Why I Love/Hate Black Mirror

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. These include pessimist, joyful cynic, misanthrope and just the other week, faggot. And sure, if you read some of these blog posts you’ll see I have a pretty critical view of the world. I’m not overwhelmed by the capabilities of world leaders, I’m not hugely inspired by consumer capitalism’s track record and I hate war. But despite this I still like to believe that on the best of days I’m an optimist. I believe that all the answers we need we already have, some of them might be technologies (including ancient ones) but most of them are in us, especially in our hearts. I think the human being has a profound capacity for boundless love, altruism and kindness, and I just wished we lived in a world that made those things easy. Unfortunately, we don’t and this is where Black Mirror comes in and why I love to hate it and hate to love it.

A quick, spoilerful recap of the new series, which I just binge watched. There’s Hated In The Nation, a futuristic cop drama about a bunch of robo bees subtly representing the ‘stinging bees’ of the twittersphere and killing a bunch of people. Loved this one and it had all the hackneyed tropes of police procedurals – cynical, tech-illiterate older cop works with young, tech-savvy cop etc. It also has a really nasty journo who thrives off her online abuse but she’s only around for a couple of minutes. San Junipero was also ace, basically about humans’ inability to just die instead resigning themselves to a seemingly paradisiacal purgatory of endless themed discos or terrible kink clubs (I think I’ll just die, thanks). Men Against Fire had lots of soldiers, shooting and a big metaphor about the dehumanisation of the enemy, i.e. migrants, refugees, people from other countries. Playtest was kinda Inception meets shoddy horror movies and a dig at selfish, gap yah millennials who never call their parents. Shut Up And Dance, a grim take on shame-based blackmail that cashes in on a he’s-a-paedophile-twist.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these were all exceptionally well written, well acted and not necessarily subtle pieces of TV drama, I just get a bit annoyed that Charlie Brooker gets loads of acclaim for glibly documenting how terrible the world is. Isn’t there enough cynical and depressing media out there without a whole series of Black Mirror reminding us how venal and brutal we all are? I mean, anyone for a little hope on television? And that’s why my favourite episode was Nosedive. Not only did it establish that I have a hidden love for Bryce Dallas Howard that I did not know about (maybe because I loved The Village all those years ago) but I just thought it was spot on because in and amongst all the jabs at how selfish and self-absorbed the facebook millenials are there was also redemption. After Howard’s character, Lacie, loses all her popularity and ‘disgraces’ herself at her friend’s wedding she hits rock bottom. Her life nosedives and she ends up unpopular, lonelier than ever and in prison. But it’s there she learns how to let go as she starts a game of insult tennis with the guy in the opposite cell. Wouldn’t we all just love to yell ‘fuck you’ at a world so full of needless insecurities and anxiety-inducing social media? That’s when the episode ends and wonderfully that’s when it seems Lacie’s story begins because she’s thrown off the shackles of pretending everything’s fine and trying to constantly impress others and is learning how to be herself.

And I’ve certainly nosedived before: when I appeared to have lost so much of what I valued only to discover that what I valued was a whole load of bullshit. And even though it seemed like I’d lost everything it turned out that I hadn’t because I had to learn (the hard way) how to appreciate what really was of value in my life. I didn’t always get it right but I did try to learn from my mistakes. And I still have regular mini nosedives, never quite as bad as the ones before, but most of the time I know I can get through them and the low mood or period of difficulty will pass. If I’ve done it before I reckon I can do it again. And maybe little, self-contained nosedives can be useful for really reminding us what’s important. Nothing too big or too scary but a gentle wake up call to tell us to quit focusing on all the bad stuff, start recognising the good stuff and get back to fighting the patriarchy. Or maybe not and this is just me rambling. Either way, do watch Black Mirror. At times it’s violent and just cashes in on shock and at other times it’s joyfully cynical and just downright pessimistic but sometimes it has real heart.

Inside Out: The Highs And The Lows

I just watched Inside Out for the first time. It’s brilliant, easily my favourite Pixar film to date, up there with Toy Story 3 and WALL-E (although I’m yet to see Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, I’m a bit slow on the uptake). What a fantastic way to represent the inner workings of the human mind and brain, inspired. And what a great way to remind us that our emotions are a crucial part of our identity and form who we are. However, because I like to over-analyse things there are a few bits about it that I find a little concerning. So what follows is a brief review of the highs and lows.

High: Our Emotions Matter! Have you ever met one of those uptight people who are convinced emotions are the enemy – the sort of person who worships economics and thinks feeling should be expunged from the human condition. The sort of person who tells us that we should be as rational as possible and act like cost-benefit maximising automatons, thinking always what’s best for us in an objective and compassionless manner. Well, despite a mountain load of scientific evidence to the contrary now Pixar is on the case, showing us quite how wrong economists can be. I’ll let one of the scientists who advised on the film hammer home this point: “…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Low: Memories Are Not Objects. The film depicts memories as little multi-sensory orbs that display the events of the memory like a film. Each orb is coloured with the predominant feeling of that memory, e.g. yellow for happy, blue for sad etc. However, one current theory is that memories are not equivalent to discrete objects stored in our head – e.g. a neuron per memory – but are actually engrams – unique and distributed series of neurons that correspond to multiple-facets of that memory (e.g. the visuals, the sounds, the feelings). So, rather than an orb, imagine that a memory isn’t a single item but a series of neuronal connections throughout the body. This will include the different sections and layers of the brain (of which there are many) and our internal/external organs (which are also connected via neurons to our brain/central nervous system). In other words, it takes the whole body and the world beyond to make a memory (but trying to represent this as a visually satisfying metaphor in a kid’s film was probably not Pixar’s aim).

High: Sadness Is Important. Spoiler alert. At the end of the film the emotion Joy (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the positive side of everything…everything) comes to realise that Sadness (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the negative side of everything…everything) is vital to a healthy, emotional lifestyle. Sadness is crucial in helping us deal with the difficulties of the world – the loss we may experience when moving home or, indeed, the loss we may feel when we lose a loved one. Whilst it’s seemingly easy to pretend everything is ‘fine’, the tougher thing might be to admit it’s not. But by being vulnerable and being sad we make it more likely that we will heal and be supported in the process.

Low: The Brain Is Actually Organic. It’s fascinating that the brains behind Inside Out chose to represent the brain as a hi-tech HQ full of fancy equipment and flashing buttons resting above an arid desert. Even Riley’s ‘memory islands’, places that represent core facets of her identity such as the Family Island and the Goofball Island, are just uninhabited theme parks full of statues and machines. Now, it’s a great metaphor and it’s brilliant when key emotions Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s mind but it’s worth stating that the brain is an organ in our body and like all other organs it’s organic. It’s full of blood, veins and gooey grey stuff, and forms a vital element of our body’s ecology. It is by no means artificial or ‘unnatural’. So perhaps a more true metaphor would be something more ecological – ‘memory forests’ instead of built-environment memory islands that can grow greater diversity but are also prone to fires and being cut down. My concern here is that Pixar’s representation of the brain as mechanical could only arise in a time when humans are rapidly trying to distance themselves from their biological nature. But, at heart and head, we are animals, just animals with a profound capacity for intelligence and stupidity.

So, highs and lows aside, Inside Out is a fantastic film that reminds us our emotions form a vital part of who we are and how we understand the world. But the vivid nature of these emotions should surely also remind us of our animal and biological nature, one prone to great highs and great lows, rather than imply we’re just walking, talking machines.

Sorry, That Job Went To A Robot

Back in the 1810s a group of skilled self-employed weavers bandied together to take a stand against the new wave of weaving technologies that was being introduced. These included the power-loom and the spinning frame and all would require less-skilled labour to be used. The self-employed weavers were worried they would be out of a job. So they got to breaking these technologies in calculated acts of protest and called themselves the Luddites – arguably a reference to Ned Ludd who smashed some stocking frames back in 1779. And now, hundreds of years later, it’s not a power-loom that will force many people into unemployment, it’s robots.

Drones will deliver post, robots will run warehouses, automated check-outs will bleat at you to ‘insert your card’, Excel will do your accounting, a new piece of software might even paint a picture for you and cars will drive themselves. And what for the people who used to do these blue and white-collar jobs – they’ll have nothing to do. Some call them ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ people, which is a glib way of acknowledging that history appears to be an endless case of efficiency taking precedence over people. But there’s nothing efficient about a society full of unemployed and unhappy people, the sort of people who might take arms against robots and start smashing.

Meanwhile, those with vested interests will laud the oncoming industrial revolution saying it’s the greatest opportunity humankind has ever had for advancement. I imagine similar things were said about nuclear energy. The zealots of this movement will barely be able to contain themselves knowing that their latest Amazon package will be flown to them via drone or they’ll be able to upload their memories into a robot (yup, Ray Kurzweil would love this). It’s worth remembering that these people will probably be rich and very far removed from the worries and realities of poverty and unemployment. They might also have not have asked if there are actually enough resources on earth to robotise everything.

So, what to do? Firstly, don’t take any of these stories at face values whatever the predictions – nothing goes as planned. Secondly, if the elites get what they want and society becomes increasingly automated (as it already has done) we must ask what it means to have a world without labour (or, at least, human labour) – what does this mean for feelings of self-worth considering they are so often tied to the work we do and what does this mean for the Labour party itself, founded on the rise of the working classes? Thirdly, this isn’t really about machines and robots, this is about power, people and how we treat each other. A Universal Basic Income is just one way of ensuring everyone gets paid even if they don’t work. Although the right wing, if they were to implement something like this, would probably use it as yet another excuse to strip back the state and weaken public services but what’s the point of a UBI if you can’t afford medical care and other necessities?

So the future is still there to be fought for. It’s not a foregone conclusion and the stories the vested interests weave don’t have to become self-fulfilling prophecies. We can challenge power, as hard as it is, and create a fairer world for all, with or without robots. Basically, it doesn’t have to end up becoming like this…