On this past Friday the 13th, my friends decided to celebrate by showing a psychological thrilling episode titled “White Bear” from the British television series Black Mirror. This show has many similar qualities to the classic series, The Twilight Zone, where each episode poses a provoking aspect about society’s flaws. The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker said in an interview with The Guardian, “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor.” I couldn’t help but connect the show’s main focus on technology’s impact and the different messages it designed to provoke in its viewers, to the lessons we’ve discussed with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and other literature as guides. By the end of the episode, my mind was both astounded, shocked, and challenged to think even further into the topics that we’ve discussed in class.
“White Bear” begins with a woman waking up from a coma, presuming from a drug overdose. Her wrists are bound and she appears completely unaware of her surroundings or even who she is. As she walks through the house, we become aware of a distinct white symbol flashing on every TV screen or technological monitor. She picks up a picture of a young girl (who at the time she thinks is her daughter) on the mantle place and see’s brief flashbacks of this young girl throughout the episode. The woman exits the house and observes strangers staring at her and filming her with their cell phones. Suddenly a masked man, marked with the same white symbol from the screens, begins to pursue her with a shotgun. Terrified the woman runs down the street, which is now becoming swarmed by people, simply watching and filming without any signs of intervention. This is a common theme throughout the episode and is escalated at different times during the journey that the woman is taken through. Even at the point of being captured and almost tortured, the crowd around her just watches and films. At the very climax of the episode, there is a huge plot twist (spoiler alert) as a curtain rises to an audience of clapping observers. It is revealed that all of the proceeding events were staged, and the woman was in fact involved in the murder of a young girl, the same girl seen in flashbacks throughout the episode. Her boyfriend allegedly kidnapped this girl and burned her alive while she stood by, silently filming. “White Bear” is in fact a park dedicated to bringing justice to this woman, drawing its name from the toy the little girl was most known for. The woman’s memory is wiped every night, so that the following day she can be ran through this terrifying and apocalyptic scenario of the world being overcome by a “signal” broadcasted onto all screens that put most people into a trance. This scenario allowed the woman to be manipulated, scared, and even almost tortured by “hunters” (rogue individuals) throughout the day, only to be captured and then publically ridiculed. This repeats every day and is designed for the general public’s entertainment.
The beauty of this story, is that her “punishment” so perfectly mirrored her crime. As she was physically chased, scared, and tortured, the general public acted as she did. They stood by and quite literally just “enjoyed the show.” This got me thinking about how so often we act in such ways. Oh too often it seems that we are uploading videos from a fight at school to social media, or taking pictures of car accidents that we pass on our way to work. Our society is driven to be bystanders who document, but do not act. This episode also evaluates humanities ability to find entertainment. We are literally entertained by anything. The end when the woman is paraded through the screaming crowd strikingly compares the qualities of a zoo. As a society, we become newly obsessed and engulfed every time the newest gossip or headlines change. When these news stories do change, we especially become obsessed with documenting it. As Turkle analyzed in Alone Together, people live through their technology. It allows us to become detached from reality. But as a society, we share this detachment and create communities using these online realities. “White Bear” brought people together by showing them false reality as entertainment, but also social justice. Although, how far is too far when it comes to justice. This kind of everyday torture is clearly pushing moral boundaries. So even though the public bystanders were not truly in a trance from a “symbol”, they do still express moral submission symbolically to their technology and the entertainment value it possesses.
I also watched an episode called “Be Right Back” that delves into the issues of over compulsive/addictive habits of technology users and Turkle’s issue of artificial companionship. After her boyfriend dies in a car accident, a woman is introduced to a technology that artificially creates his personal from his online profiles/media and allows her to “communicate” with him. This helps her cope and deal with the pain with her loss, however she soon becomes dependent on this artificial persona. The technology escalates to being able to buy an animatronic clone of her boyfriend. However, as Turkle discussed, the woman soon discover that the robot cannot truly live up to her boyfriend’s living character and becomes horrifically depressed. She realizes that technology cannot truly replace human interaction or relationships. Although it can certainly help and is in cases “better than nothing”, it can never serve as a replacement for human companionship.
Turkle focused on the fact that technology fills our vulnerabilities. This show creatively exploits these vulnerabilities and reflects how technology may escalate to become an easy, but overall destructive repair. The “Black Mirror” refers to our technology screens, which reflects us as very vulnerable users.
Black Mirror “White Bear” – Charlie Brooker
Black Mirror “Be Right Back” – Charlie Brooker
Alone Together – Sherry Turkle