The Philosophy of Black Mirror – Wisecrack Edition

Black Mirror is one of the most unnerving viewing experiences in recent memory. And around the Wisecrack office, watching Black Mirror goes hand in hand with having a panic attack. But why does this show evoke such a sense of dread? Unlike other shows about technology and future dystopias, Black Mirror taps in to something eerily familiar to our everyday world. In this Wisecrack Edition, we dive in to the work of prophetic French philosopher Guy Debord to better understand an idea that permeates Black Mirror, as well as our own society- spectacle. Drawing from Debord’s landmark text “The Society of the Spectacle,” we explore how Black Mirror holds up a MIRROR (see what we did there?) to our current social predicament: namely, the ways in which technology not only mediates our relationships with other humans, but also the world around us.

Written by: Benoit Lelievre and Alec Opperman
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar

The Philosophy of Black Mirror – Wisecrack Edition

Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. Today, we’re talking about a show you’ve all been requesting for a really long time. Our favorite scifi nightmare — Black Mirror. Black Mirror tackles a variety of issues posed by technology, and while it may not have a consistent narrative between episodes, we’ve noticed one theme that keeps coming back. Whether the show is tackling virtual reality, politics, social media, or interspecies erotica, Black Mirror really loves spectacle. If watching Black Mirror gives you a sinking feeling of dread, or disgust, it may be because this idea of spectacle isn’t science fiction, but is built into the fabric of our reality.

Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of Black Mirror. And, of course, spoilers ahead. So what is spectacle? It’s not just fireworks, pro wrestling or your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, it’s really any kind of compelling visual display. TV, video games, the internet, real life – all these things are essentially spectacles. But if there’s one kind of spectacle that pervades our daily reality, it’s the kind that comes through our screens. If you haven’t noticed, Black Mirror is obsessed with screens. The show’s promotional art features a cracked screen, and, you know, the title is a reference to this. The relationship between screen and viewer is central throughout the show. In The National Anthem, an on-screen spectacle mesmerizes a nation, while a performance artist releases a hostage in broad daylight.

In Nosedive, smartphone screens — and, uh, eye screens? — Compel everyone to rate their fellow humans just like one might rate a hipster bar on Yelp. In The Waldo Moment a screen literally becomes a politician, and some of the show’s first moments visually emphasize the screens surrounding the British cabinet. We can better understand Black Mirror’s screen fixation through the lens of philosopher Guy Debord. In the 1960s, Debord suggested that understanding “spectacle” was critical to understand society. In the aptly named “Society of the Spectacle, Debord wrote that in the decades following the industrial revolution, images and appearances had begun to govern the world. Many of the protagonists in Black Mirror experience spectacle in their own way. Bing is immersed by screens in Fifteen Million Merits. White Bear turns the justice system into a literal spectacle of justice. In the National Anthem, the merits of pig sex are mostly discussed in terms of public perception.

However, one of the most illustrative examples is Nosedive, where a young woman named Lacie, like many of us, derives her self-worth from her smartphone – speaking of which, don’t forget to thumbs up this video. According to Debord, “The spectacle is not a series of images, but a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”. To over simplify: we’ve been numbed by years of advertising and mass culture and, because of that, live shallow, disconnected lives. In Nosedive, What we’re going to call “yelp for people” has reengineered society into a new class system based on popularity, which is in turn, based on spectacular social media profiles and fake kindness. Lacie constantly does things she otherwise wouldn’t: she takes photos of food she finds disgusting and is overly nice to people who play an accessory role in her life; all in order to get positive rating on an app which attributes “objective” value to people. Nay Nay is putting on a ridiculous show whenever she opens up a device. Lacie’s coworker has to be unnaturally kind and beg for positive ratings. Nobody is free to be their authentic selves because, as Lacie says: “That’s how the f***ing world works!”

People develop relations with their phones and apps, which in turn develop relationships with other humans. In other words, to recap Debord, our relationships are mediated by images, but in this case, images delivered by our phones. For Debord, the more we recognize our own existence in the terms set forth by the spectacle, the less we understand our “own existence” and our “own desires.” What Lacie wants is simple: a fancy new house. For that, she needs to boost her social media score and make good with Nay Nay, her high school friend who had sex with Lacie’s boyfriend. In true Debordian fashion, Lacie’s increasing immersion into spectacle, makes her a hollow shell of her former self before finally going cray cray at Nay Nay’s wedding. Lacie fails in both being herself and being someone she’s not.

The spectacle has not only defined her desire, but made her prisoner to it. It’s only when Lacie is forcefully removed from spectacle and thrown in jail that she seems to find authenticity. But how did we get here? How did the society of spectacle take over the lives of Lacie, Bing, Prime Minister Callow, and even our own lives? Debord provides an answer that resonates in Black Mirror. Debord argues that spectacle is born when the economy invades the very fabric of our social lives. In Fifteen Million Merits, we see what this economic invasion looks like as entertainment dictates every aspect of social life. Bing pointlessly rides a bike to accumulate virtual currency he can only spend on necessities, entertainment, or his, uh, Mii?. He and everyone else lives in a cube made with screens, where he constantly receives pop up ads he has to ignore. Things that exist outside of this mii-conomy are frowned upon. In one telling scene, paper origami is discarded as garbage because it doesn’t exist in the circuit of labor and commodities offered by what I’m going to call… George Orwell’s favorite soul-cycle class.

In an attempt to escape the spectacle, Bing becomes obsessed with authenticity and decides to do something meaningful for someone else, namely getting a woman he heard singing in the bathroom, Abi, a shot at becoming famous. But some Simon Cowell wannabe has other plans. The economic incentive to pimp out Abi outweighs whatever hopes and dreams she, or Bing, had. Bing even explicitly reflects on the way that the economy has infiltrated their lives: “And the faker the fodder, the more you love it because fake fodder is the only thing that works anymore.” “All we know is fake fodder and buying s***. It’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves is buying s***” but, as we learn, even dissent becomes a commodity.

Bing gets a lavish apartment, everyone remains miserable and the spectacle goes on, literally. This economic invasion of everyday life, for Debord, happens at a very specific moment: when “being” becomes “having,” when who you are is defined by what you have. This logic is everywhere in our own society: wearing a Dead Kennedys shirt makes you rebellious, guzzling pepsi makes you an activist and having a bumper sticker makes you whatever kind of pretentious you aspire to be. Black Mirror follows this logic, but takes it a step further. In Be Right Back, a grieving woman purchases a life-sized avatar of her boyfriend after he dies. “Having” a relationship replaces “being” in a relationship. The shard of glass Bing used to threaten to kill himself becomes a virtual commodity – “owning” rebellion replaces “being” rebellion.

The Waldo Moment further explores what happens when this logic enters the political sphere. It follows Gwendolyn Harris, an aspiring politician, and Jamie Salter, a comedian who voices a foul-mouthed cartoon bear that becomes a global icon. The Waldo Moment focuses on the unreality of politics. Gwendolyn truly wants to be a politician, but struggles with the spectacle of it all. While she seems genuinely concerned with policy, her campaign is just a show for her future aspirations. Meanwhile, Jamie is a depressed joke-making nihilist who begrundgingly runs for office. Except, people seem way too into his message. Waldo is pure spectacle, his only metric for success seems to be attention.

And, like any spectacle, it’s pure image with no substance. Jamie constantly reminds us Waldo isn’t real but as it turns out, that doesn’t seem to really matter. Spectacle is bigger than any of its individual actors, an autonomous system – like if Skynet decided to care about cat videos and reality tv. And, for the “real” politicians like Monroe, who have always succeeded via spectacle, they become powerless in the face of a much better spectacle. Monroe’s last-minute attempts to appeal to “real” politics are pointless, because the spectacle had won long ago.

For Debord, the system gives us competing spectacles that are nothing more than “vaporous qualities meant to stimulate loyalty to quantitative trivialities.” In other words, just as spectacle compels Yankees fans to hate Red sox fans, it compels people to identify with a blue bear who makes fart jokes. The system can profit as much from the Yankees vs Red Sox as it can from Waldo vs the status quo. As with Bing, dissent is a commodity. Or, as Debord says “The smug acceptance of what exists can also merge with purely spectacular rebellion; this reflects the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity.”

So here’s a question: are we heading towards our inevitable destruction like Black Mirror imagines? Maybe there’s hope. The show balances its pessimism with San Junipero in which two women fall in love in a simulated reality and choose to live there for eternity instead of accepting death. In this world, the spectacle isn’t a nightmare, but literally heaven. Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle in the sixties, so he was mostly talking about the world dominated by television, radio, movies and mass-advertisement. He didn’t see or predict the advent of smartphones or social media, but he certainly foresaw how they would shape society in a pretty prophetic way. What do you think Wisecrack? Will spectacle drive us to the hellish world of Black Mirror? Or are we already there? Take it easy, Wisecrack.

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