Ben Watches Television : Black Mirror, Season 3 (2016)
Netflix is he MTV of a new generation. It has become THE place where the hot, new stuff is dropping every now and then. The center of every pop culture-themed water cooler conversation. It's user-friendly, accessible and interesting every now and then. The latest hot release from the ubiquitous streaming service is the third season of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker's adorably technophobe television show which originally aired on Channel 4. It was the first time a complete season of the anthology series was available in Canada, which was a minor, pre-Christmas miracle. The series was indeed interesting and thought-provoking even. Not every episode was successful, but there were recurring themes throughout the show that require a closer look in order to truly appreciate their subtle and intricate treatment.
My favorite episode of the season undoubtedly was the opener Nosedive. It is the story of Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who lives in a world where every social interaction is rated on a Yelp-like five stars system. She's a 4.2, which gives her enviable social status, but is in dire need for new housing and can't afford the apartment of her dreams unless she becomes a 4.5 and earns an "influencer" discount. Nosedive was interesting to me because of how ridiculously close we currently are from this dystopian clusterfuck. Our consumer-based economy already allows us to give objective value to businesses and service providers based on our very subjective experience. I mean, how many of you ever decided to go through with a restaurant with a three stars rating on Yelp? My point exactly.
So, Nosedive is what happens when other people are entrusted with the freedom of attributing you an objective value based on petty, everyday encounters. You become prisoner of them and them prisoner of you and the only beneficiaries are service owners who are forging a new social classes system based on "objective", crowd-sourced value. Nosedive might seem like a dystopian nightmare, but I assure you we're not that far from it. We're already competing for validation on social media, presenting a version of ourselves that doesn't really exist in order to get an objective yet fully virtual form of validation. We're already rating human beings on dating apps and various websites. I'm not saying it's a question of time before we start attributing objective value to one's worth, but Nosedive is a chilling reminder that we're not that far from it happening.
Augmented reality is another theme which gets interesting treatment in season 3 of Black Mirror. Playtest and Men Against Fire each have their own bleak spin off the subject, but the latter was, I thought, the more interesting. Augmented reality is a technology that's been welcomed with unbridled enthusiasm so far and yet only Charlie Brooker seemed to have understood the crucial ethical issue it raised: enhancing one's reality is nice and everything. It can give a person superhuman advantages over their peers, but it also mediates one's connection to reality and opens the door for potential interference. If there's an interface between you and your perception of reality, you're entrusting someone else with an unknown level of power over you. Both in Playtest and Men Against Fire the result was tragic, but what if it wasn't? What if we docilely accepted this control like we accept reading about reality through media?
Shut Up and Dance, the third episode of the season, probably was my second favorite next to Nosedive as it also was about social media and one's digital footprint. In that episode, Kenny (Alex Lawther) is subjected to unknown hackers who took control of his laptop's camera and filmed him masturbating to "unsavory" images to say the least. He, with other people going through the same ordeal, is put through a series of increasingly violent tasks which culminates in probably what is the best episode ending of the season. Shut Up and Dance tackled the human collateral of online social justice. It also is an exercise in holding your judgement and getting both sides of the story before making moral choices. While there is no wrong moral stance to take on Shut Up and Dance, it begs the question: have the unknown hackers helped anybody here or did they just destroyed family by exposing people who made stupid choices while trying to cope with their inner darkness? The finale of Black Mirror, Season 3 Hated in the Nation also tackles online social justice and online shaming, but I thought Shut Up and Dance did it more convincingly.
The obvious knock against Black Mirror is that it is unnecessarily bleak. While it is defensible criticism, I'd argue that it acknowledges the mainstream enthusiasm and thinks one step further. There are ethical drawbacks to every new and exiting endeavors of society and yet we're often too wrapped up on how technology can benefit us that we don't see them. Plus, Black Mirror, Season 3 has its token positive episode, the cute and disconnected San Junipero. This episode is more about fear of death and transcending it than dealing with the drawbacks of any new technology. San Junipero is low-key utopian science fiction rather than technological existential horror, but it was a nice respite from the ongoing bleakness of the show and perhaps the best crafted episode in the series, which is not surprising because it's not trying to make a point as much as the others. Sometimes, it doesn't need to, you know? Sometimes, things are just meant to be enjoyable.
While Black Mirror made great points about our troublesome existential relationship to technology in general, it hit some and it missed some. Episodes like Playtest and Hated in the Nation were more contrived and took too many easy decisions. I had the impression after finishing the season that Nosedive was the only episode that had been fully written before it was commanded by Netflix. It is so much more polished and pertinent than the others. I've enjoyed the series overall. There were ups and downs, but the powerful questions it raised about our unchecked enthusiasm for technology was a clincher for me. We don't have to be sheep and we don't have to blindly walk into a (metaphorical) slaughterhouse if we don't want to and Black Mirror is a welcomed wake-up call about our own shitty, self-centered consumerist habits in a world that is starting to outperform us.