believably couched in terms (and utilises technologies) that are just about in the contemporary vernacular and public consciousness. Of course, the moment that the tech. community started paying closer attention to the video, the “spell” was broken!

Vapourware” is something that I have a tangential interest in, as my research in the past has often been preoccupied with both media ephemera and “forgotten histories”. In particular, moments in media history that occurred in the transitional moment between the shifting from analogue to digital production and distribution, meaning that many experiments, conversations and bits of content have fallen down the back of the internet’s sofa, only recoverable if one knows what to look for and where to look. It is in these moments (particularly around the turn of the century) where media institutions (broadcasters especially) started to fiddle around online, making grand promises for new types of content and new spaces of interaction… which subsequently swiftly dissolved into the aether when it became apparent such schemes weren’t tenable or usable. Fragments of these moments still haunt the internet, which the Internet Archive and amateur archivists have exhumed so that we may pay our respects. I think the reason why The Entire History of You ranks as a favourite is because of the notion that this speculative technology, rather than providing a benefit, instead facilitates the haunting of ourselves with a presumed-forgotten past with tools from the future! Note: That paragraph certainly built up a head of steam there - apologies for the ramble!

Re: Psychoanalytic implications of the campaign - I hadn’t considered this at all (and I had thought my line to be a little throwaway). Intriguing. I have little knowledge of this field, but perhaps somebody else would like to chip in at this point?

Project Black Mirror
Sarah Artt

Like the other commenters, I too had never seen this video and was glad to see it brought to light here. As part of my science fiction class I used to screen Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) which features a wireless headset that allows the user to view and feel ‘clips’ of recorded memories (either their own or someone else’s). One of my students remarked on the similarities between the function of the device in The Entire History of You and the one in Strange Days. This video showcases a similar device yet again. I was also reminded of the fake TED talk used to promote Prometheus and while it’s aesthetically (and intentionally) far more slick than what we see here, the hoax as promotion element is similar. Is there a certain correlation between our anxieties about what very nearly amounts to wet implants and the increasing verisimilitude of their portrayals in shows like Black Mirror and elsewhere? I’d love to hear what others think about this.

Project Black Mirror
Michael Frazer

I hadn’t seen this either, so this was quite intriguing to encounter. Very insightful discussion. First thought came to mind was that this sounds like “The Entire History of You” in different form - and I remember you saying that you enjoyed that episode in particular in response to my discussion yesterday. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on the invasive nature of this “next step” in technology and human consciousness.

The episode reminded me very much of Futurama’s eyePhone in which the device is implanted in the head and behind the eye. Of course, Matt Groening is much more light-hearted in his depiction, but there seems to be a similar anxiety as far as how “linking our brains to Apple products can only end well,” as you say. Beyond the the physically invasive (even penatrative) nature of the “installation,” what are your thoughts on the apparatus as an extension of the (post)human body?

Project Black Mirror
Robert Wright

I’m quite a big fan of Charlie Brooker’s work, enough to immediately notice that the examples of satirical programming you use both involved him as a writer, but this being said this viral campaign for Black Mirror completely passed me by so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

For me the video sort of highlights how technology is indistinguishable from magic in terms of how lay-people understand its workings, as key to making the video work was the clever utilisation of technological sounding ‘magic words’.

The key point you make here for me is the one regarding the fine line between ‘repulsed fear and lustful desire’, so to keep it relatively broad I just wondered if you’d considered the psychoanalytic implications of the campaign? (perhaps in relation to the Death Drive?)

Also, I’d love to hear any extra comments you may have on “vapourware” as it’s an area I’m quite interested at looking at myself in relation to spectrality.

Bing with Shard
Robert Wright

The gamification (or applefied) element is certainly a key part of the episode for me. I did nearly mention BF Skinner and his behavioural utopia Walden Two in relation to the episode because, to refer back Michael’s comment directed at me, I don’t think the majority of ‘users’ in FMM are aware of their servitude. To quote sociologist Lewis Mumford’s criticism of this kind of managed utopia:

“You make people do exactly what you want with some form of sugar-coated drug or candy which will make them think they are actually enjoying every moment of it.

This is the most dangerous of all systems of compulsion. That’s why I regard Skinner’s utopia as another name for Hell. And it would be a worse hell because we wouldn’t realise we were there.

We would imagine we were still in Heaven.”

Bing with Shard
Michael Frazer

Dr. O’Neill,

Thank you for your response. I use the term “citizen” in so much as they are part of the commune. Perhaps “resident” would be a better term? It’s never labeled as such, but I think that’s more than valid to call them prisoners: they wear matching uniforms (more or less), they live in tiny apartments/cells, and their social operations are performed at designated times. In the least, we’re seeing a panoptic society. Their choices are limited, so I would say they have an illusion of choice much like they have an illusion of the capacity to dissent. There is no true agency. Even Bing’s initial speech is reduced to sheer celebrity.

I agree with the gamer model you mention. It’s odd to me that we see these implementations in culture and media today, particularly in commercialism. Shopping, especially online, is modeled in many cases on a reward model we see in games: press a button, receive reward. Purchase is treated to some extent as a form of play. Perhaps the consumer experiences a similar idea of finding a “voice” in this model? A sense of agency in the purchase that is really just simulated choice? Thoughts?

Bing with Shard
Michael O'Neill

Interesting post, Michael.

I must admit, Fifteen Million Merits was one of my least favourite Black Mirror episodes, primarily as it often seemed an overly “on-the-nose” lampooning of televisual form, celebrity/stardom and the commodification of user-experiences within digitally mediated spaces. Then again, I am a miserable sod who will gleefully wallow in the emotional horror of “The Entire History of You” ad nauseam, so maybe my assessment may not mean a great deal!

I am curious (mainly as I cannot recall - it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the episode): are the inhabitants within the “commune” explicitly designated as citizenry? I notice that in your post and responses that characters are repeatedly positioned as such, although they seem more like convicts trapped in a limbo-like no-place, than empowered subjects with choices!

When I observe them within the episode, I’m put more into mind of the “gamified” environments constructed online by broadcasters for youth users, or the tightly organised spaces of Xbox and Playstation systems, wherein the positioning of the user is explicitly as consumer, rather than citizen. I suppose that this raises wider questions concerning agency (both real and imagined) and the type/scale of change that can truly be enacted by individuals whilst within these systems operated by corporate (or governmental) interests - any user-agency (or indeed varying types of capital) that is on offer here is subsequently swiftly co-opted and exploited? Perhaps FMM also operates as a sly commentary on how “freely offered” user-generated labour/content is subsequently redeployed by media industries (particularly television) to both generate revenue and operate as a rebuttal against being monolithically undemocratic - users are getting a “voice”!

To Robert: I had a similar reaction to the environments of which you speak - they ARE “Applefied” in the sense that each user in FMM is locked into a technological “walled garden” and thrown the occasional reward or incentive to distract from the hideousness of their servitude! Note: I am an Apple user. I know of this horror first hand.

Bing with Shard
Robert Wright

Firstly I must say thanks for reminding me about “The Machine Stops”, must get round to reading it.

For the most part you’ve pretty much echoed my interpretation of the episode. I think what I find interesting is the whole ‘non-place’ feel of the commune, it’s a place where issues of time and space are flattened in order to reduce ruptures in the running of the society. I guess you could say the world is in some sense a projection of Facebook in which the environment is mostly standardised with some non-threatening tweaks available. It’s a world in which one works (cycles) by giving up data for the privilege of using a platform which, as we have seen recently, actively tries to manipulate algorithmically how we think and feel.