The Moral Uncanny In Black Mirror [1st Edition] 3030474941, 9783030474942, 9783030474959

This erudite volume examines the moral universe of the hit Netflix show Black Mirror. It brings together scholars in med

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The Moral Uncanny In Black Mirror [1st Edition]
 3030474941, 9783030474942, 9783030474959

Table of contents :
Contents......Page 5
Notes on Contributors......Page 7
List of Figures......Page 10
Introduction: The Moral Uncanny in Netflix’s Black Mirror......Page 11
Reflected Anxieties and Projected Dystopias: Black Mirror, Domestic Media and Dark Fantasy......Page 29
Borges’s “Infinite Finite” in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror......Page 50
The Entire History of You’s Disturbing Familiarity......Page 52
Doubling and Spiralling in Black Mirror and Borges......Page 56
Obsessive Full-Spectrum Memory......Page 58
White Bear’s Theatre of Cruelty......Page 62
Coda......Page 65
Lifelogging, Datafication and the Turn to Forgetting: Thinking Digital Memory Studies Through The Entire History of You......Page 68
Prosthetic, Mobile and Total Memory......Page 69
From Cultural Memory to Notes to Self......Page 73
The Archival Present, Hyperconnectivity and the Turn to Forgetting......Page 78
Algorithmic Memory and Data-Stories......Page 81
References......Page 86
The Reveal......Page 88
Staging the Return of Spectacle......Page 90
Scenario 1: Terror in the Estate......Page 94
Terrified Subjectivities......Page 95
Scenario 2: Exhibitionary Redux......Page 98
Anchoring the Viral Child in Postdigital Culture......Page 102
Facial Obfuscation and Bare Life: Politicizing Dystopia in Black Mirror......Page 108
The Uses of Dystopia......Page 109
Facial Recognition and Facial Obfuscation......Page 115
The Foundations of Facial Obfuscation in Black Mirror......Page 118
Bare Life and Obfuscation......Page 120
Conclusion: Destituent Potentiality......Page 124
Invasive Gaming, Bio-Sensing and Digital Labour in Playtest......Page 129
Episode Synopsis......Page 130
Code Prompted Behaviour......Page 131
Gamification......Page 133
‘Powerful Phrase: Familiar Phrase?’......Page 135
Bodies of Technology......Page 139
Conclusion......Page 142
Introduction......Page 148
Digital Immortality in Black Mirror......Page 149
The Moral Status of the Digital Soul......Page 152
Moral Implications......Page 156
Latent Memory, Responsibility and the Architecture of Interaction......Page 160
Inside–Outside: Consequences, Responsibility and Accountability......Page 161
Boundaries and Transgressions: Interaction, Participation and Control......Page 167
It Is Business, Nothing Personal......Page 173
God Is an Algorithm: Free Will, Authenticity and Meaning in Black Mirror......Page 177
Technology and “Soul Loss”......Page 178
The Uncanny and the Sublime......Page 179
Repeating......Page 184
Replicating......Page 189
Conclusion......Page 193
Afterword......Page 196
Index......Page 198

Citation preview

The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror Edited by Margaret Gibson Clarissa Carden

The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror

Margaret Gibson · Clarissa Carden Editors

The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror

Editors Margaret Gibson Griffith University Nathan, QLD, Australia

Clarissa Carden Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research Griffith University Nathan, QLD, Australia

ISBN 978-3-030-47494-2 ISBN 978-3-030-47495-9 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover image: Morocko/Alamy Stock Photo Cover design by eStudioCalamar This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland


Introduction: The Moral Uncanny in Netflix’s Black Mirror Margaret Gibson and Clarissa Carden Reflected Anxieties and Projected Dystopias: Black Mirror, Domestic Media and Dark Fantasy Richard J. Hand Borges’s “Infinite Finite” in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror Suzie Gibson and Dean Biron Lifelogging, Datafication and the Turn to Forgetting: Thinking Digital Memory Studies Through The Entire History of You Penelope Papailias





Spectacular Return: Re-performance Inexhausted in ‘White Bear’s’ Exhibitionary Complex Bryoni Trezise


Facial Obfuscation and Bare Life: Politicizing Dystopia in Black Mirror Grant Bollmer





Invasive Gaming, Bio-Sensing and Digital Labour in Playtest Gareth Schott and Nick Munn


Living on Beyond the Body: The Digital Soul of Black Mirror Clarissa Carden and Margaret Gibson


Latent Memory, Responsibility and the Architecture of Interaction Kristin Veel


God Is an Algorithm: Free Will, Authenticity and Meaning in Black Mirror Helena Bassil-Morozow






Notes on Contributors

Helena Bassil-Morozow is a Lecturer in Media and Journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University. She is a cultural philosopher, media and film scholar, whose books include: Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd (2010), The Trickster and the System: Identity and Agency in Contemporary Society (2014), Jungian Film Studies: the Essential Guide (2016; co-authored with Luke Hockley) and Jungian Theory for Storytelling: a Toolkit (2018). Dean Biron teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology and the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University. He was co-winner of the 2011 Calibre Essay Prize and his most recent publications have appeared in Meanjin Quarterly, Screen Education Australia, Australian Book Review, Overland and Rock Music Studies. Grant Bollmer is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Materialist Media Theory: An Introduction. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at NC State University, and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. Clarissa Carden is a postdoctoral fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Studies at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. Her work explores the intersection of morality and social change and she has written




on topics as diverse as historical youth justice, secularisation and grief in virtual worlds. Margaret Gibson has written extensively on death, mourning, media and material culture and author of several books including Objects of the Dead: Mourning and Memory in Everyday Life and the most recent (with Clarissa Carden) Living and Dying in a Virtual World: Digital Kinship, Nostalgia, and Mourning in Second Life. She is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. Suzie Gibson is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Charles Sturt University. She publishes and researches across the fields of Australian, American and English literature, philosophy, film and television. She has published in journals and volumes to include Philosophy and Literature, Philosophy Today, Queensland Review and Screen Education. Richard J. Hand is Professor of Media Practice at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, and his interests include interdisciplinarity in performance media (especially historical forms of popular culture) using critical and practical research methodologies. Nick Munn is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Waikato University, New Zealand. He has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. His research examines the value and risks of virtual worlds. Penelope Papailias is Associate Professor of social anthropology at the University of Thessaly in Greece. She has written extensively on cultural memory, historical culture and witnessing, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture in critical media events, affective networks, spectacles of death, social mourning and performative memorialisation. Her books include Genres of Recollection: Archival Poetics and Modern and Digital Ethnography (2015, with Petros Petridis). Gareth Schott is an Associate Professor in Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato. He has researched interactive digital games for nearly twenty years, from the inception of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA). His research has been funded by AHRC (UK), UfI (UK), Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grants (NZ) and the Office of Film and Literature Classification (NZ). He is a member of the Film and Literature Review Board in NZ.



Bryoni Trezise is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Sydney. Her research focuses on performance aesthetics and cultures. She has published two books Performing Feeling in Cultures of Memory (Palgrave, 2014) and Visions and Revisions: Performance, Memory, Trauma (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013). Her current research examines how young people use digital media to express changing ideas about childhood. Kristin Veel is Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. Her research focuses on the impact of digital technology on the contemporary cultural imagination. She has recently co-authored Tower to Tower: Gigantism in Architecture and Digital Culture with Henriette Steiner.

List of Figures

Facial Obfuscation and Bare Life: Politicizing Dystopia in Black Mirror Fig. 1 Fig. 2

Fig. 3

In ‘The Entire History of You,’ airport security identifies faces in recorded memories Abandonment and obfuscation in ‘White Christmas.’ This particular image is the POV view of the individual who has been blocked Glitches as the MASS visual interface is broken In Men Against Fire


113 114


Introduction: The Moral Uncanny in Netflix’s Black Mirror Margaret Gibson and Clarissa Carden

Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Black Mirror (2011–2019) brings compelling representations of the emerging fourth industrial revolution in which robotics, data profiling, VR, algorithms and biohacking are enmeshed in systems of governance, work, pleasure, intimate relationships, memory, death and grief. The inventive title Black Mirror is itself evocative of countless technological forms—mobile phones, flat-screen TVs as well as small-screen wearable and hand-held devices that mediate our relationship to self, others and world. Notably the mirror is not just a reflecting surface, it is a dark cracked rebound suggesting that the plethora of our technologies are not neutral in their very design. In fact, it is a mistake to assume that technology is impartial since it is in essence an extension of our humanity, and in some cases, inhumanity. Built into the

M. Gibson School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University, Nathan, QLD, Australia e-mail: [email protected] C. Carden (B) Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Nathan, QLD, Australia e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




endless stream of technologies is an obvious surveillance dimension and this is rigorously explored in Brooker’s anthology series. Already a cult series, Black Mirror provokes and disturbs, asking us to question the morality and ethics of devices that now provide unprecedented access to information, real time unfolding events, intimate lives and bodies. There is a deep sense of moral uncanniness as we grapple with how to deal with the ethical implications of being able to access people’s information that poses a threat to privacy. In fact, what Brooker’s series reveals is the collapsed binary between what is private and what is public, and this operates as a very incisive critique of what is happening right now, especially in light of the Russian Facebook hack and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For the most part, Brooker’s series addresses the dark side of technologies that have the dual power of bringing extraordinary positive connectivity and intimacies, as well as incredible surveillance and exploitation. It is the latter that the series mainly dramatises, revealing another paradox: digital forms might enable connection, but they are still, at heart, devices that cannot provide us with a “pure” relationship to the world. It is easy to forget that the countless screens we engage with everyday are highly sophisticated devices that largely mediate what we see, read, think and believe. The world of flesh—blood, bone, sweat, piss and excrement—is both hidden and exposed by devices whose smooth and clean contours enable the forgetting of our messy corporeality, but at the same time our bodies are also captured by the spectacle of the countless black mirrors we use. The series is grand in its vision: questioning the very foundations of our humanity, it undertakes its philosophical inquiry by often dramatising situations where sophisticated devices, test, challenge and threaten the psychological well-being of characters. The fundamental, existential question “how should we live?” pervades the anthology. There is also a clever dialectic played out in this series that juxtaposes depth with surface as technologies enable characters to forge intimate bonds, while, at the same time, threatening responsibility by the sheer spectacle and moral distancing of devices. Brooker’s series places us into often devasting stories that are compelling because of the edgy, satirical humour underneath. Throughout the series’ episodes we are confronted by very familiar human flaws of vanity, egoism, taking pleasure in the suffering of others, and the overreach of power through technology.



The ubiquitous, connective, phone screen is its prevailing mirror/moral surface upon which the television series projects not-sodistant dystopian futures where smart technologies are that much more systematically integrated into bodies, intimate relationships, processes of surveillance, streetscapes, systems of punishment and revenge, discovery of crime, torture, sadism, fantasy, desire, love and sex. Indeed, the moral uncanny in Black Mirror is this strange sense that this future is already in some sense “here”, close to home, both latent and manifest in our digitally embedded human lifeworlds where trust is fragile, social media celebrity ubiquitous, dating apps commonplace, and propaganda daily manufactured and sold as truth on social media. Black Mirror’s creator, Charlie Brooker, famously stated “technology is never the villain in the show” but it is nonetheless utterly central to the dramatic element of villainy. As a central narrative agent, it can operate as a false mirror, reflecting back what we want to see and concealing what is refused acknowledgement. Importantly, some technologies have reached self-generating levels of algorithmic agency serving to relieve humans of direct action and therefore a sense of responsibility for the things they do or might do to others via technologies as social, economic and political actors. Technology is not unmoored by human agency although there is the fear that AI might, like Frankenstein’s monster, gain operational speed and autonomy to such a degree that it will be difficult to control and predict problems before they happen. This is particularly prescient when bots are now directly used on social media platforms to influence elections, profiling voters for targeted information. Furthermore, it is also an ethical concern when big data algorithms are used by governments to monitor social welfare recipients (some of the most vulnerable people in any society) to claw back undeclared income when it has been detected through networked databases. When the algorithm gets it wrong it is especially difficult because this often happens within a culture of communication systems actively designed to hide and displace human responsibility by limiting direct access to human persons. This makes complaint processes (even knowing what to do) harder and especially so for people who are vulnerable and have less socio-economic resources to mobilise for redress. The use of communication technology to strategically prohibit human contact and delimit channels of responsibility is certainly part of our ordinary experiences of the bureaucracy of government and corporations.



Reflecting many existing technological realities in a complex, mobile world of competing interests, values and ideologies, Black Mirror imaginatively heightens anxieties about the depth and reach of technological expansionism where social control of populations and individuals as well as economic exploitation are the key drivers. It taps into legitimate concerns about our technocratic lifeworld of ubiquitous data capture and surveillance creep by powerful media corporates and governments alike. Monitoring, regulating and holding to account the actions and interests of global media corporations (like Google and Facebook) is extremely difficult at both national and transnational levels of governance. But importantly there has to be strong leadership in regulation and accountability of social media corporations within and between nation-states. At the same time governments engage in surveillance and secrecy as a matter of course and holding them to account is also difficult especially in weak or precarious democracies or, worse still, when there is no democracy at all. Penelope Papailias’ chapter “lifelogging, dataification and the turn to forgetting: Thinking digital memory studies through The Entire History of You” is perhaps the most critical of Black Mirror’s dystopian imaginary, positioning herself as both admirer and skeptic.1 One of Papailias’s main criticisms is the way the series tends to position technology as a “foreign ‘thing’” as if it is “antithetical to human subjectivity and relationality”. She is also unconvinced that the series sufficiently opens up a “politically useful conversation around platform capitalism, algorithmic culture, dataification, dataveillance” and so on. It is also important to place Black Mirror within the representational history of dystopian fictions in literature and media culture broadly (radio, film and television including translations of literature into these media) as Richard Hand does so expansively in his chapter “Reflected Anxieties and Projected Dystopias: Black Mirror, Domestic Media and Dark Fantasy”. Among other examples, Hand’s chapter develops a comparison between the narrative originality, impact and atmospherics of disturbance of the groundbreaking series The Twilight Zone and that of its (arguably) contemporary counterpart, Black Mirror. As Hand writes: “Black Mirror resonates not just with the telefantasy of The Twilight Zone and others, but also with examples of dark audio fantasy from the ground-breaking days of radio – such as Lights Out (1934-47) and Quiet, Please (1947-49) – through to contemporary podcasting with shows such as The Truth (2011 onwards). Dark telefantasy on 1950-70s television



presented metaphorical narratives of social anxiety, ranging from the fear of Communism to the loss of societal values”. As with most dystopian fiction, Black Mirror’s disturbing scenarios warn against the possible, unforeseen directions of the potentially oppressive and abusive uses of a biometric, algorithmic memory lifeworld. This is particularly palpable in episodes which take audiences into screens as infinite mirrors where simulations of simulations render futile, obsolete or just quaint, notions of a more authentic, trustworthy reality beyond/outside information systems, data analytics and algorithmic circuits. However, the intellectual and psychological impact of the Black Mirror anthology is its ability to locate the familiar elements of our existing technological habitus within a larger disturbing version of a social reality. This is particularly true in the episode Hated by the Nation which Kristin Veel examines in her chapter “Latent Memory, Responsibility and the Architecture of Interaction”. This episode explicitly enters into the dark side of social media in practices of outrage and hate. In this episode a trending hashtag #deathto literally brings death not just to those who become the most hated in the nation as they trend to number 1, but those who use the hashtag, wishing death to others. In a strange twist, the death wish becomes doubly realised, activating a moral economy of algorithmic karma. Veel’s chapter explores matters of responsibility and accountability in social media lives, the kinds of stories we make and share, which extends to the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch—the only interactive episode putting the viewer into a space of decision-making about the narrative trajectory and outcome of the story (although there are limited options and thus pre-existing possible endings). Hated by the Nation is about the automatic, unthinking way people can react to others on social media (often strangers but also people in media spotlights) directing malevolence towards them. It is about the ease with which this is done as if social media activities can be set apart or bracketed as actions which do not make the world in which we live. We know that anonymous online hate speech and relentless bullying causes enormous social harm leading to murder and suicide. The fear of being physically and mentally trapped within technology by design, by habituation, habitus, and by forces outside individual knowledge and control is one of the most pervasive negative themes within the anthology. This is something that Clarissa Carden and Margaret Gibson’s paper explores in relation Black Mirror’s representations of the capacity to



replicate a human life and sustain its persistence through cookies, traces of DNA material, and artificial bodies replicating voice, gestures, personality and memories through digital data records. The melancholy that pervades these deeply human fantasies of capturing the essence of the self (or soul) for the purposes of overcoming mortality and gaining some kind of immortality ultimately repeats the Christian disavowal of body as essential to who we are as relational, inter-corporeal beings. The fundamental dependency on our bodies as ourselves is one of the critical themes explored in their chapter. Gareth Schott and Nick Munn’s chapter “Invasive Gaming, biosensing and digital labour in Playtest” makes a convincing case for the way the Black Mirror analogy takes us into the territory of behavioural psychology and the history of programmes testing the behavioural responses of humans placed in certain scenarios (which sometimes they thought were real), with certain stimulus–response options. Linking behavioural psychology to the episode Playtest , they suggest that the frightening game Playtest (which the central character Cooper is immersed within through a process of neurological biohacking) is a contemporary version of the unethical history of behavioural psychology and the traumas of experiments which tested human fear and human capacity to do violence to strangers by following orders. They explore the relation between the idea of a game and the idea of play and how this episode interrogates this coupling adding that additional layer of a test and what this comes to mean in an experimental game that pushes the limits of human endurance in stimulus overload. The anthology also draws viewers directly, and at times obliquely, into concerns about losing touch with the natural world, the replacement with nature with its simulation, the problem of distinction collapse, and the fragility of trust in the informational drive of consumer capitalism and governance. However, as Grant Bollmer argues in his chapter “Facial Obfuscation and Bare Life: Politicizing Dystopia in Black Mirror”, every era of technology has its potentials for negative, oppressive impacts and uses, and that what is really at stake in “Black Mirror technology is a narrative alibi that motivate reflections on the limits (and potentials) of human desires about interpersonal, social and cultural relations — relations that exist in the present”. Bollmer also reminds us that dystopian fiction is often conservative and fatalist with its location aesthetically and emotionally within the concerns and fears of “bourgeois societies of the global north”. Black Mirror can be accused of a fatalistic indulgence



afforded to privilege. It also develops complex moral themes and scenarios that do not easily fall into a moral logic of technological determinism or reductionism. Indeed, Black Mirror puts the human relationship (how we treat each other, how we relate) at the centre so that technology itself whether digital or analogue is secondary. Exploring a range of episodes such as White Christmas , Men Against Fire, The Waldo Moment and The Entire History of You, Bollmer’s chapter examines facial recognition technologies and its use/critique in the work of artists such as Zach Blas, Sterling Crispin, Jemima Wyman and others. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben’s theorisation of “bare life”, Bollmer’s paper guides us into various ethical dilemmas and contradictions in regard to facial recognition technology and resistance to it. In a world of pervasive and mundane networked dataveillance (biometric scanning, CCTV, GPS tracking, networked ID systems and automatic scanning)2 we simply do not know the extensive assemblages, mobilities, archives and profiling of our dataified lives. How secure is our information and at what price in the balance between freedom and security, moneymaking and rights to privacy? For what reasons other than economic benefit and security is our information shared and mobilised by various human actors + algorithms? And what of the inevitable situatedness of socio-economic, cultural and identity biases shaping the very human factor of algorithmic programming and facial recognition technologies? Post 9/11 facial recognition technology was routinely integrated into global airports as part of technologies used by governments to monitor and capture the mobilities of people around the world whether they be tourists, labour migrants, refugees, political activists and so on. Black Mirror takes the dystopian image of the all-seeing, all-knowing God of the authoritarian modern State translating it as Helena BassilMorozow argues into an Algorithm. Her chapter “God is an Algorithm: Free Will, Authenticity and Meaning in Black Mirror” engages with the majority of episodes (from season 1–4) as it unpacks the meaning and consequences of this idea in the Black Mirror universe. Bassil-Morozow’s thesis is that algorithms are our new gods (gods and devils) tracking and tracing our every digital move; knowing us better than we know ourselves. As all seeing, and all knowing, algorithms (and the economic and political interests behind them) keep us within the circuits of our digital actions, patterning the compulsion to repeat, feeding those compulsions while tempting us, through recommendations, into patterning ever-widening networks of interest and consumerism. Through the work of Baudrillard



and a range of literary works and concepts such as the uncanny, the sublime, the gothic and the soul; Bassil-Morozow discusses the residues of what is missing and missed (both in the sense of what is not able to be captured or recognised, and also that which we long for) in striving for the elimination of error, doubt, risk, pain and death. Black Mirror is a moral provocation, immersing audiences into bleak scenarios of ultra-surveillance and perverse scenarios of righteous cruelty, torture, public and personal humiliation. It provokes audiences into wondering how close we might be to living some of the scenarios, simulations and mentalities depicted. For example, Fifteen Million Merits (2011) explores the proliferation of motivational apps and devices for body data tracking embraced in liberal individualism’s ethos of being personally responsible for the kinds of lives we live and bodies we have. This episode draws us into a sinister lifeworld of total screen surveillance and bodytracking where people’s work is working-out while they watch always on television screens. In this working-out as work workplace, there is also an overweight, underclass cleaning-up after the exercise working class who suffer the indignity of being both “invisible” and thus inconsequential, and conversely, too visible and vulnerable to cruel treatment as abject. In Fifteen Million Merits (2011) we see the main character of Bing Marsden wake up each day in his little prison cell of screens to be greeted by the smiling face of his annoyingly chirpy avatar (his dopple). Unlike his avatar, Bing wakes into a mental state of demoralised dread and exhaustion. Once awake he is watched for the watchfulness of his watching. He lives in a world in which watching pornography is not a choice or surreptitious pleasure but mandatory daily viewing. Enslaved by screens, any lapse of attention, any sign of self-will or distracted interiority, sets off a high-frequency alarm and a voice commands “resume watching”. With their bodies logged into bike machine circuits for energy transfer the calorie burn of the gym workers not only earns them individual merits but powers the screen world that entraps them. There is a golden number of 15,000,000 merits, which, if reached, can be spent on a chance to upgrade one’s life by performing on a talent show Hot Shots. Hot Shots references globally franchised shows like America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent or American Idol. One day Bing overhears a new recruit in the workforce, Abi, singing in the toilets. Her transcendent, exquisite voice brings a sense of hope and true beauty to an ugly, meaningless life. In a key dialogue Bing tries to convince Abi, who he has befriended, to take the gift of his 15,000,000 merit points and go on Hotshots. It is a highly satirical scene in which their absurdly banal existence is illuminated:



Abi: Why don’t you spend it on you then? Bing: And buy what, some new shoes for my dopple to wear? Abi: I don’t know, upgrade your MOS? Bing: Or get a Fat Acts season pass (he says sarcastically) Abi: Buy one of those wall buddies, the new ones. They talk to you after shut-in and solve your problems. They guide your dreams like gurus. It’s amazing actually what they can do. Bing: Yeah, a mirror plug-in that shows me how I look as a werewolf. What’s the point? Abi: No, it can be quite fun. (she says with a look that says, lighten up). Bing: That’s all just stuff. It’s… its stuff, it’s confetti. It’s… You’ve got something real. Abi: You heard me singing in a toilet. Is that real? Bing: More than anything that’s happened all year.

Fifteen Million Merits (2011) like Hang the DJ (2017) has moments in which human beings genuinely connect to each other with humour, pathos and tenderness despite or because of the controlling conditions of their technological imprisonment. However, it is also about the way in which dystopias engage in a kind of “soul murder” which crushes the human spirit, obscuring the opportunity or capacity to recognise true beauty. Peter Weir’s film Truman Show is powerfully resonant in many Black Mirror episodes, including this one, and while it offers an escape from the television screen of a scripted life of character actors, Black Mirror tends to represent any portal into freedom as an illusion—as just another entry point into another simulation. The total “shut-in world” of Fifteen Million Merits also references reality television shows like Big Brother (2000–2004) with Orwell’s dystopian vision of total surveillance translated into light entertainment. As a global television franchise Big Brother was the apotheosis of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle with people auditioning to live with strangers in a house watched and recorded by 24/7 CCTV cameras with the hope of gaining celebrity traction. It generated many spin-offs (Celebrity Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity get me out of here) before its super-succession by other reality television. The idea that privacy was completely evacuated in Big Brother in the interests of total visibility was of course a fiction manufactured for shock value—the fantasy that hooked people in or turned them off. Paradoxically, perhaps, the moral urgency of the novel 1984 was redoubled by a television programme where surveillance became part of the cultural logic of the entertainment



industry raising the question—is this strangely more frightening in its very normalised banality? And is it disturbing that viewers might have no idea of the original reference, the gravity it held before its commoditised superficial appropriation? Emotional and physical exhaustion are pervasive themes in many episodes especially The Entire History of You, Shut and Dance, Fifteen Million Merits , White Bear, Metal Head, Nosedive and Crocodile. In each of these, exhaustion is linked to the obsessive paranoid micro-analysis of recorded memory data, excessive screen time demanding excessive attention, being under constant threat of one’s life, the constant threat of humiliation and being discovered for one’s criminal act, and the uses of remembering and forgetting in methods of spectacularised punishment. Byroni’s Trezise’s chapter “Spectacular Return: Re-performance inexhausted in White Bear’s exhibitionary complex” draws on the theme of exhaustion in her analysis of the relentless psychological torture of the young woman Victoria Skillane trapped in a theatre of punishment (“Victoria’s plight is theatrical itself”) seemingly without end. Drawing on Crary’s work on “24/7 capitalism and a culture of non-sleep” and Foucault’s work on technologies of the body, and histories of punishment of the body and the soul, Trezise examines questions of memory, forgetting, spectacle and medial violence. Suzie Gibson and Dean Biron in their chapter “Borges ‘Infinite Finite’ in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror” similarly explore the double-sided exhaustion of amnesia (in Victoria’s pharmacologically imposed amnesia in White Bear) producing the exhaustive struggle to-piece-together clues and remember; and, the concomitant psychological exhaustion of constant memory capture explored in the episode The Entire History of You. In this episode, every moment of one’s life is logged as fully realised video capture projected for playback within the inner eye as screen or onto external screens for other people to watch, dissect, and interact with. Drawing on Louis Borges’ “Funes the Memorious” and “The Library of Babe1”, Gibson and Biron explore the conceit/fantasy of a total process of memory capture given a particular rendering in The Entire History of You. Apart from the misery and paranoia that comes from a prosthetic technology called an “eargrain” which disables forgetting as a natural part of human brain function, Gibson and Biron raise important questions about what is sacrificed and paradoxically lost when forgetting, secrecy and not-knowing is not respected or understood as a necessary part of an ethical existence: They write: “What is frequently conjured in



The Entire History of You is the human desire to expunge doubt — to be comforted by certainty and knowledge even if this is at the expense of an ethical life”. In Papailias’ chapter (which also draws on Borges’s work) The Entire History of You is ultimately unsatisfactory because it suggests in its ending (Liam cutting out the memory eargrain from his body) that we can remove ourselves from the entanglements of technologies that have been fundamentally constitutive of our very mode existence in the world. For Papailias, this ending problematically forecloses a deeper, critical engagement with our cyborg existence. Black Mirror represents spectacles of cruelty in the blending of entertainment with technologically sophisticated mechanisms of justice, punishment and modes of freedom. What might be coined “cruelty spectacle” and “cruelty (in)justice” is a common enough theme in dystopian fiction with the Hunger Games a highly popular example. But cruelty spectacle in the form of public exposure to humiliation has been a mainstay of tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer and Geraldo. The media appetite for televised humiliation of vulnerable, socio-economically deprived people was powerfully critiqued in the film Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) which has its disturbing, non-fictional counterpart in the American Presidency of Donald Trump. To the delight of his crowd of supporters during the 2015 election campaign, Trump publicly mocked the physical disability of CNN reporter Serge Kovaleski as he ranted against him. Trump’s presidency for many people feels like a strange topsy turvy world in which a fictional dystopia has become an unsettling reality and perhaps resisted as unreal or conversely, too real. Using Freud’s psychoanalytic idea of the uncanny Black Mirror as a series elicits the shiver of a blurry, unsure boundary between the real and the fictional, between what could be reality and what already is the present world of dataveillance. The uncanny refers to the emergence of a repressed, dark self or other “often in the midst of the familiar and the normal”.3 Black Mirror renders the familiarity of social media, screens, simulations, avatars, celebrity seeking and our reality television life worlds not just a little strange but fearful in their moral implications. For example, Nosedive depicts a society of morally commoditised citizenship as people in everyday forms of exchange control each other’s socioeconomic currency and, in Weberian terms “life chances”, through rating the experience of services given and received where politeness, bland sameness, co-operation and friendliness are key measures. Rating is now such a commonplace activity in service monitoring and quality assurance



oversight. It is built into payment systems in many shopping experiences where rating your experience through a set of options is presented on a screen, even sometimes, as a step before payment processing. All of social media is a ratings game—a massive popularity game and Nosedive humorously subverts this as it calls to mind our current social reality of social media competition to become a consumer “influencer”. Nosedive isn’t an entirely fictional representation of a moral credit and debit system because a version of this form of social engineering operates in contemporary China. Tracked for their consumer activities, work, public behaviour, random acts of kindness to neighbours and strangers, and social media activities, Chinese citizens are able to monitor their credit status and effectively improve their rating. How do people in China interpret this system where they are expected and encouraged to improve upon their social credit status? There is clearly much to be gained by conformity as financial credit, jobs opportunities and other benefits are at stake. What kind of subversive resistance to the passive internalisation of this self-promoting self-surveillance is operative and what would count as dissent? Foucault’s image of the panopticon remains an enduring image of modern systems of power through self-disciplinary mechanisms and the dystopian imagery of the classic novels such as Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 harbour that desire for people to know in their own most secret interior self (which they fear and dare to reveal to others), the true nature of the oppressive regimes in which they live. In its most dystopian elements, Black Mirror hollows out the interior as the safe place of individual freedom and touchstone of truth. Even this most inner sanctum of interior consciousness and memory is imagined as capture-able and translatable by technologies as Carden and Gibson’s chapter brings into question. While Black Mirror has had a significant conversational imprint in global journalism cultures (particularly in the market of sophisticated print and digital forms) let alone everyday conversation amongst viewers and fans, it is yet to enter academic literature in any significant way via journal articles and book publications. This book recognises that increasingly prestige television (driven by Netflix, HBO, AMC, Amazon, APPLE) has become important not just in television studies but more diverse, interdisciplinary research that engages with powerful, provocative stories to demonstrate, anchor and frame contemporary social and academic debates concerning social media, robotics, AI, ubiquitous computing, big data, data surveillance and governance through networked information.



Recognising the impact of prestige television as forms of culture and critical enquiry in and of themselves, university courses are now sometimes framed around forms of impactful popular culture and it is commonplace for media culture to both feature in and frame the way academics teach and research. This is something Papailias’ chapter directly engages with as she discusses her somewhat ambivalent decision to play The Entire History of You in her memory studies class. Black Mirror speaks to our deepest concerns about the technological present and future. It also speaks to the eternal question of what it means to be human. As the chapters in this book demonstrate, the villain in Black Mirror is never simply technology itself. Rather, it is how human beings use and manipulate technology, that can lead to the often disturbing and sometimes frightening situations in the show. Some episodes are covered extensively in this volume while others have less attention or presence. The show’s first episode, The National Anthem (2011), and one of its most disturbing, Shut Up and Dance (2016) are two that stand out as both significant and broadly discussed in the public sphere but largely downplayed in this collection. It is notable that The National Anthem (2011) is the first episode in the series but has, over time, been algorithmically usurped by the episode Nosedive as Netflix’s first recommendation to viewers because it has been the most watched and thus ranks the most popular. The irony should not be lost. It is also the most palatable and personally identifiable in terms of its subject matter which is about competing to be popular via social media credit. This is very different to the subject of The National Anthem which is about a UK Prime Minister forced into an act of publicly televised bestiality with a pig because the life of kidnapped Princess has been held to ransom by a disgruntled artist angry about the early closing of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London. Forced out of bed by a phone call from his cabinet ministers in the middle of the night and sitting in his pyjamas at No. 10 Downing Street surrounded by his advisers he is shown the video of Princess Susannah, terrified and ordered to speak to camera about how she will be executed unless he, the Prime Minister, does what her captive demands. At this point one of the ministers pauses the video to inform the Prime Minister that it is indeed the Princess and that this is “real”. The Prime Minister wants to just get on with watching the rest of the video and is met with rather awkward looks when he says to one of the advisors: “What do they want?” The advisor he is looking at says nothing, so the Prime Minister chimes in and says: “Money?” He looks around at



another minister and says “Release a Jihadi?” This minister avoids all eye contact with the Prime Minister then looking at the minister behind him and says “Scrap Third World debt?… Save the fucking libraries?” There is a funny wryness that pervades this scene as this cynical list is trotted out. Another minister steps in and says: “We are convinced both the video and the demand it contains are genuine”. The Prime Minister shouts “What demand?”. He is then mentally prepared for what he is going to hear from Princess Susannah as they play the rest of the ransom video. He knows that something that directly concerns him is about to be said. He then hears that he, Prime Minister Michael Callow, must at 4 pm appear on British Television and commit an act of bestiality with a pig. The room is silent, the Prime Minister thinks it is an appalling joke. Gradually the Prime Minister is told that the ransom video was uploaded on YouTube as an encrypted file, and despite the government quickly taking it down, cloned many times and trending on Twitter. The episode is a humorous take on politics in the age of social media, the competition to get a trending story and for journalists to become part of the production of the story through their own ambition and lack unethical standards. The Prime Minister’s wife speaks to her husband saying that even the very idea of the act is itself a public humiliation. He is brought to a situation where he must carry out this humiliating act in order to save the Princess’s life (which wasn’t really in danger we learn later) and it is watched and laughed at in pubs and homes all over the United Kingdom. The reception of the act, the public appetite for such degradation is revealed as just as horrifying, if not more, than the act itself. But this episode is also about how the media moves on and concomitantly, people move on in the stories that grip them, and how something utterly humiliating can earn respect, and get you voted for a second term in office. Shut Up and Dance (2016) is one of the most difficult episodes in the entire anthology as its young protagonist Jerome Flynn is a vulnerable, isolated young man who seeks sexual gratification in watching child sex exploitation material online. Jerome discovers, via a message on his computer, that his sexual proclivities have been recorded. Held in a kind of moral ransom he is tested for what he is prepared to do to keep his shameful secret hidden from media broadcast. He has no idea who is watching him, sending him messages and instructions via his phone and via drones. Jerome must dance to the tune of an invisible all-seeing, allknowing eye who has already planned the tragedy of his downfall into



moral destruction and psychological exhaustion as the boundaries of what he is capable of doing are tested. He is brought into a final horrifying scenario of kill or be killed in a forest where he meets another paedophile caught and ransomed in exactly the same way—his alter-ego and enemy in one. The absence of the National Anthem (2011) and Shut Up and Dance (2016) outside of this introductory chapter is perhaps telling. As scholars, we are drawn to investigate the show’s ability to shed a light on contemporary and future concerns. However, both the themes of these episodes and their confronting subjects limit, perhaps, an appetite for analysis. Shut Up and Dance (2016) is deeply upsetting as the punishment itself is criminal, forcing the young man Jerome to commit more crimes than he perhaps imagined himself capable and yet, he is capable of sexually gratifying himself through child exploitation material. Does he become a distortion of himself or a realisation? There is a pathos and ambivalence of feeling charges the atmosphere of this episode because it is a vulnerable young man, barely into adulthood, and someone’s son and brother. Using the narrative device of a flashback we first see Jerome cleaning the floor at the fast food shop where he works looking sweetly at kids playing nearby. Once we know more about his relationship to children, this first impression falls away into something like a misperception, but the episode also makes us uneasy about making such self-certain judgments without any doubt, equivocation or compassion. Watching him enter into the last scenario, we do not see Jerome finally kill the other man. We realise he is the victor as he is the only one who walks out of the forest alive. In this moment, viewers are potentially put in an ambivalent space of judgment. We likely feel sorry for Jerome but may be capable of judging him for not being morally good enough or just redemptive to let himself be the one killed. The episodes Shut Up and Dance (2016), White Bear (2013) and others are harsh worlds of excessive, cruel entertainment punishment that kills the soul, crushes hope and displaces moral rehabilitation. The fifth season of Black Mirror has received little attention in this volume as our contributors completed their chapters before this season’s release. Yet Season Five, described powerfully by The Guardian as “sweet, sadistic and hugely impressive”,4 in many ways highlights the capacity of Black Mirror to truly mirror our reality—to act as a conduit through which to explore moral questions which are immediate and pressing today. A key example is the episode Striking Vipers (2019). In this episode,



Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), two longtime friends who have fallen out of contact, meet again when Karl attends Danny’s birthday party and gifts him Striking Vipers X —a new, immersive, virtual reality instalment of a game they had enjoyed together many years earlier. This new edition of the fighting game is so advanced that players physically feel the sensations that would be experienced by their characters. Playing together online for the first time, Karl, who plays a white female character, and Danny, who plays as a male Asian character, kiss before logging out, confused and distressed. This is the beginning of a sexual virtual relationship which challenges the men’s understanding of their own sexual identities—both identify as straight men—and Danny’s understanding of his relationship with his wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie). Striking Vipers in many ways speaks to moral questions which are being faced right now. It explores questions about the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity, and the meaning of fidelity in an environment in which virtual relationships have the potential to be sexually, as well as emotionally, fulfilling. The relationship between the two men is complicated further at the climax of the episode where Danny insists that he and Karl meet, physically, and kiss, to see whether the connection between them exists offline. Both men agree that it does not, and the frustration Danny feels leads to a physical fight. Offline, as black heterosexual men, they are friends with no physical attraction between them. Online, in re-raced and, in Karl’s case, regendered bodies, they have a sexual relationship that both deeply value. Unlike many Black Mirror episodes, Striking Vipers comes to a resolution which is at least somewhat satisfying for all parties. Danny reveals his relationship to his wife, Theo, and they come to an agreement. On one night per year, Danny can meet Karl in Striking Vipers X while Theo goes out to meet a man in a bar. The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, describes the ending as “pragmatically romantic”, leading to a healthier relationship between Danny and Theo than had existed throughout the episode, during which Danny had been keeping secrets.5 While Striking Vipers explores changes in relationships and sexuality in an increasingly digital world, another Season Five episode, Smithereens (2019), engages with fears about the addictive nature of social media. The Atlantic’s reviewer, David Sims, describes Smithereens as a “flop” with a “thin” plot about “demanding accountability from the allconsuming apps and all-powerful tech companies that fill our lives, and how futile that process can be”.6 This criticism rested, in part, on the



simplicity of the episode’s premise and its lack of a shocking reveal. In Smithereens , rideshare driver Chris (Andrew Scott) holds the employee of the fictional science fiction company Smithereen hostage. The employee, Jaden (Damson Idris) turns out to be an intern, rather than the high-level employee Chris was hoping to kidnap. Despite this, he uses his position as a hostage-taker to demand a conversation with Smithereen’s founder and CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). Chris reveals that he received a notification from the Smithereen app while driving and crashed, leading to his wife’s death. While some of the criticism the episode has received is clearly valid—it is a slow-based episode which follows many fairly formulaic hostage film tropes—we view it as a powerful example of Black Mirror’s capacity to speak to the here and now. Like The National Anthem (2011) and Shut Up and Dance (2016), Smithereens presents viewers with a world in which the technologies that shape the action are not just imaginable but already at hand. The events of Smithereens are uncanny in that they would not feel implausible if they played out in the news today. As viewers of the show we are forced to consider whether we, like the people featured at the end of the episode, would view this news on our phones and then move on. These examples speak to the reality, recognised by all contributors, that Black Mirror is as much about our past and present as it is about an imagined future. It is this type of engagement with past and present realities that have led science fiction to be described, perhaps counterintuitively, as a potentially historical genre.7 The capacity to convincingly predict what a future might look like, including the types of technologies that may come to exist and the ways in which human beings might respond to those technologies, relies upon an understanding, whether intuitive or acknowledged, of history. This edited collection critically explores through theoretically sophisticated, highly engaging chapters, the moral universe of Black Mirror, its parodic heart of darkness and, just as importantly, that crack in the glass “where the light gets in”.

Notes 1. The Entire History of You has the most engagement across all of the chapters in this book and despite some resonances (for example, both Papailias, and Gibson and Biron draw on Borges’ fiction) there is also diversity in the range of theoretical influences taken up in this episodes’ analysis.



2. Toshmiaru Ogura, “Electronic Government and Surveillance-Oriented Society,” pp. 27–295 in Theorizing Surveillance, ed. David Lyon (Routledge, 2006), 280. 3. Steve Dixson, “The Digital Double,” in New Visions in Performance: The Impact of Digital Technologies, ed. Gavin Carver and Colin Beardon (Routledge, 2004), 15. 4. Lucy Mangan, “Black Mirror Season Five Review—Sweet, Sadistic and Hugely Impressive,” The Guardian, June 5, 2019, sec. Television & radio, 5. James Hibbard, “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Discusses That Unique ‘Striking Vipers’ Relationship,”, accessed December 12, 2019, https://ew. com/tv/2019/06/05/black-mirror-season-5-striking-vipers-interview/. 6. David Sims, “‘Smithereens’ Is the Only Flop of the New ‘Black Mirror’ Season,” The Atlantic, June 5, 2019, ertainment/archive/2019/06/black-mirror-season-5-smithereens-review/ 590737/. 7. Janice Liedl, “Tales of Futures Past: Science Fiction as a Historical Genre,” Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (April 3, 2015): 285–99, 10.1080/13642529.2014.973710.

Reflected Anxieties and Projected Dystopias: Black Mirror, Domestic Media and Dark Fantasy Richard J. Hand

In the short 1917 poem First Known When Lost by the First World War poet Edward Thomas, the narrator reflects on a changing landscape, only noticing an area of woodland when it has been chopped down and, in revelation, seeing for the first time what was always hidden behind it.1 This point of view, ironically only possible when the primary object itself—something we have always taken for granted—has been utterly destroyed, echoes in the opening to Black Mirror, wherein we see a buffering signal before the screen cracks. In many respects, the opening to Black Mirror is emphatically a moment of extreme nomophobia. Nomophobia—a newly transpired fear—is defined by Monika Prasad et al. as “discomfort, anxiety, nervousness or anguish caused by being out of contact with a mobile phone.”2 By breaking “our” phone—the ultimate way to make us lose contact with a communication device—Black Mirror casts us into unknown territory, exploiting a nomophobiac’s panicked, vertiginous reaction of “What can I do? What happens now?” Having destroyed our phone, tablet, laptop or even television (whichever “black mirror” we are watching on) we can be taken into more arcane principles

R. J. Hand (B) School of Art, Media and American Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




and traditions of storytelling. In other words, what can a broken black mirror tell us about all black mirrors? And in so doing, what else can be perceived for the very first time? This chapter explores the repertoire of Black Mirror within the context of dark fantasy and domestic media, using both historical and contemporary examples. Since it first aired in 2011, Black Mirror has been a preeminent example of contemporary dark fantasy, blurring generic boundaries so that science fiction, horror, thriller or satire meld into one other. Despite this eclectic sense of genre, Black Mirror identifies core anxieties that haunt present-day society—especially the fundamental transformations initiated by digital technology—and extrapolates them to their disturbing conclusions. In this regard, Black Mirror is habitually regarded as “cutting edge” with review headlines such as the Metro newspaper’s “Black Mirror saw Charlie Brooker nail the zeitgeist”3 being a typical popular and critical stance. That said, Black Mirror can be regarded as belonging to the rich tradition of “telefantasy,” a term used more by fans than industry which, as Catherine Johnson explains, signals the hybridising of “a wide range of fantasy, science-fiction and horror television programmes,”4 often acquiring a cult status. In this regard, Black Mirror can be understood as belonging to a wider tradition of dark fantasy on television such as The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) and The Outer Limits (1963–1965). As will become clear through the analysis offered in this chapter, there is a particularly rich and nuanced relationship with The Twilight Zone with Black Mirror echoing, homaging and reimagining various plots, tropes and narrative strategies of this pioneering television programme. Moreover, Black Mirror resonates not just with the telefantasy of The Twilight Zone and others, but also with examples of dark audio fantasy from the ground-breaking days of radio—such as Lights Out (1934–1947) and Quiet, Please (1947–1949)—through to contemporary podcasting with shows such as The Truth (2011 onwards). Dark telefantasy in 1950–1970s television presented metaphorical narratives of social anxiety, ranging from the fear of Communism to the loss of societal values. Similarly, 1930–1950s dark fantasy on radio tapped into the social anxieties of a world on the brink of, or enduring, war or exposed the paranoia lying beneath the burgeoning American Dream. Certainly, there were works of cinema—examples of film noir and Science Fiction B-movies—that reflected the same zeitgeist, but radio and television can be distinctively liminal and perniciously intimate. After all, where better



to disquiet and unnerve an audience than in the seeming comfort and sanctity of their own homes? The sense of domestic media is particularly critical in the experience of consuming Black Mirror: the “black mirror” of the opening is, and can only be, our personal screen. In this regard, Black Mirror is a descendant of ground-breaking examples of television and radio dark fantasy, genres that, at their most effective, can infiltrate our domestic environments and extrapolate our life-concerns, making both seem dangerous and fragile. This link to, and alienation of, the domestic context of consumption resonates with Ruth Griffin’s concept of “the domestic imaginary” in relation to televisual horror (principally American Horror Story [2011 onwards] and Hemlock Grove [2013–2015]). For Griffin, the domestic imaginary comprises the “image-conceptualities that shape how we think of the domestic sphere and which in turn help to inform what constitutes the elements of the domestic imaginary in the first place.”5 Consequently, horror television can interrogate and manipulate the concepts, practices and experiences of our domestic world. The implications of this permit Griffin to speculate on: …the extent to which Horror Television and its ilk helps to create or reinforce our imaginings, channelled as it is into the most intimate of domestic spaces, the living room (and perhaps even the bedroom). To what extent, if any, are our dreams and nightmares, our psyches and unconscious imaginings, affected by what we view on that flickering box in the corner which has for many supplanted the flickering fire in the hearth around which the original gothic stories were told?6

Arguably, Black Mirror’s domestic imaginary goes beyond the housebound life of the living room and bedroom. Black Mirror explores the critical significance of reception and consumption in relation to the dualism of the domestic/social which is increasingly obfuscated by contemporary media platforms. These platforms are portable, ubiquitous and diffused: we can watch digital content anywhere and our digital content can watch us. Just as twentieth-century instances of dark media fantasy made their audiences confront their doubts and dreads, in the twenty-first century shows such as Black Mirror and the contemporaneous The Truth podcast has provocatively animated contemporary angsts and the dangers of dystopia. Core to this is a proliferating sense of diffraction in the digital age: the individualised feeds of social media



and an abdication to algorithmic decision-making perhaps do not give us freedom and happiness but have instigated a hellish echo chamber of illusions and oppression in which the fundamental meaning and future of humanity itself is under interrogation. Despite Black Mirror’s “newness,” the creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones openly acknowledge pre-existing screen influences and inspirations. For example, Brooker emphasises that, in its depiction of a dystopia of 24/7 entertainment, Nigel Kneale’s BBC television drama Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) was “a really strong influence”7 on the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits (2011). Similarly, Brooker highlights the British films Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Wicker Man (1973) in relation to Black Mirror’s 2013 episode “White Bear.”8 Most profoundly, an overarching principle is revealed when Annabel Jones recounts the genesis of the idea and intention: Brooker’s desire to recreate a classic but currently absent form, the anthology television programme comprising “ideas-driven single dramas.”9 To this end, Jones indicates that Brooker “was familiar with The Twilight Zone and I was familiar with Tales of the Unexpected.”10 This would be core to their pitch and Shane Allen, the producer who originally commissioned Black Mirror, recalls: They had an entirety of vision about what a modern Twilight Zone-esque anthology series could tackle. They would identify a social media trend or piece of technology and do a ‘What if?’ extreme cautionary tale with it.11

Or, as Brooker puts it, “Just as the Twilight Zone would talk about McCarthyism, we’re going to talk about Apple.”12 Of course, The Twilight Zone story-worlds went deeper than anti-Communist anxiety and the programme followed the tradition of the metaphorical and allegorical potential of fantastic genres so that it, as Erik Mortenson asserts: …challenged viewer assumptions by forcing its audience to consider the existential, social, and political problems of the day. In order to discuss such delicate matters as nuclear anxiety, racial tension, and suburban conformity, Serling had to refract his messages through a fascinating combination of the film noir and science fiction genres.13

Undoubtedly, The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) is the most significant cultural touchstone in relation to Black Mirror and is synonymous with its creator (and frequently writer and host-narrator) Rod Serling in much



the same way that Black Mirror is synonymous with Charlie Brooker. This association with a core creative personality probably has a central role in facilitating the cult status of a show. Erik Mortenson describes The Twilight Zone as “the most celebrated television series of all time.”14 This statement may seem explainable by reason of populist nostalgia but there is also a more complex reason. As Robert L. Mack explains: It was not until 1960 – well into the second season of The Twilight Zone – that 90% of American homes had adopted a television set, suggesting that the show arrived at the precise moment when the technology and its supposedly insulating qualities were becoming most prevalent in American consciousness.15

Regarded in this way, we can see that The Twilight Zone emerged during a pivotal landmark for television itself: a dramatic moment for a medium that explores and exploits the domestic imaginary. It is perhaps too soon to have such critical hindsight on Black Mirror, although we can already identify technical moments of cultural significance in 2011, the year of Black Mirror’s launch, such as the rise of hacktivism with the first attacks on major corporations; the iPad became the most dominant tablet device; for the first time, eBooks outsold hard copy books; Android finally became the operating system for the majority of smartphones and also celebrated 10 billion app downloads.16 Similarly, 2012 witnessed an explosion in the popularity of Twitter and crowdfunding and the first controversies over Facebook and privacy.17 Although too soon to be fully historicised, such moments might ultimately be regarded as key milestones in an understanding of Black Mirror in the way that facts about the (near) ubiquity of television can inform our understanding of The Twilight Zone. The influence of The Twilight Zone is not just in terms of context, mood and concept but can even find a correlation in specific episodes. For example, Brooker acknowledges: There’s a very clear parallel between [‘USS Callister’ (2017)] and The Twilight Zone’s episode It’s a Good Life. That’s about a young boy with superpowers who can make things happen just by thinking about them, and it’s still incredibly uncomfortable and horrifying to this day.18



It is noteworthy that not only does Brooker signal this 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone as an influence on his narrative, but argues that the original broadcast has, in its own terms, lost none of its power to shock or unnerve. This confluence of strong narrative and equally powerful affect within the world of the domestic imaginary is a principle as central to Black Mirror as it is detectable in The Twilight Zone in its most abiding episodes. In the prolific narratives of The Twilight Zone—over 150 episodes in its original incarnation—there are recurrent themes which echo into our own time and into programmes such as Black Mirror. Episodes such as The Eye of the Beholder (1960) and Number 12 Looks Just Like You (1964) explore the social pressures of conformity exerted on young people, especially women. The former teleplay is an ironic exploration of the concept of beauty while the latter presents a future society (“the year 2000”) in which people have plastic surgery— “the Transformation”—so that they adopt one of a limited number of approved “looks.” We follow the teenage Marilyn as she fights against the convention and, in failing, reveals, in Marc Scott Zicree’s words, that she “has been utterly crushed by a society intent on conformity. It is a chilling finale, made all the more so by its uncomfortable – and deliberate – similarity to our own society.”19 Arguably, the same pressures of image, acceptance and conformity are evident in the distinctly comic, but no less satirical, Black Mirror episode Nosedive (2016). Similar pressures of conformity—in the form of dating—compel the lives of the characters in Black Mirror’s Hang the DJ (2017) although their successful rebellion at the end provides a less nihilistic conclusion than Number 12 Looks Just Like You. Technophobia is one of the most recurrent themes in The Twilight Zone, with works presenting the extrapolated horror of technology such as the darkly comic A Thing About Machines (1960), about an aggressively technophobic man who is killed by the gadgets in his house which come to life as revenge for the abuse he meted out on them. Even more of a satire, The Brain at the Center of Whipple’s (1964) presents a modern parable about a ruthless factory owner who lays off his workforce in a drive for automation only to be replaced by a machine himself. As well as such parables of consumerism and capitalism, other episodes satirise the domestic overdependence on basic utilities. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (1960) remains a superb study of mass paranoia in which the erratic behaviour of the electricity supply leads to panic and



violent recrimination in a normally peaceable neighbourhood. We eventually learn that this was a deliberate ploy by hostile aliens who have learnt that manipulating the power supply never fails to turn “civilised” humans against each other. Specific gadgets are central to examples of technophobia in The Twilight Zone, including the telephone. Works such as Long-Distance Call (1961) and Night Call (1964) function as examples of contemporised Gothic in which telephones contact voices from beyond the grave. In the case of Long-Distance Call, we encounter a particularly nihilistic terror, wherein a young boy’s toy telephone contacts his dead grandmother who attempts to convince him to commit suicide. Telephonic technophobia recurs in Shatterday (1985), the opening episode of The Twilight Zone television revival of 1985–1989, in which a man accidentally calls his home telephone number only to hear himself answer, after which his life begins to be taken over by his double. Like the earlier examples of telephonic terror, this is again a reworking of Gothic tropes (in this case the doppelganger) within the frame of contemporary, ubiquitous technology. Just as our personal gadgets have become more sophisticated than those portrayed in The Twilight Zone, so have the technophobic narratives of Black Mirror. This is because the technology has become embedded, quite literally in The Entire History of You (2011), the “Z-Eyes” tale within White Christmas (2014) and Arkangel (2017). In all these stories, the implications of embodied technology are extrapolated. The adoption and absorption of technology into the personal in Black Mirror is core to the programme’s narratives and anxieties. As Benjamin Martin observes: The way people have incorporated the very rules and structure of new technologies, oftentimes in the very literal sense of implanting it into their bodies as gadgets, strikes the viewer as a terrifying and sinister vision.20

Similarly, in the fictional podcast series The Truth, we experience sophisticated technophobic parables such as Visible (2016)—about an app which helps a blind man to “see” but ultimately can never provide a uniquely human sense of “vision”—and Decider (2017), in which a woman acquires a device that gives her percentile scores on the viability of every proposed idea or action (and gradually destroys her life). In both podcast episodes, the brilliant innovation of technology clashes with the vulnerability, fragility and idiosyncrasy of humanity. Similarly, The Truth’s The Extractor (2014) presents a machine which can draw out



sonic “memories” from wood so that we are able to hear the past noises and conversations embedded in floorboards and furniture. The invention may be remarkable but is ethically dubious: the wooden toy that captures the voice of a child shortly before she died may be more traumatic than comforting for her parents and although Abraham Lincoln may belong “to the ages,” hearing the conversations between him and his wife harvested from their bedpost can only be intrusive if not humiliating. All these works extrapolate the ethical and “human” implications of technological invention. In this regard, they find a televisual precursor in the opening episode of Krzysztof Kie´slowski’s ten-part Dekalog (1989), a series of standalone modern-world parables corresponding to the Biblical Ten Commandments. The first episode explores “I am the Lord thy God… thou shalt not have other gods before me” in a drama about a father and son obsessed with home computing. The father allows his son to go skating having calculated on his computer that the ice on a nearby lake is more than strong enough to skate on. When the ice breaks and the son drowns, the father is initially in denial—the computer can be nothing but infallible—but finally has to recognise that his technological over-reliance and over-trust has led to hubris and tragedy. It remains a powerful modern parable about technology but just as significant as the plot’s core irony is how the computer cannot answer uniquely human questions regarding love, dreams and mortality. At the other end of the television spectrum, we are also reminded of the character Carol Beer in Little Britain (2003–2007) with her catchphrase “Computer says no” (which has entered everyday parlance), an utterance which terminates any conversation or request no matter how reasonable or necessary. Indeed, Carol’s final act is to conclude every conversation with her habitual cough, a certainly vulgar and possibly contagious form of human interaction. In charting the passage of technological culture and art from the fifteenth century to the moon landing, Robert Romanyshyn asserts: [The] origins of the technological world continue today in terms of an unexamined ideology that valorises a disembodied self isolated and alienated from nature. This ideology can manifest its symptomatic form in our uncritical use of computers, where our embodied subjectivity is in both senses of the term terminal.21

This disquieting prospect has led to a complete trust in, and deference to, technology at the expense of the judgement, values and compassion



that should characterise humanity. It is implicit in many of the narratives in Black Mirror, The Truth and Dekalog. For Benjamin Martin, this obliteration of the visible join between the personal and technological is the central purpose of Black Mirror: The series cuts the ground under the very supposition of the diverging spheres of virtual and real communication, and thereby confronts the viewer with their potential social practice in those spheres.22

In comparison, some of The Twilight Zone episodes can seem more akin to the television series of Goosebumps (1995–1998) than Black Mirror and its contemporaries. Tales from The Twilight Zone such as Dead Man’s Shoes (1962)—about cursed footwear—or A Most Unusual Camera (1960)— about a camera that takes pictures of the imminent future—establish televisual paradigms that Goosebumps will draw on in its tales of cursed objects and gadgets such as The Haunted Mask (1995) and Say Cheese and Die (1996). The Twilight Zone developed dark fantasy stories around malevolent toys—as in Living Doll (1963)—or ventriloquist horror tales such as The Dummy (1962) and Caesar and Me (1962). It might be tempting to associate such works with Black Mirror’s The Waldo Moment (2013) in which a “funny” and playfully iconoclastic cartoon “personality” gradually leads society into dystopia. However, the toys of The Twilight Zone echo more in the recurring Goosebumps character of Slappy the evil ventriloquist dummy and in multiple examples in the Gothic subgenre of possessed or diabolical dolls and dummies. The Twilight Zone, however, was not just a series of technophobic fables. At its richest, The Twilight Zone offers complex, even philosophical, reflections on morality, identity and existence. It is these episodes which Charlie Brooker presumably celebrates when he writes about “the Twilight Zone stories where an unbelievable concrete block of punishment is dropped on your head, just because hard-nosed reality comes in and clobbers you.”23 In The Twilight Zone’s Judgment Day (1959), a German passenger on board a ship has no memory of how he got there and has a terrifying sense that the vessel is at risk of attack. To his horror, the ship is struck by a torpedo from a U-boat, captained by himself. He is in hell and his eternal damnation is to relive this moment again and again among the victims for whom he showed no pity. In Death Ship (1963), a group of astronauts are scoping planets for the purposes of colonisation and detect the wreckage of a spaceship which they take as evidence of alien life. However,



in the destroyed craft they find the dead bodies of themselves. The crew argues about whether they are getting a glimpse of the future, are at the mercy of alien hallucinations or are, in fact, already dead. Unable to agree, they are returned to the beginning of the narrative, doomed to endlessly relive the same few hours. Both stories echo in Black Mirror’s White Bear (2013) in which a convict, with a wiped memory, endlessly experiences protracted torment in a grotesque judicial entertainment compound and Black Museum (2017) in which the consciousness of an executed man can be trapped so that he endlessly endures the agony of electrocution. In The Twilight Zone’s Elegy (1960), a group of astronauts discover a world of stasis, full of statue-like people who died but are experiencing their greatest wish in life for all eternity. This heaven proves to be grotesque (and horrifying for the doomed astronauts): the embalmed figures in their tableaux are, in fact, like the resident victims in the house of the serial killing Landlady (1979) in Tales of the Unexpected. In contrast, the digital afterlife made possible in Black Mirror’s San Junipero (2016) seems more redemptive. In addition to the terror of entrapment, White Bear and Black Museum also explore the bleakness of isolation. This was central to the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone, Where Is Everybody? (1959), in which we observe a man in a deserted town, with a growing sense of paranoia that he is being observed. We watch his increasing sense of desolation and desperation with the final revelation that he is a trainee astronaut who has been in an isolation chamber for days and his vivid torment has been a hallucination. This reminds us of Black Mirror’s Playtest (2016) in which a man, Cooper, is a guinea pig for a survival horror game which is so intense and vivid—and flawed—that it finally kills him. Furthermore, there is an additional layer of irony in Playtest as it is a phone call from the “real” world—namely Cooper’s mother—that interferes with the game’s signal and kills Cooper. It suggests that although the game may be horrifying and traumatic, it is when the hermetic seal of the game world is compromised by the interception of reality that it becomes genuinely lethal. The theme of illusion, desire and invisibility is recurrent in The Twilight Zone. In The Lonely (1959), Corry is a prisoner serving a fifty-year sentence in isolation on a distant planet. In an act of kindness, Allenby, a supply ship captain, leaves Corry a female android, “Alicia,” for company. Initially appalled, Corry gradually falls in love with her so that a year later when Allenby returns to say Corry has been fully pardoned he refuses to leave without her. There is no space on the ship for anything other than



Corry himself. Allenby tries to persuade Corry to leave but eventually must resort to taking a gun and shooting Alicia in the head, leaving her blasted face a mass of destroyed transistors and wires. Allenby tells Corry, “All you’re leaving behind is loneliness.” The hallucinatory power of isolation had already been explored in the aforementioned Where Is Everybody? but in The Lonely, Corry comes to see a specific object—a robot—as more than it is. This links to Laura Mulvey’s definition of the Freudian fetish, a “phantasmatic inscription” which “ascribes excessive value to objects considered to be valueless by the social consensus.”24 Just as Corry overinvests Alicia with meaning, isolation in space leads to hallucinations in other examples of dark fantasy. The Hallucination Orbit (1956) episode of the science fiction radio series X Minus One charts an astronaut called Ord as he fights against “solitosis”—hallucinatory madness—after several years of isolation while in orbit around a planet. If Ord concentrates, the steel walls of the spaceship can become fluid, but the real test is when the astronaut is finally joined by other people. He sees one woman as being in her twenties when she is really a doctor in her sixties who explains to him “[w]hen you see me as I am really am, you’ll be alright.” Ord comes to understand that the “most important thing to learn” is “reality” itself. The phenomenon is deliberately manipulated by technology in Black Mirror’s Men Against Fire (2016) where the neural implant in soldiers increases their senses and efficiency but also makes normal human beings look like monsters. Arguably, the same hallucinatory fetishism that preys on Corry and Ord is at play with the less stellar (if more famous) character Norman Bates. In the film Psycho (1960), Bates lives with the corpse of his mother but variously sees her as alive or sees himself as her. In Bates Motel (2013–2017)—a television series contemporaneous with Black Mirror— the fantasy of Bates is pushed to the maximum with his mother, Norma Bates, a central character both before and after death, with her son talking to her and acting as her but also with Norma herself (re)animated in every emotion and with consistent agency. Just as humans hallucinate fetishistic desire onto robots or corpses, in The Twilight Zone some imitations of humans do not realise they are not human. In Five Characters in Search of an Exit (1961) a group of disparate and bemused characters desperate to escape from a cylindrical cell are revealed to be dolls in a barrel for toys. Both The Twilight Zone episodes The Lateness of the Hour (1960) and In His Image (1963) are about robots who do not realise they are not



humans. This anticipates the complex issues surrounding android identity in the television series Humans (2015 onwards), Westworld (2016 onwards) and the digital game Detroit: Become Human (2018). One of the most powerful iterations of the complex boundary between the human and the simulacrum in The Twilight Zone takes a realm of the extended domestic, the world of shopping. In The After Hours (1960) a woman, Marsha White, is shopping in a department store. The experience becomes increasingly uncanny and intimidating and we gradually discover—with Marsha—that she is actually a mannequin: the shop dummies take turns to come fully to life and live among humans for one month. Marsha had forgotten what she really is and that her turn to be humanised was over and needed to be effectively “recaptured” by the other mannequins. The episode is a loose adaptation of John Collier’s short story Evening Primrose which was first adapted on the radio show Escape in 1947. In Collier’s tale and the radio version of it, a male protagonist decides to take up residence in a department store, concealing himself in the day and enjoying the luxuries of the store at night. However, he soon discovers that when the shop closes, all the shop mannequins come to life. In The Twilight Zone adaptation, the male protagonist is abandoned for the female shopper but what is most profound is how the episode establishes Marsha’s ignorance. The fact that she does not realise she is a mannequin makes it a particularly eerie example of telefantasy, further emphasised by the closing narration: “Marsha White, in her normal and natural state, a wooden lady with a painted face who, one month out of the year, takes on the characteristics of someone as normal and as flesh and blood as you and I. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street?” A similar theme is explored in The Truth’s Dark End of the Mall (2017), albeit with a more apocalyptic denouement. In this podcast drama, a man enters a retro 1950s-style wedding dress boutique in a large shopping mall. The shopkeeper, Lucy, is charming until it seems like her one customer has shoplifted water bottles and energy bars from behind the counter and she apprehends him and waits for security to arrive. The customer begins to reveal the truth: Lucy is, in fact, an android still maintaining her shop while the real world has collapsed into disorder and chaos. Lucy interprets the emergency alarm as Fifties pop music; the destructed mall as merely in a state of ongoing refurbishment and a howling maniac as a yapping stray dog. Just when the customer seems



to have convinced her, it is closing time and Lucy forcibly ejects him and interprets his screams as he is killed by the “dog” as him cheering as he watches a sports game. Dark End of the Mall finely demonstrates what dark fantasy can achieve in the medium of audio: we accept the seeming coherence of Lucy’s shop until it gradually morphs into the horrifying dystopia of a possible future. At the heart of this horror story is—like The After Hours —the question of identity and self-awareness. Lucy, like Marsha, does not realise the truth of her identity which, as in The Twilight Zone’s final narration, suggests that maybe we do not know our own identity. The After Hours and Dark End of the Mall alienate the mundane and familiar experience of shopping into disturbing questions of identity. They can be read as critiques of consumerism: Marsha forgets that she is literally a dummy and Lucy’s retro idyll hides the horrors of reality. Perhaps, the programmes ask, the emotions, tastes and aspirations we harbour are just as illusory and we ourselves are nothing more than commodities? As apocalyptic as Dark End of the Mall is Black Mirror’s Metalhead (2017). In this critique of consumerism, ruthless anti-theft security machines have become so vigilant they have eliminated anything living. The irony in this episode is not just that this dystopia has emerged from an extrapolated materialism (prizing commodities more than the consumers of them) but the group of human survivors have not lost the same materialism: when we discover what the doomed survivors risked their lives for—a teddy bear—we realise that although it was touching and humane, it was nonetheless an absurd risk to take. Black Mirror’s Be Right Back (2013) is an exploration of human simulacra and the question of essence and identity. After a man dies in an accident, his widow purchases a biosynthetic model of him which collates all personal and social media remnants of the dead man and creates a seemingly faultless version of him. After the initial wave of solace and euphoria, the reality is horrifying and tragic. Despite the imitation and, in some ways, improvement of the original, the resurrected figure can never be human. In this regard, Be Right Back is a striking reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The bio-simulation might seem flawless, but the digital presence which defines it (and swamps us) can no more be actually human than Dr Frankenstein’s assemblage of dead body parts can be. Indeed, the ethical questions that imbue Frankenstein echo two centuries later in Be Right Back, a work that is similarly Gothic in its eeriness and set pieces in spectacular landscapes. Emphatically, while Frankenstein explores the tragic relationship between the



creation and his creator, Be Right Back focuses on the creation and the consumer. At the end of Be Right Back, the simulacrum is consigned to the attic, as remote as Frankenstein’s monster in the ice of the Arctic, among the detritus of mementoes and other “stuff.” Suggesting a similarly Gothic trope, Margaret Gibson identifies the android in the attic as a banished individual whose life is effectively negated by confinement: a morally unsettling social death.25 This is like the “madwoman in the attic” as articulated by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar,26 the repressed figure of abjection and embarrassment most famously in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre but recurrent within the neo-Gothic, including in richly parodic form in the television series Hunderby (2012), created by Julia Davis, a British television creator who is to dark comedy what Charlie Brooker is to dark fantasy. The perfection of the biosynthetic simulation in Be Right Back, the humanised mannequin in The After Hours and ultrarealistic androids in numerous other stories blur the boundary between the human and nonhuman. The fact that we watch these narratives in a context of domestic media enhances their subjective potential for the audience. In exploring historical research into agoraphobia, Kathryn Milun argues that “[f]ilm and television are technologies for the normative alignment of the self.”27 The consequence of this is that by the mid-1970s—a “time by which most households in Europe and North America would own a television set”28 —the screen provided: […] a visually mediated way to insert ourselves into a ‘story’ of the violent modern metropolis, [as well as] the visual techniques to insert ourselves into offscreen metropolitan space.29

Milun compounds cinema and television and we are reminded of The Twilight Zone’s A World of Difference (1960) in which a man discovers what he thought was his everyday life is a film and he is an actor. This finds an immediate homage in the most comic and “meta” ending in Bandersnatch’s multiple narratives in which Stefan discovers, to his bemusement, that he is an actor on a filmset. A World of Difference, however, is not comic but a deeply chilling tale in which the protagonist cannot conceptualise anything beyond his fictive self. The cause may be his alcoholism and fragile emotional state, but the episode sustains an ambiguity throughout that makes the viewers question the nature of reality and the possibility of



dually sustained states as in Black Mirror’s USS Callister and the “ZEyes” tale. Despite amalgamating media, the consequence of Milun’s observations is particularly profound when applied to dark fantasy and the domestic imaginary. The chilling ethical questions explored in these speculative and futuristic shows as they “watched their TV” places the audience in the “real” world, drawing attention to the social and personal issues that are being extrapolated. This dynamic is especially acute with examples of domestic dark fantasy which focus on the technology we are ourselves concurrently using. Some of the most profound episodes of The Twilight Zone are ones which play with the concept of the domestic imaginary with episodes that address the aesthetics and form of the very medium that is being used. In Static (1961), for example, we follow a lonely and dejected old man in a lodging house, who is resentful of the modem world in the form of television and retrieves an old radio set and finds it streams programmes from the past, the happier days of his youth. At the end of the story, it gives him and his unrequited fiancée from years before a second chance: they are literally transformed by the radio into younger, happier versions of themselves. Static is in some respects a nostalgic tale, a prototype for Cocoon (Ron Howard, 1985) or, indeed, The Twilight Zone’s own Kick the Can (1962): fantasy narratives of old people becoming youthful. Static is interesting if we look at it through a framework of domestic media. As Mark Scott Zicree stresses, in the episode “television is presented as an antagonist, a destructive and stupefying force.”30 Indeed, radio is presented as a more liberating, creative and—as a medium that “has to be believed to be seen”—imaginative form. It is fascinating that this nostalgic celebration of radio against the hegemony of television was witnessed on a television set. This deliberate and alienating metatextual strategy is evident from the opening sequences of some shows. Early examples of dark fantasy radio would draw attention to context, form and the mode of listening. For example, the opening narration to The Witch’s Tale (1931–1938) would frequently tell the audience to turn out the lights and gaze into the embers of the fireplace. Similarly, Lights Out and Quiet, Please were both shows that made instructions of how the audience must listen implicit to their very titles. In addition, both shows’ openings would deliberately transgress conventional broadcasting protocol by using “dead air” within their opening announcements, seconds of sustained silence between words and sentences, pregnant pauses that put the listener “on edge,” their attention completely focused. This playfulness was facilitated



by the universal principle of liveness in early audio broadcasting. Radio plays like the BBC’s Broadcasting the Barricades (1926) and the more famous Mercury Theatre on the Air’s War of the Worlds (1938) adroitly exploited radio’s liveness by redeploying the conventions of breaking news within drama, causing panic among their listeners by consummately merging form, context and contemporary social anxieties. The obligatory liveness of early radio became an aesthetic choice in later examples of dark telefantasy such as BBC television’s Ghostwatch (1992) and Inside Number 9 Live’s Dead Line (2018). In both programmes, the recognisable format of broadcasting appears to “go wrong” as the programmes seem to spiral “out of control” into uncanny fantasy. Black Mirror has not exploited liveness although Bandersnatch (2018) has challenged form through the idea of interaction, pushing the role of the viewer from being passive into active in what seems novel for television but deliberately alludes to the retro tradition of “choose your own adventure” books from the 1970s onwards as well as the forking narratives of computer games and interactive films which have a long tradition but are enjoying recent popularity with digital games such as the choice-driven action of Late Shift (2016), Detroit: Becoming Human and various titles by Tell-Tale Games. If we want to explore Black Mirror’s conscious playfulness regarding form, we do not have to do more than return to the opening thirty seconds of each episode. The breaking screen at the start of Black Mirror also establishes the show as a collection of modern parables. As Andreas Akun and Wiwik Andreani argue, nomophobia is a minor anxiety but can have “deeper psychological and social impacts” if we regard it as reflecting “the powerlessness of modern human beings in seizing control over… man-made smartphone technology and human connection.”31 Regarded like this, we can see that the crisis of the broken screen opens our eyes to deeper principles and crises. In fact, the monochrome title sequence of Black Mirror is allusive to the opening credits of The Outer Limits, the black and white American television series in which viewers were informed that they had lost control of their television sets: There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. […] For the next hour, sit quietly, and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.



Both The Outer Limits and Black Mirror’s opening title sequences draw emphatic attention to the very technology we are watching with and through. In the case of The Outer Limits, our domestic technology has been hijacked and the level of control is emphasised: it can wholly perceive us, we need to “sit quietly” as our “inner mind” is exploited. The show’s original title was Please Stand By, a title which foregrounds the notion of live broadcast. The ABC network did not like the initial title as it was less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and might be “misconstrued as a bonafide emergency alert.”32 The subsequent option of Beyond Control was similarly rejected because, although ostensibly about technology, it was felt to be a risk for mockery if reviewers did not take to the show. The rhetoric of control in the opening of The Outer Limits reflects a deeply held anxiety for the viewers of the time. Matthew W. Dunne argues that in the USA of the late 1950s and early 1960s, “the concept of brainwashing ushered anxieties over Communist psychological warfare into the center of the national discourse.”33 American citizens wanted to believe they lived in a state of independence and inalienable rights but there was an encroaching fear that they might be “innocent victims who can be exposed to forces that have developed the psychological tools to get into their heads.”34 The opening of The Outer Limits put this phobia in the corner of the room as the viewers “lost control” of their television sets and were “controlled” for an hour. As we have seen, television at the time enjoyed a near-ubiquitous uptake, a gadget-as-furniture as necessary as it was entertaining. Drawing on the work of Lynn Spigel, Robert L. Mack writes: …new television owners faced mounting pressure from manufacturers and popular magazines to furnish entire rooms for the sole purpose of watching television. Part of what defined these rooms was their cloistering effect.35

However, even if families were being pressured to create custom-purposed “TV rooms,” this does necessarily mean that flow was entirely a one-way street. The research of Spigel suggests that individuals quite probably “resisted the discourses of pleasurable entrapment that accompanied the arrival of television in their homes.”36 This observation has significant implications for the audiences watching The Outer Limits on their domestic media and dark fantasy more broadly. If audiences “loved to hate” their television sets, just like the disgruntled old man in The Twilight Zone’s Static or Black Mirror’s spectators harbour a cynicism about their



digital technology, this implies a complex mode of engagement with the technology of domestic media itself. Despite the rhetoric and ideological implications of “control,” The Outer Limits was not a simplistic animation of the ideological anxiety of “reds under the bed” or a televisual equivalent to Richard Condon’s popular novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959) and its 1962 film adaptation. As an example of dark telefantasy, The Outer Limits took the ramifications of domestic media and technophobia to an almost philosophical level. In the words of Jeffrey Sconce, the programme frequently “portrayed the American home as a ‘domestic asylum,’”37 not a realm of security and happiness but a dysfunctional world of “torpor and constraint [and] emotional void”38 with, inevitably, a television set at its heart. A number of particularly effective episodes of The Outer Limits explore the concept of broadcast transmission itself. In the pilot episode The Galaxy Being (1963), in which an alien materialises on Earth as an electromagnetic being following experiments with a three-dimensional television transmitter, and The Borderland (1963) in which experiments with a magnetic field in attempt to contact the dead lead to a man becoming trapped in a limbo between dimensions. In both episodes, it is the nether-zone of static that reveals the audience’s anxiety of domestic media (the flipside to their fascination), a terror of transmission which Sconce describes thus: Television thus threatened to consume its subjects… into its own logic and fictions that existed in an ethereal space that, nevertheless, could often feel more real, more ‘live’ than the everyday material environment of the viewer’s home.39

Perhaps in the same way, the digital worlds of Black Mirror might be diffracted and present an increasingly obfuscated dualism of the domestic/social but nonetheless seem to be more real than reality itself. Black Mirror breaks our screens, turning our gadgets into disabled black mirrors to tell us folk stories of the still-unfolding digital revolution. The repertoire presents modern cautionary fables, fairy tales of algorithmic data instead of deep dark forests and distractions of virtual reality rather than candy-clad cottages. The more information that the digital world gives us access to, the more we can “see” and capture, the less we empathise and understand. As Annabel Jones writes about one episode:



The imagery and themes of White Bear seemed very prescient at the time – phone cameras up, people rubbernecking, the idea that we’re all citizen journalists now so can absolve ourselves of any responsibility or emotional engagement.40

These are the “smartphone zombies” that Benjamin Martin talks of, figures symptomatic of the way “new media obscenely isolates people” making it possible to retreat into a “microcosm and blank out their environs.”41 For Robert Romanyshyn, this reflects a long-established blindness to technology which is deeply fateful: [Our] collective amnesia for the origins of the technological world-view, and our subsequent addiction to its ways of knowing the world and being in it, is dangerous and unethical.42

Black Mirror belongs to a long tradition of dark fantasy in the context of domestic media that explores the dangers and ethical crises of our society as much as our personal angsts and preoccupations, functioning as a conduit between realms. These programmes attempt to draw our attention to the very technology we are watching with and through: technology that sometimes we struggle to “see.” There is no question that the activated black mirror has become as ubiquitous and proliferating as was the radio to the 1930s listener and the television set was to the 1960s viewer. Although these electronic media may all seem to be excitingly contemporary and indispensable, dark fantasy on domestic media has always strived to make us see and make us think. Writing about technophobia in 1998, Mark J. Brosnan asserts: Until technology ‘becomes invisible’, it will be found to create feelings of anxiety within certain individuals. These individuals are anxious about using the computer, not doing the task.43

We are perhaps living at a time when our technology is truly becoming invisible, and we may be happily functioning with no sense of technophobia at precisely the moment that it is most crucial that we rediscover it.



Notes 1. Edward Thomas, “First Known When Lost,” First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed August 16, 2019, ww1lit/collections/item/2877. 2. Monika Prasad et al., “Nomophobia: A Cross-Sectional Study to Assess Mobile Phone Usage Among Dental Students,” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research 11, no. 2 (2017): 34. 3. Keith Watson, “Black Mirror Saw Charlie Brooker Nail the Zeitgeist,” Metro, February 26, 2013, ror-charlie-brooker-nails-the-zeitgeist-3514238. 4. Catherine Johnson, Telefantasy (London: BFI, 2005), 2. 5. Ruth Griffin, “Dreams, Nightmares and Haunted Houses: Televisual Horror as Domestic Imaginary,” [email protected]: A Journal of the Social Imaginary 6 (2015): 3. 6. Griffin, 13. 7. Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, and Jason Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror (Ebury Press, 2018), 32. 8. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, 78. 9. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, 10. 10. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, 10. 11. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, 11. 12. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, 11. 13. Erik Mortenson, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), 217. 14. Mortenson, 217. 15. Robert L. Mack, “A (Truly) Captive Audience: The Twilight Zone and Mid-Century American ‘Television Rooms’,” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 33, no. 1 (2016): 65. 16. Shane Richmond et al., “Technology Trends of 2011: Year in Review,” The Telegraph, December 21, 2011. 17. Alex Castle, “High-Tech 2012: The 10 Biggest News Events of the Year,” PC World, December 25, 2012. 18. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror, 239. 19. Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, 2nd ed. (Beverley Hills CA: Silman-James Press, 1992), 402. 20. Benjamin Martin, “Black Mirror and the Divergence of Online and Offline Behavior Patterns,” International Journal of Zizek Studies 12, no. 4 (2018): 33. 21. Robert Romanyshyn, “Technology: Alienation and Homecoming,” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society of Existential Analysis 23, no. 2 (2012): 202.



22. Martin, “Black Mirror and the Divergence of Online and Offline Behavior Patterns,” 33. 23. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror, 159. 24. Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity: Cinema and the Mind’s Eye, 2nd ed. (Palgrave, 2013), 2. 25. Margaret Gibson, “First Life, Second Death: Dying in a Digital World,” Griffith Review 64 (2019). 26. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). 27. Kathryn Milun, Pathologies of Modern Space: Empty Space, Urban Anxiety, and the Recovery of the Public Self (New York: Routledge, 2007), 216. 28. Milun, 216. 29. Milun, 216. 30. Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, 184. 31. Andreas Akun and Wiwik Andreani, “Powerfully Technologized, Powerlessly Connected: The Psychosemiotics of Nomophobia,” in 10th Annual International Conference on Human System Interactions (2017, n.d.), 306. 32. David J. Schow, The Outer Limits Companion (Hollywood, CA: GNP/Crescendo, 1998), 42. 33. Matthew W. Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 1–2. 34. Dunne, 2. 35. Mack, “A (Truly) Captive Audience: The Twilight Zone and Mid-Century American ‘Television Rooms’,” 64. 36. Mack, 65. 37. Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 149. 38. Sconce, 149. 39. Sconce, 142. 40. Brooker, Jones, and Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror, 78. 41. Martin, “Black Mirror and the Divergence of Online and Offline Behavior Patterns,” 33. 42. Romanyshyn, “Technology: Alienation and Homecoming,” 203. 43. Mark J. Brosnan, Technophobia: The Psychological Impact of Information Technology (London: Routledge, 1998), 2.

Borges’s “Infinite Finite” in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror Suzie Gibson and Dean Biron

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2011–2016) provides a timely commentary upon digital technologies that increasingly mediate human relationships. Its fantasy elements—which more often than not feel also like a prophesy—prompt reflection upon our own agency and how it is modified and filtered through devices that, more than simply enabling communication, to a large extent determine the nature and even the ethics of our interactions. If there is a single overriding theme to be identified in the series, it is how the digital world preserves and enhances individual memory, usually with negative if not catastrophic consequences. In this, Black Mirror is evocative of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) whose similarly prescient tales anticipated many of the complexities of the digital age. In stories such as “Funes the Memorious,” where the protagonist is tormented by an absolute memory which leaves him unable to forget anything, and “The Library of Babel,” an archive which contains every possible permutation of a 410-page book, Borges

S. Gibson (B) Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, NSW, Australia e-mail: [email protected] D. Biron The Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD, Australia © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




shows how ostensibly finite concepts—individual memory, a library— threaten to lead to insanity when humans lose the ability to place any kind of order upon them. The problem let loose in Borges might be termed that of the “infinite finite,” where seemingly bounded concepts stretch beyond human comprehension and order is usurped by chaos. This concept of the infinite finite looms in several Black Mirror episodes. For example, The Entire History of You (2011) is based around the technology of “eargrains” that capture an individual’s every experience, leaving them, like Funes, with essentially flawless memories. Be Right Back (2013) depicts how a deceased lover’s online identity in the form of digital traces is uploaded into a replica of his body, effectively providing his partner with an exact replacement. Contrastingly, in White Bear (2013) absolute forgetting is dramatised, with the consequences proving just as disastrous as having a pristine memory. Pragmatist philosopher William James argues: “If we could recall everything we would be as incapacitated as if we could not recall at all; a condition to remember is that we must forget.”1 Black Mirror depicts the psychological trauma of both infallible memory and absent memory. As in Borges, finitude is demonstrable yet in reality unobtainable: perfect recall and amnesia each present as impossible to circumscribe or control. In the digital age, existence is not bounded by the human body, nor is it limited by a material space; rather, it prevails as a disembodied electronic trace. In this way, the infinite finite in Borges is pushed further by the idea that our inevitably limited memories and experiences are not anchored within our bodies or the material spaces we occupy. This chapter addresses the concept of the infinite finite pushed to its limits and spilling beyond the mortal boundaries of our bodies. In the remarkable episode The Entire History of You, the infinite finite is transformed into an endless memory loop that can be replayed, paused and screened for public consumption. A detailed analysis of the episode addresses how mnemonic precision, enabled through digital ear monitors, threatens interpersonal and especially intimate relationships. While one might think that recording every aspect of one’s life must bring one closer to the truth such accuracy in fact proves disastrous, feeding feelings of jealousy and suspicion. It is also especially insidious when one’s memories cease to be private, becoming a publicly shared phenomenon. The dream of “absolute accuracy” in The Entire History of You turns into a nightmare when the important element of trust binding us to the world of others is also eroded.2 Another kind



of memory dystopia is explored in White Bear—one which involves absolute amnesia. This episode provides a breathtaking scenario of memory loss where human agency and our relationships to others are again foregrounded. Trapped within an eternal present, the protagonist is exposed to a degrading spectacle which sheds light on the depths of human cruelty while again emphasising the infinite nature of ostensibly finite recall.

The Entire History of You’s Disturbing Familiarity Typical of Black Mirror’s narrative style, The Entire History of You begins with a familiar setting: the workplace. The scene dramatises a formal work assessment meeting between a young lawyer, Liam Foxwell, and his superiors, with the tension obvious as Liam tries to show that he is worthy of continuing with the firm and undertaking new litigation cases in “retrospective parenting.” However, before agreeing to this kind of work, Liam expresses concern over the ethics and morals of this activity since it involves accessing the personal memories of parents. In this scenario, every detail of a parent’s life with their child would be scrutinised over a far-reaching period of time. Here we are given a brief glimpse into the dark sphere of “ear grain” memory technology, which in this situation monitors the private lives of parents and children. The assessment continues as Liam senses that his appraisal is not going well. The upbeat demeanour of his boss feeds his suspicion, especially when it is suggested that Liam’s continued tenure depends upon personnel pulling an “exhaustive redo” of his eargrain memory bank. This is at least the second time the word “redo” has been mentioned—it refers to an ear grain’s ability to store and record every moment in an individual’s life. Liam suggests a bit desperately that he is ready to undertake a “big redo right now” only to be reassured that it’s not necessary. Intensifying the unease is his boss’s assertion that he hopes they won’t find anything adverse (such as “major deletions”). Here the sophistication of ear grain technology is emphasised: any deletion can be detected, thus exposing an individual to public scrutiny, and in this instance, the scrutiny of one’s employer. In keeping with Brooker’s adage—that our lives might forever be altered “in 10 minutes time if we’re clumsy”—3 the familiar digital world of The Entire History of You is inexorably changed by the addition of “eargrains.” This confirms Adrian Martin’s observation that the series depicts ordinary worlds distinguished by one unfamiliar element. In The



Entire History of You eargrain memory operates as what Martin terms an “isolated and magnified” ingredient,4 prompting us to reflect upon a contemporary world in which we already have the technological means to monitor every aspect of our lives. For example, in our digital age, words, images and ideas are preserved on a number of hand-held digital and desktop devices and through variety of online platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Gmail, to name a few. We also have the ability to record ourselves through our iPhones and other hand-held devices: even though we are able delete our recordings and emails, in reality they are never fully erased since they are forever part of an eternal internet ether. It is also worth noting that today in China the behaviour of citizens is already being monitored through a social credit rating system that numerically grades individuals according to their buying habits, gaming activities, health records, bank accounts and legal/illegal activity. Thus, a citizen who donates blood and volunteers their time is awarded with “credits” while those who have outstanding debts or who may have legal difficulties are deemed “dishonest personnel” where points are lost.5 This is a real-life example of how social engineering is enabled through surveillance—such a dystopian scenario was anticipated by the 2016 Black Mirror episode Nosedive, in which socio-economic status is determined by individuals rating one another’s daily activities. Here Black Mirror’s dark vision of the future is not only prophetic, it is also extremely and disturbingly accurate. There is also something very unsettling about memory as a digital phenomenon since it means that one’s recollections are neither fully possessed nor controlled by the individual. Ear grains may not yet exist, yet our online activity already leaves inerasable traces of our search histories and buying habits. This kind of mass surveillance has been going on for a long time: since circa the 1960s in the United Kingdom, CCTV cameras have been installed in department stores, banks, train stations and other public places in order to monitor activity.6 We are also moving to a cashless society where swipe cards leave traces of our transactions, such as details of entering buildings and travelling on public transport. Furthering this push towards individual and mass surveillance is the fact that our mobile phones are replacing credit and bank cards. And then there is the omnipresence of facial and voice recognition software, as well as thumb print logins that digitally inscribe our bodies. Mass surveillance and data mining are also enabled through social media platforms and



search engines and this is of genuine concern in eroding privacy and confidentiality. The Entire History of You rigorously explores how surveillance is experienced as an unbounded, infinite digital phenomenon. The surveillance capacity of ear grain technology is accentuated in the sequence in which Liam turns on his “grain” while travelling in a taxi, following what he believes was a terrible appraisal. We see him igniting the device through a personal remote control that transforms his eyes into a film projector. The dividing glass panel between the taxi driver and the passenger seat operates as a screen through which Liam’s memories are projected. But before he is able re-play his appraisal, the ear grain device advertises itself through a soothing female voice and a series of appealing images: Live, Breathe, Smell — Full-Spectrum Memory you can get with a Willow Grain. Upgrade for less than the price of a daily cup coffee and three decades of back-up for free. Install Willow grain procedure with local anaesthetic and you’re good to go because memory is for living.

The reduction of life to memory in The Entire History of You is extremely unsettling perhaps because it is true: for is not our consciousness largely made up memories? As we will shall see later when White Bear is analysed, it seems that amnesia creates an impossible situation where one barely exists without memory. The advertisement’s other claims cleverly play upon the theme of time: one’s ear grain “upgrade” is as cheap as a daily coffee and also preserves three decades of memory. The difference between thirty years and a day is significant, prompting one to recognise its far-reaching historical memory reserves. After this disturbing commercial Liam scans through his ear monitor, much like going through an old-fashioned carousel slide-show. He locates the moment in the appraisal that is troubling him the most: when his boss says (insincerely) “Liam, we really hope to look forward to seeing you again.” Here the ear grain not only provides a perfect acoustic of the utterance, it also projects a pristine visual. Liam replays the moment once more, focusing this time more closely on his boss’s closing comments. For anyone who has a propensity to overthink or to obsess over details, ear grains are perhaps the worst kind of technology to have on hand in the way that they foster suspicion and unease. Yet the careful wording of the script also prompts one to interpret the closing comments as being insincere; the emphasis



on the word “hope”—“we really hope to look forward to seeing you again”—promotes uncertainty. The broader surveillance capability of ear grain technology is showcased when Liam goes through airport security and is asked to provide a recording of his last 24 hours. The airport computer screen scans through a series of images, scenes and people from his life—notably the software is also able to undertake facial recognitions. Then Liam is asked to provide a week’s worth of footage. After reviewing in fast succession every detail of his week up until the present moment where he is standing before airport security—the security guard is now a part of Liam’s memory bank—he is cleared to board the plane. In part, the power of Black Mirror’s tales is that they depict identifiable characters whose personal lives and dramas can be vicariously experienced and internalised. Through the young protagonist Liam—who we may not particularly like, but whom we are nevertheless sympathetic to—we are encouraged to imagine how we would use the ear grain technology in his place. Moreover, in Black Mirror episodes more generally, the domestic sphere often figures as a central site of drama and this can be particularly perturbing if one is inclined to associate the home with safety and security. Interestingly, in The Entire History of You most of the drama takes place inside the very private realm of Liam’s head. However, this tight focus is often extended to include his domestic life with spouse Ffion, and it is through their relationship that we witness how ear grain technology can feed the damaging emotions of jealously and suspicion. In fact, the sophisticated technology of the ear grain disastrously unravels Liam’s private life to the point that he becomes a prisoner to his self-made world of doubt and paranoia. Once Liam boards the plane, there is a swift scene change featuring a domestic lounge room setting. Three adults—Ffion Foxwell (Jodie Whittaker), Paul (Jimi Mistry) and Jonas (Tom Cullen)—are all watching a “redo” on a large TV monitor. We are introduced to the character of Paul who replays footage of his new “four-star” home that has frayed carpet. He complains about the large amount of money spent on having “perfect details.” The surveillance capability of ear grain technology is emphasised through Paul’s fixation on his new home’s imperfections. We also gain an insight into the device’s capacity to feed obsessive tendencies such as Paul’s preoccupation with his new home’s flaws. Interestingly too, ear grain technology is embedded in this episode’s very cinematography



operating much like a second screen—even as a second sight mechanism that enables us to look backward so that the narrative can propel forward. Notably, interpolating replay footage into the episode also has the effect of normalising the device. The replay function of ear grain memory operates much like a doorway into new scenes, sequences and characters. For instance, we are introduced to Lucy (Amy Beth Hayes) and Jeff (Rhashan Stone) through Liam’s playback mechanism that reveals a scene from their “Dublin wedding.” Upon viewing this footage, we are primed to meet the newly married couple who are hosting a dinner party where Ffion, Liam’s wife, is a guest. At this gathering Liam searches for his wife, eventually finding her talking too closely to a man he does not know. Ffion registers surprise at seeing her husband and awkwardly introduces him to Jonas. Highlighting the domestic usage of eargrain technology, hostess Lucy asks Liam about his “appraisal” and Paul (a “redo” aficionado) suggests that everyone watch a “redo” of Liam’s appraisal so that they can all “appraise the appraisal.” It seems that watching people’s memories like one would a video or a YouTube clip is commonplace. Here too there is a doubling, even a spiralling going on where the replay function of ear grains incites a pattern of analysis that could continue ad infinitum.

Doubling and Spiralling in Black Mirror and Borges This doubling or spiralling evident in The Entire History of You is evocative of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel,” which articulates a catalogue that catalogues catalogues.7 Infinity is connected to the idea of an eternal circularity, invoked when Borges describes a “great circular book whose spine is continuous.”8 The narrator of Borges’s tales ultimately concludes that “The Library is unlimited and cyclical ” just like an “eternal traveller.”9 Rex Butler describes Borges’s library of metacatalogues as an “infinite regress” that “doubles ” the archive.10 In The Entire History of You, Borges’s doubling archive is experienced as an infinite regression of redos that encircle and bewitch. However, unlike Borges’s obscure, even mysterious world of meta-catalogues and circular books there is something particularly exposing about the doubling of world redos. In The Entire History of You memories are projected much like video games. In fact, the dystopian dimension of the many devices showcased throughout the Black Mirror series are often tied to a nasty



form of voyeurism and spectacle. This is memorably dramatised in Fifteen Million Merits (2011). Here an entire society is held captive by interactive video screens that oversee every aspect of life. What is highlighted in this episode is how technology does not operate as a liberating portal or window but as an enclosing spectacle. In The Entire History of You, repetitive screen memories push Borges’s infinite finite into the realm of unbounded digital exhibitions where personal memories are made accessible to others, including employers and strangers. Through the character of Paul, we are given another dark glimpse into how ear grain technology can be used as a device of social humiliation when he goads Liam into replaying his appraisal so that they can all “grade” him. Lucy laughs at Paul’s suggestion, saying that “it could be fun … we could vote!” Paul further chimes in that as a job recruitment officer he could give Liam helpful feedback, while Lucy enthusiastically invites her husband to join in so they can all give him “marks.” The character of Colleen (Rebekah Staton), who we later find out works in brain development, suggests that supplying “notes” would be more helpful. The dystopian potential of perfect memory once more emerges when we realise that redos can transform individuals into performers of their own lives like contestants in a reality TV program. As the episode progresses, we are introduced to another character Hallam (Phoebe Fox) who is distinguished from everyone else because she has undergone ear grain removal surgery. Hallam’s “grain-less” condition is perhaps-comparable the minority in our Global North who might not possess an iPhone, computer, email or Facebook account. Hallam’s decision to be off the ear grain grid is arguably similar to those who also reject current online trends and gadgets. Jonas asks Hallam about the whereabouts of her removed grain because all of her memories are still stored on the device enabling someone else access to her memories. This revelation once more conveys a dark side to this technology that strips people of their privacy. Notably, during the dinner party, the character of Colleen rudely says to Hallam that going “grain-less” is “huge with hookers.” Counteracting this slight, host Jeff compliments Hallam for being brave while Colleen retorts “I’m sorry but … I couldn’t do it.” She goes on to elaborate: You know half of the organic memories you have are junk. Just not trustworthy…with half the population you can implant false memories just by asking leading questions in therapy. You can make people remember



getting lost in shopping malls they never visited, getting bothered by paedophile babysitters they never had…

Colleen’s words are disturbing as we wonder whether the Willow ear grain company is capable of implanting false memories. We know that images can lie in the sense that they can be digitally enhanced and manipulated. Photography and cinematography also have a telescoping effect where the wider context beyond the frame is omitted. Social media also plays a significant role in this as its algorithms select images, scenes and moments in our lives that “deserve” remembrance, sharing and celebration meaning that other kinds of memories and experiences are edited out. Certainly, ear grain technology does not tell the full story in the sense that it reveals the past from an individual’s point of view, obscuring the larger context. Furthermore, if memories can be deleted like an email or a text message then conversely perhaps false scenes and episodes from one’s life could be generated and interpolated. Furthermore, dismissing organic memories as mere “junk” overlooks the emotional dimension of reminiscence where mnemonic sensations can capture the subjective truth of our experience.

Obsessive Full-Spectrum Memory The character of Colleen would certainly be impressed by the irrefutable memory of the title character in Borges’s “Funes the Memorious.” In fact, Funes’s organic memories are so vivid that he “knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30 April 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding.”11 In the case of Funes’s unique ability to recollect literally everything, memory is experienced as both a power and a burden. Funes is physically incapacitated by his teeming memory and yet his debilitating condition is counteracted by the fact that he can recall in vivid richness past experiences and perceptions. Clearly the sheer volume and detail of memory has enfeebled his body, but it has also opened his mind to glorious images and sensations. Funes’s perfect visual recollections are enhanced by “muscular sensations, thermal sensations.”12 As Emron Esplin puts it, Borges’s story “sets out to portray infinity via the finite system that is language.”13 Unlike Funes’s deep engagement with the symbolic world of language and meaning making, it is very evident that ear grain technology in The Entire History of You is not about opening up one’s mind to linguistic



patterns and numerical systems. It is also unclear in this episode if ear grains preserve all of the sensory details of one’s past experience. In fact, there is something quite sterile about ear grain technology that replays one’s life much like a video recording. Technological devices in the Black Mirror series generally tend to erode one’s deep sensory connection with the natural world. Its gadgets do not simply mediate our relationships to others and the world; they also have an alienating affect/effect. This brings to mind Guy Dubord’s prophetic Society of the Spectacle which predicts that people’s relationships will become less authentic the more they are mediated by images.14 The contemporary digital age has more than any other in human history removed us from the earthy sphere of ecological life. Image technology operates much like a partition between screen experience and a tactile sensory world. Funes’s recollections are embodied experiences that are able to recall the full complexity and depth of physical life. They are also extremely luxurious, even sumptuous remembrances that can intuitively grasp such images as a “changing fire and its innumerable ashes.”15 Here the notion of an infinite finite is again invoked as it is humanly impossible to count ash particles. The excesses of such an infinite recollection conjure a wonderful sense of grandeur that transports Funes far beyond the immediate sphere of his bedroom seclusion. Importantly, too, Funes’s perfect memories are inaccessible to others: they cannot be externalised and projected for public consumption and scrutiny. They are his private pleasure and agony. By comparison, the ocular-centric function of the “redo” device bleeds Liam’s world of depth as his memories are also accessible for public consumption and objectification. A key negative affect/effect of ear grain technology is that it has the capacity to feed obsessive predilections. Its playback mechanism certainly fosters fixation. Moreover, its use as a narrative agent and second screen brings audiences into the voyeuristic sphere of its “bubble like” recall. Memory as a screened phenomenon continues when Liam and Ffion return home and scrutinise footage of their babysitter looking after their child. What is frequently conjured in The Entire History of You is the human desire to expunge doubt—to be comforted by certainty and knowledge even if this is at the expense of an ethical life. In this case, for example the morality of infringing upon the babysitter’s privacy is never a consideration. In the supposed privacy of their home, it also becomes evident that Liam is unable to shake off the memory of Jonas. He keeps asking Ffion



about her past and she admits that “years ago” she “had a bit of a thing” with him. Furious and unwilling to accept that she informed him early in their relationship of her month-long relationship to Jonas, Liam turns to the “redo” function in settling the argument. Here we see past footage of Ffion wrapped in bed sheets talking about a past relationship that we now know was with Jonas. She says in this replay that their relationship lasted only a week. While Liam might be justified in saying that Ffion underplayed the length and power of their bond, neither his rightness nor his redo diminishes his jealously. Sex temporarily resolves their conflict and cleverly their intimacy is shot through the point of view of ear grain technology as audiences are once more implicated in this spectacle. Notably in this scene, we see Liam and Ffion “redoing” their “make-up” sex as their eyes are set in “projection mode.” Watching replays of their sexual intimacy whilst undertaking sexual acts provides us with another glimpse into the ear grain’s all-enveloping voyeurism. The scene makes clear how the replay function can be used as a home-made-sex video. The erotic recall of ear grain memory does not dispel Liam’s obsessive thoughts. The dimension of trust, important to any relationship, is missing. For the rest of the night and into the early morning he replays over and over again footage of his wife speaking to Jonas. It is here that we learn that ear grain technology enables one to access a sound function that was originally unavailable. This means that one’s memories are not just perfectly preserved; they can be improved upon. We hear Ffion say for the first time: “It’s good to see you … I was nervous when I heard you were going to be here … it’s weird isn’t it.” This doubling and spiralling of redos—the more one replays a scene the more information one retrieves—continues as Liam’s jealousy intensifies. This process also leads to a dangerous form of myopia where the point of view is steadfastly focused upon the minutia of Ffion’s facial expressions and mannerisms leaving out the wider context. The capacity of eargrains to (supposedly) enhance one’s original memories pushes the notion of the infinite finite further as the digital sphere utterly demolishes the mortal boundaries of human recollection. In “Funes the Memorious”—set in the late 1800s—there are no “cinemas or phonographs”16 to provide Funes with any kind of technological reference point. This makes Funes’s infinite memory all the more extraordinary, because there is no technological equivalent. The ear grain memory in Black Mirror, however, is a quite imaginable advance upon technology that is already being used to monitor individuals and



populations. Still, in Black Mirror technology itself is not necessarily the villain: the problem is in the way humans use (or misuse) it. In The Entire History of You, ear grain redos foster and intensify Liam’s jealousy and this is devastatingly enacted the following morning when he subjects his wife to another replay of the dinner party scene. Here the ear grain’s replay function is wielded as a psychological weapon of domestic violence. Because ear grain surveillance can focus in on the most minute of details its voyeurism is breathtaking. By contrast, Funes’s memory is hardly voyeuristic—it certainly provides him with some pleasure, but certainly it is not wielded upon others as a weapon of abuse. Funes’s incredibly accurate memory enables him to explore his rich interiority, discovering that he can memorise abstruse Latin texts and “indecipherable” ancient numerical systems.17 Enhanced memory in The Entire History of You is, however, manifestly narrowing and functions as a weapon with which to interrogate others. Still not satisfied with the encircling minutia of endless redos, Liam further indulges his ear grain-enhanced jealousy when he gets drunk and drives to Jonas’s house. There he aggressively forces Jonas to delete his own digital memories of Ffion. Strategically, again we do not directly access this sequence: it is replayed through Liam’s own redo function. As the episode progresses, the camera increasingly adopts an ear grain’s point of view that not only familiarises the technology, but also implicates the viewer as part of its spectacle. The narrative takes an even darker turn when Liam discovers that Ffion slept with Jonas around the same time that she fell pregnant with their daughter Jodie. Ffion and audiences are made privy to this knowledge through a redo where Liam focuses on Jonas’s carousel-like memory bank—we are essentially-seeing Liam’s redo of Jonas’s redo revealing the spiralling myopia of this technology. As such, in The Entire History of You technology’s doubling capacity creates a prison-like nightmare. But for Liam, finding out the truth of Ffion’s indiscretion is not enough: he must go further, making his wife redo her sexual encounter with Jonas. This bedroom scene is like a Spanish inquisition except that the device of torture is not a rack but a digital memory. Sparing audiences from watching the footage, the camera instead rests on the reactions of Liam and Ffion as we hear audio of her sexual encounter with Jonas. The screen then blacks out and dies, evoking Borges’s exhausted Funes, who is eventually overcome by the burden absolute memory.



The Entire History of You concludes with a series of final replays. The point of view is Liam’s as he playbacks happier times with his wife Ffion and their baby. The footage moves backwards and forwards, juxtaposing a happy past with a miserable present. Alone reflecting upon his former married life, it becomes apparent that the erasure of all doubt has led to isolation and loneliness. The washed-out blue hue of the screen colour and the melancholy sound reinforces the desolation. Finally, using a razor and pliers Liam violently gouges out his ear grain. The Entire History of You finishes with this desperate act of self-harm as proof of the impossibility of infinite memory. The scientific advance of full-spectrum memory—depicted in The Entire History of You as something that the majority of the population both accepts and desires—in truth leads only to myopia, disfunction and, inevitably, alienation. Funes’s perfect memories, while also ultimately debilitating, produce more complex affects/effects. He is both burdened and enriched by his capacity to retail every detail of a day, a book and a cloud. Although Funes dies of lung congestion at the very young age of nineteen, during his short time on earth he reads and retains obscure knowledge and delights in sensory memories. The world for Funes is both larger and smaller— he lives and dies in and as a paradox. Nevertheless, there is little in Borges’s tale to suggest that perfect memory—somehow taming the infinite finite—has any individual or wider social benefit. The Entire History of You confirms the dystopian inevitability of a world in which the portent of “Funes the Memorious” is ignored.

White Bear ’s Theatre of Cruelty This leads one to contemplate another memory-themed dystopia dramatised in White Bear. In this episode, utter memory loss leads to a similar kind of agony where one is trapped in an unending present. Amnesia is another unbearable mind state that has the capacity to entrap. Much like The Entire History of You, White Bear is shot through the point of view of its lead Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow). The episode begins with screen static—we assume this is some kind-ofelectronic interference, until the camera focuses in on Victoria’s face and we are inclined to think that it evokes her inner state of mind. The camera stays on her face as she looks like she’s waking up from a nightmare. She notices that her wrists are bandaged, making her (and us) wonder if she attempted suicide. The camera widens as we see a television screen



that beams back an abstract image. Pills are shown scattered on the floor and there is a dull ache of unrelenting sound. Victoria clearly does not know where she is or who she is. She then sees a reflection of herself in a mirror—also the first time we see her full body. Reflective surfaces mediate our vision just as her vision is being mediated by the looking glass. The environment is strange and unsettling. She picks up a small photo of a young child that’s located inside a larger photo frame depicting her with an unknown man. Notably, the miniature photo of a young girl provokes a painful flashback as the soundscape continues a dull electronic thrum. Victoria notices a pair of sneakers and a jacket and puts them on leaving the unfamiliar house. Outside she calls “hello” seeking company and sees from behind glass windows people filming her on their mobile phones. In fact, the whole neighbourhood is watching and filming her from behind glass windows. Victoria screams: “can you help me? I don’t know who I am? I can’t remember who I am?” Victoria begins to run once she sees a young girl outside snapping a photo of her. Then a sinister masked man emerges from a blue car—the same abstract image on the television monitor is inscribed on his balaclava. He opens his car boot and brings out a rifle and aims it at Victoria. As the episode develops, the audience is encouraged to become gripped with fear as Victoria seeks to escape from a number of masked attackers. We are also unsettled by the vision of people filming all of this action on their mobile devices. It feels as if screen culture has fostered a bystander attitude where no-one is willing to assist: the definitive twentyfirst century version of “Kitty Genovese syndrome.”18 Only a travelling couple take pity, Jem (Tuppence Middleton) and Damien (Ian Bonar). As the episode unravels, static continues to disrupt the screen signalling Victoria’s flashbacks that feature a young girl, an unknown man and herself all driving in a car. These fragment images have no context and like Victoria we too wonder how the young girl and the unknown man are related to her. We also wonder, like Victoria, if the young girl is her daughter. We gradually learn through Jem that almost-everybody in the area is controlled by a “White Bear” television signal. The signal has turned the majority of people into mobile phone zombies, while a select few are “hunters” wearing creepy masks and threatening violence. In this case, Victoria’s extreme memory loss becomes, like Funes’s excessive recollections, almost paralysing. However, Jem keeps her running as they hatch a plan to destroy the “White Bear” transmitter. Journeying toward the television signal they hitch a ride with a



van driver—Baxter (Michael Smiley)—who takes them to a forest and threatens them at gunpoint. The scenario becomes increasingly malevolent as Baxter brings out a drill and threatens Victoria while spectators keep filming unphased. Jem saves Victoria and they forge ahead in pursuit of the “White Bear” signal station. More static fills the screen as Victoria again recollects the young girl. When Jem starts to destroy the “White Bear” station masked hunters return threatening violence. Victoria grabs a shotgun and shoots one of the disguised men—confetti erupts. This triggers a dramatic twist whereby the walls open-up exposing a large audience. Victoria is revealed on a stage blinded by spotlights. Everything up to this point in White Bear has been staged. Handcuffed to a chair while Jem and the hunters take their bows, the camera then moves further outward revealing a screen where even bigger audiences clap Victoria’s incarceration. The spiralling of technologies—stages, television monitors and mobile phones intensify this spectacle. Baxter reappears as the master of ceremonies informing Victoria about her name, her fiancé and their crime of abducting and murdering a child. Through another digital monitor we also learn that Victoria filmed her fiancé’s torture and murder of Jemima Sykes (Imani Jackman) and that as a result of this crime, she is sentenced to daily psychological punishment at White Bear Justice Park. While it might seem that Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is in this instance fully realised, it has in fact been reversed by a mob spectacle that unleashes the very real and frightening emotions of anger and hatred. Although Debord predicts that society would be so enthralled by images that relationships would lack authenticity, he does not anticipate how screen spectacle could in fact awaken the opposite: ancient primeval drives and urges, not witnessed on-screen but recorded en-masse by the witnesses themselves. Cleverly, Brooker makes sure that his audience is inclined to be sympathetic of Victoria: we too had no idea what is going on until the final revelation. In this way, he commences a complex dialogue on the immorality both of punishment and of voyeurism. Although we are shocked and appalled by Victoria’s crimes, we are also given insight into the cruelty of her punishment. As masses of people hurl abuse at her exposed body on the stage and Baxter heaves poisoned invective upon her sobbing state, White Bear suggests a barbarity at the heart of our technologically advanced society. This is further intensified when Victoria’s passage back to the security facility involves being exposed to more crowds baying for her blood. Strapped to her prison-chair and lit



up like a dishonoured trophy, the scene is reminiscent of ancient Roman spectacles that paraded and degraded vanquished enemies. Since the ancient world of Colosseum combat and Medieval executions, human cruelty and spectacle has always drawn a crowd. The rise of print technologies enabled spectacle to be internalised as a reading experience. Yet our voyeuristic urges have never diminished as the development of photography and cinematography led to much more sophisticated renderings of human experience. The rise of Reality TV in the latter part of the twentieth century fully exposed our thinly-veiled voyeuristic tendencies. Now the rapid rise of digital media has allowed anyone to become a journalist or filmmaker. However, Black Mirror’s tales are not necessarily about the dangers of technology itself: they are more about how digital devices amplify humanity’s existing flaws and failings. This brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s observation that while technology is not inherently destructive, it is vulnerable to human misuse and it is often impossible to predict its misapplication.19 Yet there is an innate dystopia engineered within devices designed to preserve or erase memory and this is made abundantly clear in both The Entire History of You and White Bear. In these episodes, the extensive spectacle of the screen technologies suggests that there is an in-built voyeurism at the heart of gadgets that facilitate our less admirable traits of narcissism, obsession and exhibitionism.

Coda The Entire History of You and White Bear depict uncannily familiar worlds with individuals trapped within screen saturated environments. Moreover, there is something hideously sterile, bureaucratic and Kafka-like about Black Mirror’s aesthetic in that technology always fails to enrich or to widen people’s lives. In The Entire History of You Liam gets caught up in a spiral of replays that leads to the unravelling of his private life. Part of his torment is connected to the fact that ear grain memories are accessible to others. In White Bear utter memory loss leads to another kind of dystopia as Victoria is trapped in a frightening spectacle of punishment. In the final moments of White Bear when she begs Baxter to kill her just before he about to wipe her memory and he says—“you always say that”—one wonders how many times she has experienced amnesia. Ingeniously two of these episodes insinuate audiences into their spectacle encouraging us to imagine ourselves in the same position as Liam



and Victoria. This makes the screen experience of Black Mirror particularly powerful as we contemplate our own participation in a world where mass surveillance and violence are commonplace. And while Black Mirror deftly reveals how technology enables and amplifies the negative traits of voyeurism, cruelty and jealousy, the series has not gone so far as to dramatise a gunman using social media for narcissistic purposes. Perhaps it takes a real-world individual to inflict such violence. It seems that humanity’s capacity for cruelty can sometimes escape even the most scathing predictions made by a series whose dark vision prompts deep thought and reflection. The Entire History of You and White Bear also powerfully reveal how infinite memory and forgetting are particularly excruciating. Moreover, what intensifies the agony is that one’s interiority is not contained within a finite brain but can be downloaded and screened for all to see. What differentiates Brooker’s world from Borges’s is the violent public spectacle of an infinite memory and amnesia that strips the individual of privacy and dignity. Taking the very private pain of knowing too much or too little into the sphere of screen culture intensifies suffering. Both episodes present as easily imaginable (and hardly huge) steps beyond the developing surveillance state of our present era. The fast-creeping ubiquity of technologies such as CCTV cameras, facial recognition and personalised swipe cards is already testing the bounds of morality in the surveillance and monitoring of individuals, often with our implied consent. Ultimately, The Entire History of You and White Bear contemporise their precursors in Borges, such as “Funes the Memorious” and “The Library of Babel,” by depicting the concept of the infinite finite not as evasive, untameable and uncanny, but as something that is within our grasp to understand and to eventually control, no matter the social and ethical consequences.

Notes 1. William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1 (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1980), 689. 2. Edmund Wright, “Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’: A Philosophical Narrative,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 5, no. 1 (2007): 36. 3. Charlie Brooker, “Charlie Brooker: The Dark Side of Our Gadget Addiction,” The Guardian, December 2, 2011, https://www.thegua



4. Adrian Martin, “Cautionary Reflections: Looking into Black Mirror,” Screen Education, no. 90 (2018): 18. 5. See Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and Bang Xiao, “China’s Social Credit System Seeks to Assign Credit Scores, Engineer Social Behaviour,” ABS News Online, April 2, 2018, nas-social-credit-system-punishes-untrustworthy-citizens/9596204. 6. See Chris Williams, “Police Surveillance and the Emergence of CCTV in the 1960s,” Crime Prevention & Community Safety 5, no. 3 (2003): 27–37. 7. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” in Labyrinths (London: Penguin, 1978), 78–86. 8. Borges, 79. 9. Borges, 85. 10. Rex Butler, Short Stories: A Reader’s Guide (London: Continuum Bloomsbury, 2010), 59. 11. Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” in Labyrinths (London: Penguin, 1978), 87–95. 12. Borges, 92. 13. Emron Esplin, Borges’s Poe: The Influence and Reinvention of Edgar Allen Poe in Spanish America (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 107. 14. Guy Dubord, Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995). 15. Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” 92. 16. Borges, 92. 17. Borges, 90. 18. Kitty Genovese was a 28-year-old woman who was murdered in New York in 1964, allegedly in full view of several people none of whom came to her aid or called the police. The infamous case subsequently became associated with the so-called “bystander effect”. 19. Margaret Atwood, “Special Presentation for ‘The University of New South Wales’s Centre for Ideas’” (March 3, 2019). Margaret Atwood made this comment during her speech for ‘The University of New South Wales’s Centre for Ideas’ that was held at Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 3, 2019. Interestingly, Atwood later qualifies her statement saying that the destructive intention of the “atomic bomb” is evident—it is built into it.

Lifelogging, Datafication and the Turn to Forgetting: Thinking Digital Memory Studies Through The Entire History of You Penelope Papailias

For researchers of network culture, algorithmic sociality and our datafied contemporary, Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed Netflix series Black Mirror (2011–) has proved a mixed blessing. The series distills key themes regarding the transformations of social life, political discourse and interpersonal relationships in today’s technocultural situation. Each episode could be said to comprise a provocative “essay” on particular topics and themes that, in turn, have inspired reflection and impassioned debate regarding the ethical repercussions of these developments. On the other hand, the dystopian mood of the series has often been disparaged by students of the digital, who note how its sleek and captivating aesthetics have seduced viewers into stereotypical views on contemporary technosociality. In other words, instead of opening up a politically useful conversation around platform capitalism, algorithmic culture, datafication, dataveillance and other related issues, the series presents technology as a foreign “thing,” antithetical to “human” subjectivity and relationality. Viewers, as a result, are nudged towards a nostalgic

P. Papailias (B) Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology, University of Thessaly, Volos, Greece e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




and predictable condemnation of technological change and fearful anticipation of an ominous future. (I have to admit that I would place myself in the latter “camp”—that of Black Mirror skeptics—at least before writing this essay. Given my research interests, though, I was almost “forced” by friends and colleagues to watch and think deeply about the series.) This oscillation between critique and fetishizing of technology is clearly on display in The Entire History of You, the final episode of Black Mirror’s first season. This episode could be seen as something of a working paper on the topic of memory (and forgetting) in the digital and networked contemporary. As suggested by the title, The Entire History of You focuses on the fantasies and (mostly) the anxieties related to the continual tracking and recording of our everyday activities (movements, conversations, bodily functions, sentiments, perceptions, etc.) through the use of wearable, mobile devices: a trend that has been labelled “lifelogging” or “life caching.”1 In this essay, then, taking my cue from the expository form of the series itself, I will use this particular episode as a touchstone to discuss some emergent concepts and topics in digital memory studies. I will begin by sketching familiar and problematic binaries that locate technology exterior to the human body (concretized in the form of gadget or device) and imagine it as an “enemy” to (“natural”, “healthy”) memory. Then, I will consider how, the episode (despite its fundamental disavowal of the technocultural) opens up key issues related to the transformation of memory in the age of the database, networked culture and social media platforms: such as, the shift from the cultural/national context as the frame for memory practices to that of the networked individual, and the public demand for a “right to be forgetten,” sparked by ubiquitous data capture, the longevity and malleability of digital traces and their exploitation by the state, corporations and peers. I will close with some thoughts about what I regard as a lag—despite the series’ sophisticated and up-todate veneer—in recognizing the cultural significance of the algorithmic turn and the shift from analogue documentation (of voice and image) towards the production and proliferation of non-representational, flexible data-bodies.

Prosthetic, Mobile and Total Memory At the dinner party to which Liam, the episode’s protagonist, and his wife Ffion have been invited, a gathering of Ffion’s friends from before



their marriage, the conversation turns to the subject of the “grain,” a mnemotechnological device implanted in the nape of the neck. The grain records video—continually—from the embodied perspective of the wearer. While segments of the archived footage can be retrospectively and selectively excised, a surfeit of gaps in the continuous record can arouse suspicion in others who later view the overview of the scroll. Whenever the implant bearer wishes, she/he can project recorded footage on a television screen, or on the internal surface of their eye: a practice that is called a “re-do.” In the course of a re-do, one can pause, zoom in on part of the frame, enlarging it, as well as activating a lipreading function to decode muffled bits of dialogue. Although the grain exudes an aura of the high-tech and cutting edge, in reality, it takes its place in a long genealogy of prosthetic devices around which cultural dreams and nightmares of total memory have been elaborated: from writing, which so troubled the “oral” Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus to American engineer Vannevar Bush’s Memex,2 which inspired the architects of the internet. Given the emphasis on audiovisual documentation from the perspective of the implant bearer, the grain also could be compared to gadgets and devices that figure in sci-fi B movies on the topic of “total memory.”3 In the first scenes of The Entire History of You, we observe how the grain re-do operates across a number of professional and domestic contexts: an internal review at the law office where Liam works, an airport security check and even the retrospective discovery (and petty whining over) a defective product (a frayed rug in a fancy hotel suite). The grain becomes an explicit topic of discussion when one of the guests admits to going “grainless” after having her implant violently gouged. The grain of a young and pretty woman like herself, it is implied, would have a high resale value as porn verité; hers was “stolen to order,” she speculates, on behalf of a “millionaire Chinese perv.” She decided afterwards not to replace it, as she quite enjoyed going grainless, establishing that in contemporary society (except for “hookers”), wearing a grain (at least among the well-off) is a default practice. In the informal “debate” for and against the grain that follows Helen’s revelation, the position in favour of the grain is supported by one of the guests who works in grain development. She declares definitively that “organic memories” are “junk” and “not trustworthy,” adding that inducing people to adopt false memories is also incredibly easy (i.e. by asking “leading questions” in therapy). From this perspective, the grain, as a prosthetic technology, could be said to



improve a (weak) human ability or capacity, just as, say, glasses can correct and enhance “natural” eyesight. Even before we meet Helen, the grainless apostate, though, the snapshots provided of a totally lifelogged world have prepared us to be suspicious of a technophilic position. What unfolds before us is an uncanny world of datafication (the encoding and quantification of multifarious aspects of social life, from private conversations, searches, reactions, consumer choices, etc.) and dataveillance (a default and continuous monitoring of user data and metadata without a predetermined aim) both from “above” (state, corporations) and “peer-to-peer” (or laterally), which is just a bit too close to our contemporary reality not to resonate (Andrejevic 2004, van Dijck 2014, Blackman 2018). From the opening scene at Liam’s law office, we learn that “retrospective parenting” cases are a routine procedure (children charging their parents for damages in their upbringing on the basis of data stored on their grain), while we feel the pressure of neoliberal “appraisal” of employees, with the secondguessing of innuendos and inter-office politics bearing down upon us. As Liam proceeds with his afternoon, the list grows: we feel the eye of the state tracking the mobility of citizens in private as well as public space. We are disgusted by overprivileged consumers who believe they have the right to “perfect details” as they nitpick the quality of products and services. We chuckle uneasily at the use of the technology to remember casual acquaintances (their names and basic biographical data) in superficial social settings. Add to this list the implications regarding the monitoring of female sexuality in the banter around Helen’s grainlessness and, later, a scene that demonstrates how children’s grains can be retrospectively mined to check up on babysitters, and the image of a terrifying near-future is complete. Thus, from our first meeting with the heretic Helen to the dramatic closing scene in which Liam digs the grain out from the nape of his neck with a sharp tool, the case against the grain definitely predominates. Even though Helen had responded negatively to the question of whether going grainless was a “political thing,” by the end of the series it is implied that it just might be. In the episode, this alienation from authentic, interpersonal relationships and human contact is demonstrated most centrally and conclusively on the most sensitive—but also most predictable (for a series aiming to titillate its viewers)—terrain: that of sex. Even though it seems pretty obvious that sex, from the Kama Soutra to porn, is the quintessence of a visually- and linguistically-mediated activity, the episode



suggests that sex has just recently been diminished by the invention of the grain. The guests at the dinner party appear shocked by Jonas’s observation that towards the end of his relationship he preferred to masturbate while watching scroll-backs of hot sexual encounters with others in the past, than going upstairs to the bedroom where his beautiful partner was awaiting him for sex in the “here and now” (“We all scroll through the grain for a little bit of filth now and then,” Jonas tries to get the other guests to concede). Later in the episode when Liam and his wife are having sex, the montage leads us to pity the couple, when we realize from their glazed-over eyes that the explosive sex that we were watching actually was a re-do pulled up from their grains (to endure the banal marital sex that they were having “in reality”). Of course, things get much more dicey when we turn to the subject of Ffion and Jonas’s affair, which we learn took place not just before, but simultaneously, with her marriage to Liam (even coinciding with the period during which their child was conceived). Whatever explanations Ffion provides in her attempt to reestablish trust with Liam crumble before the impartial “truths” that he uncovers through maniacal persistence and forced searches of Jonas’ and Ffion’s grains. As suggested by the word “re-do,” the ideal of a return to the “original” moment in which an event transpires negates (and ignores) the temporal possibilities of recall in the present (and future), which might enable understanding, a salutary forgetting and alternative approaches to “what happened.” Thus, like Oedipus who did not “see” the truth of his relations with others, while he had his eyes, Liam does not “remember” the actual nature of his emotional relationship with Ffion and her deeper qualities as a companion, even though his capacity for remembering the past had been so enhanced. On the basis of the above, we could say that the episode firmly rejects the commonplace view that memory is chiefly a brain-centred function, based on the retrieval of static and unchanging records of the past from a repository in which they have been deposited.4 “Natural” memory might contain errors and gaps in comparison to the supposedly “perfect” (objective, trustworthy) technological memory provided by the grain, but “human” processes of remembering offer the possibility for interpretation, contextualization and forgiving in the present: whether that has to do with an extramarital affair, or a snippet of video footage extracted from the grain’s scroll. In addition, the episode appears to support the view that a healthy memory needs forgetting, a position to which we



will return shortly, given that in the age of intensive datafication and networked, linked databases, forgetting has become something sought after on a cultural level (Mayer-Schönberger 2009). Jorge Luis Borges’ classic short story “Funes the Memorius” (1962) similarly presents overmemory as a pathology. The main character Ireneo Funes, not only does not forget anything, he documents and recalls too many details of everything he experiences and encounters. Total memory is the opposite of thinking, which requires that we “forget differences, generalize, make abstractions” (154). In short, to remember everything without forgetting is unsustainable. Funes dies young from “congestion” of the lungs; total mnemonic accumulation ultimately does not constitute knowledge, but a “garbage heap” (152). Yet, in featuring the removal of the grain from Liam’s body as a kind of “solution,” the denouement of the episode goes to another extreme by delivering the didactic message that humans are not—or should not end up as—cyborgs. As a result, a critical understanding of mediation5 as “an intrinsic condition of being-in, and becoming-with, the technological world” (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 1) is foreclosed. The episode’s fixation on technology as gadget confirms the idea that technology is a kind of accessory: a “thing,” essentially foreign and non-human (if not inhuman) attached to (and thus separable from) a body and, by extension, human sociality. As Socrates complains in Plato’s Phaedrus (ironically— if fittingly—through the written words of Plato): “Trust in writing will make them remember things by relying on marks made by others, from outside themselves, not on their own inner resources” (2002: 69, emphasis mine). In accordance with the basic formula of the series as a whole, The Entire History of You places a sci-fi element (in this case the “grain”) within an otherwise familiar (at least, from a media perspective) rich, white suburban context. With a bit of reflection, though, it becomes clear that the particular episode presents to us, as coming “from outside,” something that is already very much incorporated, even embedded, into our everyday: namely, the hand/body assemblage of the smartphone that plugs us into networked culture and shadow archives (Hoskins 2017: 87), as well as more specialized data-tracking devices that are becoming popularized.



From Cultural Memory to Notes to Self Even though The Entire History of You to a large extent contravenes critical approaches to technoculture and media/tion in memory studies, I believe there is still much to be gained for an understanding of developments in digital memory studies from its insightful portrayal of contemporary interpersonal relations in times of datafication and dataveillance. Of course, memory studies (and media studies) themselves have developed, in part, out of a critique of the Platonic demonization of technology. An important early formulation of this position can be found in the work of American Jesuit priest and literary scholar Walter Ong. In his landmark book Orality and Literacy (1982), Ong deconstructed the binary orality/writing and its correlation with that of memory/technology. He demonstrated how the historical and cultural assessment of orality as superior and more authentic than writing (which is assumed to always “follow” oral expression and thus to be exterior to it). Alternatively, he proposed a diachronic cultural analysis of the gradual and ongoing “technologizing of the word.” Ong’s approach coincides with French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of “phonocentrism.” Derrida (1974) had criticized disciplines such as linguistics and anthropology for cultivating a “metaphysics of presence” (namely, a fetishization of orality and of face-to-face contact). Ong demonstrated that technological media, such as the radio, produce the feeling of intimacy normally associated with embodied contact, referring to this kind of mediated presence as “secondary orality.” According to the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’ well-known theory of collective memory, an otherwise fragmentary individual memory takes shape only in relation to “frames” provided by the various social groups to which an individual belongs over the course of her or his lifetime (family, profession, school cohort, nation, etc.). While Halbwachs himself did not discuss media technologies as integral to this process, clearly the twentieth-century experience of listening (radio) and watching (film, later television) together would play a key role in shaping national and global memory (Hoskins 2018: 89). Indeed, as memory studies developed from the 1980s on, issues of mass mediation of memory would come to the fore. For instance, the American media theorist Marita Sturken, in a seminal study of memory practices in the 1980s and 1990s U.S. in relation to the war in Vietnam and the crisis around AIDs



deaths, focuses on “technologies of memory” (especially film and television). Sturken employs the term cultural memory6 rather than collective memory, in order to underline how cultural products not only impact the formation of cultural memory, but how debates around memory form one of the most fundamental elements of the (always conflictual) field of culture. Another term that should be noted in our discussion is that of “prosthetic memory” proposed by the American historian Alison Landsberg (2004) to describe the interface among spectators of mass culture (cinema, television) and historical narratives. She argues that the cultural “implant” of memories that are “not ours” not only happens all the time, but also can have ethical benefits (empathy with historical experiences of others). Prosthetic memories turn out to be “real” memories to the extent that subjects act in relation to them. In short, in these approaches, we can say that technological media are not presented as something that diminishes and “destroys” memory, but to the contrary as part of processes and practices that extend, complexify and augment memory. After this brief overview of memory studies in relation to media, it would be logical to have qualms about bringing The Entire History of You into any kind of discussion of memory beyond the individual. Indeed, there does not seem to be any point of contact: besides the episode’s rejection of technological mediation as an integral part of culture, The Entire History of You presents memory as fundamentally a biographical matter, almost psychoanalytical, involving an intimate sphere of interpersonal relations. Similarly, in the episode Be Right Back, which opens Black Mirror’s second season and treats a related theme (the digital afterlife and algorithmic simulations of the dead), the question of the place of the dead in networked platforms and databases is explored within the bounds of a heterosexual romantic relationship. Yet, as strange as it might sound, it might be precisely this sidestepping of the cultural and the collective that The Entire History of You gets right about the “social” in the age of networked culture, social media and big data. In bringing to the fore anxieties over shifting conventions and protocols regarding the public visibility of personal life and the volatile and unpredictable resurfacing of memory traces, the episode could be said to capture critical transformations in memory practices—and reactions to them: notably, the growing demand for the “right to be forgetten.” While, as I described above, The Entire History of You draws attention to the interactions of the networked individual (as worker, consumer and policed citizen) with technologies of state and corporate surveillance and



data harvesting, reference to traumatic and galvanizing national or global historical events, collective memory practices and their media interface is strikingly absent. Scholars of cultural memory, such as Sturken (1997) in her aforementioned study of 1980s and 1990s American cultural memory, have foregrounded public media representations of historical events in the televisual context: for instance, reruns of television news footage of catastrophic national and global events (accidents, mass death, assassinations of public figures, armed conflict, etc.), or remediations of critical events in made-for-television genres, such as docudramas, as she calls them. By contrast, in The Entire History of You, the large screen televisions prominently placed in the bourgeois domestic spaces of the characters are used exclusively as screens for characters to project re-dos for small group in situ viewing, never as sites for broadcasting global and national television news or other public media products such as films. Viewers might even be led to assume that in the (near) future, aside from advertisements (for grain upgrades, for instance), there will no longer be public broadcasts. The public sphere once dominated by mass media outlets and social networking platforms will have been superceded by a rhizomatic network of personal channels and databases populated with user-generated content (to which the state and companies, of course, will have access). Indeed, the very title of the episode, The Entire History of You, could be seen as making a mockery of the old-fashioned institution of “History.” Collectivities such as the nation have lost their sway as individual’s personalized channels (the term “YouTube” is clearly also being played on here), while lifelogging devices reorient and assume the role of chronicler. Sturken made much of how viewer-citizens engaged in a kind of “anatomy of the image,” replaying, picking apart and remediating footage from controversial media events (such as Abraham Zapruder’s amateur film that captured the moment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination) as they try to work through collective traumas in an open present. By contrast, in The Entire History of You, these practices of critical media witnessing are reserved for the analysis of the microaggressions and disputes of everyday home and work life, as outsiders (such as the babysitter, or the guests at a dinner party) are asked to judge re-dos employing forensic techniques on the footage. Liam, for instance shows the family’s babysitter a re-do from the dinner party, asking her to assess whether Ffion’s behaviour towards Jonas seems suspicious. In short, in the new “digital media ecology,” the social is defined less by the evening news than by interpersonal exchanges, personalized updates and unexpected revelations (Garde-Hansen et al.



2009). The public archive of History is replaced by an endless database of users. This scenario, however, does not actually seem far removed from the emergent digital memory ecology described by Andrew Hoskins, a leading scholar of digital memory and editor of the journal Memory Studies, in many of his recent publications. Indeed, Hoskins has argued for the radical revamping of theoretical concepts used to discuss memory beyond the individual; in particular, he has urged the academic community to recover from the “hangover” of the Halbwachian concept of “collective memory” and its reliance on the model of twentieth-century broadcast media (2017: 255). According to Hoskins, with the contemporary linkage of digital devices, platforms and databases, participation has replaced spectatorship, while connectivity (or hyperconnectivity) has taken the place of the collectivity (Hoskins 2011, 2017). In this new memory ecology, the individual as singularity emerges as a node in a “multitude,” not as a viewer in a pre-existing public or audience that consumes (or contests) representations. Rather, an ad hoc network takes form through the event of viral and contagious circulation of data. As opposed to the collective or cultural memory of the broadcast era, Hoskins explains: “the memory of the multitude is all over the place, scattered yet simultaneous and searchable: connected, networked, archived” (2017: 86). From this perspective, The Entire History of You could be said to concentrate the conversation about digital memory on a specific and critical subject: how mobile and wearable micro-technologies imbricate the individual user in network culture and datafication procedures. Lifelogging technologies, such as GoPro, Google Glass and Narrative Clip, for instance, enable the pervasive documentation of daily life, phenomenologically, from the user’s position, producing a personalized multimedia archive of her/his movements, conversations, sensations, etc. (Dodge and Kitchin 2005; Blackwell 2018). Despite the fact that, as I will discuss at the end of this essay, the episode fixates on audiovisual documentation (video footage), a critical—if not the most important—aspect of the datafication turn involves the collection of non-representational data (and metadata) related to locations, movements, bodily functions and all sorts of other categories of information, culled from personal self-tracking devices, as part of the so-called Quantified Self trend. Notably, the smartphone, an extremely potent technology of lifelogging (combining extensive documentation tools, archival access and distribution capacities), has already penetrated so many aspects of our banal and intimate



everyday life: it is hardly a matter of “science fiction” any more. Media theorist Anna Reading (2009) has coined the term memobilia (me + mobility + meme) to describe the practices of digital memory elaborated around multimedia data, captured, archived and disseminated—on-thego, all the time and often virally—with the use of these personal, mobile and wearable devices.

The Archival Present, Hyperconnectivity and the Turn to Forgetting The Entire History of You, thus, might be best understood as an ethnographic portrait of the experience of negotiating memory in the age of lifelogging and memobilia. The function of the grain, of course, is consonant with connective (or hyperconnective) memory as described by Hoskins (2011), which is marked by immediacy, volume and pervasiveness. Re-dos are done on the spot and at any moment. The tremendous amount of archived material on the grain covers the activities of the implant bearer over the course of her/his lifetime. Overlaps and interconnections among recording devices and databases of other users and institutions appear to bar the possibility for there to be a temporal/spatial zone free from documentation. Silences and absences become suspicious statements in their own right. The weirdness of the grain technology, in other words, brings attention to the “strangeness” of the wearable/embedded, mobile, always-on, always-at-hand technologies we already use and the multiple pressures we feel to constantly register what “am I doing now” in our social media networks. These technologies place a huge personal database “at the fingertips” of users, mixing data from heterogeneous sources and moments of daily life (home, work, public space), while the “continuously networked present” also blurs boundaries between “active” and “passive” memories (Hoskins 2012). At any moment, data from the personal past can be brought to the surface for public deliberation, as demonstrated in the episode by the terrifying and startling practice of the re-do. (Liam shudders at—and ultimately resists—showing everyone at the dinner party a re-do of his appraisal at work.) Instead of a past that is recorded intentionally and with great effort in archives, libraries, museums, libraries, we have entered a world of “potential memory,” which is reconstructed ad hoc from personal and collective traces that have been registered



involuntarily, as well as massively (Bowker 2007). As a result, the experience of digital memory is characterized by explosiveness, creating a sense of vulnerability among subjects. Since “pervasive traces” are at the same time “potential memories” (Hand 2016), the possibility of the surface of the everyday splitting open with unexpected crises is great. While the episode focuses on interpersonal relations, perhaps the most characteristic phenomenon of contemporary networked reality involves the emergence of “personal” records in the public sphere (for instance, photographs of a political figure in a drunken moment in her/his youth that suddenly appear on voters’ screens). These types of scandals of course also happened in the past. However, due to the hybridity of data archived on social networking platforms, the connectivity of databases and the way that algorithms are “fed” by data (and metadata) producing memories that no one ever thought (Esposito 2017: 8), “drama” and scandal easily arise from chance revelations (such as the incriminating videos related to Ffion’s extramarital affair). Another aspect of digital memory that is explored in the episode involves the ambiguous quality of digital traces as the pre-text for the development of memory narratives and practices. Instead of being “perfect” and objective, these records prove to be fluid and vulnerable to tampering, in comparison to analogue counterparts (Bowker 2007; Van Dijck 2007). Their retrieval might be easy, but their reconfiguration is as well (Hand 2016: 3). A brief—but clearly very intentionally-placed— interchange from the episode is illustrative of the plasticity of digital data. During an argument with Ffion, Liam blurts out, “Sometimes, you’re a bitch,” and immediately afterwards “I didn’t mean that.” Ffion then plays a re-do, excerpting the phrase “you’re a bitch.” Liam asks her to erase it, noting “you can’t just edit off the word ‘sometimes.’” As this incident demonstrates, digital data, due to its modularity, can easily be de- and recontextualized—and, in the, process, mis-represented (cf. Blackwell 2018: 63). The particular episode, thus, points to the relative truthfulness of lifelogging procedures (“Not everything that isn’t true, is a lie,” observes Ffion). At the same time, the episode comments on how users do tend to find this previously unfathomable plethora of digital traces of the everyday more trustworthy than their “own” memories, introducing a new litigiousness, suspiciousness and competitiveness to interpersonal relations (“Why am I on trial here?” blurts out the exasperated Ffion) (Schwarz 2011).



In the context of this multiplication of personal digital traces and their “weaponization” in personal and professional contexts, we observe the contemporary turn away from memory as a given cultural value and political objective (We must not forget Auschwitz) towards a demand for the right to forget, or rather to be forgotten, and, by extension, to contextualize this massive aggregation of data. The so-called Right to be Forgotten (RtbF) refers to the 2014 decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which enables subjects to demand the delisting of particular pieces of personal data from search engines, like Google. The data is not actually deleted; it is simply removed from the search results. As various analysts have pointed out, the use of the term “forgetting” is misleading in this context since there is no reference to the concept of memory in the terms we have discussed here. Forgetting, in other words, is not viewed in a dialectic with memory, but as part of a discussion about the “identity” of the subject and his/her right to differ not only from others, but also from her/his (previous) self (Ghezzi et al. 2014), as well as to have control over the “narrative” of her/his life (Tirosh 2017: 650). From a legal standpoint, the right to be forgotten is discussed in the context of legislation related to privacy and the right to freedom of expression. This demand, in other words, revolves around the conceptualization of a neoliberal individual of rights, while the role of the collectivity and interpersonal relationships in the production of collective memories is not recognized, nor the potential right of groups and collectivities to request the delisting of undesirable data from search engines (ibid.: 654). Indeed, what makes Liam’s microcosm feel dystopian is that everyone (Liam, first and foremost) involved in his daily life (friends, family, work colleagues) appears to be vying for jurisdiction over any digital record they believe implicates them personally, or “belongs” to them. Liam’s demands to view—and delete—files from Jonas’ and Ffion’s grain even turns violent. Liam, in fact, appears not to be enraged so much by the fact that Ffion had an erotic relationship with Jonas, as that he continues to have footage from their intercourse on his grain (demonstrating how temporalities are blurred in the archival present of the datafied milieu). If Jonas’s observation regarding how he masturbates while doing scrollbacks of hot sexual encounters from the past is true, that means that he can get off on Liam’s wife’s body whenever he wants to now and in the future. Besides the fact that, of course, this possibility always existed (along with the enduring patriarchal logic of corporeal possession of one’s spouse), what is at stake here is the issue of ownership of data-traces in



their guise as “potential memories.” Of course, even before we factor in other players (platforms, governments, etc.), there can be no answer to this unsolvable dilemma, given the fundamental failure to recognize the always social and inherently intersubjective frameworks of memory. One thing is certain though: these kinds of controversies will only multiply in the future with the further development of lifelogging technologies and the expansion of memobilia, whether around the matter of protecting people’s names (reputation defending), or third-person (relatives, companies, state) access to and transfer of personal data after death (and, of course, also before). It is questionable, of course, if data points in a lifelog can be considered autobiographical “memories” in the way we have been accustomed to defining them. A screengrab of a still image or the extraction of a video snippet from a huge aggregation of audiovisual material differs radically, in terms of the level of subjective investment, interpretation and reflexive processing, from the intentional taking of a photograph and its placing in an album, or the production and screening of a home video (cf. Bowker 2007). Superficially, the digital trace when it is extracted by an algorithm or a user search resembles its analogue counterpart, but without the signification and contextualizing process behind it. In the litigious context of contemporary datafication and dataveillance, conducted by the state, companies, friends, lovers, even our children, discourses around and investment in “memory” as a personal and collective value (to be carefully preserved and presented in diaries, albums, documentaries, museums, archives, etc.) truly appears to belong to a past world.

Algorithmic Memory and Data-Stories The ambivalent status of the Black Mirror series as a text of cultural critique came home to me when I was debating whether or not it would be a good idea to screen The Entire History of You in my undergraduate course “Anthropology of Memory.” Needless to say, my students would have applauded my decision to show any film (at least before it began) as a terrific alternative to having “regular” class. I reasoned that the modern look of the series and the provocative way it framed the theoretical issues we were dealing with during the semester would get their attention. This indeed was the case once I decided to go forth with the screening, overriding my initial hesitations about whether in doing so I would undermine all the work I had done up to that point in the semester



to convince them to think technology and culture as one. The students as I predicted did focus on the bloody scene in which Liam removes his grain, in a desperate bid to escape an evil world of total surveillance produced by modern technology and “return” to a society based on trust. I plan, however, to show the episode again the next time I teach the class (supplementing it, of course, with this essay!). Indeed, in the process of writing this chapter, I overcame my own initial dismissive reactions to the episode as “obviously” technophobic and came to appreciate the ethnographic acuity with which it captures “the end of memory” as we knew it (experientially, but also theoretically). The episode could be said to provoke in the viewer an affective understanding of the emergence of the memory of the multitude and how it galvanizes around random, shocking events. What is depicted is not simply how these transformations impact the intimate realm of interpersonal relations, but also the waning of traditional institutions and gatekeepers of memory (from the family album to the state archive). The latter are supplanted by networked databases, shaping and shaped by the personalized memobilia produced by users, on-the-go, with their mobile, fully in-corporated lifelogging devices. Not only is the centrality of a shared public/cultural field of memory diminished, but the distinction between past and present at the heart of the memory concept also seems irreversibly blurred (Ffion’s and Jonas’s affair happened then, but is also happening now…) A shadow archive of traces appears always close to the surface, threatening to erupt into the present. Finally, the plasticity, comprehensiveness and searchability of digital traces, related to every aspect and moment of everyday life, supports the pervasive sense of nonstop surveillance and imminent accusation for some “crime.” As a result, forgetting has been transformed into a cultural ideal and political imperative: a development that in the analogue era seemed improbable. In closing, though, I would like to touch on a basic aspect of the contemporary networked age (and its significance for a discussion of memory) that I believe the episode fails to register: that is, the algorithmic turn. Although part of a series widely-recognized as savvy about contemporary technology, The Entire History of You recycles well-worn motifs related to the dreams and nightmares of total memory focused on audiovisual technologies of recording image and voice, featured in science fiction movies, produced before the age of social media (mid-1980s through early 2000s) (see Note 3). In these films, the limited awareness regarding the emergent database era and algorithmic culture is



understandable. In the case of Black Mirror, produced starting in 2011, however, we are justified in having more expectations, especially when, in the case of The Entire History of You, data tracking is its explicit theme. Of course, I would not go so far as to say that there has not always been (and will not be in the future) a link between memory and visuality, centering on the representation of the human body and voice. While Socrates compared the mnemonic effect of writing to paintings which “stand there as if alive” (2002: 70), many of today’s cutting-edge devices associated with lifelogging, like the GoPro, aim at ever more perfect visual realism in capturing the “live” image from the viewpoint of the subject moving through space. However, the kind of data (and metadata), such as geolocation, likes, bodily functions, file size, payments, visits to sites, IP addresses, etc., which can be read and used by algorithms are radically different from image and sound as representational information, as “content.” In networked culture, the flesh body is disintegrated and dis-membered into data sets from which our digital “doppelgängers” arise. As opposed to a ghost who re-produces the original form of our body and our personal memories, what algorithms make from digital traces we have scattered throughout the web can better be likened to “performative simulations,” which are not copies of ourselves, but lively and active “multiples” and “mutations” (Robinson 2018: 415, 420).7 By focusing so much on the supposedly radical technology of the grain, The Entire History of You sidesteps engaging with and commenting on social media platforms and the algorithms that regulate them, as well as their impact on memory discourses and practices. Indeed, wouldn’t a more realistic and up-to-date scenario for the episode be that Liam learned about Jonas and Ffion’s affair after a Facebook algorithm tossed an old photo from the trip to Marrakesh (where she first hooked up with Jonas) onto Ffion’s timeline? Then, she might have reposted it, leading Jonas to heart the photo, perhaps adding a flirty comment. Noticing that interaction, maybe Liam would mention something to Ffion, and things would devolve from there… In any case, we should keep in mind that the algorithm is not a camera, but a machine, with semi-autonomous properties that “act” on and with users (Roberge and Seyfert 2016: 3). Algorithms, in other words, are not just another “tool” to retrieve memory traces, but an entirely new mode of mediation, just as photography was in the twentieth century, shaping the parameters of our potential relationships to our personal and collective pasts (cf. Schwarz



2014: 18). In short, in the age of big data, social media platforms, algorithmic and network culture, the fixation on the audiovisual record and analogue technologies of documentation, representation and transmission seems anachronistic—certainly not futuristic. Although The Entire History of You ostensibly focuses on datafication, there also is no reflection on the database as cultural form (Manovich 2001). The shift away from a predetermined taxonomy (chronological, hierarchical, narrative, thematic) and causal links (before & after) ordering data, such as those to which we became accustomed from analogue archives and historiographical narratives, means the same piece of data can be located in multiple sites and called up by metadata based on, or creating, unexpected affinities. This shift has far-reaching implications for the way that we conceive our lives and our interpersonal and collective histories (Bowker 2007). The multiplicity and non-exclusivity of database classification enables the generation of a plethora of data-stories (in place of grand narratives, anchored in collective memories and social frameworks) The fluidity with which modular data moves around also explains why the “ownership” of digital traces is so vexed (cf. Schwarz 2011: 12): not only among human users, but also institutional actors (companies, states, academics) and technological artefacts (particular algorithms, legislation such as RtbF). In the context of mass datafication and algorithmic processing, we cannot “bury” our former relationships, stuffing them into the back of drawers or pulling them down from the wall. These data-traces after all are not located somewhere: they can be in many places at once and easily summoned by algorithms independent of their presumed “owners” (ibid.: 14). Maybe, in the final analysis, we should read Liam’s crazed and tragic gesture at the end of The Entire History of You as a testament to the confusion that this new situation has provoked, if not as a satisfactory diagnosis.

Notes 1. The word “log” brings to mind written diaries and ships’ logs and, by extension, the long tradition of viewing memory as an inscription made with intention. “Cache” on the other hand, from the French “caché” (hidden) draws attention to the secret and involuntary collection of data by mechanisms and processes invisible and inscrutable to users.








Personal data-tracking devices, such as the FitBit, have become a fashion accessory—“bracelet”—of our times. In 1945, Bush proposed the Memex (memory + index), a multimedia system of documentation, archiving and retrieval of documents, photographs, movies, television shows and audio files. The Memex would relieve humanity from routine memory-work in order to enable the development of creative thought. Bush imagined its operation to mimic that of the human brain, thus replacing conventional systems of classifying information (alphabetical, numerical, hierarchical/nesting) with fast and flexible associative links among data (an early conceptualization of hypertext). In The Final Cut (2004, dir. Omar Naim), the so-called zoe-implant enables the continual audiovisual documentation of everyday life from the user’s perspective. After the death of the implant bearer, professional “cutters” compose biographical video précis of their lives (with controversial moments excised) for projection at special ceremonies at their funerals, known as “rememories.” Activists though are also shown in the film protesting the implant company with slogans such as “remember for yourself, live for today,” as well getting special tattoos to block the working of the implant. In the movies Brainstorm (1983, dir. Douglas Trumbull) and Strange Days (1995, dir. Kathryn Bigelow), the direct recording of all the emotions and perceptions of the subject (onto discs or magnetic tape) enables their transmission to others, a procedure that turns out to be traumatic and dangerous in the case of the transfer of intense sense experiences (orgasms, seizures). That “original” memories are not “retrieved” from a memory bank constitutes a basic position in social and cultural approaches to memory. Recollection always entails a productive transformation and re-inscription of the “original” memory, which often involves, in Freud’s terms, the incorporation of falsely-recalled “screen memories” that cover over deeper traumatic memories (Sturken 1997: 5–6). If, as anthropologist William Mazzarella argues, mediation involves a “relation of simultaneous self-distancing and self-recognition” (2004: 357), technology and culture are symbiotically, not instrumentally, related. Technologies of documentation, dissemination and communication do not come from “outside” of human sociality to mediate it, given that culture itself is a form of mediation. A “traditional” ritual, as much as a television soap opera, is a technological artifact, a mode of cultural mediation and social reflexivity. Assmann and Czaplicka (1995) distinguish “communicative” from “cultural” memory, placing Halbwachs’ collective memory in the first category. Communicative memory is related to the everyday communication that takes place between people in a shared social group, is marked by a



thematic fluidity and is not organized. Due to its intergenerational structure, communicative memory does not have a deep historical reach. By contrast, cultural memory is archived in lasting and reproducible cultural artifacts (rituals, monuments, texts) and supported by institutions; for this reason, it can endure over time. 7. In the episode Be Right Back concerning the digital afterlife, which I mentioned above, there is an initial recognition of this algorithmic performativity (a dead man appears to send text messages to his mourning partner, produced based on his previous statements, preferences, etc.). However, his doppelgänger later returns in analogue form. Needless to say, his body “gets in the way,” ultimately obscuring how we might actually “live on” in the datafied contemporary.

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Hoskins, A. 2011. “7/7 and Connective Memory: Interactional Trajectories of Remembering in Post-scarcity Culture.” Memory Studies 4 (3): 269–80. ———. 2012. “Digital Network Memory.” In Mediation, Remediation and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, ed. A. Erll and A. Rigney, 91–106. Berlin: DeGruyter. ———. 2017. “Memory of the Multitude: The End of Collective Memory.” In Digital Memory Studies: Media Pasts in Transition, ed. A. Hoskins, 85–109. London: Routledge. Manovich, L. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press. Mayer-Schönberger, V. 2009. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Mazzarella, W. 2004. “Culture, Globalization, Mediation.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 345–67. Ong, W.J. 1982. Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge. Plato. 2002. Phaedrus. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reading, A. 2009. “Memobilia: The Mobile Phone and the Emergence of Wearable Memories.” In Save As … Digital Memories, ed. J. Garde-Hansen, A. Hoskins, and A. Reading, 81–95. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Roberge, J., and R. Seyfert. 2016. “What Are Algorithmic Cultures?” In Algorithmic Cultures: Essays on Meaning, Performance and New Technologies, ed. R. Seyfert and J. Roberge, 1–25. London: Routledge. Robinson, S. 2018. “Databases and Doppelgängers: New Articulations of Power.” Configurations 26 (4): 411–40. Schwarz, O. 2011. “Who Moved my Conversation? Instant Messaging, Intertextuality, and New Regimes of Intimacy and Truth.” Media, Culture & Society 33 (1): 71–87. ———. 2014. “The Past Next Door: Neighbourly Relations with Digital Memory-Artefacts.” Memory Studies 7 (1): 7–21. Sturken, M. 1997. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley: University of California Press. Tirosh, N. 2017. “Reconsidering the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’: Memory Rights and the Right to Memory in the New Media Era.” Media Culture & Society 39 (5): 644–60. van Dijck, J. 2007. Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ———. 2014. “Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data Between Scientific Paradigm and Ideology.” Surveillance & Society 12 (2): 197–208.

Spectacular Return: Re-performance Inexhausted in ‘White Bear’s’ Exhibitionary Complex Bryoni Trezise

The Reveal There is a moment towards the end of the second episode in Black Mirror series 2, White Bear (2013), when the heroine, Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), aims a gun at her opponents but fires out confetti instead of a bullet. While she—and we, the screen audience—digest this eruption of absurdity in what so far has been a disturbing dystopian thriller, the confetti activates a larger plot curve: a moment of narrative as well as medial ‘reveal.’ In narrative terms, a ‘reveal’ is characterised as the story twist in which new information comes to light, overturning previously understood assumptions. In theatrical terms, a ‘reveal’ involves a trick of the visual field, often describing the culminating moment of a magician’s act. Instead of a ‘coming to light,’ it rather conveys the success of the illusion: the not-seeing enabled by the craft of a particular medium at work. The two come together in White Bear such that the narrative reveal of Victoria’s plight is theatricality itself: the perceptual conditions enabled by this particular medium at work. For most of the episode,

B. Trezise (B) School of the Arts and Media, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




Victoria has been chased and tormented by masked figures while being relentlessly photographed and livestreamed by hordes of camera-holding bystanders. When she is eventually captured, she is placed on a chair and wheeled onto a platform, at the end of which, curtains open and a secondary audience—only half-perceptible through the glare of downstage footlights—applauds. Victoria, panicked, absorbs the scene. Flanked by a small proscenium arch stage and surrounded by a group of actors who are taking their curtain call, Victoria realises she is the scene. In this essay I am interested in the role of the theatrical ‘live’ as it is cast as a conditioning medium of the dystopian future-present imagined by this episode of the Black Mirror series. While the majority of Black Mirror episodes either implicitly or explicitly contemplate the roles of new media (digital, robotic, genetic, VR, etc.) in the formation of futureorientated socialities, the dystopian world envisaged by the White Bear episode instead offers a retrograde account. Beginning with an apocalyptic rendering of the livestreaming and instagramming capacities of ubiquitous media, it ends by returning sociality towards practices that recall the bloodsporting traditions of Ancient Rome, or what one critic has called ‘neo-medieval’ spectacle.1 In pitching its future-gaze backwards, White Bear plays with viewers’ sense of the technologized future as a landscape of economic, social and moral progress. Instead, it envisages a context that has retreated from humanity and is governed by the pervasive reconstitution of the public by private capital. While strains of the past echo against the new sociality on view, contemporary reference points—reality TV genres, social media trolling and mob mentalities, the corporatisation of penal systems, and the torment of women for media spectacle—show how recognisable this future-present is. Possibly most recognisable is its seething sociality, bolstered by its counterpart: a lost and innocent child. Here, I consider these historically enfolded logics and cultures of performance by leaning on two central premises offered in Michel Foucault’s historic genealogy of social governance, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.2 These follow a trajectory from forms of spectacular public punishment and the creation of the ‘resisting body’ of the criminal as a social ‘sign’ of deterrence, to the disciplinary regimes modelled in the hidden carceral network of the modern penitentiary, which instead embedded the panoptic eye in the docile social body.3 Implicit in both schemas are the performative methods by which the social is managed, and both implicate varying conditioning facilities of performance as they are produced by, or as they produce, cultures of



vision. In ‘White Bear,’ I suggest that the two forms of governance, characterised by Foucault as connected but divergent historical threads, are instead envisaged in a mutually enfolded and reciprocal return. I draw on Tony Bennett’s (1998) notion of the ‘exhibitionary complex’4 as well as Jonathan Crary’s more recent 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep,5 to suggest that neo-Foucauldian practices of public punishment as well as of disciplinary systems combine to create a shattering of the individual’s psyche and soma by revealing the extent of the conditioning media itself. Bennett’s account of the ‘exhibitionary complex’ moves from regimes of capital punishment, through surveillance cultures to technologies of entertainment, offering a reading of panoptic power that is played out beyond the modern penitentiary and in emerging forms of late nineteenth century spectacle. This is signalled with the arrival of the cultural institution: the history and science museum, the diorama and panorama, and later, exhibitions and department stores. Bennett identifies cultural institutions as one means of stratifying and disciplining social bodies by extending the panoptic gaze. In Crary’s study, sleep becomes the new frontier with which social bodies are managed, positioning the temporal organisation of the social as a result of the relentless augmentation of the perceptual. Here, the ‘principle of continuous functioning’6 that Crary identifies as comprising a 24/7 culture of non-sleep becomes one way for a digitally-networked sociality to create inexhaustible relations between inputs of productivity (labour) and their counterpart, outputs of continuous spectacle—or what Crary characterises as ‘the relentless financialization of previously autonomous spheres of social activity.’7 In my reading, ‘White Bear’ presents a vision of the social that is jointly configured by ubiquitous media as well as the disciplinary authority produced by ‘live’ exhibitionary traditions. Two central figures—the absent (victim, child) and the amnesic (perpetrator, adult)—anchor these conditioning media by activating the return of public punishment within an exhibitionary frame, presenting a historical redux in which spectacle fails to exhaust itself.

Staging the Return of Spectacle In his study of the rise of the disciplinary systems—the distribution of the panoptic lens of self-surveillant power by the individual, to the individual—that marks the biopolitical terrain of the modern era, Foucault



first notes the rapid shift with which, in the early years of the nineteenth century, ‘the disappearance of torture as public spectacle’ was enacted.8 In a matter of a ‘few decades,’ he notes, ‘the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view,’ can be observed.9 Foucault cites the abolishment of branding in both France and England in the early 1830s, and the rise of more efficient as well as de-theatricalised machines of capital punishment, such as the guillotine—which replaced the gallows and reduced death ‘to a visible, but instantaneous event’—as mechanisms that crafted ‘not so much … a real body capable of feeling pain as … a juridical subject.’10 This was a body that now served ‘as an instrument or intermediary’ and that one ‘no longer touched …. or at least as little as possible, and then only to reach something other than the body itself.’11 The culminating thesis offered through this genealogy is, as Foucault explains, a radically reconfigur(ing) social fabric: one in which ‘a political technology of the body’12 and a ‘correlative history of the modern soul’13 coincide with the apprehension of disciplinary techniques of power. The biopolitical applications of Foucault’s study to what performance theorist Mathew Causey has called the ‘postdigital condition’ have been well considered.14 While Foucault’s interests land in the birth of modern disciplinary systems—which include, but also extend far beyond, penitentiary systems—Causey characterises, from a performance perspective, their afterglow: what he describes as a shift from celebrating the ‘potentially liberated subject in the space of technology’ to a ‘reification of the ideology of a neoliberal electronic capitalism wherein the individual, or data subject, is digitally duplicated as a singular and unified producer, product, and consumer in service to the virtual economy … [in which] a more intense though limited model of identity is being performed.’15 Jonathan Crary’s recent genealogy not of punishment, but of sleep— shows just how intensely this model of high-performing subjectivity has been installed, identifying sleep as both a symptom and method of the practices of identity conditioning underscored by the electronic capitalism that Causey describes. Crary’s earlier work on the shifts in perception brought about by modern technologies of vision, and in particular the temporal aptitudes they underscored, significantly forecast this more recent focus.16 In many ways, the postdigital manipulation of sleep appears as the last frontier in which disciplinary techniques of power tap into—to paraphrase Foucault—the political technologization of everybody and the erasure of the (post)modern soul. This is because, as Crary



points out, ‘sleep is the only remaining barrier, the only enduring ‘natural condition’ that capitalism cannot eliminate.’17 Foucault’s thesis interestingly begins in the French annals of the 1757 public execution of Robert-François de Damiens, a servant who attempted assassination of Louis XV. Foucault’s book in fact opens with a vivid chronicle of the obscenity of the event, quoting an officer of the watch at length: ‘Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.’18 Importantly, the mythology carried by the public record of this execution also characterises de Damiens as remaining alive for most of the process of his execution: the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive.19

Bouton’s account of de Damiens being alive once dead leads Foucault to emphasise that the spectacle of punishment worked on public spectators by producing an understanding of the subjectivity of the criminal: destroying the body, but not the mind was the object of the exercise. With that, a public built out of abject fear rather than ongoing, incipient control, was delivered. Crary, like Foucault, includes in the opening pages of his study a similarly obscene scene of torture. The account is a record of the modern torture techniques enacted by the US Military on September 11 suspect, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who has been held in Guantanamo prison since 2002. As part of this process, al-Qahtani was: deprived of sleep for most of the time during a two-month period, when he was subjected to interrogations that often lasted twenty hours at a time. He was confined, unable to lie down, in tiny cubicles that were lit with high-intensity lamps and into which loud music was broadcast. Within the military intelligence community these prisons are referred to as Dark Sites, although one of the locations where al-Qahtani was incarcerated was codenamed Camp Bright Lights.20

While Crary’s study does not bookend Foucault’s with an interest in punishment per se, it does offer an analogy that points to—via the study



of sleep in contexts of military torture and beyond—an alternate vision of social governance which relies upon the destruction of (or control over) the mind, while keeping the body intact. While de Damiens was physically destroyed, his mind and soul, Foucault seems to imply, were not. Sleep torture, explains Crary, alternatively involves: ‘the violent dispossession of self by external force, the calculated shattering of an individual.’21 He continues: These are techniques and procedures for producing abject states of compliance, and one of the levels on which this occurs is through the fabrication of a world that radically excludes the possibility of care, protection, or solace.22

Drawing corollaries between Al-Qahtani’s torture and a 24/7 digital culture of non-sleep, Crary further describes the conditioning characteristics of both as encompassing ‘a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning. It is a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time.’23 From the highly spectacular public torture of de Damiens in 1757 to the concealed but nonetheless hyper-illuminated scene of Al-Qahtani’s torture in 2002, is inscribed a trajectory of power which concerns not only brutality but its specific formation in the intersecting cultural economies of visibility and temporality, as they are seen to condition human subjectivities. And as Crary makes clear, this form of power is omnipresent, manifest in more than military contexts, to operate in the paradoxes of the expanding, nonstop life-world of twenty-first-century capitalism – paradoxes that are inseparable from shifting configurations of sleep and waking, illumination and darkness, justice and terror, and from forms of exposure, unprotectedness, and vulnerability.24

In what follows I suggest that it is in view of these two torture scenes that the ‘White Bear’ episode performs a reappearance of the historical relationship between punishment and public spectacle by using it to produce ‘the nonstop life-world of twenty-first-century capitalism.’25 More specifically, it reveals the staging of punishment for public consumption as a bringing back into view—a return or re-enactment, even—of the formerly ‘disappeared’ (to use Foucault’s words) ‘great spectacle of physical punishment’ as a mechanism of social control.26 I suggest that this



return occurs through a process that involves not only the digital remediation of torture, but its theatricalised, deremediation—a term I expand upon in closing. I draw on both Foucault and Crary to suggest that the punitive methods reactivated in ‘White Bear’ spectacularise ‘the violent dispossession of self by external force, the calculated shattering of an individual,’ a shattering which takes place with the crafting of ‘a time that no longer passes.’27 Further, this violent dispossession must be understood as being not purely physical, nor even psychological. It is a medial violence, one that takes place in the shift between co-constituting phenomena of live- and digitally-based economies as they structure the victim on view, and thereby the spectatorial-social.

Scenario 1: Terror in the Estate The White Bear episode begins with Victoria Skillane waking up to her own amnesia. She is sitting on a chair, in what appears to be the early morning, and the house she is in seems unfamiliar. Her hair is brittle, her face strained, her head pounding. Her whole physicality expresses a violent kind of exhaustion. The camera aligns our gaze with her unfolding perspective. Her eyes timidly cast themselves around the bedroom. Her wrists are bandaged and there are pills spilled on the floor below. We make assumptions—or deductions—as she does. She possibly attempted suicide last night. Her eyes scan further. A television screen with a hovering image of a strange icon whistles static in the background. She moves downstairs. There are some running shoes (apparently hers) set askew on the floor and there is a framed photograph of a couple (apparently including her) on the mantelpiece, in front of which is a stand-alone school photograph of a young girl. We make assumptions—or deductions—as she does. This is possibly her house. This is most possibly her child. This is possibly the aftermath of an atrocious event. She collects the photograph and moves outside. Outside is recognisable as a British council housing estate. This is a space where the lines between domestic intimacy and community familiality are forged. Neighbours can see neighbours from upstairs windows and across yard spaces. These spaces are designed so that everybody checks in on everybody else—everybody knows each other’s business. Everybody is either in a network of support or is in competition to move up the social ladder—or both. In this estate, however, there appears to be no one around. Victoria calls out, but there is no answer. The apparent



absence of all other humans for a moment suggests—given the preoccupations of the Black Mirror genre—some kind of apocalypse. But then figures come into view. Or rather, their viewing comes into view. Victoria is being watched. Up above in the neighbour’s house two people watch her from upstairs, their phones poised recording the action. They are mute, they do not respond, they do not act. They just watch and record. Victoria notices other watchers. They begin to swarm, following her in a zombie-like state that increases her torment the more they refuse to communicate. As the camera-wielding horde builds, a car arrives carrying a team of bandits. Wearing masks and brandishing homemade weapons (one appears to be a meat carver and another, later, a drill), the vigilantes are instantly differentiated from the watchers by their menacing pursuit of Victoria. Their clothing resembles a Mad Max pastiche and they carry out a disturbingly direct form of violence. We don’t know why, but they are out to kill her. Victoria breaks into a panicked run but seems unsure and feeble. Finally help appears—a woman, Jem (played by Tuppence Middleton) and a man, Damien (Ian Bonar) pull her aside, explaining in small bursts that the horde have been hypnotised by a signal emitted from a central system. A ploy is put to Victoria: they need to break into the White Bear facility and neuter its brainwashing signal. Together they escape and try to lock themselves in a service station. The bandits break through and kill Damien. They run again and this time are picked up by a man (played by Michael Smiley) who has arrived in a van. It is here that Victoria begins to recall certain familiar moments. These momentary lapses of amnesia precipitate the true horror to come: the van rescuer becomes an abductor. He pulls a gun on Victoria and orders her into the woods, where she sees with anguish the degrading corpses of other victims suspended like religious icons on the trees around her.

Terrified Subjectivities The spectatorial experience of watching these opening scenes of ‘White Bear’ is developed through the simultaneously withholding of central information from viewers as well as the main character. As an audience, viewers are unsure of the relationship between Victoria’s amnesia, her increasing terror and the zombie-mob culture that surrounds her. The world to which she has awoken is eerily absent of a recognisable sociality and is instead marked by an increasingly perverse organisation of visuality—Foucault’s carceral network now realised as a digitally-conditioned



totalitarianism. It seems that whatever has formerly rendered Victoria’s memory blank is the same entity that pursues Victoria now. On the one hand, this narrative device creates tension by keeping essential information out, leading viewers to try to piece together aspects of the world and action that are on view. In addition—and importantly—it invites spectators to identify with and invest in the character of Victoria, not because she is victimized per se, but because viewers do not know what she also does not know: they are both sympathetically positioned in the ruse of the narrative together. In fact it is for a full 27 minutes (which is two-thirds of the episode) that both Victoria and screen viewers are kept in the dark. Victoria’s amnesia is one narrative device that contributes to the creation of what I want to frame as her increasingly ‘terrified’ subjectivity. By describing a specific form of subjectivity as terrified, I aim to draw connections between the kinds of subjectivity (or characterisation, for these purposes) that both express fear, and the kinds that are broken down or annihilated by the process of experiencing that fear. Put differently: it is a form of subjectivity that exists only insofar as it has already been, or is in the process of being—to borrow Crary’s words –‘shattered.’28 It is key that it is this form of subjectivity that anchors the various other forms of social, punitive and commercial practice that are revealed to surround it in the ‘White Bear’ world. And this to some extent includes, by extension, the viewing practices of those of us at home. ‘Terrifying’ in this sense draws on both contemporary definitions (‘to cause to experience great fear’) and now obsolete derivations (‘to make terrible’).29 The ‘White Bear’ episode’s exhibition of Victoria’s terrified subjectivity is both: the evolution of her fear, responding to an increasingly sinister scenario, is what ‘makes terrible’ or ‘shatters’ her subjectivity before the watchers’ (including our) eyes. While not many things are yet clear, these opening scenes establish the sense that Victoria’s terror is being instigated for the watchers, who knew—even desired—to expect it. Viewers on the fan site consistently comment on the discomfort created by the actor Lenora Crichlow’s interpretation of Victoria, who begins the episode portraying a state of bewilderment, exhaustion and fear, and then rapidly crescendos into a relentless expression of breathless, sobbing, distress.30 One viewer comments that ‘it has [sic] her constant crying and screaming. I muted some parts, because i couldn’t stand her’; another replies: ‘I had to mute her constant screaming and sobbing. Maybe the point was to annoy the viewer so much that they became desensitized to her pain as much as the onlookers



filming her.’ Another offers: ‘the screaming did make me want to look away. It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and I think that was the point,’ and further: ‘I was actually shocked when it just. Kept. Going.’ As these comments suggest, the unnerving of spectators seems to register on a somatic level, as if the sound as well as imagery of relentless crying works to exhaust viewers’ kinaesthetic as well as cognitive systems, creating what Susan Leigh Foster has called, in contexts of dance spectatorship, a form of ‘kinaesthetic empathy’31 in which viewers affectively experience what performers’ bodies are feeling (or in some cases kinaesthetic dissonance— as in ‘I had to turn it off’). This intensified relationship generated by Victoria’s relentless sobbing is key to how the plot reveal that takes place at the end of the episode also works as a medial reveal: as a shift in perception engaged by how that perceptual apparatus has itself been conditioned by specific media. Here I am suggesting that the kinaesthetic attunement of spectators to the durational construction of Victoria’s increasingly terrified subjectivity is central to how the final plot reveal is not only characterised, but experienced. As a reveal that overturns previously understood assumptions, it works on both narrative and medial registers. It is a reveal produced within a medium, about that medium—and viewers experience it as such. The terrifying of Victoria’s subjectivity and the duration of her torment can be understood with reference to Foucault’s observations surrounding disciplinary systems as managers of the bodies of the ‘criminal’ as well as the ‘social’—but also, importantly, of time. As the reddit comments make clear, it is Victoria’s continuous weeping that contributes to how we sense or experience the duration of the sequence. While her torment produces a visual spectacle, it additionally becomes clear that it is used to actualise a particular construction of time, one that emblematises the paradoxes ‘of the expanding, nonstop life-world of twenty-first-century capitalism,’32 key to which is the inexhaustible production of relations between productivity (labour) and its counterpart, continuous spectacle. As the pursuit of Victoria intensifies, it seems increasingly unrelenting— both within the terms of the individual sequence that she experiences (she is pushed beyond exhaustion, but keeps on going), and because of the fact that we learn that it is to be endlessly repeated (this inexhaustibility happens daily). As one reddit viewer has commented: ‘This is basically a death sentence dragged out. That much running around and panic, sleep deprivation, and never getting proper food or hydration.’ It further becomes apparent that it is Victoria’s performance—the enactment of her



terrified subjectivity—that works to prop up not only the justice system operating in this society, but also, its commodity system, such that Victoria’s ontology becomes interpretable as a ‘generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning.’33 In doing so, the duration of her torment becomes an extended spectacle of what I will describe below as not merely capital punishment but ‘capitalised’ punishment. Victoria’s terrified subjectivity is created as the conditioning medium of the entire social system: its ‘shattering’ is the labour that produces the perceptual framework which commands the camera-gazes of the watchers who follow her, and that gazing is itself entangled with both punitive and economic outcomes.

Scenario 2: Exhibitionary Redux As the final sequence of the ‘White Bear’ episode comes into view, it becomes clear that the ‘beyond’ of clock time that Victoria’s terrified subjectivity creates while being pursued is in service of a broader social system. Towards the end of Victoria’s journey and at the point where we perceive her imminent success (along with Jem) in breaking into the White Bear facility and neutering the hypnotising signal, this self-rescue attempt—which is also framed as being one of social emancipation—is thwarted. The bandits bust into the compound, and just when Victoria finally seems able to summons the physical and emotional courage she has so far been lacking, the gun she grabs and fires shoots out confetti instead of a bullet. In narrative terms, there is a moment when home viewers regret Victoria’s failure. We dread the comeuppance of her failure and we expect a gruesome death to follow at the hands of violent, masked tormenters. However, this anticipated resolution is swiftly and literally upstaged by the eruption of the scene-behind-the-scenes underlying Victoria’s terrifying pursuit. Indeed, as she slowly processes the shift from being the subject of a deadly pursuit, to being the subject of a theatrical stage, the revelation of a qualitatively different kind of viewing public is now brought into view. We learn that Victoria is the object of Justice Park, a theme park that combines entertainment with the public spectacle of administering punishment for criminals. We also learn—through references to news media reports that are played next to Victoria on stage—that Victoria was allegedly an accomplice in a notorious crime: the torture and murder



of a young child. She allegedly filmed the sequence while her boyfriend committed the act, which ostensibly began when the little girl lost her white toy bear. As the ruse of a hyper-surveillant culture which programs zombie-like humans to give chase to innocent victims gives way to the realisation of the form of sociality complicit in the conceit of Justice Park, we understand that the key players in the episode so far—accomplice Jem and ‘killed’ Damien—are actually paid actors, who now take their bows and receive applause as they publicly shame Victoria with the details of a crime she cannot remember committing. Her abductor in the van (played by Michael Smiley) is actually Baxter, director of the whole event. We further understand that the hordes of zombie-like chasers who have so far tormented Victoria, are really paying spectators. They have pre-empted Victoria’s terror by being cast in the roles of relentlessly livestreaming bystanders, having been inducted into a pre-scripted narrative and provided rules and expectations of behaviour that the episode now recalls via flashback. They also included specific instructions offered by the ebullient Baxter and his actor-team around the use of their media devices, reminding the spectators to be sure to take lots of photographs. The world portrayed in Justice Park seems to be characterised by a kind of nostalgic thespianism: the actors take curtain calls before a living, watching audience; Baxter the director wears brown corduroy and a neck tie; they cue the audience with guidelines and rules of spectator behaviour relevant to theme park rides or the rules in a gallery and they also offer big theatrical speeches as they finally parade Victoria through the simulated streets of the park and back to her so-called home, where she will be prepared (via electrical brain stimulation that erases memory) to ‘perform’ again tomorrow. Baxter’s final act, in fact, as he ‘presets’ the scene for the following day’s performance, is to mark off the calendar in this mock home—an indication that this routine has no end in sight and that the whole system is entirely dependent on Victoria being both alive but inexhaustibly terrified for the spectacle to continue. As we are cast from one form of dystopia into a very different form of dystopia, it becomes clear that the situation in which Victoria now finds herself builds upon an interlaced matrix of various performative lineages: the spectacle of public punishment that Foucault argues disappeared with the arrival of the carceral complex in the mid-eighteenth century, and the disciplinary function of cultural institutions circumscribed by what Tony Bennett has since called the ‘exhibitionary complex’ which he argues, were produced in tandem with the spectacle’s demise. While Foucault’s



study begins with the disappearance of the spectacle of public punishment, it concomitantly tracks the disappearance of a particular kind of viewing public. He underscores the theatricality of the scaffold, describing how it offered a ‘punitive theatre in which the representation of punishment was permanently available to the social body’34 and that in cases of physical torture the example was based on terror: physical fear, collective horror, images that must be engraved on the memories of the spectators, like the brand on the cheek or shoulder of the condemned man.35

With the institution of the carceral network, the form of social control attained through visual spectacles of pain, Foucault goes on to explain, became less invested in the crafting of a public managed through images of fear and instead invested in strategies of surveillance and self-surveillance, facilitated by: a great enclosed, complex and hierarchized structure that was integrated into the very body of the state apparatus. A quite different materiality, a quite different physics of power, a quite different way of investing men’s bodies had emerged.36

Foucault further stresses that ‘the lesson, the discourse, the decipherable’ that emerged as part of the disciplinary system were also responsible for the production of managed time—or what Foucault has called ‘profitable durations.’37 In his examination of the production of the docile social subject, he asks: How can one capitalize the time of individuals, accumulate it in each of them, in their bodies, in their forces or in their abilities, in a way that is susceptible of use and control? How can one organize profitable durations?38

In Tony Bennett’s study, the Foucauldian account of panoptic power as it constructs a docile social body is evident not just in hidden institutions such as the modern penitentiary, but in forms of late nineteenth century spectacle that he associates with modern cultural institutions which implemented the performance of knowledge as both a socially stratifying process and as a temporalizing mechanism. Interestingly, Bennett identifies in the emergence of the cultural institution a shift from private



ownership of items of knowledge to their public display, and also a merging of this performance of knowledge with practise of entertainment. Bennett aligns the new public access to museums with a suite of aligned cultural practices. These concerned the dioramic, anthropological as well as technological spectacles encompassed in the show of empiric might demonstrated in world fairs and expositions. Later on, the design of the department store evolved to demonstrate the relationship spun between commodity and spectatorial leisure borne in these early modern institutions. Bennett argues that the imbrication of the panoptic gaze within the leisure cultures of industrial modernity evidenced a ‘complex and nuanced set of relations through which power was exercised and relayed to—and, in part, through and by—the populace.’39 For Bennett, world fairs and expositions in particular engineered new disciplinary formations as well as new technologies of vision, reorganising publics into ‘micro-worlds’ as both seer and seen, which: realized some of the ideals of panopticism in transforming the crowd into a constantly surveyed, self-watching, self-regulating, and, as the historical record suggests, consistently orderly public—a society watching over itself.40

We can understand the conception of Justice Park as operating within a postdigital context that develops around this lineage of modern performance practices. It can be read as a curious amalgamation of living history museums, expositions and theme parks—building on the dioramas of the nineteenth century that Bennett describes, the entertainment facilities that emerged with the fair, as well as Foucault’s directly punitive scaffold. It also demonstrates a secondary shift that Bennett notes: the modelling of social order through entertainment that was initiated with ‘the substitution of observation for participation’ in many such cultural institutions.41 The intertwined observational and participatory economies of the White Bear facility involve producing a form of regulated ‘public’ across tandem models of social discipline and punishment, and these are intimately connected to the generation of capital. Indeed, the merging of techniques of the spectacle of capital punishment with techniques of disciplinary leisure contribute to the formation of a ‘terrified subjectivity’ who



is produced in continuous service to the demand of ‘capitalised punishment’—a nexus intimately connected to the forms of continuous activity that Crary associates with 24/7 cultures of non-sleep. If capital punishment is a form of government-sanctioned death sentence, then capitalised punishment can be understood as a form of punishment in which a private corporation is sanctioned with the decision-making authority as well as capacity to generate material profits from the administration of what appears to be legal justice. While commentators have been quick to observe that the moral code of the ‘White Bear’ society seems to be retribution: Victoria is punished through a mechanism that mirrors the modality of her crime, there are also observations to be made about the neoliberalisation of governance (and vice versa)—connections which are apparent in contemporary examples of punishment (or detention) being administered by corporations for profit as opposed to state-entities. In this case, we can only recognise that the relentless livestreaming of brutal violence enacted upon Victoria for spectatorial pleasure—and indeed the ‘profitable durations’42 generated by her performance of ‘terrified subjectivity’—is part of regular news and social media debates and cycles and their relationship to the ‘nonstop life-world of twenty-first-century capitalism’43 that we experience daily.

Anchoring the Viral Child in Postdigital Culture There are two final threads worth drawing into conversation in relation to the specific form of sociality that is evoked in ‘White Bear.’ These concern the relationship between live and digital media as they are seen to underscore a specific kind of spectatorial and perceptual conditioning experience or public, and connectedly, the figure of the innocent child whose alleged story anchors the social apparatus on view. As Lauren Berlant44 and Kathryn Bond Stockton,45 among many others have noted, children—whether real or imagined, present or absent—anchor perspectives, practices and socialities concerned with the future. Bond Stockton observes the fallacy of the rhetoric that aligns the child-figure with ideals of future-promise along with a fetishised and problematic innocence, instead observing that the contemporary child rather need be understood as ‘queer’ for how they ontologically embody a form of temporality that is paradoxical. She explains: ‘for a century, Anglo-American cultures have deemed the child to be a latency, a certain kind of interval … that the general public thinks it can ‘protect.’’46



Berlant explains how the innocent child in need of protection works as a lever of moral panic and thereby the generation of publics of sentiment. Berlant identifies struggles in the 1980s over child labour and fetal rights discourse in the United States as mobilisers of a politics grounded in the enactment and proliferation of ‘true feeling’ wherein ‘the notion that the feeling self is the true self, the self that must be protected from pain or from history’ produces what she describes as an exclusionary politics of ‘infantile citizenship.’47 As a conservative backlash against the growing rights and visibility of marginalised peoples, Berlant observes instead a ‘counterinsurgent fantasy [enacted] on behalf of ‘traditional American values,’’ struck by the infantile citizen and a rhetoric of exclusionary nationhood. She explains: The nation imagined in this reactive rhetoric is dedicated not to the survival or emancipation of traumatized marginal subjects but, rather, to freedom for the American innocent: the adult without sin, the abducted and neglected child, and, above all, and most effectively, the fetus.48

As Bennett points out via Foucault, the exhibitionary regimes of the nineteenth century were explicitly concerned with the performative dimensions of the rhetoric of progress, both in technological and moral terms. The rhetoric of progress, when envisaged via anthropological displays of ‘uncivilised’ indigenous peoples enslaved to perform in world fairs, produced a disciplined social body that modelled itself through a perceived hierarchy of social, political, economic and ethnological status. Key here is the triangulated relationship between spectatorial practices (looking at an ‘other’ as that produces the vantage of the self), ‘profitable durations’ struck through the production of viewing/leisure time as it was created by performance time, and hierarchies of knowledge, discipline and difference. In a similar way, the figure of the child acts as an anchor for the progress of modernity (indeed Foucault notes the role of the disciplines in forming the modern child) and points to how the performative, animatory child-figure is situated on the spectrum of practices whose performative dimensions, I argue elsewhere, provide foundation for a range of contemporary postdigital or ‘viral’ discourses, anchors and actions.49 ‘The interval’ of no-time produced by the ontology of the innocent child according to Bond Stockton is what enables the seething sociality of the livestreaming public in ‘White Bear’ to gain traction.



Understanding the nature of Victoria’s ‘terrifying’ as it becomes justified through the rhetoric of an ‘infantile subjectivity’ that supports the seething sociality that permits and enacts her torture is key. More so however, is the modality through which that terrifying takes place: it is initiated with her pursuit, it is accelerated with the shift from the violence of surveillance to physical violence, and it is then completed with the overturning of the media apparatus that has so far enveloped her perceived reality. Victoria’s audience operate on the pretense that the terrifying of her subjectivity is justified because she has allegedly destroyed the literal as well as metaphorical figure which gives rise to, and justifies, their existence as a social body: the child. The specific form of Victoria’s punishment is not only retribution for her alleged crime, but is what keeps her in the role of criminal, and hence maintains the spectatorial-social’s identification with its own infantile subjectivity. Victoria’s punishment in this way takes place in the shift between coconstituting phenomena of live- and digitally-based economies as they structure her terrified subjectivity. In his study on dismediation, Martin Harries refers to a 1901 film recording of the demolition of a traditional theatre venue.50 His discussion on ‘Building up and Demolishing the Star Theatre’ understands the film as a metaphor for the relationship between historical change and technologies of representation, where, he argues, ‘the self-conscious display of a possibility of film as a medium happens in relation to the obsolescence of a particular stage.’51 While Harries’ interest is in the aesthetic reinvention of theatre after its destruction by film, his contemplation of the role of theatre—post-cinema, or more broadly, screen media—is useful for how it points to a medium that is—in medial , formal terms—conscious of its evolutionary lineage. Building on Jay Bolter and David Grusin’s notion of remediation as an incorporative function that is inherent to all media,52 ‘dismediation’ instead identifies a media modality (theatre) that is explicitly concerned with the ‘negation of modes of spectatorship associated with the cinema.’53 While this form of theatre, implies Harries, is innately political in that it refutes modes assembled by commercial, mainstream theatre, the notion of dismediation as a negation of modes of spectatorship assembled by a particular medium is useful for how we might read the formal rehabilitation of the live specificity of theatre after the ubiquitous digital media in ‘White Bear.’ He explains:



Displaced as the preeminent medium for narration using human bodies, theater remade itself as a medium for reflection on such narration and on the structures of identification that made that cinema so powerful a force of subjection.54

Elsewhere—and separate to Harries, but similarly building on Bolter and Grusin, I have offered the notion of de-remediation, where I argue that certain forms of theatricality can reveal the coercive properties of mainstream screen/news media at work. De-remediation aims to name the points at which a theatrical medium reveals or undoes the relationships between various media and their coevolutionary histories. Building on Harries’ suggestion that ‘theater remade itself as a medium for reflection … on the structures of identification that made that cinema so powerful a force of subjection,’55 I would suggest that a form of dis- or de-remediation is at work in the stripped back, nostalgically inflected White Bear facility—but that in this case, it is a device enacted through (and upon) the psychological state of Victoria herself. In this sense, the medial revelation is experienced by Victoria in-so-far as she able to perceive ‘the structures of identification’ that have made screen and digital media ‘so powerful a force of subjection.’ It is this revelation that becomes a source of viewing pleasure for spectators. In this respect, the medial violence that takes place upon and through Victoria casts her as a relentlessly living physical sign of a culture infected with a hypercapitalised, neoliberal disciplinary regime that would neither completely disturb the physical or the mental status of her being. Instead it disturbs the mechanism that keeps her symbolically intact as a figure worthy of the spectacle of torture and hate that she relentlessly receives. One might ask—as I do in closing—whether Victoria has committed any crime at all, or whether the environment itself has instrumentalised a fictional crime as fact, for the purposes of social governance outlined above.

Notes 1. Mark Monahan, “Black Mirror: White Bear, Channel 4 Review,” The Telegraph, February 25, 2013, ndradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/9878463/Black-Mirror-White-Bear-Cha nnel-4-review.html. 2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).



3. Foucault, 46. 4. Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations 4 (1998): 73–102. 5. Jonathan Crary, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London, New York: Verso, 2014). 6. Crary, 8. 7. Crary, 74. 8. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 7. 9. Foucault, 8. 10. Foucault, 13. 11. Foucault, 11. 12. Foucault, 24. 13. Foucault, 23. 14. Matthew Causey, “Postdigital Performance,” Theatre Journal 68, no. 3 (2016): 428. 15. Causey, 429–30. 16. See Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001). 17. Crary, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 74. 18. Bouton in Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 3. 19. Bouton in Foucault, 5. 20. Crary, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 6. 21. Crary, 7. 22. Crary, 8. 23. Crary, 8. 24. Crary, 8. 25. Crary, 8. 26. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 14. 27. Crary, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 7–8. 28. Crary, 7. 29. “Terrifying—Wiktionary,” accessed August 13, 2019, https://en.wiktio 30. “Rewatch Discussion—White Bear,” Reddit, 2017, bear/. 31. Susan Leigh Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2011). 32. Crary, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 8. 33. Crary, 8. 34. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 109. 35. Foucault, 110. 36. Foucault, 115–16. 37. Foucault, 109.



38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44.

45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55.

Foucault, 157. Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” 76. Bennett, 81. Bennett, 98. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 157. Crary, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 8. Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling,” in Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics and the Law, ed. Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 49–84. Kathryn Bond Stockton, “The Queer Child Now and Its Paradoxical Global Effects,” GLQ 22, no. 4 (2016): 505–39. Bond Stockton, 513. Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling,” 56–57. Berlant, 55. Bryoni Trezise, “Troubling the Image-Work of Children in the Age of the Viral Child,” Jeunesse 10, no. 1 (2018): 22–40. Martin Harries, “Theater After Film, or Dismeditation,” ELH 83, no. 2 (2016): 345–61. Harries, 345. Jay Bolter and David Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999). Harries, “Theater After Film, or Dismeditation,” 359. Harries, 352. Harries, 352.

Facial Obfuscation and Bare Life: Politicizing Dystopia in Black Mirror Grant Bollmer

Popular commentary and criticism of Black Mirror tends to focus on its speculative technological design, assuming the show is locating technology, and only technology, as the source of the ills it depicts. As one writer has claimed: The thing is, for all its conceptual complexity – for all of the surprise twists and third-act reversals, for all of the high-concept premises and alarming escalations, Black Mirror’s messages are usually pretty simple. Cell phones? Bad. Reality shows? Bad. Social media? Really bad. Politics as entertainment? Definitely bad, but not ultimately as disturbing as entertainment-style justice. Oh, sure, the setup and the execution of those ideas is impressive, but the show’s primary crutch is too often that it uses thought-provoking and fascinating foundations in order to reach the simplest, most alarmist possible conclusion about a variety of technological innovations.1

Against this, I want to suggest, in Black Mirror technology is a narrative alibi that motivates reflections on the limits (and potentials) of human

G. Bollmer (B) Department of Communication, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




desires about interpersonal, social, and cultural relations—relations that exist in the present. It’s clear that a number of general themes have repeated throughout the show—themes that aren’t inherently ‘technological’ in essence—including spectacle and politics, intimate relationships and romance, and the reinvention of state power. Yes, any novel meditation on these themes emerges through engagement with a range of potential technologies. But these ‘potentials’ almost always have some analogue in what already exists. Rather than a critique of technology in and of itself, this suggests meditations on particular ways of understanding human limitations, using dystopia to inquire about the imagination of social, biological, and interpersonal aspects of life as limits to correct. In this chapter, I’m first interested in thinking about how we understand dystopia, and how popular depictions of technology and the future are, following Raymond Williams, an expression of a ‘structure of feeling’ that cannot be reduced entirely to—but also cannot be separated from—the material actuality of media’s physical effects.2 But, given the sort of hopelessness dystopia implies, what are the politics of dystopia? Can it provide something to help us change our current moment? Does dystopia offer materials that can be shaped into something emancipatory, or is it merely pessimistic, fatalistic? Second, I’m going to follow a specific theme that recurs in Black Mirror, using it to think about the politics of dystopia: not facial recognition as a technology of surveillance, but facial obfuscation—the obscuring or distorting facial visibility—as a technique of isolating bodies and annihilating the humanity of others. While a number of artists have embraced obfuscation as a means to resist the visual culture of surveillance, several episodes of Black Mirror, specifically White Christmas (2014) and Men Against Fire (2016), can be seen to challenge a simplistic opposition of visibility and opacity. I’m interested in interpreting these episodes by way of Giorgio Agamben’s theories of ‘bare life’ in his Homo Sacer series, and how Agamben’s turn towards questions of the ‘inoperative’ and the ‘destitute’ can, perhaps, provide a different mode of politics than that assumed in artistic critiques of surveillance.3 Or, my main goal here is to sketch how Black Mirror’s dystopian futures point not towards fatalism, but to a radically different politics than assumed with the opposition of dominance and resistance—a politics that Agamben begins to move towards at the conclusion of Homo Sacer.



The Uses of Dystopia Dystopian form permits a disavowal, one that suggests Black Mirror is merely a set of (mostly depressing) flights of fancy, a disavowal not unlike the one Fredric Jameson identifies when discussing utopian science fiction. Utopian fiction, for Jameson, implies otherness and difference. A utopian world is, by definition, not ours, regardless of any parallels that may be implied. It aims, Jameson suggests, ‘at imagining, and sometimes even at realizing, a system radically different from this one.’4 I’d hesitate to emphasize any particular politics inherent to a genre (that is, it’s possible to have both left-leaning and right-leaning utopias, both leftleaning and right-leaning dystopias), and the history of utopian fiction is complicated. Thomas More’s Utopia, for instance, moves between depicting a society founded around ideas of social justice that More seemed to believe and satirizing those same beliefs.5 Most examples of utopian fiction follow this contradictory model, existing somewhere between satire and statements of ideals. If utopia is about imagining and bringing into being a different world, and is thus ‘progressive’ in some sense, dystopian science fiction is then, perhaps, conservative. It aims to imagine, and even prevent, the emergence of a system it detects not as radically other than our present, but as emergent from tendencies immanent to the contemporary. Author Kim Stanley Robinson has claimed, ‘Dystopias are the flip side of utopias… Dystopia is very clearly a kind of satire. Archilochus, the first satirist, was said to be able to kill people with his curses. Possibly dystopias hope to kill the societies they depict.’6 This conservative impulse is longstanding. As Georges Bataille once wrote, ‘It has always been possible to say, “The moral emptiness of today’s world is appalling.” To some degree the fact of never being assured defines the future, just as that of having an impenetrable night ahead of one defines the present.’7 Speculative fiction, then, generally implies a relation to the future, be it of desire or uncertainty. How this relation manifests itself is specific to a particular context and tells us something about the politics of fiction at a specific moment in time. Criticisms of Black Mirror that focus only on its apparent technological determinism neglect that televisual representations of technology (and fictional, narrative depictions of technology, in general) are interesting not because they show us material truth, but because they inscribe and depict what Raymond Williams memorably



termed the ‘structure of feeling,’ a range of variable (and loose) ‘structures’ that reveal ‘meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt.’ These structures include: Characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity.8 For Williams, art, literature, and popular culture are particularly important places to find the structure of feeling, as fiction and art ‘cannot without loss be reduced to belief-systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships, though it may include all these as lived and experience, with or without tension, and it also evidently includes elements of social and material (physical or natural) experience which may lie beyond, or be uncovered or imperfectly covered by, the elsewhere recognizable systematic elements.’9

Of course, Black Mirror is not the only dystopia widely popular today, and the popularity of dystopian fiction should be somewhat alarming. Yet this tendency can probably be traced to the emergence of cyberpunk and other kinds of ambivalent dystopias in the 1980s, and even prior to then with punk in the 70s, suggesting the emergence and perpetuation of a general feeling of technological and social impoverishment without futurity or temporality.10 Or, the popularity of dystopia as a popular fictional form should suggest a widespread feeling that we should work to prevent the future from coming into being. Lawrence Grossberg has argued that the current conjuncture is characterized by ‘undermining even the possibility of imagining other futures connected to the present and of appealing to the imaginative power of the future,’11 leading to a perpetual present with no clear alternative. Mark Fisher, drawing on Franco Berardi, has suggested that our present is characterized by a ‘slow cancellation of the future,’12 in which whatever ‘new’ that may exist appears only via an anachronistic pastiche of the past; alternative possibilities for the present appear only as the remnant of ghosts from futures that never arrived. While Fisher’s arguments certainly characterize a number of Black Mirror episodes (Bandersnatch and San Junipero being the most obvious), what seems to be at stake with dystopian fiction is a desire to stop the future from arriving. It’s not so much that a future cannot be imagined, but the future that is imagined can only be worse than the present, and thus the very idea of futurity should be resisted.



While the 1990s may have been characterized by feelings of optimism about technology and the new millennium, at least by those who saw their lives linked with profit from the emergence of the mass internet and the tech industry, the failure of many of these techno-utopian dreams to manifest seems to have resulted in a particular affective state—an overwhelming sadness. We can see one expression of this sadness in Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies, where he describes the broad linkages of sensors and home appliances commonly referred to as the ‘internet of things:’ It seems strange to assert that anything as broad as a class of technologies might have a dominant emotional tenor, but the internet of things does. That tenor is sadness. When we pause to listen for it, the overriding emotion of the internet of things is a melancholy that rolls off of it in waves and sheets… Implicit in its propositions is a vision of inner states and home lives alike savaged by bullshit jobs, overcranked schedules and long commutes, of intimacy stifled by exhaustion and the incapacity or unwillingness to be emotionally present. The internet of things in all of its manifestations so often seems like an attempt to paper over the voids between us, or slap a quick technical patch on all the places where capital has left us unable to care for one another.13

Similar claims have been made by other theorists addressing contemporary technology and emotion.14 I’ve argued that the general context of social media, and the ‘connectivity’ on which it appears to rely, assumes human beings to be little more than ‘things’ to generate and transmit data to other impersonal, abstract ‘things.’15 Thus, the sadness here should be understood as a failure to imagine the current social, technological, and economic trajectory as leading anywhere but towards an intensification of the same impersonal, instrumental, and exhausting conditions that seem to characterize contemporary life. Black Mirror arrives at a moment in time characterized by a widespread feeling that human relations have become devalued to the point of no return, through a heavily rationalized subsumption of everyday life by technologically articulated capitalism, in which the only ‘solution’ given appears to be more technology, more capitalism, more of the same but worse. This feeling of sadness extends backwards towards the social failures of the late 1970s and the 1980s, and it certainly includes the technological, but cannot be reduced to it. Rather, this sadness places the technological alongside the economic, the social, the political, and



beyond, characteristic of a larger context—what Williams referred to as a ‘whole way of life’—that unites practices and ideologies, materialities, and imaginaries.16 These dystopias, however, emerge from the privilege of living in a technologically advanced, generally wealthy nation. As Robinson argues, when we consume the tragedies depicted in dystopian fiction, we’re experiencing a ‘kind of late-capitalist, advanced-nation schadenfreude about those unfortunate fictional citizens whose lives have been trashed by our own political inaction. If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.’17 This does not mean that dystopia should be ignored as little more than another example of privilege, but it does mean that the anxieties dystopia tends to express emerge from a structure of feeling specific to the generally bourgeois societies of the global north, and may express a perverse pleasure in the knowledge that, even if contemporary life feels bad, it can always get worse. The optimism of the 1990s has revealed itself to be a temporary delusion in a larger trajectory characterized by downward mobility, increasing anxiety and depression, burnout, economic instability and collapse, and technologized solutions to technological problems. Black Mirror is best thought of as a symptom, expressive of a wider range of bad feelings about the future and the potentials of consumer technology to do anything other than exacerbate the problems that have marked the last several decades.18 So, what of the specific claims Black Mirror makes about technology and social relations? What are the particular futures it seeks to prevent? And, in looking at these futures, what can this tell us about how we should understand dystopia? Is it merely another form of fatalist withdrawal, or does dystopian fiction imply the latent possibility of ensuring these futures will not come to pass? Robinson—though he finds the dystopian to be lazy and impoverished as a narrative mode—suggests that it may be a kind of negative politics containing covert promises: ‘Since nothing seems to work now, why not blow things up and start over? This would imply that dystopia is some kind of call for revolutionary change.’19 Against those who see dystopia and bad futures as an inherent problem with our present imagination, foreclosing politics in the name of hopelessness—in which a new futurism is the only alternative to catalyze political struggle—is there some potentiality in a narrative form that works to resist the encroachment of state and capital via consumer technology through the propagation of negative imaginaries? Or does this merely speak to an increasing rise of an inescapable nihilism across the planet?



In the remainder of this chapter, I focus on the theme of facial obfuscation, or the use of facial recognition technologies not to identify, but to both identify and obscure to the point of indiscernibility. This theme is explicitly depicted in the Black Mirror Series 2 holiday special White Christmas and the Series 3 episode Men Against Fire, addressing the use of facial obfuscation for different ends, each depicting a technology roughly analogous to actually existing technologies or practices.20 But Black Mirror’s depiction of facial obfuscation can be seen throughout the entire series, beginning with the episodes The Entire History of You (2011), from Series 1, and The Waldo Moment (2013), from Series 2. I’m going to briefly chart how facial recognition is often understood by theorists of facial recognition and surveillance, and how obfuscation, especially in the form developed by a range of contemporary artists, is understood as a political act that subverts these technologies. I’ll then turn to how facial obfuscation is depicted throughout Black Mirror and suggest that these episodes challenge the argument often held by artists and theorists who see obfuscation as a tactic for resisting surveillance. In focusing on these three episodes, I interpret arguments about surveillance and visibility through Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of ‘bare life,’ as developed throughout his Homo Sacer series. I ultimately argue that Black Mirror demonstrates how technologies of facial recognition do not simply render visible, but also modulate the possibilities of visibility and invisibility beyond commonly accepted binaries, determining who is ‘included’ and ‘excluded’ via forms of technically enhanced aesthetic judgement. I’ll conclude by turning to Agamben’s final volume of the Homo Sacer series, The Use of Bodies,21 and how he suggests that the way out of this kind of political impasse is not to resist bare life and the state, but to render these concepts ‘inoperative’ and ‘destitute.’ This emphasis on inoperativity and destitution requires us to rethink the politics of utopia and dystopia, along with the politics of resistance implied by attempts to subvert facial recognition technologies. Thus, Black Mirror challenges a typical understanding of an oppression/resistance binary that has characterized leftist thought for so long. The exhaustion of this binary is intrinsically linked with the rise of dystopian narratives in the past decade or two. Rather than either embrace helplessness, withdrawal, or annihilation, we need a different kind of politics today. Black Mirror does not depict this different politics, of course. What television show could? But it does point to the necessity of a kind of



politics that does not defer to individualized resistance as the only choice in political struggle.

Facial Recognition and Facial Obfuscation Facial recognition technologies have existed for quite a while at this point, linked with, Kelly Gates tells us, larger attempts ‘to teach computers to “see” the human face—to develop automated systems for identifying human faces and distinguishing them from one another, and for recognizing human facial expressions.’22 This history, however, is not singular, and technologies for facial recognition have been developed with a range of radically different intentions. Some computer scientists have used facial recognition to permit computers to identify emotions and appear to ‘feel,’ responding to human users in relationship to human emotions, ether with the goal of creating more sophisticated or ‘natural’ human–computer interactions, or for purposes of therapy.23 The military, state government, and law enforcement have often viewed the same set of technologies as a means for automating lie detection and surveillance, delegating the detection and elicitation of ‘truth’ to seemingly neutral computers rather than the subjective judgements of individual humans. Both of these goals are questionable from particular ethical and political perspectives. The former not only obscures the agency of computers in the name of a ‘friendly’ or ‘caring’ interface that conceals the materiality of digital culture from experience,24 but is also used to ‘correct’ autism through the computerized teaching of facial expressions.25 The use of facial recognition by the military, state, and police has been regularly criticized, and not merely because it rarely works as effectively as is imagined.26 On one hand, facial recognition technologies descend from the pseudosciences of phrenology and physiognomy, which created discriminatory classifications of individuals based on measurements of skulls and faces, assuming particular appearances to be linked inherently with an interior character, often employed in the service of eugenics.27 On the other, they descend from the archiving of images to create databases of faces and bodies for the purposes of detecting criminality.28 This social function of technologies of identification persists, with computerized, algorithmic systems of pattern recognition deployed to differentiate bodies in terms of social category, identifying particular bodies as risky based on predetermined groupings built into the system.29 Or, facial



recognition seems to be inherently linked with practices of identification and classification that perpetuate the logic of eugenics, phrenology, and physiognomy to identify, isolate, and either confine or correct bodies deemed ‘risky’ for one reason or another. Like other automated systems of computerized policing, facial recognition seems to be part of what Jackie Wang calls a ‘digital carceral infrastructure’ that ‘will be nearly impossible to undo’ as sensors, CCTV cameras, and computers extend further into everyday life, and the automated carceral surveillance state will spread out across the terrain, making greater and greater intrusions into our everyday lives. Not only will the “smart” state have more granular knowledge of our movements and activities, but as the carceral state becomes more automated, it will increase its capacity to process ever-greater numbers of people, even when budgets remain stagnant or are cut.30

The problem here is not an inability to imagine a future, but the ability to envision an emergent future that will be nearly impossible to reverse once implemented. While facial recognition technology is filled with countless biases, errors, and problems that should tell us something about its antidemocratic nature, the continual refinement of its abilities seems to point to a future in which technology is positioned as that which determines the truth of the body and—significantly here—the location of a body as either free or incarcerated, as mobile or stationary. A common solution to these forms of surveillance, seen most often in artistic interventions against surveillance, is to embrace techniques of facial obfuscation. For Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, obfuscation ‘is the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection.’31 The classic example of obfuscation is the military use of chaff, where the pilot of a plane attempts to subvert detection by radar through the deployment of ‘black paper backed with aluminium foil and cut to half the target radar’s wavelength.’32 If the chaff attracts detection by the radar then, for the radar operator, it appears as if the sky is filled with multiple planes, the pilot thus (ideally) escaping detection. Brunton and Nissenbaum identify many digital strategies that follow the model provided by chaff, of evading detection not by concealing oneself, at least directly, but by introducing noise into the system, be it through Twitter bots that generate nonsense, collective pseudonyms, ‘babble tapes’—digital files that contain



numerous voices designed to subvert technologies that detect and isolate speech from background noise—among other techniques often employed to avoid computer tracking. The idea here is that one cannot opt out of the techniques of surveillance used throughout digital culture, and thus the best subversion is to overload the system with useless information. Variants of these tactics can be seen in the works of several artists, including Zach Blas, Sterling Crispin, Adam Harvey, Leo Selvaggio, and Jemima Wyman, all of whom work with masks, clothing, or makeup to camouflage and render the body invisible to technologies of facial recognition, either by subverting the capacity of a technology to identify a face through masks that cannot be seen as faces by computers (as in the case of Blas, Crispin, and Harvey, and to some extent Wyman) or by multiplying faces through mass produced masks, so one’s face cannot be linked with a singular body (in the case of Selvaggio).33 The general idea here is that the contemporary articulation of capital, surveillance, and the state demands the visibility of the face as a source of identification, perpetuated by CCTV cameras and social media via practices such as those associated with selfies. The projects these artists undertake render the body invisible by adding data that confounds automated processes of facial recognition. Among these artists, Blas has written a number of articles explaining his intentions. Édouard Glissant’s arguments about ‘opacity’ in his Poetics of Relation 34 have been formative for his artistic practice: Opacity is an unknowability—and, hence, a poetics, for Glissant—that makes up the world, and it must be defended in order for any radically democratic project to succeed. Glissant defines opacity as an alterity that is unquantifiable, a diversity that exceeds categories of identifiably difference.35

While I generally agree with Blas’s reading of Glissant in this quote, the conflation of this poetic opacity with tactics to avoid detection by computers seems, to me, to be a bit of a misreading. For Glissant, a demand for opacity counters the demand for transparency, the demand to understand someone else as a precondition for relation, a demand that characterizes Enlightenment politics descending from Kant, perpetuated through the norms of the bourgeois public sphere. To enter into public, this model assumes, requires the embrace of particular shared norms and a level of self-abstraction (and self-negation) that renders certain issues, topics, practices, and bodies excluded to the ‘private.’36



Opacity, in rejecting this kind of transparent, public communicative model, merely means to accept difference without hierarchy, to accept the possibility of multiple worlds and ontologies of being that cannot be reduced, to refuse the exclusion of particular modes of being because of their difference from the knowable, shared norm.37 Opacity thus enables multiple, diverse, world-creating relations that expand the narrow myopia of Western politics. While Glissant is explicitly challenging Western, Enlightenment rationality, his arguments are similar to those of other theorists of alterity,38 and he clearly precedes theorizations of indigeneity that stress the multiplicity of ontologies.39 I find it odd to conflate Glissant’s opacity with a literalized invisibility, especially an invisibility towards machines, as there’s a difference between unknowability and invisibility which is neglected in attempts to subvert facial recognition—or, there’s a difference between not being understood by another and simply not entering into phenomenal existence for another. Not only that, conflating opacity with invisibility would enforce the same relegation of particular bodies to an excluded ‘privacy’ that, it seems, Glissant was working to undermine. It’s this distinction—between not understanding and not existing— that I suggest Black Mirror emphasizes with its meditations on facial obfuscation. Affirming an unbridgeable otherness is not the same as enacting strategies that literally obliterate one’s own body from entering into the visible political field. While the annihilation of oneself may appear to be something ‘political’ because it ‘resists’ surveillance, this also means that one effectively removes oneself from having any actual transformative effect on the rest of society. Resistance, here, becomes a kind of total withdrawal, a refusal of relation and a refusal of action. Black Mirror critiques this view and demonstrates the necessity of a different kind of politics.

The Foundations of Facial Obfuscation in Black Mirror Black Mirror’s themes of facial recognition and facial obfuscation begin in some of its earliest episodes, The Entire History of You and The Waldo Moment , though these themes are not developed until later. In The Entire History of You, we see how social relations have been affected by an implanted technology, called a ‘grain,’ that permits individuals to record literally everything they experience, with memories played back directly into one’s eyes or viewed on a screen for others to see. The episode



revolves around personal and romantic relations—around the surveillance of self and intimate partners, and the violence that results from the interpersonal trust evacuated through surveillance, rather than surveillance by the state. Yet, state surveillance is clearly part of the narrative. Early on in the episode we see its main character, Liam (Toby Kebbell), go through airport security. To clear security, Liam has to play his memories back for a security guard, who uses facial recognition technology to identify those with whom Liam has been meeting and socializing, and thus permit him to board his flight (Fig. 1). While almost everyone in the world of this episode has a grain implanted, this scene—one of the first in the episode— implies not that the grain has been popularized because of its ability to increase memory, but because of its role in national security. Obviously, security cannot be circumscribed, and the grain extends into shaping personal relations elsewhere, making private relations public knowledge. The Entire History of You introduces into the Black Mirror universe the idea of a technology whose interface directly relates to vision, with pupils faded and white to indicate one’s vision has been occluded by the technologized screening of past memories. While this episode hints at the relationship this technology has to facial recognition, its main implication (for this chapter, at least) is the introduction of a technology that directly

Fig. 1 In ‘The Entire History of You,’ airport security identifies faces in recorded memories



impacts visual knowledge, and that technologies of vision are implanted with some relation to facial recognition. The Waldo Moment follows a comedian, Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby), who provides the voice and movements—using a ‘remote manipulator’ that, beyond the show, is often referred to as a ‘Waldo’—of a digitally animated bear also named Waldo, as he interviews politicians in the style of Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G. While the episode would seem to be an overt (and hyperbolic) criticism of the kinds of satire perpetuated by Baron Cohen, as Waldo’s cynical attacks on politicians eventually stoke violence and totalitarianism, what’s significant for us is how Waldo’s facial expressions appear to match those of Jamie’s as he operates the bear behind the scenes. While The Waldo Moment more or less seems to suggest that the relation of Waldo to Jamie is one that comes from the physical manipulation of the ‘Waldo’ in Jamie’s hands, the show’s depiction of the technology links Jamie’s facial expressions directly with Waldo’s. This parallel has led a number of journalists to claim that Apple, when it unveiled its Animojis for the iPhone X, had used Black Mirror as a model.40 The iPhone X has what Apple terms a ‘TrueDepth’ camera, which enables it to scan and identify faces. This is the technology that, most notably, allows one to use their face to unlock their iPhone. But the TrueDepth camera also permits Apple to generate animated figures that match one’s face and facial expressions.41 This is not entirely different than the filters employed by Instagram and Snapchat, which use facial recognition to map one’s face and mask it with the various effects these platforms make available.

Bare Life and Obfuscation These themes converge in White Christmas . This episode follows three interlocking narratives: one about a pick-up artist service that uses a technology called ‘Z-Eyes,’ similar to the grain of The Entire History of You, to permit one to see through the eyes of another; another about a digital assistant made out of a copy of one’s consciousness; and a third, also like The Entire History of You, about intimate relationships. What interests me here is how the Z-Eyes, unlike the grain, possess the ability to ‘block’ another person. A fairly obvious analogy to blocking on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media websites, blocking identifies a particular relation between two individuals, enacted by one of the two, and turns both into a blob-like silhouette that only emits muffled noises for each



other. Thus, while blocked individuals still exist as something perceived, one only appears to the other as relatively anonymous and incommunicative, unable to enter into any form of communication or dialogue.42 This idea is central to the third part of the episode—where blocking occurs between a couple after a fight about pregnancy—and would seemingly be a combination of the technologies seen in the two episodes above. On one hand, blocking can only work because the technology can identify who you are, and, on the other, it functions by overlaying another image over one’s body and face, distorting sound, to hide one’s identity if not one’s presence. The combination of a visual implant and facial obfuscation lead to a meditation on criminality, as White Christmas positions blocking as a means of punishment that enacts a barrier of communicative contact between one body and others. It provides an updated permutation of what Giorgio Agamben’s theorizes through the concept of ‘homo sacer,’ a relatively obscure concept from Roman law, of ‘sacred man,’ one who ‘may be killed and yet not sacrificed.’43 Homo sacer is effectively excluded from law—being labelled homo sacer means one is beyond rights and recognition as a citizen—but is also effectively included in law as the status of homo sacer only exists because of its codification as a legal norm. The existence of a figure like homo sacer requires a sovereign who possesses the ability to define what is excluded by law, to define the exception to law, define the limits of legal rights and norms and who is ‘abandoned’ by law: Here what is outside is included not simply by means of an interdiction or an internment, but rather by means of the suspension of juridical order’s validity—by letting the juridical order, that is, withdraw from the exception and abandon it… The relation of exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order.44

Homo sacer exists as a threshold between two particular modes of life, as zo¯e, or ‘bare life,’ contrasted with bios, or ‘qualified life.’ Qualified life is the kind of political life required to participate in a political community, while bare life refers only to the distinction between living and deceased.



‘Today,’ Agamben states, ‘politics knows no value (and, consequentially, no nonvalue) other than life.’45 If we think of this by way of Foucault’s claims about biopolitics, the sovereign power ‘to foster life or disallow it to the point of death,’46 hinge on this distinction between bios and zo¯e. Which lives are fostered as part of a political community? And which are ‘banned’ or ‘abandoned’ to bare life? One of the final scenes of White Christmas provides an instance of how facial obfuscation should be linked with homo sacer and the abandonment of life, where a character is punished for his crimes by being blocked from interacting with literally every other human being he encounters, and is identified not as a white blob, but a red one (Fig. 2). He exists as an exception to state apparatus, both inside and outside, abandoned by social interaction and the state, bare life rather than qualified life. His body rendered speechless and invisible, technology here has delegated the ability to enforce the sovereign exception.47 Facial recognition and obfuscation here are united. One can only be obscured in White Christmas because one consents to the technical system of facial recognition deployed broadly throughout society. This consent vanishes in Men Against Fire. The theme of visual (and sensory) technological augmentation is expanded in this episode, which focuses on

Fig. 2 Abandonment and obfuscation in ‘White Christmas.’ This particular image is the POV view of the individual who has been blocked



soldiers who have been implanted with a ‘MASS’ device (akin in many ways to the grain or Z-Eyes) that permits vastly improved vision, hearing, and smell, along with a visual interface that helps military warfare. The soldiers are tasked with hunting down and exterminating ‘roaches,’ which seem to be humanoid mutants. During one mission, a ‘roach’ points a strange LED device at one of the soldiers, ‘Stripe’ Koinange (Malachi Kirby), which causes his MASS to malfunction (Fig. 3). Eventually, as the MASS is rendered nonfunctional, Stripe comes to realize that he and the other soldiers have been enacting a genocide against humans who are supposedly inferior on a genetic level, and the ‘enhancements’ enabled by MASS have been there to enable soldiers to wipe out others without seeing their humanity, hearing their screams, or smelling their blood. Men Against Fire demonstrates how the politics here are aesthetic, in the sense offered by Jacques Rancière. Aesthetics are about the ‘distribution of the sensible,’ and revolve ‘around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.’48 These partitions of sensibility are obviously at play here. The ability of the soldiers to commit genocide rests on the ability of a particular technology to identify faces and obscure them beyond recognition, preventing the bodies of others from becoming sensible. The sovereign power, in Men Against Fire, maintains its authority through the control of sensation,

Fig. 3 Glitches as the MASS visual interface is broken In Men Against Fire



which renders some lives executable and others to be ‘fostered’ (though in this case ‘fostered’ and ‘life’ refer to little more than actors who unknowingly carry out the will of an authoritarian state). And here we get closer to the problems of obfuscation as a strategy to resist facial recognition— in Men Against Fire we begin to see how tactics that isolate, intentional or not, simply render one beyond any sort of political life.

Conclusion: Destituent Potentiality For Agamben, the exclusion is what legitimates and constitutes the norm. Bare life, rather than something that exists only ‘outside’ law, is the very thing that legitimates the existence of sovereign power. Embracing techniques of facial obfuscation as a means to subvert the state’s use of facial recognition, then—if Black Mirror’s representation of facial obfuscation can be said to have any relation to actually existing politics—would be to locate one’s own body in the position of bare life, of the exception that confirms the norm. It’s this impasse that Agamben turns towards at the end of the final volume of the Homo Sacer series, The Use of Bodies, and it’s the impasse that I see represented in Black Mirror. Rather than focus on the horrors of facial recognition and surveillance alone, Men Against Fire and White Christmas locate facial recognition and facial obfuscation as inherently linked, with one supporting the other, and both used in support of state violence and exclusion. Agamben’s philosophical critique suggests that techniques that attempt to undermine these binaries are likewise doomed to fail. So what is to be done? Is this merely just another point for hopelessness and dystopian exhaustion? The solution Agamben gives, and one that I think is implied by Black Mirror, is to render the binary inoperative and destitute. Inoperative, in the sense Agamben suggests, means to render it ‘unworkable,’ or as a ‘means without ends:’ Politics is that which corresponds to the essential inoperability [inoperosità] of humankind, to the radical being-without-work of human communities. There is politics because human beings are arg¯ os-beings that cannot be defined by any proper operation—that is, beings of pure potentiality that no identity or vocation can possibly exhaust.49



To render something inoperative suggests a deferral to an unknown potentiality that cannot be reduced to particular goals, forms of employment, ‘purposes,’ and so on. It is to embrace a kind of meandering openness that, rather than erase concepts like state and person, bare life and qualified life, simply makes these concepts without a clear purpose or goal. And to render something ‘destitute’ means to call ‘into question the very status of relation, remaining open to the possibility that the ontological relation is not, in fact, a relation.’50 The problem of sovereignty and life, for Agamben, is that sovereignty depends on a relational exclusion. The solution is not to get rid of either sovereignty or life, but to remove the relation between the two, to break apart the negative constitution of modernity. Black Mirror’s dystopias—and perhaps dystopia in general—demonstrate not that there is no hope for the future. Rather, they suggest the particular problem of digital media is their use to achieve particular ends, using human bodies as means in achieving specific, instrumental goals. These goals do not emerge purely from technology—they emerge from particular individual and cultural desires. The solution, then, is not to subvert these desires, but to embrace and open potentiality that renders technology inoperative and the state destitute.

Notes 1. Kathryn VanArendonk, “The Case Against Black Mirror,” Vulture, October 21, 2016, 2. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). 3. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); The Use of Bodies: Homo Sacer IV , 2, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015). Cf. Zach Blas and Jacob Gaboury, “Biometrics and Opacity: A Conversation,” Camera Obscura 31, no. 2 (2016): 155–65; Torin Monahan, “The Right to Hide? Anti-surveillance Camouflage and the Aestheticization of Resistance,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2015): 159–78. 4. Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), xii. 5. Jasper Bernes, “Communism Might Last a Million Years,” Commune, Fall 2018. 6. Kim Stanley Robinson, “Dystopias Now,” Commune, Fall 2018.



7. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 1 (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 147. 8. Williams, Marxism and Literature, 132. 9. Williams, 133. 10. Cf. Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns; On the Historicity of Forms (London: Verso, 2015), 221–37. 11. Lawrence Grossberg, Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics, and America’s Future (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005), 307. 12. Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2013), 6. 13. Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2017), 60. 14. Berardi Franco, After the Future, ed. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011); Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015); Geert Lovink, Sad By Design: On Platform Nihilism (London: Pluto Press, 2019). 15. Grant Bollmer, Inhuman Networks: Social Media and the Archaeology of Connection (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). 16. Williams, Marxism and Literature. 17. Robinson, “Dystopias Now.” 18. It’s worth noting that the only Black Mirror episode with a “happy” ending, San Junipero, ends with two characters who are deceased and effectively no longer part of material life (beyond their existence as, assumedly, corporate-owned “data” in a digital storage facility). 19. Robinson, “Dystopias Now.” 20. Facial obfuscation is also central to the episode “Arkangel,” though its themes are distinct enough from the other two that it would require more detail to analyze than space permits here. 21. Agamben, The Use of Bodies. 22. Kelly A. Gates, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 3. 23. Much of this can be seen in discussions of “affective computing.” See Rosalind W. Picard, Affective Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997). 24. Cf. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Erika Kerruish, “Perception, Imagination and Affect in Human-Robot Relationships,” Cultural Studies Review 22, no. 2 (2016): 4–20. 25. See Julie Tang et al., “Face Recognition and Visual Search Strategies in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Amending and Extending a Recent Review by Weigelt et al.,” PLoS One 10, no. 8 (n.d.), 1371/journal.pone.0134439.



26. Gates, Our Biometric Future. 27. Jenny Edkins, Face Politics (New York: Routledge, 2015). 28. Cf. Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October, no. 39 (1986): 3–64. 29. Clemens Apprich et al., Pattern Discrimination (Lüneburg, Germany: meson press, 2018). 30. Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018), 251. 31. Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 1, original italics. 32. Brunton and Nissenbaum, 8. 33. I thank Yi˘git Soncul for introducing me to the work of these artists. For descriptions and analyses of these artists’ works, see Zach Blas, “Opacities: An Introduction,” Camera Obscura 31 (2016): 149; Blas and Gaboury, “Biometrics and Opacity,” Patricia de Vries, “Dazzles, Decoys, and Deities: The Janus Face of Anti-facial Recognition Masks,” Platform: Journal of Media and Communication 8, no. 1 (2017): 72– 86; Jennifer Rhee, “Adam Harvey’s ‘Anti-Drone’ Wear in Three Sites of Opacity,” Camera Obscura 31, no. 2 (2016): 175–85; Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen, “Quantified Faces: On Surveillance Technologies, Identification and Statistics in Three Contemporary Art Projects,” Digital Culture and Society 2, no. 1 (2016): 169–76; Jasmina Tumbas, “‘The Criticality of Activism Needs to Be Applied to Art’: A Conversation with Jemima Wyman,” Camera Obscura 31, no. 2 (2016): 195–203. 34. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). 35. Blas, “Opacities,” 149. 36. Cf. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002). 37. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190. 38. That is, Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburg, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969); Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity, 2018). 39. Mario Blaser, “Ontology and Indigeneity: On the Political Ontology of Heterogenous Assemblages,” Cultural Geographies 21, no. 1 (2014): 49– 58. 40. Jackie Strause, “How ‘Black Mirror’ Predicted New Apple Technologies,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 12, 2017, https://www.hollywood



41. For an argument about how animoji reproduce the racial logic of classification that characterizes other techniques of facial recognition, see Luke Stark, “Facial Recognition, Emotion and Race in Animated Social Media,” First Monday 23, no. 9 (2018), fm/article/view/9406/7572. 42. This bears a direct resemblance to how Facebook once handled blocking, in which the other appears as a generic, white silhouette on a grey background. 43. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 8. 44. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 18, 28–29. 45. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 10. 46. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 138. 47. This figure bears some similarity to Agamben’s discussion of the Muselmann in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999); and, perhaps, lends some (fictional) support to Agamben’s claim in Homo Sacer that the concentration camp is the biopolitical diagram of modern life. 48. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 8. 49. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 141. 50. Agamben, The Use of Bodies, 271.

Invasive Gaming, Bio-Sensing and Digital Labour in Playtest Gareth Schott and Nick Munn

In the third season of television anthology Black Mirror, the second episode Playtest (2016) charts a likely next step in, and intensification of, intrusive neural data mining. The episode pulls off a sort of technological ‘jump cut’ that shifts audience attention from the technological here-and-now, lived through the lens of a smartphone, to a foreseeable future characterised by a new normality—insertable technologies that mainline and download neural information from the brain. This chapter will reflect on the technological and social realities upon which Black Mirror’s Playtest is constructed. The chapter will firstly point to the current status of bio-sensing measurement and devices that are already reporting on human reactions at an embodied level. Such measures are already allowing digital game experiences to be ‘dynamically modified by the player’s biometric information to increase … cinematically augmented “horror” affordances.’1 The chapter also argues that applications of sensory technology, as sensationalised by the drama of Black Mirror’s technological dilation in Playtest , resonate otherwise reviled

G. Schott (B) · N. Munn University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand e-mail: [email protected] N. Munn e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




social philosophical observations of the past. Behaviourism as formulated by psychologist, inventor and novelist B. F. Skinner sought to impress on the world that our behaviour is a function of environmental history and reinforcement (consequences that strengthen an organism’s future behaviour whenever that behaviour is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus). Within this argument, the notion of an autonomous self is declared a fallacy. The manner in which behaviourist philosophy encapsulates Black Mirror’s exploration of experimentation, stimulus-response and technologies of behaviours in the present and imminent future is demonstrated and discussed.

Episode Synopsis The subject of Black Mirror’s experiment in Playtest is Cooper (Wyatt Russell), a young international traveller seeking escapism and temporary disengagement from his home and family life. The audience is introduced to the episode’s peripatetic protagonist as he sets off and journeys the world. The freedom of passage achieved by Cooper is contrasted with his slavish devotion to checking in, documenting and status updating on his smartphone. In the early part of the episode Cooper is shown experiencing the world through the lens of a smartphone, maintaining his virtual presence and connectivity that ensures that he remains firmly ‘linked in.’ When Cooper later discovers that his funds have been compromised, leaving him with insufficient finances to return home, the phone app Oddjobs appears to provide the solution. This leads to a casual play-testing job with ‘hip’ game company SaitoGemu. At this juncture in the episode Cooper’s perceived and superficial freedom is explicitly restrained as he willingly enters the controlled environment of a lab experiment that resembles the nature of infamous (ethically questionable) psychological experiments conducted up until the 1970s that effectively demonstrated the malleability of human memory and behaviour (e.g. Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience experiments and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’). In Playtest Cooper consents to ingest and test SaitoGemu’s mushroom device implant that enables a variant of affective gaming,2 in which the player’s autonomic system is rendered readable in order to tailor gameplay to the individual. In this instance, the biorobotic implant mines the player’s darkest fears and perceptually overlays them, for the user, in line with the scopic regime of augmented reality. In its refrain



on memory, the episode also knowingly draws on a canon of ‘body’ horror texts that include the digital game series Bioshock (2007–present), Kathryn Bigelow’s (1995) Strange Days and David Cronenberg’s (1991) near-identical game-scenario Existenz. However, Playtest is distinguished from previous treatments of bio-hacking by the manner in which it also successfully encapsulates the present culture of ‘voluntarism’ and ‘intensification of self-commodification.’3 That is, how user-generated content is being redefined and recognised as digital labour that is ‘simultaneously voluntarily given and unwanted, enjoyed and exploited.’4 Playtest serves to ‘articulate the various trajectories of the “lusory attitude” in contemporary cultural practices.’5 While Cooper signed up for paymentfor-play, this particular dark tale of body-technology coupling ends in non-consensual erasure of the distinction between human and data, downloading and wiping memories before frying the motherboard of Cooper’s autonomic self. The compound term of the episode’s title might appear duplicitous in its pairing of play, as a voluntary, intrinsically motivated activity associated with pleasure and enjoyment with the strictures of testing. Yet, as game designer and scholar Eric Zimmerman has observed, the ‘deeply paradoxical interdependence of rules and play is one of the great mysteries that we explore every time we play a game.’6 At the inception of game studies, Jasper Juul was also quick to note that ‘it appears illogical that we would choose to limit our options by playing games with fixed rules.’7 Similarly, critics of otherwise celebratory accounts of online participatory cultures recognise that ‘creative activity and exploitation coexist and interpenetrate one another.’8 Angela McRobbie (2002) has identified this relationship as subsisting under an illusory ‘utopian thread,’ which drives attempts to reconfigure the ‘world of work into something closer to a life of enthusiasm and enjoyment.’9 Ian Bogost’s position statement on the gamification of life states, play is ‘used to conceal, to impress or to coerce.’ He warns that gamification’s ‘rhetorical power derives from the “-ification” rather than from the “game.” [As] -ification involves simple, repeatable, proven techniques or devices: you can purify, beautify, falsify, terrify.’10 In the spirit of adventure, enjoyment and desire for remuneration Cooper willingly broadens the intrusive nature of ‘technologies of presence’ external to the body by allowing a game to interface his own ‘invented reality.’11



Code Prompted Behaviour The fictional anthology of Black Mirror serves to provide grounded extrapolations that contort collective assent and complacency with particular courses of social, political and technological reasoning. It instead prefers to foreground critical readings and contemptuous treatments of the modern condition. In Playtest , audiences become acquainted with a realm of imminent technological penetration that is likely to be embraced and encoded (in the non-fictional world) as progress and a gateway to more intense and profound technologically mediated pleasure and enjoyment, referring to insertable technologies, ingested or placed in (rather than on) the body.12 The episode points to the manner in which the human pursuit of the pleasure principle13 and hedonism14 is often utilised, to great effect, to achieve greater levels of faith in, dependency on, submission to technological transactions involving data transferral as well as greater access to our bodies and minds. The ubiquity of technological dependence has been aided by the rapid pace of miniaturisation and mobility15 that has shifted the presence and perception of computing technologies from a stationary and detached medium to a merged medium that is wearable, transportable and feasibly incorporated. The increasingly attendant and unobtrusive nature of technological devices and their integration into life practices has facilitated the networked extension of humans by drawing on the body as a carrier of technology (mobiles, watches, body-borne computers, etc.) making technology boundless and facilitating its increasing synergetic attention on the interiority of the carrier as a data resource and associated hardware. Playtest owes a significant debt to David Cronenberg’ arthouse horror eXistenZ (1999), which denoted brain-machine interfacing in games via the material nature of the technology. Players of the game eXistenZ employ an organically grown pulsing incarnate ‘game pod’ that is directly connected to the spine via a fleshy umbicord. By fuelling and running the game from within the body, Cronenberg afforded players of the future a lucid corporeal illusion, bypassing overlaid digital perceptual systems (virtual and augmented reality) that have, in the meantime, attempted to provide visually persuasive game experiences. The horror and anxiety of game evolution is conveyed through the film’s key protagonists, Ted Pikul (played by Jude Law), an inexperienced ‘noobie’ that suffers the strain of wanting to disconnect and discontinue playing while also desiring ‘to see what’s so special about the special’ (Allegra Geller, played by Jennifer



Jason Leigh). Unlike Cooper in Playtest , eXistenZ ’s Pikul wilfully grapples with surrendering control to a system or higher authority that he does not comprehend. Nevertheless, both eXistenZ and Playtest reflect on levels of awareness and tolerability of the labour associated with both production and play. As Fisher has argued with respect to Cronenberg’s vision: The key to eXistenZ’s self-reflexivity is its preoccupation with the conditions of its own production (and the production of culture in general). It presents us with an uncanny compression, in which the ‘front end’ of late capitalist culture – its cutting edge entertainment systems – fold back into the normally unseen ‘back end’ (the quotidian factories, labs and focus groups in which such systems are produced).16

Gamification Through Playtest , Black Mirror attempts to expose how we live in an age of behavioural modelling and data science. Incentive structures designed to encourage otherwise tedious and uninteresting behaviours pervade our digital practices. For example, Google’s ‘Image Labeller’ successfully persuades humans to label their photographs, Twitter encourages users to make every effort to grow followers and Microsoft persuades its users to discover new features in its applications all through the processes of gamification. The principle aim of gamification is to transplant the motivational impetus associated with the act of game playing. The impulse to stay on task and keep engaging is stimulated by direct and effective feedback in the form of scoring, accumulating items and completing time-based challenges. Furthermore, when a social media platform like Facebook prompts us to ‘share a memory,’ or an entertainment streaming service like Netflix countdowns the seconds before you find yourself watching another episode—we find the gamification principle of ‘next best action’ in operation. That is, an activity is being proposed that the user can effortlessly and immediately agree to and receive immediate positive reinforcement (appreciation, acknowledgement, relaxation or diversion). More typically, however, gamification involves knowingly employing the motivational power of games for the purpose of encouraging desired behaviours in non-game contexts. As Sailer et al. note: ‘influencing environmental behaviour, motivation for physical workout, fostering safe



driving behaviour, or enhancing learning in schools and training.’17 In this process key principles from game design are isolated and redeployed in recognition of the capacity of digital games to effortlessly impel players to engage in work, without sensing that it is labour. As Nick Yee (2006) notes with reference to gameplay: ‘The timing and layering of reward mechanisms in video games train players to derive pleasure from the work that is being done. Video games condition us to work harder, faster, and more efficiently.’18 Such observations also form the basis of flow psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s contention that the adaptability of games can transform the most mundane activities, by imbuing them with fun. As he states: ‘Mowing the lawn or waiting in a dentist’s office can become enjoyable provided one restructures the activity by providing goals, rules, and other elements of enjoyment.’19 As a result, the notion that play is a discrete endeavour that ‘creates no wealth or goods… an occasion of pure waste,’20 has been firmly transformed with increasing interconnection between work and play. In the latter half of the twentieth-century scholars have characterised the evolution of work (for some) as a shift from a ‘place’ to an ‘activity,’ where workflow can be more spontaneous as it is governed by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. As Ford et al. argue, work now ‘intentionally encourages, initiates, and supports a variety of enjoyable and pleasurable activities that positively impact the attitude and productivity of individuals and groups.’21 Concerns that the gamification of labour constitutes manipulation and is therefore unethical have already been raised by Bogost who has dubbed its procedures and its apparatus ‘exploitationware.’22 He argues that players gain only a small fraction of the created value, while companies gain a significantly larger share, creating an imbalance that is exploitative irrespective of the means of production. Whereas Kim offers a different perspective stating that should organisations ‘declare’ employment will be conducted in a gamified working environment this ‘could allow a company to even slightly decrease wages for those who preferred gamified to non-gamified employment.’23 The deception performed by SaitoGemu, the gaming organisation featured in Playtest , is not so much in concealing a game-state nor the labour associated with user testing, but disguising the way ‘gamification is (re)creating experimental arrangements – gamified systems resemble laboratories.’24 Gamified states are commonplace, appealing and captivating and therefore a seductive means for enticing participants. Like gamification, experimental conditions place participants in potentially vulnerable position, under the control of the



experimenters. Participants enter designed (artificial) environments that supress or eliminate unwanted influences (confounding variables) and thereby reduce behavioural freedoms. American psychologist Gordon Allport defined the practice of social psychology as ‘attempts to understand and explain how the thought, feeling, and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.’25 In pursuit of this goal, experimental scenarios (behavioural simulations) have employed stooges or confederates and assembled elaborate props or spaces to convince human participants of a particular state of affairs to which their responses can be observed and measured. A litany of abusive treatment of human subjects led to the ethical regulation of research in order to govern the tension between the interests of furthering knowledge and society, on the one hand, and an obligation to human subjects, on the other. Polemic experiments from psychology’s history have exposed how persuasive humans are to deference, compliance, obedience and submission to the influence of others either actual, imagined or implied.26 Guidelines to ensure due diligence over the ethical care of human participants has sought to counteract the negative effects on participant’s emotional state and self-esteem caused by psychological experiments conducted between the 1950s and early 1970s. One such experiment, responsible for framing current regulation of research ethics, was the landmark Stanford Prison27 experiment that sought to observe the degree to which prison (situational) conditions would lead individuals to adapt and conform to the social roles that prisoners and prison guards are expected to assume. The power and command of social roles was unequivocally confirmed within a simulated prison that required the experiment to be abandoned due to the vivacity with which participants assumed the ‘role’ of prison guards. Prisoners were subjected to increasing levels of chastisement, humiliation and brutality. In order to reinforce the rigid power structure of the social environment of the prison guard behaviour quickly became fierce, vindictive and cruel towards the participants assigned to the role of ‘inmates.’ Within 36 hours of the experiment Prisoner #8612 began demonstrating signs of acute emotional disturbance, disorganised thinking and rage. The study was condemned on ethical grounds, as it failed to attain full consent for the treatment that participants experienced (e.g. prisoners were arrested at home and transferred blindfolded to the prison), were not permitted to withdraw (as this would have breached the simulation of a prison environment) and departed the experiment harmed and distressed.



‘Powerful Phrase: Familiar Phrase?’ During Playtest when Cooper is asked to enter the lab space by Katie (a co-conspirator, confederate or employee of SaitoGemu played by Wunmi Mosaku), she asks him: ‘Would you kindly open the door?’ The phrase ‘would you kindly’ arouses a familiar experience of being inveigled to advance through, and act on the environments of Rapture, the underwater city explored in the body-horror digital game BioShock (a game that also fleetingly appears on a shelf at the beginning of Playtest ). During the course of BioShock, ‘Would you kindly’ functions as a trigger for the post-hypnotic propositions and recommendations to the game’s protagonist Jack. The use of the phrase in Playtest can be read as an attempt to connect the two texts not only in terms of their elected instruments of compulsion—ergodic experiences28 that are actively configured by the player/user, but also how they converge on the notion of bioaugmentation. In common with the lure of techno-progressivism in Playtest , BioShock’s city of Rapture also communicates a space dedicated to the pleasure principle and morphological freedom. As an Art Deco metropolis, Rapture’s architectural foundations communicate a luxurious, glamorous and exuberant past. The city, its inhabitants and erudite founders acclaim autonomy, DIY culture and ‘makerism.’ In doing so, Rapture employs bio-modification as its core currency and exchange culture. All occupants of the city re-write and replace their genetic constitution with commercially accessible ‘hacks’ from the convenience of a vending machine. Not one inhabitant encountered in Rapture has been left untouched or unchanged by the conditions of its culture of technological physicalisation and uninhibited genetic mutation. Any living being chanced upon is farremoved and disconnected from their human derivation thanks to each operant life-changing hack and alteration. As a retro-futuristic text, the timeline for BioShock is knowingly set between the 1960s and 1970s, a period in our world history that constitutes the very beginnings of the discovery of life’s genetic instructions for growth, development, functioning and reproduction—deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. If ‘reading’ genetics comes with complications—for genetic genealogical testing can make individuals the ‘keepers, revealers, and managers of family secrets and legacy’29 —then the ethical gravity and pernicious implications of the possibility that no aspect of biology is above modification, remix or



redesign, is momentous. Since 1953, an industrial revolution in biotechnology has evolved into a global industry, with genetic modification and synthetic biology produced for commercial gain. Today, scientists studying ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’ or CRISPR,30 a type of DNA sequence found in bacteria and other simple organisms, are repurposing the genes in order to edit genomes. Correspondingly the demands and the moral system portrayed in BioShock functions as a biopunk reaction narrative, a sub-genre of science fiction that deals with the implications of biotechnology and its unintended or uninvited consequences. Biopunk narratives typically explore the struggles of individuals or groups that are the product of human experimentation. Rapture principally constitutes a liberatory counter-culture for its scientists, free from government control and regulation, but not its inhabitants. Given the genetic tabula rasa offered to Rapture’s inhabitants, it is possible to speculate how the city is more fittingly considered an oversized laboratory setting, permitting events to unfold in the name of science. As Rapture psychologist Dr. Sophia Lamb expounds: ‘For every choice, there is an echo. With each act, we change the world.’ The emphasis given to the interplay between individual and environmental conditions (in both Playtest and BioSchock) evokes the interests of one of the most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, Burrhus Frederic Skinner—behaviourist, author of science fiction and inventor. In his advancement of stimulus-response psychology, Skinner pursued a Baconian ideal, adopting a hands-on approach to the re-making of the world in order to understand its effect, power and authority over the individual. His most recognised invention, the ‘Skinner box’ (or operant conditioning chamber), was the apparatus that permitted Skinner to demonstrate how behaviour is the result of environmental history and reinforcement (consequences). Put simply, inside it rats and pigeons demonstrated that behaviours are learned or extinguished based on environmental outcomes. Controversially, Skinner extrapolated the principles of learned behaviour achieved with animals to produce a psychological theory of behaviour (radical behaviourism) that sought to depose longheld beliefs regarding humanity, namely concluding that our notions of free will and human dignity (by which he meant individual autonomy) were a delusion. Unsurprisingly, such views ‘attracted vitriolic and often ad hominem attacks from academics, politicians, and others’31 for its perceived unscrupulous intent to replace self-determination with control.



Given the ethical apprehensions attached to Skinner’s worldview and scientific agenda, Skinner published a utopian themed fiction entitled Walden Two in 1948 that described a visit to a utopian commune in which the productivity and happiness of its citizens surpasses the outside world due to their practice of scientifically grounded social planning and the use of conditioning (behavioural modification). What connects Playtest , Bioshock’s Rapture and Walden Two is the application of dissident antiestablishment locations free from the constraints placed on science, in which its partakers are subject to scientific inferences and judgements. As Walden Two protagonist T. E. Frazier states: ‘we lack control in the world at large to investigate more efficient structures. Here we can begin to understand and build the Superorganism.’32 In the case of Walden Two, the use of superorganism refers to an improved species or culture,33 while Bioshock employs the concept in a more shocking way in its bio-hacked licentious horror. In Playtest Cooper is shown meeting an unpleasant end, requiring SaitoGemu to attract further test subject(s). The content of Cooper’s deadly ‘horror’ game experience drew from his memories, glimpsed environmental objects, encounters and experiences located throughout the episode. Stimulus and actions that produced little response, ramifications or consequences when they occurred (due to the ineffectual nature of human as reinforcers) are extracted from Cooper’s neural network forcing him to confront recent behavioural choices as they apprehended him again in the game. The warped reprisal of Cooper’s behavioural excursions in the outside world in his dream-like game experience is amplified by the horror of Playtest . Yet, the substance of the episode (like other examples of the Black Mirror anthology) draws on features of our existing world. In this instance, it is possible to trace the terror of reinforcement to what Leetaru has labelled Orwellian levels of surveillance operating online,34 in which for-profit digital spies track our online selves via every website visited, search term entered, new ‘friend’ collected, extract of copy highlighted and shared, or items browsed or consumed. As he argues: ‘This firehose of data is combined with our offline actions to build an all-encompassing holistic digital profile of what makes us tick. These profiles are bought and sold and used for every imaginable purpose, including to target us with hyper personalised advertisements or to find just the right buttons to push to nudge us towards desirable commercializable behaviors.’35 Cyborg ethics has identified the modification of individual consciousness through the merging of human and machine as a considerable ethical



dilemma,36 and yet culture has openly accepted, embraced and now relies on the connectivity, on-hand information and personal commendations that technology affords. The success of technological incentives that has led to a relaxation of personal disclosure is spurring increasingly evasive means of admittance to human thought, preferences and actions. To this extent, both Playtest and BioShock consider the degree to which individuals are willing to give up their individuality and become nodes in an intelligent machine-run network. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner (1971) precisely advocated that the pretence of ‘autonomous man’37 should be discarded in favour of the deliberate deployment of ‘technology of behaviour,’38 albeit to achieve freedom from ‘aversive stimuli.’39 In doing so, radical behaviourism sought to eradicate reference to ‘uncaused doings of an invisible person within us who makes choices for us that are independent of our circumstances’40 in favour of shifting ‘the credit as well as the blame to the environment.’41 Although Skinner’s key concern was clearly observable, external, and environmental variables that could be manipulated to produce an observable response, he did not overlook the potential for social engineering via the body. However, at the time Skinner was advancing behaviourism, he remained aware that the greatest drawback of bio-modification was its current ‘inaccessibility,’ requiring significant advances in biotechnology.42 As early as 1947 Skinner stipulated that: To have a science of psychology at all, we must adopt the fundamental postulate that human behavior is a lawful datum, that it is undisturbed by the capricious acts of any free agent - in other words, that it is completely determined. The genetic constitution of the individual and his personal history to date play a part in this determination.43

Skinners’ psychological model preceded Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA—the double helix.44 Despite the fact that Skinner was not able to extend his theorisation to incorporate biology, Walden Two was still considered sinister for its suggestion that life could be socially engineered in such an explicit fashion. In his fiction we glimpse the beginnings of a different role for the scientist, as defined by Skinner, one that is reconfigured as less inhibited, active and driven to remake the world based upon monitored knowledge, expertise and control.



Bodies of Technology In Walden Two, Skinner’s alter-ego T. E. Frazier points out that an end goal is to certain degree ‘beside the point,’ with greater emphasis instead placed on: ‘A constantly experimental attitude toward everything.’45 Therefore, an obvious extension to the behaviourist philosophical impulse and its devotion to organic behaviour and its evolution is greater control over, and application of, genetics. Through Playtest , Black Mirror has been able to tap into a flourishing field of interest that has yet to fully take hold within mainstream culture—implanted and insertable devices. As Weiser (1991) portentously commented: ‘the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.’46 Like BioShock, this area of hi-tech curiosity is today as much in the hands of the hobbyist as it is the technologist, scientist or academic. Extending beyond implantable medical devices for restorative purposes,47 such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, deep brain stimulation as treatment for Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease (PD), insertables are also being adopted to satisfy the curiosity and convenience of individuals entertaining cyborg desires and aspirations. As inventive cybernetic researcher Kevin Warwick (2003) even admits: ‘In the fall of 1998, I had a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted in my upper left arm. I did not have a medical need, I just wanted to find out what it would be like.’48 Alongside speculative scholarly fascination, Heffernan et al. note that documentation of hobbyist experimentation with insertables (e.g. nearfield communication microchips), is often limited to single case studies or individual participant use. In their attempt to canvass the nature of hobbyist applications of insertables more widely they found that individuals were primarily using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) microchips for access purposes to their homes, offices, vehicles, apps, websites and computers, or what Graafstra et al. dub ‘novel convenience solutions.’49 McGinity similarly appraises the benefits of insertable RFIDs as: ‘the bulging wallet could be retired … You’d always know where your children are … If you’ve forgotten your health insurance information or if you can’t explain your allergies or health care wishes because you’re unconscious, the chip would communicate those vitals to hospital personnel with a scan of a decoder.’50 Simultaneously, RFID transponders have been a reality in the workplace since 2004 since surveillance company citywatchers.com51 first used implants to give its employees access to



restricted areas containing sensitive police and surveillance data. More playfully, Barcelona nightclub, Baja Beach Club, offered RFID implants as a novelty VIP perk, used to expedite entry and access debit accounts from which club patrons could pay for their drinks.52 However, security expert Bruce Schneier has warned that: ‘The dark side of RFID is surreptitious access you are effectively broadcasting who you are to anyone within range. The level of surveillance possible, not only by the government but by corporations and criminals as well, will be unprecedented. There simply will be no place to hide.’53 A similar threat faces transhumanists seeking to alter or enhance the human condition that had delved into more perilous areas of interior profundity with neuromodulation via ‘electrocauticals.’ Transcranial direct current stimulation or tDCS, currently permits a hobbyist mode of sending relatively small amounts of electrical current into the brain to make neurons more or less active.54 Its advocates and practitioners claim greater memory capacity, improved mathematical problem-solving skills, amplified attention and alertness, while current perils appear to be limited to the risk of scalp burns from the use of improper current. However, where deep brain stimulation (DBS) is achieved by surgically implanted electrodes the plausibility of brain jacking or hacking becomes more achievable.55 Bringing us closer to the horror of Playtest , these terms refer to ‘unauthorized control of another’s electronic brain implant’56 which operate on the capacity to interfere with the software settings of Implanted Pulse Generators (IPGs) that play a key role in DBS systems. As Pycroft et al. note, potential attacks can cause harm and distress by manipulating ‘stimulation parameters’ that include ‘voltage/current, frequency, pulse width, and electrode contact.’57 Among individuals using DBS for treatment of PD or chronic pain, altering the variables of DBS could conceivably alter behaviour and cognition, ‘based on some degree of pathophysiologic knowledge of the patient,’58 impair motor function, induce pain via an increase in stimulation frequency, alter impulse control, and produce emotional dysfunction. Playtest presents a nightmarish vision of Cooper’s absorption by a potentially inescapable game that employs the body as an enabling console. The episode and game (seemingly) only terminates when a fatal ‘force quit’ or ‘shut down’ is initiated that releases Cooper from the game’s access to his memory and visual system. In this episode, Black Mirror demonstrates its capacity to be one step ahead of present-day reality, and the current scope and impact of existing technology. In doing



so, it considers the potential for misuse of implants when little attention is currently being given to ethical implications in the neuroethics literature. The issue of neuro-security is flagged by Black Mirror when ‘detailed threat modelling’ is currently lacking elsewhere.59 As Ienca and Haselager have also noted, consideration of how brain–computer interfaces and other neural engineering devices might be co-opted still remain ‘largely unexplored.’60 Neuro-crime simulation is currently only reported and explored in handful studies. Rosenfeld et al. have reported success in co-opting brain–computer interfaces (BCI) employed to repair, assist or augment impaired cognitive or sensory-motor functioning in the case of spinal cord injuries, a stroke, or muscular dystrophy to reveal private and sensitive information about their users.61 Similarly, Martinovic et al. have successfully extracted pin-code information, debit card digits, personal identification details and stored visual memories (e.g. the faces of known individuals) from BCIs recording brain signalling.62 Both studies signal the future potential for exploiting BCIs for nefarious purposes.

Conclusion The central role of bio-hacking in Playtest represents a sinister continuance of preceding behaviourist-penned scientific and fictional visions by seeking to replace designed physical environments with neuralextracted and manufactured phantasms. Faculties such as consciousness, perception, thoughts, judgement, memory and language are jacked by neurotechnology to construct a tailor-made horror that creates distress. Like BioShock, Black Mirror hastens the pace and momentum scientific advances to amplify the scope of human manipulation that run ahead of regulation and codes for safety standards. As Ienca and Haselager surmise: ‘A sci-fi future where people can access and manipulate information in other people’s brains is approaching and their podromes are already here.’63 The ease with which Cooper is induced to participate and trial a bio-hacking system is made plausible by the combined desirability of cyber delectation and gamic immersion that constitutes a behavioural route to pleasure and the promise of positive emotions that an organism might want to ‘strengthen, elongate, and repeat.’64 While games and virtual environments typically constitute pleasurable spaces for the user, they also constitute environments where individuals freely surrender control and willingly accept constraints and regulation by rule systems. Proxy agency is handed to the environment to guide behaviour and demand actions.



Playtest taps into concerns expressed over brain hacking and jacking, that cite individual dignity,65 autonomy,66 neuro-privacy67 and legal accountability.68 It also introduces us to the menace of those who do not perceive a breach of human autonomy, freedom or dignity that exploit environmental determinism and the already ubiquitous digital motivation environments that make individuals susceptible to adopting play and playlike behaviours, many of which also ‘harvest’ knowledge from users.69 With social psychologists contemplating the potential of virtual reality to create experimental spaces in which the ‘individual perceives himself or herself to be enveloped by, included in, and interacting with an environment that provides continuous stream of stimuli,’70 it is not inconceivable that unfettered research in the arena of brainjacking could result in the loss of a test subject, as the conclusion of Playtest suggests—For we leave Cooper either lost in the game, or experiencing ‘game over’ in the flesh.

Notes 1. A. Dekker and E. Champion, “Please Biofeed the Zombies: Enhancing the Gameplay and Display of a Horror Game Using Biofeedback,” Situated Play, 2007, 550–58. 2. K. Gilleade and J. Allanson, “A Toolkit for Exploring Affective Interface Adaptation in Videogames,” in Proceeding of HCI International 2003 (New Jersey: LEA, 2003), 370–74. 3. G. Ursell, “Television Production: Issues of Exploitation, Commodification and Subjectivity in UK Television Labour Markets,” Media, Culture & Society 22, no. 6 (2000): 807. 4. T. Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 74. 5. B. Keogh and I. Richardson, “Waiting to Play: The Labour of Background Games,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 21, no. 1 (2018): 17. 6. E. Zimmerman, “What Is Wrong with the Ludic Century?,” Being Playful, December 9, 2013, 2013/09/12/whats-wrong-with-the-ludic-century/. 7. J. Juul, “The Game, the Player, The World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness,” in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. M. Copier and J. Raessens (Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003), 20–45. 8. M Andrejevic, “Watching Television Without Pity,” Television & New Media 9, no. 1 (2008): 25. 9. A. McRobbie, “Clubs to Companies: Notes on the Decline of Political Culture in Speeded up Creative Worlds,” Cultural Studies 16, no. 4 (2002): 516–31.



10. I. Bogost, “Gamification Is Bullshit,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2011, ification-is-bullshit/243338/. 11. P. Watzlawick, Die Erfundene Wirklichkeit (Munich: Piper, 1982). 12. K.J. Hefferman, F. Vetere, and S. Chang, “You Put What Where? Hobbyist Use of Insertable Devices,” Citizenry and the Sciences (CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, 2016). 13. G. Fechner, Einige Ideen Zur Schöpfungs- Und Entwickelungsgeschichte Der Organismen (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1873); S. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (London: Hogarth, 1920). 14. V. Argonov, “The Pleasure Principle as a Tool for Scientific Forecasting of Human Self-Evolution,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 24, no. 2 (2014): 63–78. 15. K. Michael and M.G. Michael, “Microchipping People: The Rise of the Electrophorus,” Quadrant 46, no. 3 (2005): 22–33. 16. M. Fisher, “Work and Play in EXistenZ,” Film Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2012): 70. 17. M. Sailer et al., “Psychological Perspectives on Motivation Through Gamification,” Interaction Design and Architecture(s) Journal 19 (2013): 28–37. 18. N. Yee, “Labor and Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play,” Games and Culture 1, no. 1 (2006): 68–71. 19. M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 50. 20. R. Caillois, Man, Play and Games (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), 5. 21. R. Ford and J. Newstrom, “Questions and Answers about Fun at Work,” Human Resource Planning 26, no. 4 (2003): 22–23. 22. Bogost, “Gamification Is Bullshit.” 23. T.W. Kim, “Gamification Ethics: Exploitation and Manipulation” (CHI 2015, Seoul, South Korea, 2015), 2. 24. F. Raczkowski, “Making Points the Point: Towards a History of Ideas of Gamification,” in Rethinking Gamification, ed. M. Fuchs et al. (Meson Press, 2014), 148. 25. G. Allport, “The Historical Background of Social Psychology,” in Handbook of Social Psychology, ed. G. Lindzey and E. Aronson (New York: Random House, 1985), 3. 26. S.E. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity. A Minority of One against a Unanimous Majority,” Psychological Monographs 70, no. 9 (1956): 1–70; C.K. Hofling, “An Experimental Study of Nurse-Physician Relationships,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 143 (1966): 171– 80; S. Milgram, “Behavioural Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, no. 4 (1963): 371–78.



27. C. Haney, W.C. Banks, and P.G. Zimbardo, “A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison” Naval Research Review 30 (1973): 4–17. 28. E. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997). 29. J. De Groot, “Ethics, Privacy and Commercial DNA Testing,” Double Helix History, 2018, 30. E. Deltcheva et al., “CRISPR RNA Maturation by Trans-Encoded Small RNA and Host Factor RNase III,” Nature 471, no. 7340 (2011): 602–7. 31. H.D. Schlinger, “Skinner as Missionary and Prophet: A Review of Burrhus F Skinner: Shaper of Behaviour,” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 44, no. 1 (2011): 217–25. 32. B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub Co, 1948), 31. 33. R.A. Moxley, “H.G. Wells and B.F. Skinner on the Superorganism,” The Behavior Analyst 22, no. 2 (1999): 131–48. 34. K. Leetaru, “Do Algorithms Really Control Society,” Fobes, November 15, 2018, orithms-really-control-society/#ba2e8a6109a4. 35. Leetaru. 36. K. Warwick, “Cyborg Morals, Cyborg Values, Cyborg Ethics,” Ethics and Information Technology 5 (2003): 131–37. 37. B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Knopf/Random House, 1971), 19. 38. Skinner, 5. 39. Skinner, 27. 40. M. Hocutt, “The Fruits and Fallacies of Fred Skinner on Freedom,” The Independent Review 18, no. 2 (2013): 263. 41. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 21. 42. B.F. Skinner, “Answers for My Critics,” in Beyond the Punitive Society, ed. H Wheeler (San Francisco: Freeman, 1973). 43. B.F. Skinner, Experimental Psychology, Current Trends in Psychology (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1947), 23. 44. J.D. Watson and F Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nuclein Acid,” Nature 181 (1953): 137–38. 45. Skinner, Walden Two, 106. 46. M. Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American, 265 (1991): 66-67. 47. K. Heffernan, F. Vetere, and S. Chang, “You Put What Where? Hobbyist Use of Insertable Devices.” CHI’16 Proceedings of the 2016 Conference on Human Factors in Computing System, 1798–1890. 48. Warwick, “Cyborg Morals, Cyborg Values, Cyborg Ethics,” 133. 49. M.N. Graafstra, K. Michael, and M.G. Michael, “Social-Technical Issues Facing the Humancentric RFID Implant Sub-Culture Through the Eyes of Amal Graafstra,” Proceedings of Technology and Society, 2010, 498–516.



50. M. McGinity, “Staying Connected: Body of Technology,” Communications of the ACM 43, no. 9 (2000): 18–19. 51. K. Michael and M.G. Michael, “The Future Prospects of Embedded Microchips in Humans as Unique Identifiers: The Risk versus the Rewards,” Media, Culture and Society 35, no. 1 (2013): 78–86. 52. A. Losowsky, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” The Guardian, June 10, 2004, supplement1. 53. B. Schneiner, “Is RFID Tracking You?,” CNN , October 23, 2006, 54. L. Sanders, “Brain Hack: Consumers Take Their Neurons in Their Own Hands,” Science News 186, no. 10 (2014): 22–25. 55. L. Pycroft et al., “Brainjacking: Implant Security Issues in Invasive Neuromodulation,” World Neurosurgery 92 (2016): 454–62. 56. J. Pugh et al., “Brainjacking in Deep Brain Stimulation and Autonomy,” Ethics in Information Technology 20, no. 3 (2018): 219. 57. Pycroft et al., “Brainjacking: Implant Security Issues in Invasive Neuromodulation,” 455. 58. Pycroft et al., 456. 59. Pugh et al., “Brainjacking in Deep Brain Stimulation and Autonomy,” 4. 60. M. Ienca and P. Haselager, “Hacking the Brain: Brain-Computer Interfacing Technology and the Ethics of Neurosecurity,” Ethics in Information Technology 18 (2016): 117. 61. J.P. Rosenfeld, J.R. Biroshack, and J.J. Furedy, “P300-Based Detection of Concealed Autobiographical Versus Incidentally Acquired Information in Target and Non-Target Paradigms,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 60, no. 3 (2006): 251–59. 62. I. Martinovic et al., “On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain-Computer Interfaces,” 2012. 63. Ienca and Haselager, “Hacking the Brain: Brain-Computer Interfacing Technology and the Ethics of Neurosecurity,” 121. 64. P.V. Simonov, What Is Emotion? (Moscow: Science, 1966). 65. T.L. Beauchamp and JF Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). 66. J. Varelius, “The Value of Autonomy in Medical Ethics,” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 9, no. 3 (2006): 377–88. 67. M. Ienca, “Neuroprivacy, Neurosecurity and Brain-Hacking: Emerging Issues in Neural Engineering,” Bioethica Forum 8, no. 2 (2015): 51–53. 68. Ienca and Haselager, “Hacking the Brain: Brain-Computer Interfacing Technology and the Ethics of Neurosecurity.” 69. D. Edery and E. Mollick, Changing the Game: How Videogames Are Transforming the Future of Business (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2009).



70. J. Blascovich et al., “Immersive Virtual Environment Technology as a Methodology Tool for Social Psychology,” Psychological Inquiry 13, no. 2 (2002): 105.

Living on Beyond the Body: The Digital Soul of Black Mirror Clarissa Carden and Margaret Gibson

Introduction The desire for immortality is part of the human condition. Tales of immortal beings, and of means through which humans too can cheat death, are part of mythologies worldwide. Great minds have spent lifetimes seeking a cure for death. It is easy, today, to dismiss alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone as childish nonsense, but it was a quest which occupied kings and scientists alike. Today, our hopes have turned to digital technologies, and the promise of a lengthened—or unending— lifespan. Cultural logics of anti-ageing hold the reality of old age, and by extension, the reality of death, as a ‘solvable problem’ rather than a natural and potentially positive reality.1 As such, the idea that digital technologies may promise a form of immortality has existed for some time. At the present moment, two very different types of immortality have

C. Carden (B) Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Nathan, QLD, Australia e-mail: [email protected] M. Gibson School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University, Nathan, QLD, Australia e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




been positioned as possibilities for the near future. The first is the promise that a company may be able to mine the data a person creates in order to produce a facsimile of that person. The company Eternime, currently undertaking beta testing, promises to create an avatar which will be able to chat online and respond as the original would.2 In a more controversial effort, the company Nectome is ‘committed to the goal of archiving your mind’ through downloading human brains to computers.3 In order to do this, the person whose mind is downloaded must be euthanised. Nectome’s process has not yet been attempted. Black Mirror, in its typical dystopian style, provides a window into what the world would be like if technologies like these succeeded. Black Mirror is an anthology series, one in which there is no plot which continues from episode to episode. The narratives presented in this show do not conform to a clear timeline, nor do they necessarily share characters. However, several shared technologies and themes tie the series together in a universe which, despite the lack of clear timeline, is clearly shared, a point emphasised by the Season 4 finale Black Museum. The universe in which many of the narratives in Black Mirror unfold is one in which digital immortality has been achieved—it has become possible to replicate an individual’s essence—in effect to create or extract a digital soul. Drawing from the evidence in seasons 2–4 of the series, this chapter explores the role and moral status of the digital soul in Black Mirror.

Digital Immortality in Black Mirror There are two key forms of digital replication or immortality in Black Mirror. We discuss them here in turn, noting that one is far more prevalent than the other. The first is a digital replication of an individual who has died based on the traces they leave behind online. This form of replication is featured in the Season 2 episode Be Right Back, wherein a bereaved wife takes advantage of technology to create a digital double of her deceased husband, Ash. At first, this digital double is akin to what is already promised by companies such as Eternime.4 Drawing from the evidence Ash left behind on social media, it creates a chat programme, which can be spoken to through voice or text. Material of this type—the social media pages and other digital footprints left behind by a person who has died—have been described as ‘digital remains’5 which play an important role in the continuation of ties between the living and the dead.6 In this sense, the type of digital afterlife initially represented in Be Right



Back is only a step away from the type of digital afterlife any person with an active online presence may experience today. However, Black Mirror pushes the familiar concept further than can be realistically envisioned with current technologies. In Be Right Back, the same company which offers the chat programme also offers something else—a physical replication of the person who has gone, which can be imprinted upon a blank android body and which, it is promised, will hold all of Ash’s memories. It is, in essence, a replacement for the original. As Artt notes, ‘[i]n “Be Right Back,” technology does not just ease mourning, but tries to circumvent it altogether’.7 The android double of Ash in Be Right Back is not Ash’s own pre-planned after-death resurrection but the decision of his bereaved wife who struggles to come to terms with his death. However, this kind of replication from digital remains is shown to be insufficient. It draws from a public record of the self which is necessarily incomplete. The problem with this digital double—discovered only after it is too late and he is truly created as a physically embodied android, is that it is missing Ash’s private self. It is a digital replication, but one without what may be described as the essence or soul of the original. As such, it is necessarily imperfect and unsatisfying. This type of digital replication is secondary in the Black Mirror universe to the near-ubiquitous technology of cookies. Cookies are one of the core technologies in the Black Mirror universe. They are a thinking, feeling, digital replication of an individual. Cookies have the personality and memories of the living, breathing, original of whom they are a double. Like Daniel Gray, the protagonist of Greg Egan’s wonderful short story The Extra,8 a person who has a cookie made for a specific purpose may be unaware that the process creates a remainder who is, in all significant respects, them, but who is trapped within a reality which prevents them from expressing this. They also share the embodiment of the original, in the sense that cookies experience themselves and are experienced by other cookies as embodied beings. This is a crucial factor in creating an environment in which cookies can be unaware of their own digital status. In existing virtual environments, the moral weight of digital lives, even as separable from the physical life of the user behind a character, is increased or made more apparent through the construction of an embodied digital self.9 In the case of cookies, their recognisable physical embodiment in a digital



environment reinforces the conception that their lives are human lives, and blurs the division between the digitised self and the person replicated. Despite the digital physicality of cookies, they do not, nonetheless, have a presence in the physical world. A cookie cannot extend beyond the confines of the world created for it. Black Mirror makes clear the vulnerability of cookies to the whims of the—physically present and alive—programmers, designers, and users who determine the conditions under which they live. In the Season 2 episode White Christmas and the Season 4 episode USS Callister, the potential for cookies to be intentionally subjected to abuse or torture is made clear. The Season 4 episode Black Museum portrays the extent to which a digitally replicated soul is vulnerable to the failings of programmers. If the replication of Ash in Be Right Back creates a physical presence with no soul, cookies create a digital soul whose lack of physical presence leaves them open to great suffering. The mechanisms through which cookies are created, and the multifaceted purposes to which they are employed, varies through the show’s seasons. In the Season 4 finale, Black Museum, the viewer learns that the original cookies—the first efforts to replicate a human consciousness in a digital form—could be created only if the original, physical, body was euthanised. In this sense, the cookie is positioned as something akin to the type of digital transference envisioned by real, present-day companies such as Nectome.10 In other episodes, however, the use of cookies has clearly developed. They become tools to be used in personal assistance devices, akin to a highly personalised and advanced form of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, as seen in the Season 2 finale White Christmas , or data to be used in simulations for a dating app, as in the Season 4 episode Hang the DJ . Cookies, although they are not described as such, are shown to be replications which can be constructed based on DNA alone, as in USS Callister. They serve a social good, too, as in the much-lauded Season 3 episode San Junipero, wherein those who have died can experience a digital afterlife as young, healthy, versions of themselves. Despite the many morally harmful or ambiguous uses of cookies, the technology as it is presented in Black Mirror appears, at first glance, to offer a type of immortality which is distinct from that which appears graspable today. Rather than merely replicating some facets of the self, it appears to replicate the whole soul—to promise, in short, a type of continued existence of the self which may last beyond the final barrier of



death. However, all episodes featuring cookies, with the possible exception of San Junipero and Black Museum, the cookie is a digital double rather than a digital transference or extension of the physical self, and thus its experience is not a direct continuation of the experience of the original, who must still eventually die. In the two episodes in which the cookie appears to allow for the continuation of human experience, the mechanics through which this is possible are unclear. Even within San Junipero’s positive, joyful exploration of a digital heaven, it seems possible, that the elderly people who plan for an immortal, youthful existence instead gift immortality to another self—one who shares their thoughts, memories, and arguably their core self, but whose experience is not a true continuation of the original’s. Cookies in Black Mirror are so prominent, and used in so many contradictory ways, that some fans, such as those on the subreddit r/BlackMirror, hypothesise that they are present even in episodes where they are not explicitly mentioned or shown. A key example is the 2018 choose-your-own-adventure film Bandersnatch. Set in the 1980s, Bandersnatch is branded as a Black Mirror special, but its temporal setting renders it unlike the rest of the Black Mirror oeuvre. It follows Stefan, a young game developer who seeks to bring an epic choose-your-ownadventure novel, Bandersnatch, to life as a 64-bit game. In this film, viewers are transformed into active participants, making decisions in an effort to guide Stefan as he inevitably descends into madness. The inconsistency between Bandersnatch and the episodes which have come before it is stark. Nonetheless, there are direct references to familiar episodes, most notably the presence of the symbol used in the Season 2 episode White Bear, which features an individual being perpetually punished for a heinous crime. This symbol, and the prevalence of cookies in other episodes of Black Mirror, has led some fans of Black Mirror to seize on the idea that Stefan is a cookie, programmed to constantly relive the moment when the original Stefan committed a violent murder. In this conceptualisation of Bandersnatch, we—the viewer/player—are implicated in Stefan’s torture as viewers all over the world deliver commands which drive him to one of several deeply upsetting endings.



The Moral Status of the Digital Soul In the Black Mirror universe, technology is never entirely good or benign. The brief and incomplete overview above demonstrates the extent to which digital replications of an individual, whether living or dead, are morally ambiguous at best. Both the android Ash in Be Right Back, who Artt11 and Panka12 liken to Frankenstein’s creation, and the many variations of cookies represented in the series, exist within a monetary economy. That is, they can be purchased, sold and used. Significantly, this can occur without the consent, informed or otherwise, of the original person who is replicated. The reference to Mary Shelley’s most famous creation is apt and can indeed be extended to both forms of digital replication. Like Victor Frankenstein, the oft-unseen programmers behind Black Mirror’s digital replicas take parts of human beings—their consciousness, or their digital remains—and create a form of life which is wholly new. Like Frankenstein, too, they are largely absent as their creations come to terms with their new existence and enter some part of a world which still revolves around the needs and desires of living, breathing, human beings. And, like Frankenstein’s pathetic and troubled creation, Black Mirror’s digital replications—particularly cookies—gave no consent to being created, fully-formed, in order to advance another’s interests. In our world, longevity is tightly linked to the monetary economy. Those who can afford to pay, in both money and time, for a healthy lifestyle have a significant advantage over those who cannot. When illness strikes, the miracles of modern science and technology can save lives—so long as the bearers of those lives can pay or have the privilege of living in a nation in which their government is willing to pay to prolong their lives. There is nothing new, then, in the conception that one’s duration and quality of life is, at least in part, dependent on one’s economic status. Immortality, however, is not part of this economic economy. Depending on one’s religious beliefs, it is available to all, to no one or is allocated on the basis of good works. While mortal life is connected in troubling ways to economic realities, immortal or eternal life has traditionally been linked to moral economies. The authors of this article, while non-religious, were raised within Christian religious traditions—one Protestant, and one Catholic. For our religious communities of origin, the fate of an individual’s eternal soul is within their own hands. While monetary wealth may be unevenly and unfairly distributed, moral deeds are not.



Black Mirror offers a depiction of a world in which eternal life becomes subject to the same monetary economy as mortal life. If one’s very essence—one’s soul—can be extracted and replicated without consent, it becomes a saleable good which can be used and misused. In White Christmas , viewers are faced with the disdain which living human beings may feel towards a digital replica. In this episode, Matt played by Jon Hamm, sells the ultimate digital personal assistant—a device operated by a cookie, which is by its nature perfectly in tune with the user’s wants and needs. In order to force the new lifeform to fulfil menial tasks such as making toast and keeping the user’s calendar, Matt employs a particularly cruel form of torture—he speeds up time, forcing the cookie to experience months or years of utter emptiness, and threatening to repeat the treatment if they do not comply. Towards the end of the episode, he himself suffers as a result of the misuse of cookies, this time by police. A cookie replica of Matt is made to confess to a crime committed by the original. At the conclusion of the episode a police officer casually changes the settings on the device storing the cookie, causing it to experience thousands of years in an empty cabin with a single song blaring. This final action is not required to obtain an outcome or for any other reason. It is a simple and callous act, the consequence of which is to inflict an unthinkable torture on a being which thinks and feels as though it is human. This science-fiction depiction of the callous disregard for non-human intelligent life is in keeping with more traditional depictions of robots or androids. Non-human, but humanoid, robots are a mainstay of science fiction. These robots, as human-like as they may be, tend to be treated as lesser beings—we are unable to see our own creations as our peers, even as we imagine them to be increasingly like us.13 The cookies of Black Mirror literally are us—they are the immortal essence of the original, a product which is akin to the soul of Christian tradition—and yet the fact that they are digital and artificially created rather than naturally born strips them of their moral authority. In Black Mirror, then, the authority to inflict eternal torture or to grant eternal life without suffering is in the hands of human beings. The powers traditionally ascribed to a god or gods thus fall into the hands of the corporation, or the government or indeed the unknowing original self. While White Christmas explores the implications of the digital soul falling into the hands of callous figures of authority, it is USS Callister which most clearly delves into the consequences of human beings taking



on a role of infinite power over a digital replica. In this episode, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the Chief Technical Officer of a gaming corporation, feels bullied and belittled in his workplace. He derives control—and revenge—from creating digital replicas of his unknowing colleagues, who he uploads into a unique version of his company’s game, Infinity, which has been modified to resemble his favourite show, Space Fleet [a Star Trek parody]. The scenes inside Daly’s game are bright, colourful and nostalgic, invoking the look and feel of the original Star Trek series. However, his colleagues are trapped, held against their will, and forced to act according to Daly’s wishes. His control over their lives extends to modifying their bodies, taking away their sexual organs. There is comedy in the episode—for example, the discovery that Daly had modified her body led the protagonist, Nanette (Cristin Milioti), to say “Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line”. Despite this, USS Callister includes one of the darkest moments in the series. Daly’s chief real-world antagonist James Walton is the CEO of his company. He was also the first person who Daly replicated and added to the game. Walton reveals that, in order to control him, Daly obtained his son’s DNA and replicated him, only to push the virtual child into space. He kept the DNA in his fridge, and was able and willing to torture the child—who, it must be remembered, experienced himself as real—as often as necessary to force Walton to comply. Here, again, the lack of respect for digital lives, and the excessive control resting in the hands of those who have the capacity to harness technology, is emphasised. In USS Callister, the show reminds us that, if we develop the capacity to replicate ourselves, we transform into gods: individuals who may not only be callous—as in White Christmas — but also actively vindictive and cruel. Here, the multiplicity of the digital soul becomes key. Daly is able to construct and reconstruct any member of his digital Space Fleet crew, along with Walton’s son. Even if the rules of the environment in which a cookie is placed allow for death or deletion, the replicability of the digital soul means that another cookie, also devoid of choice, may take the place of the original. The use of DNA in this way also raise the question of unknowability—in the Black Mirror universe one can go about one’s business, blissfully unaware than an exact copy of oneself is being subjected to inhumane treatment. This is indeed the case in USS Callister, where Daly’s colleagues in the physical world have no sense of the existence of their digital doubles.



A final example of the problematic moral status of cookies in Black Mirror comes from one of Season 4’s most positive episodes, Hang the DJ . At first, this appears to be the story of two individuals— Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole)—who live in a tightly controlled world dictated by a system enforced by something called Coach, which forces them to enter pre-determined relationships for predetermined lengths of time. The ultimate aim of this system, they are told, is to pair each person with their perfect match. Neither Amy nor Frank has any memories of being anywhere other than in their current environment, and their only knowledge of the outside world is that there is something threatening beyond the walls that surround them. Towards the middle of the episode, Frank suggests that they are living in a simulation—a suggestion Amy laughs off, but which becomes more real to her as she notices small inconsistencies in her environment. When Amy is told that her perfect partner has been determined, she is permitted to meet Frank to say goodbye. They escape together, only to find themselves surrounded by other Franks and Amys. A screen announces that the simulation has been run 1000 times, with 998 escapes—meaning that the real Frank and Amy are 99.8% compatible. The protagonists of the episode are deleted, along with their 997 escaped doubles. The episode ends with the real, physically embodied, couple meeting in a bar. Hang the DJ is, in some ways, a cute love story. The episode is positioned between Crocodile and Metalhead, two of Season 4’s bleakest episodes. Despite its charm, however, it again raises the moral problem of the way in which cookies are used. The Frank and Amy the viewers follow through the episode are people with real personalities, real thoughts, feelings and hopes. Their experiences, including their eventual escape, lead their originals to meet and presumably to fall in love. However, their own erasure, immediately upon taking the—to them—impossibly brave step of running away together, discounts their own moral status and indicates that their lives and feelings are immaterial. A form of life which, in Black Mirror’s other love story, San Junipero, is treated as real and legitimate is, in Hang the DJ , afforded no greater moral status than one might grant to a video game character.

Moral Implications Science fiction has the potential to predict and contribute to pressing moral questions. Debates over the moral status of artificial intelligence



are by now well-established, and consider such questions as whether artificial lifeforms can be considered moral agents, what responsibilities they might have, what we may owe to intelligent creations, and how we, as humans, are able to respond to artificial life.14 Researchers are also working to explore the way in which machines can be taught to make moral decisions, given the fact that morality itself is culturally relative.15 However, before the emergence of the extensive body of work presently addressing this question, science fiction narratives—most notably Isaac Asimov’s landmark work I , Robot, sparked public consideration of what it would mean to live alongside intelligent artificial life. These questions, once abstract, are now pressing with the rapid advance of artificial intelligence, which, while it has not reached the point of replicating human beings, is nonetheless becoming capable of taking on complex tasks like driving, within which are embedded sticky moral questions. The technologies represented in Black Mirror are, as yet, the work of fantasy. Despite the promises of start-ups which seek to produce a type of immortality, there is not yet any convincing evidence that even technologies of the more modest type depicted in Be Right Back are likely to become part of our daily realities in the near future. This does not, however, render the considerations raised by Black Mirror irrelevant. As we stated at the outset of this article, technologies are already in the works which seek to address immortality through means which correspond to the two main forms of immortality described in Black Mirror. Despite the very early phase of this work, it is likely that someone, at some point, will find a way to construct a reasonable facsimile of a person who was once alive and now has died. Public writings discussing emerging or promising technologies which seek to replicate life tend to use Black Mirror as a cultural touchstone through which to explain or explore the implications of such developments.16 Black Mirror, in exploring complex moral questions through its trademark style that is simultaneously bleak and satiric, prompts us to consider the moral implications of the creation of the digital soul before it comes to be a real issue that is before us. In an era in which data leaks are common and the ownership of the texts, images and films which one posts online are often unclear, the call to be protective and considerate of our digital data is well-worn. However, the forms of information we project into the world are increasing—a trend for family research has given private corporations access to vast quantities of DNA and extensive information about kinship networks, while platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram encourage us to



share ourselves—or a version of ourselves—with the world. Black Mirror asks us to consider what it would mean if, rather than simply parts or projections of ourselves, our data actually was us. It is an issue we may one day have to face.

Notes 1. John A. Vincent, “Ageing Contested: Anti-Ageing Science and the Cultural Construction of Old Age,” Sociology 40, no. 4 (August 2006): 694, 2. “Eternime.” 3. “Nectome.” 4. “Eternime.” 5. Jessa Lingel, “The Digital Remains: Social Media and Practices of Online Grief,” The Information Society 29, no. 3 (May 2013): 190–95, https://; Patrick Stokes, “Deletion as Second Death: The Moral Status of Digital Remains,” Ethics and Information Technology 17, no. 4 (December 2015): 237–48, 10.1007/s10676-015-9379-4. 6. B. Carroll and K. Landry, “Logging on and Letting Out: Using Online Social Networks to Grieve and to Mourn,” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30, no. 5 (October 1, 2010): 341–49, https://doi. org/10.1177/0270467610380006; M. Gibson, “Death and Mourning in Technologically Mediated Culture,” Health Sociology Review: The Journal of the Health Section of the Australian Sociological Association 16, no. 5 (December 2007): 415; Margaret Gibson, “Automatic and Automated Mourning: Messengers of Death and Messages from the Dead,” Continuum 29, no. 3 (May 4, 2015): 339–53, 1080/10304312.2015.1025369. 7. “‘An Otherness That Cannot Be Sublimated’: Shades of Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror,” Science Fiction Film & Television 11, no. 2 (June 2018): 272, 8. “The Extra,”, 1990, 20Extra. 9. Margaret Gibson and Clarissa Carden, Living and Dying in a Virtual World: Digital Kinships, Nostalgia and Mourning in Second Life, Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). 10. “Nectome.” 11. “‘An Otherness That Cannot Be Sublimated.’” 12. “Transparent Subjects: Digital Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlie Brooker’s ‘Be Right Back,’” Science Fiction Studies 45, no. 2 (2018): 308,



13. Min-Sun Kim and Eun-Joo Kim, “Humanoid Robots as ‘The Cultural Other’: Are We Able to Love Our Creations?,” AI & SOCIETY 28, no. 3 (August 2013): 309–18, 14. Hutan Ashrafian, “Artificial Intelligence and Robot Responsibilities: Innovating Beyond Rights,” Science and Engineering Ethics 21, no. 2 (April 2015): 317–26,; Bartosz Brozek ˙ and Bartosz Janik, “Can Artificial Intelligences Be Moral Agents?,” New Ideas in Psychology, January 2019, ideapsych.2018.12.002; Kim and Kim, “Humanoid Robots as ‘The Cultural Other.’” 15. Edmond Awad et al., “The Moral Machine Experiment,” Nature 563, no. 7729 (November 2018): 59–64, 16. E.g. Courtney Humphries, “Digital Immortality: How Your Life’s Data Means a Version of You Could Live Forever,” MIT Technology Review, 2018, ital-version-after-death/.

Latent Memory, Responsibility and the Architecture of Interaction Kristin Veel

“You know what I mean, out here in the real world you can genuinely prevent stuff, can’t you?” junior detective Blue Coulson (Faye Marsay) explains when Chief Inspector Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) asks her why she switched from the digital forensics department. Yet this episode of Black Mirror—Hated in the Nation, the sixth and final episode of season three—reveals the difficulty of prevention in both the “real world” and the digital realm, as well as the complex entanglements, dependencies and differentiations between them. The episode’s intricate plot revolves around the hashtag #deathto, the use of which online causes deaths executed by bee-size drones in the real world. While Hated in the Nation, in classic Black Mirror style, is set in an eerily recognisable future, the 2018 interactive film Bandersnatch is explicitly temporally situated in the infamous Orwellian year of 1984, and is presented throughout as a period piece, with only minor jumps to a twenty-first century present in some of the story paths. However, like Hated in the Nation, Bandersnatch engages with questions of control and the intricate interlacing of virtual and physical worlds. Here those questions are coupled with issues

K. Veel (B) Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




pertaining to temporality and parallel realities and embedded in a story of trauma and mental health, while also providing a metalevel that draws on the “choose your own adventure” genre as a precursor to interactive storytelling. This chapter brings together these two episodes of Black Mirror in a reading that focuses on conflations of materiality and temporality, and on the consequences of those conflations for notions of agency, responsibility and memory.1

Inside–Outside: Consequences, Responsibility and Accountability Hated in the Nation centres on questions of responsibility, accountability and consequences. Architecturally, this is already conveyed in the opening scene, where grim-faced Chief Inspector Karin Parke is waiting in a marble corridor. A door opens, and she is called into the hearing where she will give her testimony; the sounds echo as if in a vault. The episode plays out as one long flashback based on her account of the events leading up to the deaths of 387,036 people who had posted the hashtag #deathto on social media. This overall frame means that our main point of access to the story is through her memory of the events. In a Nordic noir atmosphere, the episode follows the Chief Inspector and her tech-savvy junior “shadow,” Blue Coulson, as they try to solve a murder mystery. People are being killed by Autonomous Drone Insects (ADIs), which were originally developed in response to a “colony collapse disorder” that caused bees to become practically extinct. Early on we hear that conspiracy theorists believe these solar-powered artificial pollinators are used by the government to spy on the population. In the course of the investigation, the allegation turns out to be true, and indeed to be key to the ADIs’ transformation into killing machines: thanks to their facial recognition software, the drones can target the specific individuals who have acquired the greatest number #deathto hashtags online, a bizarre “game of consequences” in which the population willingly engages. However, the master plot is eventually revealed to be more circuitous than a simple conspiracy to eliminate those who suffer the online shitstorm of a reverse popularity contest. In the last, hectic, part of the episode, it turns out that the real targets in this game of consequences are not those who are receiving the hate and abuse online, but rather the attacking swarms of people who help spread the hatred by using the hashtag. The result is the 387,036 casualties that spark the hearing that frames the episode.



Unsurprisingly, the attacking swarm is a strong motif. It is mirrored and inverted in the image of the attacking killer drones, and of the attacking online hordes who operate from a safe distance behind their screens. The mastermind behind this complex plot is a former employee of the company that made the drones—a company called Granular, a significant name that gestures towards the central trope of parts and wholes that runs throughout the episode. The aim of this ex-employee is to teach the online bullies a moral lesson; however, he too operates at one remove from his victims. Interestingly, he is absent for most of the episode. It is only towards the end that he emerges as an individual with a particular agenda, when the investigation team finds his ninety-eight-page manifesto “The Teeth of Consequence” buried in the memory of one of the ADIs; the ADI also contains a selfie, the metadata from which leads them to his physical whereabouts. Up until this point, his agency has only been present on-screen through his placing of the #deathto hashtag via bots, and the attacking ADIs are the most physical marker of his existence. These swarms—both the hashtags and the ADIs—are in marked contrast to his lone-wolf appearance, curled up in a defunct factory building with the screen from which he controls the hacked ADIs. Indeed, the discrepancy makes the subtle comment that swarms are not necessarily composed of millions of people who share the same belief, but may also be cleverly orchestrated smear campaigns by single individuals.2 The invisibility of the attackers is part of their effect. As the original victim of the online hate that spurs his revenge mission puts it: “It’s hard to describe what that does to your head. Suddenly there’s a million invisible people, all talking about how they despise you. It is like a mental illness.” This remark points to a central instability not only between the individual and the swarm, but also between inside and outside. This porosity is at work throughout the episode on multiple levels: we see it (as in this quotation) as a comment on the internalisation of online hatred—the millions of voices entering the individual skull, in this instance leading to self-harm; but we also see it as an outwards movement, from inside the head to the digital realm. When Blue Coulson describes her work at the digital forensics department as extracting “schemes and kill lists, and kiddy porn” from mobile devices, Karin Parke responds: “I’m old enough to remember when they walked around with that stuff just tucked away in their heads.” As a whole, the episode is full of containers being scratched—from Karin Parke nervously boring marks into the surface of the paper coffee cup she holds in her hands while waiting to enter the hearing in the first scene, to the way



the killer drones bore into their victims’ brains, causing vile pain and desperate attempts to extract the penetrating foreign object: “She was thrashing… clawing at her own skin,” reports the husband of one of the victims. The human body is portrayed as a fragile container that can be violently attacked, but also a leaking container that exudes what perhaps ought to have been contained. Transgression and porosity between realms thus seem to be at the heart of this episode. I shall argue that it is precisely the difficulty of identifying the borders between inside and outside that makes the episode’s pivotal theme of responsibility such a fluid substance, underscoring the central question of how to hold a swarm accountable. Addressing the ethical implications of human-technical assemblages as they have been theorised by French philosopher Bruno Latour,3 cultural theorist N. Katherine Hayles aptly reminds us: Latour is certainly right to point to human-technical assemblages as transformative entities that affect ends as well as means, but he offers little guidance on how to assess the ethical implications of such assemblages. […] To assess such assemblages, we should move from thinking about the individual and CHOICEFW [choice as free will] as the focus for ethical or moral judgement, and shift instead to thinking about CHOICEII [choice as interpretation of information] and the consequences of the actions the assemblage as a whole performs.4

The ADI swarm is an example of an assemblage that performs as a whole and whose “will” is highly distributed between the programmer, the people posting the online hashtag that feeds the ADIs their target, and the software—including facial recognition and navigation systems— which enables the ADIs to interpret the information they receive and transform it into an attack on specific individuals. The team of detectives working to solve the murders is also a significant part of this assemblage. Through their process—which is essentially one of “interpreting information”—the detectives become complicit with and even enable the final attack: it is the decision to try to shut down the hives that prompts the ADIs to turn against those who have posted the #deathto hashtag. This also renders the team members subject to moral guilt: we hear that Blue Coulson has allegedly taken her own life in remorse, and we see Karin Parke and National Crime Agency officer Shaun Li (Benedit Wong) both give testimony at the hearing. Just as the ADI swarm turns out to be a more complex entity than simply a prosthesis for the lone culprit, so the



questions of choice, consequences and testimony are portrayed as equally complex, in a way that taps into current discussions of drone attacks.5 Bandersnatch seems at first sight to provide a discussion of what Hayles terms CHOICEFW—choice as free will, here focusing on the individual character Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), the interiority of his mind, and the traumas it harbours. However, as the story unravels, Stefan’s choices (with which we as viewers are given some complicity through the interactive format) and the question of responsibility turn out to be no less complex than the ADI swarm. The coupling of a porosity between inside and outside with questions of responsibility, free will and consequences are strong motifs in Bandersnatch too. Yet, as we shall see, here they are given a temporal twist: occurrences in this film are linked to the possibility of parallel realities, and as a result the physical violence and death we experience on-screen are constantly questioned, even flattened, by the multiple realities of dreams, trauma and mental illness, as well as the forking paths of the videogame structure, which offers the ability to go back, start anew and experience diverging playouts. This has a significant impact on how choice, consequences and responsibility are portrayed. In Bandersnatch, nineteen-year-old programmer Stefan is adapting a choose-your-own-adventure book into a videogame. He is also working through the death of his mother, which occurred when he was aged five and about which he is guilt-ridden in so far as it was his unwillingness to leave without his favourite toy that caused his mother to take a later train; the train derailed, causing her death. In most of the story paths, the project to adapt the adventure book is shown as seriously compromising Stefan’s mental health; and in the various plot threads, the viewer is left as much in the dark as Stefan about what is happening inside and outside his own mind. The film is full of the imagery of containment. The bedroom in his father’s house, from which Stefan works, becomes increasingly cave-like throughout the film. There is a room that his father keeps locked, which in different story paths contains a safe with essential objects or files that either help Stefan find peace or spur him into further paranoia. There are the warm, womblike hues of the traumatic memory of his childhood room at the moment when his mother left to catch the train. There is also confinement in some of the endings, where Stefan ends up in a prison cell, carving forked glyphs into the wall. Entering or exiting these rooms of containment is essential to how the plot advances. Entering the room in his father’s house that contains the safe will lead



to the unravelling of secrets, a goal desired by the viewer as much as by Stefan. On the other hand, when Stefan and superstar programmer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) take hallucinogens together, Colin offers him (and the viewer, who is asked to choose who jumps) an exit as they stand on a balcony overlooking a night skyline—an exit fraught with uncertainty, since we do not know whether jumping will advance the plot or lead to a (literal) dead end. A more metalevel annulment of boundaries is offered in storylines where the space through which Stefan moves is revealed to be a psychology lab, or even a film set on a Netflix production—the camera literally zooms out until we see that where the fourth wall ought to be, it instead opens out into a film studio full of production crewmembers. Another, more healing exit is offered to Stefan in a storyline where he leaves his nineteen-year-old self behind and goes through a bathroom mirror to become the five-year-old Stefan, who can now choose to go with his mother on the train and die with her. In Hated in the Nation, the relationship between inside and outside hinges on transgressions and leakages between containers, and on the entanglements, dependencies and differentiations between nature, humans and technology. All of this contributes to a certain fluidity with regard to the question of responsibility in this episode. Bandersnatch, on the other hand, uses images of containment as sites that spur action by being entered or exited by Stefan. In this way, a solid amount of agency is placed on his shoulders as an individual. Yet, as the film evolves, we see how this “choice as free will” veers towards “choice as interpretation of information” in the displacement of agency from the main character onto the viewer, and then in various circuitous ways (depending on which story path you follow) onto a more complex assemblage consisting of Stefan, the viewer, the production crew and the technology of the Netflix interactive storytelling platform. The latter rests on a custom-made device memory technology that is constantly working to seamlessly load the episode, considering all the back-end possibilities that occur at each choice point.6 Control over Stefan’s choices, which Stefan himself experiences as deteriorating throughout the film, is thus mirrored in the viewer’s experience—and in the exploration of control over the storyline. It is a level of control that is negotiated with the creators behind the film, as much as with the affordances of the interactive storytelling technology developed by Netflix. The forking paths thus work both on the technical level and in the storyline. In a central scene that we reach by multiple pathways, Stefan



watches a documentary on Jerome F. Davies, the author of the adventure book he is adapting. Davies allegedly became mentally unstable while writing the book, eventually beheading his wife. The voice of an interviewee in the documentary resonates in Stefan’s confined bedroom: After his arrest he told the police, we exist in multiple parallel realities at once. One reality for each possible course of action we might take in life. Whatever we choose to do in this reality, there exists another one out there in which we do quite the opposite, which renders free will meaningless, nothing but an illusion. If you follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you are absolved of any guilt from your actions. But they are not even your actions. Your fate has been dictated. It is out of your hands. You are just a puppet. You are not in control.7

The possibility of parallel realities offers Stefan a way out of the sense of responsibility and guilt with regard to his mother’s death. Yet, it also becomes an absolution for killing his father, an action which in most versions Stefan performs, repeatedly saying “I am not in control, I am not in control.” The issue of agency versus control, which runs throughout the film, is thus conflated through the multiple storylines into a simultaneity that provides temporal absolution from responsibility. In Hated in the Nation, the material blurring between nature and technology is prominent, while the temporal storylines mostly remain within the confines of the flashback. But in Bandersnatch, we see a more radical temporal conflation into what may be called a “broad present” in cultural theorist Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht’s sense: “Between the pasts that engulf us and the menacing future, the present has turned into a dimension of expanding simultaneities. All the pasts of recent memory form part of this spreading present.”8 Just as much contemporary theory speaks of assemblages, entanglements and hybrids in a way that points to an ontological flattening between mind and materiality,9 so the broad present can be regarded as a temporal condition that swallows up temporal distinctions, in a way that Gumbrecht and others regard as characteristic of our cultural moment.10 Yet, I shall argue that both Hated in the Nation and Bandersnatch show us that we need to pay attention to the tensions of dependence and dependency between past, present and future—tensions that may be productively understood as sticky entrapments. Archaeologist Ian Hodder argues with regard to materiality:



There are problems with the idea of a total mixing of humans and things in networks or meshes. At certain historical moments and in certain contexts, humans appear dominant over things, but at other places and times things seem to have the dominant hand (for example, during global warming at the end of the Pleistocene and perhaps during our own current experience of global warming). In ANT [actor-network-theory] everything is relational and this insight is important. But it is also the case that materials and objects have affordances that are continuous from context to context. These material possibilities (whether instantiated or not) create potentials and constraints. So rather than talk of things and humans in meshworks or networks of interconnections, it seems more accurate to talk of a dialectical tension of dependence and dependency that is historically contingent. We seem caught; humans and things are stuck to each other. Rather than focusing on the web as a network, we can see it as a sticky entrapment.11

If we think about temporality in these terms, it seems impossible to think back on the past from a stable position or with the advantage of hindsight. Rather, the past is something that keeps sticking to us—a web-like entrapment that we move around, and which we can alter and engage with, thereby changing future loops and offering multiple endings that have equal authority. As we shall now see, this conception of time and materiality turns storytelling into something other than a revisiting of the past. Bandersnatch and Hated in the Nation provide us with different takes on the implications of this for the conception of responsibility.

Boundaries and Transgressions: Interaction, Participation and Control In his now classic Reading for the Plot, literary scholar Peter Brooks describes that which maintains the reader’s interest and engagement in a plot as “narrative desire.”12 He builds on both Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Walter Benjamin’s claim in his famous essay The Storyteller that “death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.”13 Brooks fuses these two influences to conceptualise an “anticipation of retrospection” that takes the form of a drive to ascribe meaning.14 Narrative desire is here coupled with the desire for an ending as a stand-in for our own death, which we are exempt from experiencing ourselves; the desire for an ending thus comes to embody a desire to be able to ascribe meaning. In this process,



the postponement of reaching the end—or the fear of reaching the end too soon—is central: We emerge from reading Beyond the Pleasure Principle with a dynamic model that structures ends (death, quiescence, nonnarratability) against beginnings (Eros, stimulation into tension, the desire of narrative) in a manner that necessitates the middle as detour, as struggle toward the end under the compulsion of imposed delay, as arabesque in the dilatory space of the text. The model proposes that we live in order to die, hence that the intentionality of plot lies in its orientation toward the end even while the end must be achieved only through detour.15

Detour and delay—for instance, through repetitions or plot excursions— are central to a satisfactory plot. Hated in the Nation adheres to this logic: the story is recounted after the fatal attack, lending authority to Karin Parke as someone who has witnessed the events, although the viewer does not know the extent of the death toll until the very end. However, in an interactive story such as Bandersnatch—which on the thematic level operates with the possibility of multiple realities, at the same time as its format offers viewers a similar experience—detour and delay imply not only the pleasurable postponement of a fulfilling ending, but also something for which the viewer is given a sense of responsibility. That sense of responsibility can be linked to Hayles’s “choice as interpretation of information”: the viewer is asked to make decisions based on the information presented, in this way becoming part of the storyworld, and hence becoming complicit in setting the limits to the kinds of decision that can be made. While these limits are significantly extended in comparison with more fixed storytelling formats, they also result in a paradoxical sense of containment, in so far as the ability to make decisions may foster the desire to be able to choose more freely. Because death in a videogame is an invitation to play again, rather than what Walter Benjamin calls “the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell,”16 we arrive at a conception of narrative desire that is closer to a Derridean “archive fever” that burns to extend what is present. For Derrida, an archive is never closed but constantly evolving, adding to its own content and extent. However, Derrida also refers to the “violence of the archive”17 : the selection of some elements at the expense of others, and the investment with meaning that comes from being part of the archive. This violence—the violence of “choice as interpretation of information”—is at the core of the



notion of responsibility in Bandersnatch, a responsibility that leaks from author to viewer during the interactive storytelling. Indeed, it is here that the interactive formats of the film and storyline alike come to mirror each other. On the one hand, the interactive format offers the viewer the opportunity to become complicit in Stefan’s decisions. On the other, by engaging with the narrative in this way, the viewer also quickly realises that he or she is not in control. While Hated in the Nation presents responsibility as spread between media and materiality, between the swarm and the individual, both the form and storyline of Bandersnatch show that the most life-changing choices are embedded in ordinary decisions, and that some of the more gruesome choices (to kill Stefan’s father, or to ask Colin to jump from the balcony) are in fact unavoidable if we want the plot to progress. Some choices that intuitively seem to promise to advance the plot—for instance, if Stefan accepts the computer game company’s apparently generous offer to help him develop his game—turn out to lead down blind alleys unless one takes the counter-intuitive option. Likewise, the ending offered by Stefan’s choice to go with his mother on the train—a train the viewer knows is going to derail—is fraught with a sense of resistance: it can only be experienced as a satisfying ending if the viewer has already been through enough detours and delays to feel ready to let Stefan find this kind of peace. There is a certain sense of sticky entrapment in many of the choices that Stefan is made to make to advance the plot. We even see him wriggling in the web, as he tries to resist some of those choices (for instance, when he struggles not to bite his nails or touch his earlobe) when he starts to feel that he is being controlled by outside forces (be they Netflix, a government programme called PAC, or the creature in the book he is adapting). The viewer may experience a parallel wriggling when prompted to choose between chopping up or burying the body of the father, neither of which are presented as appealing developments. Netflix’s venture into interactive storytelling taps into long-running discussions of interaction, games and narratives that were particularly prominent during the 1990s with the advent of hypertext fiction.18 A late and critical voice in the debate, which links it to questions of responsibility, came in 2004 with Susan Sontag’s Nadine Gordimer Lecture, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” (published posthumously).19 Sontag contemplates the future of the novel, polemically lashing out at the narrative modes of hyperfiction and television, which she conceives as providing us with non-stop stories that elude



endings. However, she raises a series of interesting points with regard to moral reasoning, authorship and readership, which make her words well worth revisiting—especially now, at a time when television seems to be at a technological crossroad in terms of making interactive storytelling more mainstream.20 Sontag lambasts contemporary media culture for its lack of responsibility, arguing that authors are transferring their own moral obligations onto readers by refusing to set limits: To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path. To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention. When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world. The nature of moral judgements depends on our capacity for paying attention – a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.21

This is in tune with the conception of choice as interpretation of information, and it brings with it the violence of the archive that comes from selecting something over something else. Sontag opposes this transferral of responsibility from author to reader, and she regards it as part of a more general tendency. For her, the democratic ideology of hypertext is “in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism,”22 of which the avoidance of an ending and of the setting of demarcations is an essential part: A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.23

For Sontag, the ethical component of storytelling requires the author to take responsibility for presenting a story. This also presents a way of opposing “the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our mediadisseminated glut of unending stories”24 that she sees in contemporary



media culture. Writing before the global pervasiveness of social media, Sontag puts her finger on what remains a schism in online storytelling today: on the one hand, the invitation to users into a participatory engagement with the storyworld (not least through fan culture25 ); on the other, the need for someone to take responsibility for setting the boundaries of that world, in order to create what Brooks describes as narrative desire. Building on Mary Ann Doane’s and Jane Feuer’s canonical work on the temporality of television,26 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has argued that there is a difference between “using” online media—which operate through a perpetual series of crises that demand a real-time response—and “watching” a catastrophe live on TV: Crisis moments that demand real time response make new media valuable and empowering by tying certain information to a decision, personal or political (in this sense, new media also personalises crises). Crises mark the difference between ‘using’ and other modes of media spectatorship/viewing, in particular ‘watching’ television, which has been theorised in terms of liveness and catastrophe. Comprehending the difference between new media crises and televisual catastrophes is central to understanding the promise and threat of new media.27

The ability to participate—to become a user that can respond to a series of ever-present and real-time crises, rather than merely a viewer—is accompanied by a drive to be constantly online and responding, a drive that may even be conceived as a moral responsibility to react and respond. A sense of urgency as well as agency is thus established, fuelled by the sense that one is able to have an impact on the events (even when this is not the case). Responding with the #deathto hashtag online may feel like an ethical impetus, if you are sitting in front of your screen and feeling morally outraged by the state of the world. Posting, liking, sharing thus become ethical actions; yet Hated in the Nation questions the responsibility taken and the consequences wrought by such actions. Bandersnatch balances the difficult question of authorial responsibility by bestowing some agency on the viewer, but ultimately it also leaves the viewer with a sense that the options presented are confined, and that we are being told a story that has a certain consistency to it, even if that consistency can result in different endings. In that sense, we wriggle as much as Stefan in the sticky web that makes up the story. Interaction often means that a



sensation of liveness is generated—in narratological terms, that narrative time and narrated time merge, so that we as viewers feel that our choices have real-time impact. At first sight, this illusion is negated in Bandersnatch, since the beginning of the film explicitly situates the storyline in 1984, excluding viewers in 2019 from any sense of real time. Nonetheless, within the fictional universe of the story, the illusion is maintained to the degree that some storylines posit twenty-first century Netflix viewers as the controllers of Stefan’s actions. Furthermore, time travel through mirrors is presented as possible, which all contributes to a temporal conflation. This ultimately puts the viewer of Bandersnatch in a position where a sense of real-time responsibility may be felt—albeit one that operates within the temporal mode of latency. This is the temporal mode that I argue characterises the film, an issue to which I shall now turn in a final consideration of the notion of memory. In the computational use of the word “latency,” latency time is what limits the maximum rate at which information can be transmitted. The minimisation of latency time remains a key challenge in communication engineering. An example is the waiting time involved in live transmissions, when the signal travels a certain geographical distance through a chain of communication equipment (satellites or fibre optic cables). The parameters that can influence latency time, and which engineers seek to minimise, include the delay incurred by the medium (wire or wireless), the size of the packet, the gateway nodes (such as routers) that examine and possibly make changes in what is sent, and (in the case of Internet latency) the server’s occupation with other transmission requests. Tuning the computer hardware, software and mechanical systems can reduce latency. Latency can also be hidden through techniques such as prefetching, in which a processor anticipates the need for data input, and requests the data block in advance so that it can be placed in a cache and accessed more quickly.28 From the technical side, avoiding latency seems to be at the heart of making Bandersnatch a smooth experience. The creators describe “buffering as the enemy”29 of the creation of a seamless story experience, which demanded the development of what they call “state tracking” to remember the choices viewers make over the course of the story, so that choices made earlier in the episode have an effect on scenes and storylines later on (from making subtle differentiations, right down to determining which endings can be unlocked). Netflix’s director of product innovation, Carla Engelbrecht, explained in an interview:



Because of the state tracking, we are now getting into such a level of permutations that there could be 16 or more videos that are potentially relevant for your situation. We’ve built elegant decision-making into the tools where we only load the videos that are relevant, rather than trying to load everything at once.30

Memory thus emerges as key to unlocking the experience that the film presents: memory understood as the technical ability to limit the number of videos that need to be available, and thus to limit the demands made on the streaming capabilities; but also as the ability to make the storyline function by limiting the story presented, balancing the inclination to give the viewer a sense of agency and complicity against the need to confine the storyworld sufficiently to provide a consistent universe. Hated in the Nation plays out as one long flashback, giving the sense that the past is something that can be recounted with the aim of placing responsibility; but at the same time, the story is full of material collapses that spread the responsibility across the assemblage of the swarm. Bandersnatch takes this porosity a step further, giving it a temporal dimension in which latency— here understood as the broad present which the story establishes—is at the heart of the temporal conflation that enables the storyline.

It Is Business, Nothing Personal As I have worked to show throughout this chapter, both Hated in the Nation and Bandersnatch revolve around responsibility and complicity. While Hated in the Nation points to the irresponsibility of those who spread online abuse, playing on the shock effect that online attacks cause physical deaths, Bandersnatch engages viewers and their individual expectations with regard to their ability to influence the plot. What is also interesting here for Black Mirror as a series, which is known for its dystopic take on our immediate technological future, is the implications of the development of the interactive Netflix platform. It only takes a slight amount of Black Mirror paranoia to envision the platform using the metadata gathered by Netflix users to custom-make storylines even further in the future, in such a way that your online traces, possibly even your Google searches and social media interactions—whatever a given platform can get its hands on—can go into presenting you (and users like you) with storylines that the platform expects will satisfy your narrative



drive. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us the scope for personalising content and targeting specific users. Just as the drones in Hated in the Nation are able to target specific individuals through facial recognition software, so we may anticipate a future where storytelling can also be individually tailored—or at least, a Black Mirror episode that engages with the prospect of such a future.

Notes 1. The theoretical framework of this chapter is indebted to my work with architectural scholar Henriette Steiner on our co-written book Henriette Steiner and Kristin Veel, Tower to Tower: Gigantism in Architectural and Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020). 2. See, for instance, work on hate speech online, such as Zeerak Waseem and Dirk Hovy, Hateful Symbols or Hateful People? Predictive Features for Hate Speech Detection on Twitter (San Diago: Association for Computational Linguistics, 2016), 88–93, N16-2013 as well as Julia M. Hildebrand’s reading of Hated in the Nation “Overextended Media: Hashtag Hatred and Domestic Drones” in Angela M. Cirucci and Barry Vacker, eds., Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory (London: Lexington Books, 2018), 171–183. 3. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-NetworkTheory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 4. N. Katherine Hayles, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). 5. See for instance Andreas Immanuel Graae’s reading of Hated in the Nation in “Swarming Sensations: Robo-bees and the Politics of the Swarm in Black Mirror,” The Senses and Society 15, no.3 (2020) and James Smith, “On Killer Bees and GCHQ: ‘Hated in the Nation’” in Terence McSweeney and Stuart Joy, eds. Through the Black Mirror: Deconstructing the Side Effects of the Digital Age (Cham: palgrave Mcmillan, 2019), 179–190. 6. Jackie Strause, “‘Black Mirror’ Interactive Film: Inside the 2Year Journey of ‘Bandersnatch,’” The Hollywood Reporter, December 28, 2018, 7. Depending on the story paths taken to reach it, there are slightly different versions of this voice, foregrounding an invitation to commit murder (or not). However, the main point about absolution from guilt remains central. 8. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Our Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), xiii.



9. Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-NetworkTheory; Ian Hodder, Entangled (Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell, 2012); Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Hayles, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2010); Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology—Or What’s It Like Being a Thing? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). 10. The metaphor of a broadening present that conflates past and present into an extended ‘now’ also resonates in Peter Osborne’s notion of ‘contemporaneity’ as a coming together of past and future in the present: ‘We do not live or exist together “in time” with our contemporaries […] but rather the present is increasingly characterized by a coming together of different, but equally “present” temporalities of “times”’. Peter Osborne, “Temporalization as Transcendental Aesthetics: Avant-Garde, Modern, Contemporary,” Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 44–45 (2013). 11. Ian Hodder, “The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View,” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (2014): 25. 12. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984). 13. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 3, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 151. 14. Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, 23. 15. Brooks, 107–108. 16. Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” 151. 17. Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (1995): 12. 18. Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001); Jesper Juul, Half -Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); Kristin Veel, “The Irreducibility of Space: Labyrinths, Cities, Cyberspace,” Diacritics 33, no. 3–4 (2003): 151–72. 19. Susan Sontag, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007). 20. Kris Wouk, “Netflix to Bring More Interactive Storytelling, Starting with ‘Black Mirror,’” Digital Trends, October 2, 2018, https://www.digita


21. 22. 23. 24. 25.


27. 28.

29. 30.

169 Sontag, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” 26. Sontag, 221. Sontag, 223–24. Sontag, 225. Nancy Baym, “Introduction,” in Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 1–28; Alex Bruns, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (New York: Peter Lang, 2008); Henry Jenkins, “Rethinking ‘Rethinking Convergence/Culture,’” Cultural Studies 28, no. 2 (2014): 267–97; Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor,” in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Trebor Scholz (New York and London: Routledge, 2018), 33–58. Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 222–39; Jane Feuer, “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology,” in Regarding Television: Critical Approaches, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983), 12–22. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Sovereignty and Networks,” Theory, Culture, and Society 28, no. 6 (2011): 91–112. That is, in a smaller, faster memory that stores copies of data from frequently used main memory locations. See also, Kristin Veel, “Latency,” in Uncertain Archives: Critical Keywords for Big Data, ed. Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, Daniela Agostinho, Annie Ring, Cathrine D’Ignazio and Kristin Veel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021). Strause, “‘Black Mirror’ Interactive Film: Inside the 2-Year Journey of ‘Bandersnatch.’” Strause.

God Is an Algorithm: Free Will, Authenticity and Meaning in Black Mirror Helena Bassil-Morozow

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2011–) paints the world in which the god of a technologically sophisticated late capitalist society, the omniscient and omnipresent algorithm, has complete control over human thoughts, actions and even bodily functions. The question Brooker addresses in his bleak, often satirical, sketches is as old as human consciousness itself: do we have authentic existence in an environment full of screens, reflections, copies; where technology is pervasive and ubiquitous, and encroaches onto our agency, invades and takes over our identity? The capacity to act and determine one’s own actions in an increasingly technologised world is the most prominent theme of the show. The issues of authenticity and agency, which form the base of the ageold question of ‘free will’, have traditionally been linked in narratives to the motif of the double, or the doppelganger. For, without free will, we are but inanimate objects in the hands of a higher power, mere marionettes, soulless creatures—a truly terrifying thought which consumer culture strives to repress, yet narratives such as Black Mirror drag to

H. Bassil-Morozow (B) Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, Scotland, UK e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s) 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




the cultural surface, explore and expose, almost to the point of aversion, abjection, terror—the very signs of the presence of a crack on the otherwise smooth mirror reflection.

Technology and “Soul Loss” Baudrillard’s ideas outlined in The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970) and Simulacra and Simulation (1980), even though written before the advent of the internet, accurately predict the complication of the relationship between technology, repression and authenticity. Here he maps out the trajectory of the development of the guilt and repression associated with technological progress: …since the early Middle Ages, the Pact with the Devil has been the central myth of a society engaged in the historical and technical progress of the domination of nature, that process always being simultaneously a process of the taming of sexuality. Among the forces of evil, indexed to the Devil, the Western ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has served constantly to thematize the immense guilt attaching to the puritanical, Promethean enterprise of Progress, of sublimation and labour, of rationality and efficiency.1

Moreover, this society has explored progress in relation to human authenticity, and reality, in works of art and literature, often in spiritual terms as “soul loss” “[the] medieval theme of the re-emergence of the repressed of being haunted by the repressed and selling one’s soul … was revived by the romantics in the early years of the industrial age. Since then, the theme has continued to run (parallel to the myth of the ‘miracle of technology’) behind the myth of the inevitability of technology”.2 The Romantics were the first authors to seriously explore the effects of technology not only on human identity, but on the environment—expansion of transport networks, disappearance of landscape, growth of urban population, pollution, etc. So did an adjacent literary movement, the socalled Gothic writing, by evoking the supernatural, the irrational, the inexplicable, in defiance of the scientific progress. An international movement, it comprises a vast body of narratives, from Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and the novels of Ann Radcliffe, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe’s supernatural tales. Faced with the sweeping changes brought by the Industrial Revolution, authors belonging to the Gothic-Romantic tradition variously



attempted to clarify the relationship between the emerging technological society, and powers beyond human control and understanding. It was the battleground between the old and the new gods: the inscrutable ancient one, and the scientific one. Two of the key components of the Gothic-Romantic tradition were preoccupation with the theme of God as a superpower (the sublime) and the dual theme of doubling and repeating (the uncanny). Both the sublime and the uncanny double up as devices for exploring the new, and increasingly more complicated, set of relationships between men and their environment‚ and have been persistently present in literary and moving image narratives for over two centuries. Both permeate Black Mirror episodes in a variety of incarnations and come in all shades of fear and uneasiness: a dead boyfriend is replicated in Be Right Back (S01, E02), a terrifying experience is repeated on a loop in White Bear (S02, E 02), humans are copied and trapped in small spaces (White Christmas , S02, E04; USS Callister, S04, E01; Hang the DJ , S04, E04). Resemblances, recognitions and mis-recognitions blur the boundary not between fantasy and reality (this is no longer the case as fantasy, along with the supernatural, are left behind with the modernity Gothic), but between actual and virtual realities, the latter having taken the place of fantasy. Now one might lose sense of reality altogether, having relinquished control to the algorithmic god.

The Uncanny and the Sublime In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, Freud explores the dread of phenomena that are simultaneously familiar and strange.3 The key factor responsible for the feeling of the uncanny is “recurrence of the same situations, things and events”.4 The fear of such phenomena is caused by the interplay of proximity and distance, familiarity and strangeness and the lack of clear boundary between the object and the self. Freud links the feeling of dread upon seeing a human-like doll, for instance, as originating in primary narcissism, when the boundary between the self and the world is still blurred; yet the uncanny can also “receive fresh meaning from the later stages of the development of the ego”, particularly in the formation of self-reflection.5 Freud gives multiple examples of the uncanny, all variously associated with the acts of doubling and repetition: an attempt to flee from a “red district” of a small Italian town, only to be mysteriously brought there



three times “by devious paths”; obsessively noticing the same number everywhere and linking the incidents together into a narrative; thinking that one’s thoughts have external influence.6 Importantly, the idea of the double is also related to “all those unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will”.7 In other words, the uncanny also seems to somehow reflect the dichotomy of human autonomy vs external circumstances; the dynamic between the libertarian free will and a range of structures determining the trajectory of an individual’s life. Thus, the uncanny plays into the obsession–compulsion that comes with the illusion of control, for repeating an action or event equals to controlling this event in one’s head. Two texts central to the Gothic-Romantic tradition that explore the uncanny in terms of doubling and repetition, are E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1816) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1819). Frankenstein questions the power and morality of science and debates whether progress can do humans and their environment more harm than good. Hoffman’s Sandman has traditionally been interpreted from a Freudian perspective as a fear of castration. There is something else there, however, that is perhaps more obvious that the Oedipal theme: the representation of technology as demonic, as forcible, as the seat of the uncanny: the several male figures that terrify the protagonist Nathaniel are all scientists, the alchemist Coppelius, the mechanic Coppola and the physics professor Spalanzani. The Sandman steals human eyes, presumably rendering people soulless, turning them into mere husks. The Baudrillardian explanation of the Romantic combination of fear and guilt in the face of science, as being at a loss, as not knowing what to do with the unstoppable technological progress, which has been taking over many aspects of human existence, is perhaps more apt than the simplistic Freudian one. Nicholas Royle further develops the concept of the uncanny to include fear of modernity itself— of alienation, of defamiliarisation of what is familiar—the human body, the daily routine, the accepted frames and borders (Royle 2003: 4–7). The uncanny is an oxymoron, it looks strangely familiar because modern individuals have been estranged from themselves, from their own bodies, minds and experiences. If they are afraid of the eyes looking at them from a black mirror, they are afraid of their own reflection. They are afraid of themselves.



Interestingly enough, the theme of eyes hijacked by an implant or an electronic device (expressed as a visual synecdoche) is prominent in a number of Black Mirror episodes, including The Entire History of You (S01, E03), Men Against Fire (S03, E05) and Archangel (S04, E02). In others, such as Nosedive, characters cannot take their eyes off the screen, highlighting the current human dependency on the double, on the eye-stealing uncanny, which also happens to be Algorithm. The Sublime, through its connections with the fear of and fascination with power, reflects the nature of humanity’s relationship with God. One feels terror in the presence of God as opposed to horror, which refers to abject and bodily experiences. According to Edmund Burke, subliminal experiences are contradictory in nature, combining fascination and terror, pleasure and pain: Thus when we contemplate the Deity, his attributes and their operation, coming united on the mind, form a sort of sensible image, and as such are capable of affecting the imagination. Now, though in a just idea of the Deity perhaps none of his attributes are predominant, yet, to our imagination, his power is by far the most striking. Some reflection, some comparing, is necessary to satisfy us of his wisdom, his justice, and his goodness. To be struck with his power, it is only necessary that we should open our eyes.8

When human beings contemplate “so vast an object”, when they feel themselves small compared to the greatness of God under whose arm (Burke is playing with perspective for effect here) they “shrink under the minuteness of their own nature” and feel “annihilated by him”. He is a “force that nothing can withstand”. Therefore, upon experiencing the presence of a being so great, we cannot but have contradictory feelings: if we rejoice, we rejoice with trembling: and even whilst we are receiving benefits, we cannot but shudder at a power which can confer benefits of such mighty importance. When the prophet David contemplated the wonders of wisdom and power which are displayed in the economy of man, he seems to be struck with a sort of divine horror, and cries out, Fearfully and wonderfully am I made! 9

According to Alison Milbank, “[t]he Sublime establishes both human distance from the creator but also its kinship, so the subject refinds herself through her position as creature in a sublime creation”.10 The sublime



feeling is thus induced by contemplating God’s power as a creator, the vastness and beauty of landscapes, the beauty of the night sky. Fred Botting notes that objects evoking sublime emotions “were vast, magnificent and obscure”.11 Subjects such as the solemnity of death, the meaning of life, the fragility of the human condition and the beauty of nature dominated the pages of Gothic-Romantic narratives. Likewise, the aim of Gothic Revival architectural style, which was popular in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was representing the awe-inspiring might and omnipresence of God. The Romantic imagination mourned the advent of science and technology which take away the beauty of the pastoral existence and place the individual in the midst of a busy city, full of noises and people. In the poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798), William Wordsworth writes about the moments of peace and solitude, of being present in the moment (what today in management speak is termed “mindfulness”), observing the shapes and forms of the beautiful untouched landscape and reconnecting with one’s soul, seeing into the “life of things”: Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect The landscape with the quiet of the sky. […] These beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind With tranquil restoration:—feelings too Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps, As have no slight or trivial influence On that best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered, acts Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust, To them I may have owed another gift, Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,



In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world, Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on,— Until, the breath of this corporeal frame And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.12

Being small, being, to use Burke’s expression, “under the arm of God”, may have its benefits. For free will is both a burden and a blessing. While we are imperfect, our vision limited by our perception, surely God is omniscient, omnipotent and wise? The god of technology, the omnipresent algorithm, certainly has a panoramic vision. Now we have weather forecasts delivered to our mobiles, predictive dating apps and GPS trackers. Technological progress works on the expectation of constant and linear improvement. Don’t we all want to live in a world in which our fallible agency is replaced by technological perfection while we can be in awe of its beautiful precision? Human beings are not machines. They are hard to control, difficult to predict, and even the verbal, non-verbal and social cues do not guarantee that one has grasped the message correctly. Whereas religion can maintain rules of communication and relations between people, technology can regulate human behaviour with accuracy, offering us the opportunity to eliminate misunderstandings and errors by constantly surveilling and scanning society; by calculating the best behavioural patterns, and by offering “rewards” to those who comply with the rules. Surely, this certainty and ambiguity will make humans happy as their existence will be free of error? The universe created by god-algorithm even has an afterlife and rebirth options, as explored in San Junipero (S03, E04), Be Right Back (S02, E01), White Christmas (S04, E04), Black Museum (S04, E06) and the standalone film Bandersnatch (2018). Algorithm decides rules of conduct (as well as who goes to Digital Heaven and who to Digital Hell), metes out punishments for breaking them, defines the outlines and content of the world humans see and experience, chooses your partner for you, and



stores all information about each of its subjects forever. Free will in this precisely calculated universe is nothing but an illusion, and the uncanny feeling, accompanied by obsessive repetitions as an attempt to detect and confirm the impression of being in control, the sense of agency, even if for a short while. This, Baudrillard says, is the end of transcendence. There is no longer any soul left, “no ontological struggle between the being and its double.., whether divine or diabolic, there is logical calculation of signs and absorption into the system of signs”.13 Moreover, where before there was contradiction between signs, we now have “collusion and ordered involvement” while the consumer is no longer an alien double when she or he sees their reflection in the shop window; the consumer plays with the mirror image, somewhere between sameness and otherness.14 Baudrillard’s analysis is as astute as ever, but his announcement of the disappearance of a discernible narcissistic reflection, its absorption into the personality of the individual consumer, of the merging of the copy with the original, is premature. The double, Black Mirror shows, does still exist, very much as a separate entity, and regularly escapes through the cracks of a broken screen, of a LED billboard, a bathroom mirror. It may have undergone a transformation, its body, like the body of the Frankenstein monster is no longer disjointed, and instead arrives in a flatpack, an exact replica of a real person, and filled with bits of personality gathered on social media, like it does in Be Right Back. Yet, although the body and personality are perfect, and seamless, the uncanny feeling is still here. The replica is recognised and rejected precisely because it is missing a “soul”.

Repeating In The System of Objects Baudrillard explores the two basic operating principles of the capitalist world: copying (mass production) and repetition (series, models). Both spur on production and consumption by emphasising the replaceability and impermanence of objects (which are inseparable from technology). Black Mirror uses repetition to explore human relationship with reality under the watchful eye of the omniscient algorithmic god. Although the rules outlined by the system are non-negotiable, Brooker’s characters often attempt to break them—to break out of the cycle of deadening repetition. Repeating is a rhythmic activity, a ritual structuring of one’s



existence according to a pre-decided pattern. Rituals shield human beings from sudden change. They soften emotional blows and provide meaning by infusing existence with elements of familiarity. By breaking the cycle of repetition, the various characters of Black Mirror seek to determine whether they have free will, and importantly, whether they actually want to live outside of the System, so-called authentically, left to their own devices, without the dependable instructions, determining and explaining the smallest aspects of their lives, streamed from various devices. Nosedive (Series 3, Episode 1, 2016) opens with waves of extradiegetic aural repetition; a reiterative, worryingly tranquil composition by Max Richter called On Reflection, which projects the same “calm before the storm” apprehension as Philip Glass’s Truman Sleeps written for The Truman Show (1998). The protagonist of Nosedive, Lacie Pound, lives in a pastel-coloured social universe all inhabitants of which rate each other for social interactions. Reminiscent of other satirical takes on American suburbia such as Edward Scissorhands (1990) for its sickly pastel shades, and the aforementioned Truman Show for its clean minimalist sound, this Black Mirror episode shows the obsessiveness of wanting to fit in, the unstoppable compulsion to repeat dictated by social media, with its ratings, narcissistic boosts, and the illusion of authenticity and agency. Everything is “samey” in Lacie’s universe, which greets the audience with its sparkling whites, pretty powder pinks and soothing mint greens, and yet most people in it see the social interactions through the “darkly glass” of social media ratings. Baudrillard notes in The System of Objects that the pastel colour range in interior design is a way of concealing the labour that produced the objects; a sign of a refusal to deal with the unpleasantness of production. Labour “should not be discernible anywhere - neither should instinct be allowed to show its face. The dropping of sharp contrasts and the return to ‘natural’ colours as opposed to the violence of ‘affected’ colours reflects this compromise solution at the level of model objects”.15 Affect, indeed, is not permitted in the repressed world inhabited by Lacie, her friends and her colleagues. Affect, associated with disorder, is relegated to the underworld of low ratings—to the citizens who cannot control their emotions in public, and who cannot pull themselves together to achieve a perfect, pastel middle-class dream. An outburst of emotion in society controlled by the all-seeing god of social media immediately leads to varying punishments, from minute loss of rating to full ostracism and



imprisonment. Lacie’s compulsion to achieve a higher rating is a sort of search for meaning, which she believes will be eventually revealed to her by the god of social media. The cycles of repetition start in the morning as Lacie is shown faking a smile and practicing a laugh multiple times in front of the bathroom mirror (perhaps a reference to the opening scene of The Truman Show). With this fake smile she then greets her neighbour, commenting on how cute his son looks in his new fire hat, and rates their interaction. After she posts her morning coffee and biscuit (both of which she spits out) on her feed, she gets multiple beeps of approval, emphasising the compulsive nature of the whole exercise. The coffee and the biscuit are not meant to be eaten. To use Baudrillard’s terminology they are not functional (associated with bright, vulgar colours) but rather model objects whose eye-pleasing shapes and shades create an impression of style and individuality. Yet, they are here for the purpose of maintaining a particular order of things. How successfully the order is maintained depends wholly on the cooperation of its citizens, all of whom must religiously repeat their fake routines to each other. Eventually, Lacie snaps. After carefully planning and obsessively rehearsing her speech for Naomi’s wedding, she arrives at the airport only to discover that her flight has been cancelled, while her rating has gone below 4.2, which means that she cannot qualify for a stand-by seat on the next plane. After lashing out, her rating is temporarily lowered as a punitive measure, and then falls even lower as she is downvoted by other passengers for being disruptive. Despite this, she proceeds, in a frenzy of obsession, to make her way to the wedding where she, her pretty powderpink bridesmaid’s dress covered in lashings of mud, her face dirty and her hair dishevelled, delivers a speech in which she cannot but help to tell Naomi how she really feels about her. In the last scene of the episode Lacie and a fellow prisoner are shown shouting insults at each other, liberated from the constraints of the app (their mobile phones have been confiscated). By becoming her authentic self and defying the rituals of social interaction, generated by and then fed back into an all-encompassing social media app, Lacie also loses her status in the artificial, pastel-coloured society. Yet, she appears to be happier now that she is placed outside of the loop of repetition, even though the place she feels most free is, paradoxically, an actual prison. Similarly, in Hang the DJ (S4, E4), Amy and Frank rebel (or so they think) against an algorithm called simply “the System”, a dating



app pairing people with their “perfect match”. It is a world in which all romantic relationships have “expiry dates”, participants meet at prearranged dinners and then are taken to a pre-booked “pad” where they spend as much time as meted out by the System. The process is repetitive and involves many takes before a perfect match is determined. Two of the participants, Amy and Frank, fall in love with each other and decide to elope by climbing a wall (presumably separating the world from everything else) even though Coach (the voice of the System) repeatedly warns both of them that “failure to comply with the System may result in banishment”. At the end of the episode they do escape by climbing the wall, and it is revealed to the audience that they were part of a giant simulation generated by a dating app. That was their 998th rebellion attempt, which means that the real Amy and Frank have 99.8% compatibility rate. The pair were naturally thinking that they were exercising their agency by disobeying the System. Yet, the rebellion was controlled and maintained by the System and their agency became part of a simulacrum built precisely for the purpose of relieving human beings of their agency, of the pain and uncertainty of choice. The god-algorithm thus acts like any other structure or habitus, making decisions for human beings, only better: it actually delivers a precise solution of a problem to its users. Instead of an ideological or religious approach to matchmaking, which are all created by other human beings, we have a series of repetitions and calculations resulting in an accurate prediction. No more cultural hegemony, irrational behaviour, unruly emotions or guesswork. Human agency becomes obsolete, and repetition, which, in Freud’s view, is a sign of narcissism, is all undertaken by the algorithm. The supernatural omniscience gave way to its scientific version. Humans are finally safe thanks to its omniscient precision. Although the episode’s finale is unexpectedly uplifting and positive, its overall message is not: as people, we have gone too far in shielding ourselves from any errors in the decision-making process. We wanted more perfection and less agency, and that’s exactly what we got. In Archangel (S04, E02), Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) purchases a programme allowing her to control what her only child, Sara, sees; an implant with parental monitoring system. The decision to implant the chip is triggered by an earlier incident of Sara going temporarily missing. At first seemingly beneficial, as Sara grows up, the app starts to interfere with her emotional development as she is unable to experience the world in the same way as her peers. She is not allowed to make mistakes, and to



learn from them, as all the negative images and messages around her are blurred out by her mother. The helicopter parent is obsessively dependent on the device which gives her a sense of control over the child. Eventually, the child destroys the device and breaks free, releasing both herself and her mother from the grips of obsessive dynamics of fear and control. The same narcissistic desire for perfection and absence of emotional pain that results in the ideal match in Hang the DJ , in Archangel becomes a seat of social phobias and obsessive behaviours as Maria cannot accept her daughter’s autonomy and continues to edit Sara’s life, by slipping her an abortion pill. The repetition leads to destruction of a relationship, not to the strengthening of a bond. Similarly, in The Entire History of You (S01, E03) the desire for accuracy and clarity supposedly delivered by technology results in emotional mess and a communication breakdown. The episode depicts a society in which most people have implanted device called the Grain which records everything one sees and does during the day, and stores these memories indefinitely. People can then replay the memories for fun and pleasure, although the episode’s protagonist Liam (Toby Kebbell) uses them to obsess over details in human interaction. Repetition becomes his solace and gives him an illusion of control over his life as he rewinds various incidents, in which he thinks he was slighted by others, over and over again. A series of such incidents involve his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker). Liam notices that she is unusually flirty with a male guest at a friend’s house party. Liam then proceeds to replay the interaction between her and Jonas (Tom Cullen), at some point even asking the pair’s babysitter if Jonas is funny (in the recording Ffion laughs at his jokes). After an escalation which involved threatening Jonas with a broken bottle and crashing the car into a tree, Liam finally discovers the truth: Ffion did indeed have sex with Jonas; worse—she did this approximately at the time when their baby was conceived. At the end of the episode he is shown alone in front of his bathroom mirror, tugging the grain from behind his ear with a pair of pliers—an act which will finally relieve him from the torture and addiction of replaying memories of his wife and daughter who have now left. Walter Benjamin famously criticised reproductions because they cannot transmit the “aura” and “authenticity” of an object as “the testimony of the history” in which the object is rooted will be lost when the copy is made.16 Presumably, a recording can be trusted because it is indexical—it



points to a true moment, an authentic moment; something that has taken place in reality. It is supposedly documentary evidence. Photographs and recordings exist precisely to capture the authenticity of a moment and make animate and inanimate objects visible in the frame. Liam chooses to extract the grain because he cannot handle the opportunity to endlessly reproduce stretches of history from his and his wife’s past; the very opportunity that was presumably offered to make his life easier, and memories more accessible. Yet, repetition, ritualistic as it can be, nevertheless does not solve the issue of trust—one of the most authentic, basic emotions a human being develops towards others. The indexicality of a recording does not improve human interpretation of communicative acts. Creating a copy of an experience does not make the experience more authentic. In fact, the more it is played, the more distant it becomes from either truth or meaning.

Replicating Fred Botting notes that the Romantic uncanny was associated with the supernatural, the other-worldly, something that was not made by man: “when inanimate statues or portraits start to move, or when machines or corpses come alive, the contours of the world in which one defines oneself seem to have changed radically to suggest that, in horror, reality’s frames have ceded to supernatural forces or to powers of hallucination or unconscious desire. Strangeness lies within as much as without”.17 The “scientific” uncanny—the fear of cloned humans, replicants or robots - although different, still emphasises the dichotomy between “strong, self-sufficient, autonomous individuality, and destructive, mechanical and programmed simulations”.18 Yet, Brooker gives the theme of the double a new lease of life: in Black Mirror the uncanny feeling associated with seeing humanoid replicas is not experienced by humans but by their copies, usually at the moment when they realise that the universe in which they have been living is fake, and that they have counterparts who are “originals” rather than duplicates. The replicas feel claustrophobic, controlled, dehumanised, and lacking agency. It is that moment, which goes back to The Truman Show, when characters start questioning the authenticity of their existence, and subsequently attempt to subvert or hijack the system in order to gain back control over their lives. Western thinking places a lot of emphasis on being autonomous, unique, and on displaying agentic behaviour. While the



habitus cultivates these qualities in individuals, it discourages, including via media routes, lack of creative thinking or proactive behaviour. People trapped in a system created and maintained by someone else, people losing their autonomy, is certainly an anxiety-arousing subject. Authenticity presupposes the existence of a distinctive chain of signification, the beginning of which can always be traced to the original (and to the original signified regardless of how numerous the signifiers are). Baudrillard’s worry throughout his works has been that through overproduction, and overconsumption (both of these functions of late capitalism aiming to restore the real), society will altogether mislay the original, and the world will be full of “perfect simulacra, forever radiant with their fascination”.19 Meanwhile, the divine referential will be dead although, for some, he will still be apparent in the “mirror of images”.20 And here, on page five of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard explores one of the most important dilemmas of post-industrial capitalism: God in the West has always been a wager of representation, the divine referential guaranteeing the depth of meaning in the sense that a sign could be exchanged for meaning, and God should guarantee this exchange. But … what if God can be simulated too? Then “the whole system becomes weightless … a gigantic simulacrum … an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference”.21 The algorithmic god is no longer a guarantor of meaning, but a guarantor of the quality of the copies, and of the reliability of the replication process. The relationship between Brooker’s copies and their originals is, at best, arbitrary, to the extent that, in the process of replication, whole chunks of both the signifier and the signified are lost. In USS Callister, Nanette (Cristin Millioti) doesn’t know that she has been cloned by Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and turned into a character in a video game. The “doppels” (avatars) of humans in Fifteen Million Merits are unrealistic and simplistically drawn, and they also allowed to wear things (such as bright clothes and accessories) their owners are prohibited from wearing. In White Christmas digital clones of people can be made and encased in an egg-shaped device. The human and her or his clone will not necessarily have any meaningful connection: Greta (Oona Chaplin) turns a copy of herself into a digital slave to look after her home and her schedule while Joe (Rafe Spall) does not know that his cloned mind has confessed to the murder of his girlfriend’s father. At the end of the episode, Joe is stuck in the simulation forever with the song I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day playing on the radio on a loop (everyone’s seasonal horror!). In both



these cases, the copy is a more sympathetic and lively human being than the original. Fifteen Million Merits (S01, E02) shows a world (worryingly close to the contemporary state of neoliberal capitalism) in which one of the very few ways an individual can express themselves is through their “doppel”—one’s on-screen avatar, an electronic doppelganger. While the inhabitants of the world all wear grey tracksuits and work in a dull environments doing monotonous, repetitive jobs (such as riding a stationary bike to generate electricity), their doppels can wear clothes and accessories, purchased by the originals, that differentiate them from others. The “originals” are not allowed to gather into crowds, but doppels can attend public events, as such as the Hot Shots competition, as audience members. The inhabitants of the neoliberal utopia are so desensitised to the uncanny that they do not see their copies as anything abnormal or unpleasant. Yet, the protagonist, Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya), gets worn out by the endless meaningless repetition of everyday routines, designed and dictated by the system. Worse—the routines, and particularly the mind-numbing entertainment media such as the pornographic channel Wraith Babes and the video games in which the player has to shoot the “fat” cleaners—can only be skipped by paying a penalty in “merits” (a form of electronic money). The neurotic repetition of the cycle of neoliberal production and consumption, the replication of one’s identity and then “dressing” and elaborating the double, does not result in more meaning or control. In Baudrillard’s words, “[w]e must not forget that the image serves in this way to avoid reality and create frustration, for not only thus can we grasp how it is that the reality principle omitted from the image nevertheless effectively re-emerges therein as the continual repression of desire (as the spectacularization, blocking and dashing of that desire, and, ultimately, its regressive and visible transference onto an object)”.22 After the woman he likes, Abi Khan (Jessica Brown Findlay), agrees to join Judge Wraith’s pornographic industry live on Hot Shots, Bing realises that he has neither control nor create meaning in his life as the endless repetition, arranged and carefully maintained by the system, is nothing but the screen of simulacra masking death and emptiness. Yet, Bing’s attempt at breaking up the cycle of repetition and destroying the double ends up with the capitalist system absorbing and selling his rebellious act. There is no existence outside a ritual of



consumption, outside of the structure, outside of repetition. At the end of the episode, Bing is shown carefully placing his signature piece of broken glass into a velvet-lined box after yet another instalment of his carefully framed truth-telling entertainment programme. At the very least, unlike millions of others, he tried. Bing, like Amy and Frank in Hang the DJ have their rebellion utilised by the god of simulacra for its own purposes. It becomes part of the algorithm. In Crocodile (S04, E3), the technology does not fail, but the human being does, try as she might. The recently invented memoryretrieving device prevents Mia from concealing the murders she has committed. Interestingly enough, Brooker makes us sympathise with the murderer as we witness her struggle to evade the relentless power of technology. Her agency is thwarted by the device, leaving her with no chance of escape. Although attempts at an escape are not always successful and are either crushed (Men Against Fire, Metalhead, White Christmas ) or absorbed by the system, many of Brooker’s replicas attempt it anyway, and some even succeed (Nosedive, Black Museum, USS Callister). These various attempts are vaguely reminiscent of Truman’s attempt to flee from the domed television set which has become his life, and which delineated the boundaries of his existence. In various ways, Brooker’s characters fight for their right to be themselves. Locked in small boxes (Bing in Fifteen Million Merits , Greta’s and Joe’s clones in White Christmas , Nanette’s copy in USS Callister), they search for the referent, defying or simply ignoring the threat of emptiness, of meaningless existence accompanied by the replication process. Their claustrophobia is reminiscent of Hamlet’s remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second scene of the second act, in which the pair are trying to find out what it is that is making him unhappy. Hamlet’s reply is that he is not content with being stuck in a “universe in a nutshell”, unlike some foolishly compliant people: Hamlet. Then is doomsday near! But your news is not true. Let me question more in particular. What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune that she sends you to prison hither? Guildenstern. Prison, my lord? Hamlet. Denmark’s a prison. Rosencrantz. Then is the world one. Hamlet. A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst. Rosencrantz. We think not so, my lord.



Hamlet. Why, then ‘tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Rosencrantz. Why, then your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow for your mind. Hamlet. O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.23

Sublimating While the nutshell is a tiny, claustrophobic place, the original GothicRomantic sublime is all about the vastness of the space, the beauty of the night sky, the breathtaking heights of mountains—in other world, the natural world fashioned by the omnipresent god. Black Mirror depicts the world in which space is always delineated, has boundaries; it has limits. Its spaces are always confined or rapidly shrinking, and devoid of everything that is beautiful, natural, awe-inspiring. This world is thus devoid of the sublime in the GothicRomantic sense. Yet, the longing for this feeling is still here, even though contemplation is replaced with repetition, with dreary existence, regardless of whether the prescribed colour palette of your nutshell universe is pastel (Nosedive), the ironic retro-referencing of bright block tones (USS Callister) or various grey shades (Fifteen Million Merits , Metalhead). The desire for the real, for something that is imperfect yet authentic, is repressed and sublimated, often resulting in attempts to rebel and escape, as it does in USS Callister (agency), Hang the DJ (love), Men Against Fire (empathy), The Waldo Moment (truth), Arkangel (freedom to make mistakes) and Be Right Back (human connection). Yet, reality here does not mean indexical precision, as both Bing, in his cartoon world, and Liam who obsessively scans pieces of recording for signs of his wife’s infidelity, are equally unhappy. Truth is the truth of the referent; it is not defined by the form.

Conclusion Technology is certainly a more efficient god since it has turned magic into reality, but the human issue of free will is still a big part of our relationship with it. Seeing how clever, precise, omniscient and infallible this new god is, we have decided to entrust it with a range of mundane tasks we



previously used to perform ourselves: counting, translating, finding our way, even expressing emotions and, of course, shopping. This is a tendency Brooker particularly despises. In his view, human laziness is what is going to destroy civilisation. Brooker predicts a world in which the scope of action for free will—our error-prone but nevertheless important decision-making capacity—becomes so narrow that we forget how it feels to be human, how to feel pain and to make mistakes. Thanks to smart phones, tablets, Alexa and Google, we have cognitively unloaded anything requiring an effort or possessing a margin for error to artificial intelligence. All these functions will now be taken care of by the god of technology, by the All-Seeing Algorithm. Even with the simulated god, the god without a referent, the god who can no longer guarantee meaning because it is itself built by “man,” the god that delivers perfection, often forcibly, regardless of whether it actually works for humans or society, humans still derive meaning from the environment by rebelling, by expressing their agency. Action is a way of expressing one’s right to create in a world of simulacra. God has ceased to be a referent. Now that we can look at our double in a broken mirror, “in a glass darkly,’” we can see that the only meaning is authenticity, and the only way to remain authentic, to retain one’s soul, is to keep thinking, keep questioning and keep rebelling.

Notes 1. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society (London: Sage, 1999), 191. 2. Baudrillard, 192. 3. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J Rivkin and M Ryan (London: Blackwell, 2000), 418–31. 4. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Literary Theory: An Anthology (London: Blackwell, 2000), 163. 5. Rivkin and Ryan, 162. 6. Rivkin and Ryan, 161–63. 7. Rivkin and Ryan, 163. 8. Burke in Emma Clery and Robert Miles, Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 118–19. 9. Burke in Clery and Miles, 119. 10. Milbank in Marie Mulvey-Roberts, The Handbook of the Gothic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), 228. 11. Fred Botting, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996), 35. 12. in Margaret Ferguson, Mary Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, The Norton Anthology of Poetry (London: W. W. Norton, 2005), 765–66.



13. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 192. 14. Baudrillard, 192 (emphasis in original). 15. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 32. 16. Benjamin in Hannah Arendt, Illuminations (New York: Shocken Books, 1969), 4. 17. Botting, Gothic, 8. 18. Botting, 194. 19. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 5. 20. Baudrillard, 5. 21. Baudrillard, 506. 22. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 177. 23. William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 1095.


Black Mirror invites us to engage with our digital present and emergent future within the vast, opaque complexity of global data capture and flows that situate us in ever-emergent digital profiles as media actors, consumers and digital ghosts. As a metaphor Black Mirror opens up various evocations. In an interview, Charlie Brooker stated that: any TV, any LCD, any iPhone, any iPad—something like that—if you just stare at it, it looks like a black mirror, and there’s something cold and horrifying about that, and it was such a fitting title for the show.1

A turned off screen device also provides the potential for positive pause: an opportunity to engage with the screen as a mirror for reflection on self and world but equally, a turned off screen could signify disengagement and indifference to a bigger global picture. The Dark Web is another evocation of a black mirror—a real life underworld where many fear to tread with a reputation for illegal activity, violence and sexual exploitation. But it is also arguably a digital platform where people connect with others for legal, legitimate or less nefarious purposes in the interests of resisting corporatised digital media tracking. The anthology series directs us to confront the absence of human moral progress. That is, it demands that we engage with the permanent evolutionary lag or rather stasis that is human nature despite all of

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




the sophistication of our technologies. While nature might be an unfashionable word in a technology mediated, posthuman-cyborg existence, its persistence in reality cannot be censored by word choices or concept avoidance. Like most dystopian visions Black Mirror calls us back to examining our worst natures, pointing out the hubris of thinking that we, as humans, are morally progressive. It refuses to let us imagine that we are improving upon our natures, getting better all the time. While the evolution of human technologies does provide ways to bring out our best natures and has indeed brought very many good things, it also provides new tools and techniques with which to deny and exploit the most vulnerable of this world, and to repeat those very old “all too human” negative drives of unchecked prejudice, exploitation, violence, cruelty and sadism. Our technologies mediate everyday predicaments of experiencing jealousy, seeking control of others “for their own good”, wanting to be loved and admired, and fearing and trying to avoid death, loss and grief. The knowing, menacing, darkly smiling emoji face in the fragments of broken glass that is a representational image in the Black Mirror series looks back and mockingly says, “know thyself”.

Note 1. Dusty Baxter-Wright, “When You Realise Why Black Mirror’s Called Black Mirror, You’ll Kick Yourself,” Cosmopolitan, January 4, 2018, https:// rors-called-black-mirror/.


A Agamben, Giorgio, 7, 100, 105, 112, 113, 115–117, 119 Algorithm, 1, 3, 7, 49, 70, 72, 74, 75, 171, 175, 177, 180, 181, 186, 188 Arkangel , 25, 187

B Bandersnatch, 5, 32, 34, 102, 145, 153, 157–162, 164, 165, 177 Baudrillard, Jean, 7, 172, 178–180, 184, 185, 188, 189 Be Right Back, 31, 32, 142–144, 146, 150, 173, 177, 178, 187 Black Museum, 28, 142, 144, 145, 177, 186 Blocking, 111, 112, 119, 185 Bodies, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 11, 16, 25, 28, 31, 42, 44, 49, 54, 55, 60, 64, 68, 71, 74, 80–84, 88, 91, 94–96, 100, 106–109, 112–116, 123, 124, 128, 131, 133, 143,

144, 148, 150, 156, 162, 172, 174, 178 Borges, Jorge Luis, 10, 11, 17, 41, 42, 47–49, 52, 53, 57, 58, 64

C Control, 2–5, 11, 34–36, 42, 45, 57, 71, 83, 84, 91, 114, 125, 126, 129–134, 148, 153, 155, 158, 162, 171, 173, 174, 177–179, 181–183, 185 Cookies, 6, 143–147, 149 Crocodile, 10, 149, 186

D Dataification, 4 Dataveillance, 4, 7, 11, 72 Death, 1, 2, 5, 8, 17, 29, 32, 66, 67, 72, 82, 88, 89, 93, 113, 141, 143, 145, 148, 154, 157, 159–161, 166, 176, 185 Debord, Guy, 50, 58 Derrida, Jacques, 65, 161, 168

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021 M. Gibson and C. Carden (eds.), The Moral Uncanny in Black Mirror,




Dystopia, 4, 6, 9, 11, 21, 22, 27, 31, 43, 53, 56, 90, 100–102, 104, 105, 116 E Eargrain, 10, 11, 42–44, 47, 51 The Entire History of You, 7, 10, 11, 13, 17, 25, 42–50, 52, 53, 56, 57, 60, 64–69, 72, 74, 75, 105, 109–111, 175, 182 Exhibitionary complex, 10, 81, 90 F Facebook, 2, 4, 23, 44, 48, 74, 111, 119, 125, 150 Facial recognition, 7, 46, 57, 105– 111, 113, 115, 119, 154, 156, 167 Fantasy, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 20, 21, 27, 29, 31–35, 37, 41, 60, 94, 150, 173 Fifteen Million Merits , 8–10, 22, 48, 184–187 Frankenstein, 31, 172, 174 Free will, 129, 156–159, 171, 174, 177–179, 187, 188 Freud, Sigmund, 11, 76, 136, 160, 173, 181, 188 G Gaming/Gamification, 6, 44, 122, 123, 125, 126, 148 God, 7, 26, 147, 148, 171, 173, 175–181, 184, 186–188 Google, 4, 68, 71, 125, 166, 188 Gothic, 8, 21, 25, 27, 31, 32, 172–174, 176, 187 H Hang the DJ , 9, 24, 144, 149, 173, 180, 182, 186, 187

Hated in the Nation, 153, 154, 158–162, 164 Hayles, N. Katherine, 156, 157, 161, 167, 168 Homo Sacer, 100, 105, 112, 113, 115, 116, 119 Horror, 20, 21, 24, 27, 28, 31, 86, 115, 121, 123, 124, 128, 130, 133, 134, 175, 183, 184

I Immortality, 6, 141, 142, 144–146, 150 Instagram, 44, 111, 150

L Latour, Bruno, 156, 167, 168 Lifelogging, 60, 67–70, 72–74

M Medial , 79, 85, 88, 95, 96 Memory, 1, 5, 6, 10–12, 26, 28, 41– 54, 56, 57, 60, 61, 63, 65–77, 87, 90, 91, 109, 110, 122, 123, 125, 130, 133, 134, 143, 145, 149, 154, 155, 157–159, 165, 166, 169, 182, 183 Memory studies, 4, 13, 60, 65, 66 Men Against Fire, 7, 29, 100, 105, 113–115, 175, 186, 187 Metalhead, 10, 31, 149, 186, 187 Mobile phones, 1, 19, 44, 54, 55, 180

N The National Anthem, 13, 15, 17 Nosedive, 10, 12, 13, 24, 44, 175, 179, 186, 187


O Obfuscation, 6, 100, 105, 107, 109, 112, 113, 115, 117 P Playtest , 6, 28, 121–126, 128–135 Postdigital, 82, 92, 94 Punishment, 3, 10, 11, 15, 27, 55, 56, 80–84, 89–93, 95, 112, 177, 179 Punitive, 85, 87, 89, 91, 92, 180 R Redos, 47, 48, 51, 52 S San Junipero, 28, 102, 117, 144, 145, 149, 177 Science fiction (sci-fi), 17, 20, 22, 29, 61, 64, 69, 101, 129, 134, 147, 149, 150 Screens, 1–3, 5, 8–12, 19, 22, 32, 34, 36, 45–48, 50, 52–57, 61, 67, 70, 72, 79, 85, 87, 95, 96, 109, 149, 155, 164, 171, 175, 178, 185 Shut Up and Dance, 13–15, 17 Smithereens , 16, 17 Social media, 3–5, 11–14, 16, 21, 22, 31, 44, 49, 57, 60, 66, 69, 73–75, 80, 93, 99, 103, 108, 111, 125, 142, 154, 164, 166, 178–180 Sontag, Susan, 162–164, 168, 169 Soul, 6, 8–10, 15, 82, 84, 142–144, 146–148, 150, 172, 176, 178, 188


Spectatorial, 85, 86, 92–95 Star Trek, 148 Striking Vipers , 15, 16 Sublime, 8, 173, 175, 187 Surveillance, 2–4, 8, 9, 12, 44–46, 52, 57, 66, 73, 81, 91, 95, 100, 105–110, 115, 130, 132, 133 T Tales of the Unexpected, 22, 28 Technophobia, 24, 25, 36, 37 Telefantasy, 4, 20, 30, 34, 36 Twilight Zone, 4, 20, 22–25, 27–33, 35, 38, 39 U Uncanny, 3, 8, 11, 17, 30, 34, 57, 62, 173–175, 178, 183, 185 USS Callister, 33, 144, 148, 173, 184, 186, 187 V Violence, 1, 2, 6, 10, 52, 54, 55, 57, 85, 86, 93, 95, 96, 110, 111, 115, 157, 161, 163, 179 Virtual reality, 36, 135, 173 Voyeurism, 48, 51, 52, 55–57 W The Waldo Moment , 7, 27, 105, 109, 111, 187 White Bear, 10, 15, 28, 37, 43, 45, 53, 55–57, 79, 80, 85, 145, 173 White Christmas , 7, 25, 100, 105, 111–113, 115, 144, 147, 148, 173, 177, 184, 186