“Black Mirror,” ethics, and the gray area

We’ve all dreamed a future of flying cars and teleportation machines, everything is bathed in chrome, and we might even be able to control things with our minds. If your future is pretty Jetsons-esque in nature, we might have grown up exposed to the same media.

While many of us revel in the fact that the future is a largely faraway concept, technology continues to improve exponentially, new breakthroughs being made almost every day. Rather than think that things will be all flying cars and lasers in years, we should pay attention to the technology already being developed. Black Mirror is excellent at presenting this kind of technology that seems feasible in just a few years, for the most part weaving our day-to-day scenery with the cutting-edge devices of tomorrow.

As cutting-edge as these devices are, each episode shows how the people who misuse them can also pose a great danger. While it’s easy to oversimplify and claim that “all technology is evil,” it’s truly never that simple. It doesn’t just boil down to that. If anything, almost every Black Mirror episode is still ultimately a commentary on the conflict between men. In this case, the episode is either centered on or propelled by a piece of technology that isn’t quite in our grasps just yet (keyword: yet).

In the war that man wages against other men, the harnessing of different things comes to play. We’re used to the usual–weapons, warfare, even smear campaigns. The concept that this show presents is similar, just with technology we haven’t experienced yet. The characters in Black Mirror appear to utilize newest developments, ones that allow us to physically block people, review everything that happened to you like a film reel, and control robot-bees that can pollinate in place of dying bee species (and even more).

It also often introduces us to dilemmas that we haven’t yet encountered and, therefore, have no clue in terms of maneuvering. Some of them being: Is a sentient piece of code entitled to rights? Where do we draw the line between living organisms and simulations? Is it cruelty to inflict pain or torture to someone who “isn’t even real”?

We have to look into the ethical implications of this show and how it presents us with all kinds of characters, many of which are in a gray area in terms of morality, not necessarily black nor white. It’s easy when we grow up with clear-cut bad guys and good guys, but when it comes to characters from this show, many of us become conflicted with their alignment because almost all–if not all–of the characters have also tried to play at our sympathies.

Black Mirror, at its core, explores ethics.

Take the episode “Black Museum,” the act of electrocuting the holographic representation of prisoner Clayton Leigh already seems awful, but we ask: Is it really that bad given that he isn’t truly the person?

To answer this question, we have to examine our ideas of good and bad. Let’s look beyond the act–we examine at what the act stands for, what it is protecting, or the value it tries to uphold or safeguard. In this example, what does this act of excessive, almost daily electrocution stand for, hologram or not? It is punishment, a cruel one that propagates hate and directly goes against the entire idea of the justice system that seeks to be less cruel than the crimes committed by the guilty.

This action capitalizes on the idea of everyone exacting their revenge on someone whose business they made their own. While it’s never confirmed if he had actually killed someone, people began to punish him anyway, as if able to take his punishment into their own hands. And, more than that, Rolo Haynes has also shown that he entertained those who simply wanted to see someone in pain, as if it were a free pass to torture someone.

The same can be said about “White Bear” and its protagonist (who many in the episode see as the antagonist) Victoria Skillane. This episode is particularly difficult to watch. At what point can we truly say that the people who put up the White Bear Justice Park are still driven by their desire to bring justice or if they’re simply capitalizing on a tragedy and profiting from a nation’s anger?

We, again, dissect the act for what it is: Having this criminal live out a torturous sequence of events day by day without any memory of what’s happened previously–does this punishment fit her crime?

And we, again, take into consideration how the criminal justice system doles out punishment in order to be less cruel than the crime committed. Rather than the “life for a life” approach, the system attempts to treat criminals as guilty but not as some sort of sub-species of grossly dangerous individuals who no longer deserve to be treated with dignity.

Many of us feel conflicted after watching this episode because one can say that, well, she’s a criminal. But the fact of the matter is that she is being punished while her memory is wiped of what she’s done. So, even though many people have associated her with the crime, she is being made to atone for something she can’t even associate with herself or her own actions. While her actions as Victoria Skillane were detestable, can we truly still call her Victoria Skillane when she can’t even recall on her own? Is she right? Are the people operating the justice park right?

What value is this punishment trying to protect? Does it protect any? Is it simply a cover-up for the sadism that the people who put up this park might actually have? And what of the spectators, the people who make it possible for the park to run and condemn her for a crime she can no longer remember?

Just as the twisted view on criminal justice is explored in “White Bear,” we can also see this briefly in “White Christmas.” The triptych episode cleverly makes use of all the technology it mentioned to detain a man guilty of killing his girlfriend’s father.

At the end of the episode, when Joe Potter’s cookie-self realizes he’s in a simulation and that he cannot escape the very vivid reminder of his guilt, one of the officers sets his time perception to about 1000 years a minute, trapping him in a loop and leaving him screaming on the floor. He says that it’s a good sentence for him and this statement chilled me more than the rest of the episode did. These officers smirked and left him there.

While we can pull the argument that the cookie-Joe Potter is just code, the officers still had the intention of hurting him as if he were a real person. They still sought out to sentence him, as if he were a real person. So even though one can say yes, he’s code, they aimed to be cruel to him as if he were a person.

Beyond this, their act of cruelty still reveals a darkness to them. Code or not, they wished for his suffering and reveled in it. When we dissect their actions, it’s clear to see that harm was meant more than justice.

To be fair to Black Mirror, not all of the episodes are hopeless. The high-rating “San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ” are a little more hopeful while still making very sweeping commentaries about technology in the near future. Both are centered on romance and end on arguably good notes without diminishing that slight dread that most Black Mirror episodes have. What with the erasure of the multiple simulated selves in “Hang the DJ” and the death of the actual selves in “San Junipero.”

Here we see also a dilemma in terms of continuing on with life in a very different manner vis-a-vis allowing oneself to authentically pass away. Kelly wishes to go on as her husband was never given the opportunity to ever be in San Junipero, why should she? Yorkie, on the other hand, wants to live a life that she never had the chance to have because she’d gotten into an accident after being shamed by her parents for who she truly was. Both justifiable, both fair points, but also of competing attitudes. Who’s right here?

Difficult, as always, to answer. Yorkie can finally live the life she had dreamt for herself while evasive Kelly, who didn’t want attachment at first, can be with her and have a second chance at what could be love.

Time and time again man has shown that he can adapt and manipulate any new invention for either good or evil. In “Shut Up and Dance,” our protagonist is cornered with the threat of releasing a video of him masturbating and he is subjected to running errands that escalate in danger only to be tricked in the end anyway. The software he’d initially installed was called “Shrive,” the definition of which is “to  confess one’s sins and be absolved.” As if punishing people online for their wrongdoings, they operated outside the law and punished them in ways that they saw fit, resulting in distrust, arrests, and even death.

“Shut Up and Dance” is a great example in terms of the gray area. Rather than black and white, many of the characters can both be wrong and right, their motivations justifiable but also you can’t call them all good. And, at the end, when you’ve begun to raise a brow at Kenny’s desperation to hide a video that he’d go as far as killing another man, you are sick to your stomach to realize exactly why he was so desperate. Many thought that they were rooting for a shy, sweet teenager who had been on the verge of humiliation and, as soon as his very real crime was revealed, many were revolted.

While the ending of “Shut Up and Dance” makes many feel like they grossly miscalculated their support for Kenny, it also calls the people who put this together into question. Do they really believe they’re out to cleanse the world of sins? Or are they waiting for desperate people to fall into their trap, into their elaborate game?

Technology is not frightening, it is, as it has always been, still us who hold the darkest of intentions. Whether it’s logging our memories or curbing our grief by uploading social media soundbites into a lifelike copy of a deceased loved one, man can turn even the greatest of technology advancements and turn them against society.

Black Mirror enjoys posing challenges to its audience’s ethical judgments. Was it right to kill all of the people who participated in the Game of Consequences (“Hated in the Nation”)? Technically speaking, they did condemn a good number of people while aware that it may lead to their deaths. At the same time, was it enough to bring them to their own untimely deaths? They were wrong to wish death upon anyone, but wrong enough for them to earn their own?

While Black Mirror can be quite bleak, we have to keep in mind that rather than wanting to be prophetic, it is more cautionary. Not cautionary about the dangers of technology, but of how twisted people can still take advantage of technology and carry out their own personal agendas at the expense of others.

Black Mirror reminds us that even in the future, however far or near, conflict will continue to arise, just as it does now. And people will continue to use whatever is in their arsenal in order to propagate and forward their conflict. In the wrong hands, some of our most brilliant advancements could wind up doing more harm than good. At the heart of each story is an ethical dilemma: “Men Against Fire” and its Mass technology that helps soldiers wipe out the genetically inferior or “Hated in the Nation” and its 300,000 keyboard warriors. Think of the title screen: The words “BLACK MIRROR” appear and then the screen cracks, underscoring the idea that it’s this technology that could hurt us. But ask yourself this important question, too: What causes that screen to crack? Or, better yet: Who?

What do you think of Black Mirror? Let us  know!






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