I believe they’re nowhere. Just like you said.
Black Mirror (San Junipero), Charlie Brooker
In the future everyone will be a bland, wealthy, middle-class human fragment with no love of reality or quality or truth or nature or perception that these things might exist. This is the unspoken message of the ‘innovative… profound… touching… genius… thrilling…’ (etc, etc) modern sci-fi series, Black Mirror, in which everyone speaks, thinks and acts like a Guardian writer.
Charlie Brooker, the [Guardian] writer of Black Mirror, doesn’t have much interest in humans. The point of his work since Screen Burn (his first Guardian column, followed by various columns and teevee shows, culminating in BM), has been to hate everything that humans do; to show us how repulsively stupid we are, how cruel, banal, small and weak, and how unremittingly disgusting life is.
As with any other film about banal and nasty middle and upper-class people1 (last year’s A Bigger Splash comes to mind — although most of Tilda Swinton’s films would serve) the problem is not that every character is a petty, cruel, colourless replica of every other character, or the worlds they inhabit unreal nightmares of endless banality stretched over an abyss that is never considered; but that there is nothing else. The writers have no understanding or experience of anything outside their fabricated realities.
Take, as a counterexample, Thomas Vinterburg’s Festen in which a morally courageous protagonist, who commands our sympathies, uncovers the putrefaction underneath the good taste, right-seeming seriousness and bonhomie of wealth. Or Roman Polanski’s Carnage (written by Yasmina Reza) in which four dreadful people — two New York couples — have a petty disagreement that escalates to such a degree their polite middle-class moral-masks dissolve. Here there is more of a sense of sympathy around the periphery (the children whom they are arguing over) but there is also the felt reality of a story which is coming from a genuinely finer ethical universe. Or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket perhaps, in which a protagonist, living in a ‘world of shit’ only seems to become less human — yet we still care about him, and, of course, about the nuances of humanity which Kubrick picks out throughout the story. Or take, perhaps, Macbeth, which portrays nothing but carnage in a universe of bleak chaos, but which revolves around Macbeth’s awesome, apocalyptic sense of guilt, his pathetic and pitiable awareness of all this horror.
In these stories all is darkness, but the writer is coming from a perspective of light. In Black Mirror there is no question, ever, of a sane or sympathetic lead, or any sense that Brooker is coming from, or even hopes to express, anything truer or sweeter or realer than the nightmarish concepts he presents. Because of this — because his presentations revolve entirely around ideas — all of his characters are interchangeable. One might be a woman, another Irish, another black, but you could easily swap their dialogue, their back-stories or their values and not notice the difference. Indeed one of the most repulsive of the stories, Be Right Back (season 2), has an entirely synthetic human being who differs from his living original in the most preposterously trivial ways (he sleeps with his eyes open and is a bit of a bland wimp). As you’d expect from the universe of Black Mirror, when it comes to the final crunch his bereaved girlfriend can’t kill him because he starts faking tearful desperation; she was sad, stupid and insensitive enough to believe in and buy a synthetic replacement for her loved one in the first place and, after discovering he’s not quite the same as the original — she ends up keeping him! Again we’re back to Philip K Dick’s classic point:
‘The only way to determine whether someone was an android was empathy. What separated humans from androids was that androids had no sense of empathy. The difficulty was that very few humans did either.’
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick2
One of the better episodes, Nosedive (season 3), has one of the most potent premises (everyone is rated for everything and low ratings lead to social exclusion) and one of the most sympathetic leads who, through an unguarded outburst of anger, loses all her points and ends up in prison and outside of the dystopian glitz where she finally expresses her liberation by… yep, mindlessly insulting someone! This is liberation in BM, as it is for Brooker; the opportunity to vent your spleen.
What is a Black Mirror? It’s a cold, dark, two-dimensional object that projects a distorted, unreal and largely useless image back to the viewer.
Black Mirror directs its critical attention at androids, smartphones, television, social-media, gameshows and so on, but the perceptive viewer will notice that one aspect of our technological present remains strangely unscathed by Brooker’s satire. This is technology itself. We are never, at any point in Black Mirror, invited to ask ourselves how the technological system works in toto, or what the effect of this system is on human nature. There is plenty of anger, frustration and confusion in Black Mirror, as characters confront the intrusions of particular technologies into their lives, but no connection is drawn between, say, the insipid one-dimensional characters in the series and the fact that industrial technology destroys character. Of course there isn’t. Brooker’s middle-class non-people are supposed to be human! The idea that any other serious psycho-social problem we face is down to living in and as a machine is also off the script.
The world of BM is curiously similar to the Spike Jonze monstrosity Her, which came out a couple of years ago, in which a bland middle-class guy falls in love with a computer. As in most of BM the entire world has been designed by Muji for intensely middle class professionals whose individuality, ethical awareness and free-will exist only to select lovely shades of green and put them together with equally lovely shades of pink, or beige perhaps (bit like Star Trek). No mention is made of the sterile horror of such a world (or the poor sods who built it) — it’s a background given to the specific technical difficulty being tackled; and as it is only a technical difficulty, only technical intelligence (perform x moves in x order in x time) or violence (chuck the computer out of the window) can win the day. Can, but doesn’t. As the sole message of BM is that humans are losers (or perhaps that ‘some tech is bad’), nobody wins.
This applies not just to the characters, but to the viewer. The techno-premise is delayed for long enough to pique interest (‘ooh, what’s the twist in this one?’), then revealed, then the main character is destroyed by it. Every episode is a variation thereof — a subset of the cheapest of literary genres, the whodunnit — sprinkled with cynical, titillating hate-porn and gore (with one truly ludicrous exception — San Junipero — which uses titillating P.C. cheese to actually glorify virtual reality). We the viewer are asked to use our intellects to work out what is going on, or we are asked to throw the computer out of the window. Of these, the second option is the better choice; but unlikely.
Although still not as unlikely as actual reality.
- Of the three principle working-class characters, two of them — a soldier and a kid who works in a fry-up — talk like graphic designers and the other one, a bloke being blackmailed with the fry-up kid, talks like Brooker (‘burping up semen’ etc). The reason for this uniformity is partly that the acting is atrocious (nobody seems to care about this) but mainly because Brooker is always Brooker. Not that stories have to be about class, or show a socio-economic spectrum of society, but a contemporary drama like BM, that purports to address social realities and clearly shows no awareness of class whatsoever, is as suspect as a story in which everyone talks like a wealthy connected cynical scriptwriter.
- This is the principle weakness of the Turing test (apart, of course, from Turing’s own belief that ‘the question of whether machines can think is ‘too meaningless to deserve discussion’). Namely, how can an unconscious human tell if a machine is conscious? This is also the principle weakness of most studies of human intelligence, sensitivity, empathy, happiness and so on; the group under investigation is nearly always a stressed, institutionalised, modern human under test conditions.