Black Mirror As Philosophy

by David Kyle Johnson

Last issue I talked about how Seth MacFarland’s series The Orville (on which I recently edited a book) does philosophy: by cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (on which I also recently edited a book) initially seems to take a totally different approach. After all, it is a very different kind of series. Both are episodic, in that they lack an overall season long story arc; the episodes in each series are a complete story. But whereas two different episodes of The Orville might involve the crew visiting a different world, episodes of Black Mirror (like The Twilight Zone before it) are set in entirely different universes (with different characters, actors, and situations). The first episode of Black Mirror is about a Prime Minister being blackmailed to have intercourse with a pig live on national television to save a kidnapped princess; the (as of this writing) last episode of Black Mirror stars Miley Cyrus as a disgruntled pop star, languishing under her oppressive aunt’s controlling thumb.

How Black Mirror Does Philosophy

What all Black Mirror episodes have in common is technology. In Metalhead, robotic dogs track down and kill humans in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. In San Junipero, a person can upload a digital copy of their consciousness (called a cookie) into a utopia and live forever. The Entire History of You features a device called a grain, which records and can play back everything you see. Nosedive features a kind of social media ranking technology that controls people’s access to society. The words “Black Mirror” in the title of the show refers to how the screen of your phone or computer monitor looks when you turn it off; it turns it into a black mirror where you see a dark reflection of yourself. Black Mirror is a dark reflection of society, which depicts (as Charlie Brooker puts it) “the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” [1] 

This has caused many to think that the show is anti-technology, a warning about the way that technology is ruining our lives—a call to cut our cellphones out of our life, and to worry about the future developments of technology. As Charlie Brooker put it, “Just as The Twilight Zone would talk about McCarthyism, we’re going to talk about Apple.” [2]  In doing so, Black Mirror does something that good science fiction can do: act, as American science fiction author Ben Bova puts it, “as an interpreter of science to humanity” [3] by showing “what kind of future might result from certain kinds of human actions,” like the development of certain technologies. [4] According to contemporary philosopher Daniel Dinello, this is something that makes Black Mirror not only philosophically useful, but means that it is doing philosophy.

Science fiction serves as social criticism and popular philosophy [when it] tak[es] us a step beyond escapist entertainment [and] imagines the problematic consequences brought about by these new technologies and the ethical, political, and existential questions they raise. [5]  [It’s philosophy when it invites us] to understand the magnitude of the techno-totalitarian threat so we might invent tactics for confronting it.” [6] 

This might make one expect that Charlie Brooker is a technology-hating luddite, but in fact the exact opposite is true. For example, he got the idea for the “screen rooms” in the episode 15 Million Merits (bedrooms where every wall is a giant display screen) when his wife commented that he would be happy “in a box [where] the walls were all screens” while he sat on his sofa with an iPad, laptop, and cell phone, while watching TV. (Charlie admitted she was right.)[7]

Elsewhere, however, Charlie has sung a different tune regarding what Black Mirror is about.

Occasionally it’s irritating when people miss the point of the show and think it’s more po-faced [humorless or disapproving] than I think it is. Or when they characterize it as a show warning about the dangers of technology. That slightly confuses and annoys me, because it’s like saying [Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic] Psycho is a move warning about the danger of silverware. Black Mirror is not really about that… except when it is, just to fuck with people. [8]

So, when it’s not about the dangers of technology, what is it about? The human condition. “[I]t’s not a technological problem [we have],” says Brooker, “it’s a human one.” Our human frailties are “maybe amplified by it,” but in the end technology is just a tool—one that “has allowed us to swipe around like an angry toddler.”[9]

When I teach on the series, that’s how I approach the course. I tell my students to watch the episodes with an eye toward discovering how the technology depicted brings out and magnifies a human foible. The Arkangel device (from Arkangel) magnifies a mother’s tendency to overparent; the (aforementioned) grain from The Entire History of You amplifies a husband’s jealously, and tendency to pry into every aspect of his wife’s life. The MASS device in Men Against Fire makes an “out-group” of people literally look sub-human (like cockroaches) to make them easier for the military to kill, illustrating the way that enemies are dehumanized in war. White Bear depicts how far we would take our impulse to punishing criminals with “an eye for an eye” if we had the technology to do so. Black Mirror is fiction, but to quote Fi from The Entire History of You, “not everything that isn’t true is a lie.”

Every episode of Black Mirror gives you that impression. When you are done watching, you know that it’s telling you something—it has a point—but it’s not always exactly clear what that point is. And that is what motivated me to edit the book Black Mirror and Philosophy. Along with a broad look at the series as a whole, and all the philosophical questions and issues it raises, I wanted a close examination of every episode that really tries to get at what each one is “about.” This is why there is a chapter dedicated to every episode—each with a title that identifies a relevant philosophical issue and question (e.g., “Be Right Back and Rejecting Tragedy: Would You Bring Back Your Deceased Loved One?” by Bradley Richards)—and six chapters dedicated to the series as a whole, on everything from artificial intelligence and personal identity, to love, death, and the dangers of technology.

Of course, it is not always that simple; multiple questions and issues are raised in most episodes. The best example of this is Bandersnatch, a “choose your own adventure” episode that can only be watched/played on the Netflix platform. You make choices for the protagonist Stefan, as he makes an 80s style video game named Bandersnatch, based on a choose-your-own-adventure book of the same name, that is eventually turned into the very episode of Black Mirror you are watching. The issues of fate, freedom, free will, artificial intelligence, the possibility of a multiverse, time travel, alternate realities, moral responsibility, the eternal recurrence, the simulation hypothesis, and even issues of what counts as art, are all raised. This is why Chris Lay and I wrote a “choose your own philosophical adventure” chapter for Bandersnatch to include in the book. You can make a series of choices, related to which philosophical questions you think are most interesting, and get a new experience on practically every reading.

Comparing Black Mirror and The Orville

But this brings us back around to The Orville. I’ve argued that The Orville does philosophy by cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance, while Black Mirror does it by using fictional (usually advanced) technologies to magnify human foibles. But in a way, the two approaches are not that different. While the world (and technology) of Black Mirror is usually not as far removed from our own as the world of The Orville, upon watching Black Mirror we usually think “we’re not quite there yet.” The realization, however, that the episode is more about us (than it is about the technology) brings the lesson home in a very “Orvillian” way.

When watching Black Mirror, we usually start out thinking, “If that technology were real, I would never do that,” but then end up realizing “I already do that with technology that exists.” When the MASS device in Men Against Fire makes soldiers see other people seem subhuman, we think “I’d never let anything do that to the way I see others.” And then we realize that mass/social media has already done that with the way we see immigrants. Indeed, the episode was inspired by the controversial conservative British columnist Katie Hopkins’ depictions of immigrants as cockroaches.[10]

In fact, an episode of The Orville (“Majority Rule”) is so similar in approach and message to an episode of Black Mirror (Nosedive), that people often think Seth copied off Charlie.[11] In “Majority Rule,” the crew of The Orville comes across a society (on Sargus 4) that is governed by social media; everything—from public policy to public access—is determined by a vote count on the “master feed.” Everyone has a badge that registers how many up and down votes they have; and if they get too many, they are subject to “correction.” Their brains are electrically shocked and their personality is changed. In the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, a person’s access to society is determined by their social ranking score, which is determined by how people react to them both on and offline. Lacy Pound, who seeks to be a 4.5 (out of 5) so she can afford to live in the apartment complex of her dreams, tries to manipulate her score by giving a speech at the wedding of her friend who is a 4.8.

The episodes both involve a “person ranking” system, and bring to mind how people obsess over their online popularity and how popularity can open and close proverbial doors. Thus the accusations of plagiarism. In reality, however, Seth had written “Majority Rule” months before Nosedive was released[12] and it was inspired by something completely different. Charlie was inspired by things like Instagram obsession, TripAdvisor ratings, and Amazon reviews. (It was originally a movie idea about a celebrity that is blackmailed into tanking their social ranking.)[13] Seth, on the other hand, was inspired by Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.[14] So the Black Mirror episode that is most similar to “Majority Rule” is Hated in the Nation, where the use of the #DeathTo hashtag on Twitter actually leads to the death of people who have outraged society.[15] The worry of both episodes is regarding the phenomena of “Trial by Twitter,” where—when someone outrages the public—the public serves as judge, jury, and executioner in a trial that has no presumption of innocence or standards for what counts as good evidence. In the end of “Majority Rule,” the crew of The Orville save the life of a crewman who committed a social faux pas, by planting a bunch of fake news on the master feed that no one will bother to check.

Nosedive more accurately illustrates Jean Paul Sartre’s notion of “The Look” and the idea that “hell is other people.” Others objectify us, and we can be become obsessed with controlling how others see us. Sartre’s play, No Exit, ends with three people in hell, each obsessed with how the other sees them; that is their punishment. In contrast, Nosedive ends with Lacy pound in jail, completely unconcerned with how the man in another cell sees her, because she has been freed from the ranking tech and thus her concerns about The Look of others. This is unlike Lysella in The Orville’s “Majority Rule,” the native of Sargus 4, who in the end decides not to participate in ranking others (but still must be concerned with how others rank her).

Where Black Mirror and The Orville most significantly diverge is in their treatment of technology. As we’ve seen, Black Mirror leaves one with a bleak image of what technology does to us. It’s dangerous; it’s debilitating; it magnifies our foibles. In The Orville, technology is liberating—it allows us to explore the galaxy, make discoveries, and better our lives. When Isaac cuts off Gordon’s leg as a prank, Dr. Finn is able to grow him a new one in about a day. Technology is our savior. It is not technological dystopia; it’s a technological utopia.  (The degree to which this optimistic view of technology, and reason in general, is warranted is the subject of Brooke Rudow’s chapter in Exploring The Orville.)

Another place they diverge is in their comedic approach, which is perhaps ironic since both Seth MacFarland and Charlie Brooker were previously known for their comedy writing. The Orville is known for its humor; Black Mirror is not. But something that is similar about the two series is how both break comedic expectations. With its first trailer set to Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’,” many people assumed that The Orville was just going to be “Spaceballs for Star Trek.” But it turned out to be much more like M*A*S*H, which is a comedy but also engages in serious social commentary. Over time, The Orville has just grown more serious, letting the comedy take a backseat more and more.

Conversely, contrary to initial expectations, Black Mirror started out very serious. Indeed, when the first episode The National Anthem opened with the Prime Minster being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, the press assembled to see the debut thought they were in for another hilarious Charlie Brooker dark comedy. But when the moment in the episode came, the smiles were promptly wiped off the faces; and their reaction exactly mirrored the characters in the episode who had gathered to watch the event, thinking it would be a hoot.[16] The episode reveals something very dark about those watching it, as did most of the episodes that immediately followed. That’s why it’s called Black Mirror!

After Black Mirror was picked up by Netflix, however, it occasionally got lighter. There’s Lacy Pound’s wedding speech in Nosedive. “I mean, fuck the planet, right? Whoo!” There’s USS Callister (which, like The Orville, is also a bit of Star Trek fan fiction), and Natette’s reaction to being cloned into genital-less digital avatar: “Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line!” Black Mirror began to mix in bits of comedy. Miley Cyrus’ performance as an uninhibited “Ashley Too” robot in the last episode is a perfect example. “Get that fucking cable out of my ass!” But don’t think Black Mirror has lost its edge. The episode right before Cyrus’, Smithereens, is about as dark as it gets. 

Which brings us to the final comparison I’d like to make between Black Mirror and The Orville. The Orville deals directly with religion. For example, the episode “Mad Idolatry” highlights the dangers of religion when the crew is horrified to learn that they accidentally created a religion (that worships Ed’s ex-wife Kelly) on a planet that slips in and out of our universe. In contrast, fans struggle to find any religion in Black Mirror at all; and it’s not there … unless you are really paying attention. In Smithereens, the protagonist Chris Gillhaney wants to talk to the founder of Smithereen (i.e., Twitter) Billy Bauer because (we come to find out) Chris caused an accident (which killed his girlfriend) because he got distracted (while driving) by his Smithereen app. We first assume Chris wants to convince Billy to make Smithereen less addictive; but in reality, Chris just wants to confess what he did … to God.  

We meet Billy while he is on a (10 rather than 40 day) desert retreat, wearing a white robe and sporting long hair, that makes him look like Christ. Billy is able to track down Chris because he is able to invoke “God Mode” and knows more about all his users—their habits, their whereabouts—than the police or government. He is practically omnipotent. And yet, he has no control over his own creation anymore.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The whole platform, I swear to God. It was one thing, when I started it, and then it just I don’t know, it just became this whole other fucking thing. It got there by degrees … and there’s nothing I can do to stop it! I started it, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it! I’m like some bullshit front man now.”

Billy might as well be Jesus talking about the modern-day Christian church.

And so, while The Orville and Black Mirror are drastically different in many ways, they are also very much the same. They mix in comedy, they parody Star Trek, they worry about trial by twitter, and (as we just saw) they criticize religion. Most importantly, however, they are sci-fi series that tackle big issues and make us think—which, again, is what sci-fi does best, and Sci-Phi is all about.


[1] Brooker, Charlie. “Charlie Brooker: The Dark Side of Gadget Addiction.” The Guardian, 1 December 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror

[2] Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones with Jason Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror (New York: Crown Archetype, 2018), p. 11.

[3] Ibid, p. 10.

[4] Bova, Ben. “The Role of Science Fiction.” in Reginald Bretnor ed., Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1975), p. 5.

[5] Dinello, Daniel. “Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., pp. 5 and 17.

[7] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 32.

[8] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror” p. 222.

[9]  Gordon, Bryony. “Charlie Brooker on Black Mirror: ‘It’s not a technological problem we have, it’s a human one’.” The Telegraph, 16 December 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11260768/Charlie-Brooker-Its-not-a-technological-problem-we-have-its-a-human-one.html

[10] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 194.

[11] Konda, Kelly. “The Orville’s “Majority Rule” Trots Out the Show’s Best Black Mirror Impression”  We Minored in Film, 27 October 2017. https://weminoredinfilm.com/2017/10/27/the-orvilles-majority-rule-trots-out-the-shows-best-black-mirror-impression/

[12] Seth MacFarlane, San Diego Comic-Con, 2018. The relevant quote can be found here. https://orville.fandom.com/wiki/Majority_Rule

[13] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 130.

[14]Tomashoff, Craig. “Scribes on ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Westworld’ and 12 More Shows Reveal Secrets From the Writers Room,” The Hollywood Reporter, 15 June 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/inside-writers-rooms-how-14-hit-shows-get-created-1119139.

[15] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 206.

[16] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 23,26.

~

Bio:

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016), and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Pop Culture as Philosophy (forthcoming)Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections (2019), and Exploring The Orville: Essays on Seth MacFarlane’s Space Adventure (2021). (About the latter, Seth MacFarlane himself said it is “a must read for any Orville fan.”) He also maintains two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take) and is currently in talks to do another project for The Great Courses (aka Wondrium).

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