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17/01/2020 Communication Science news and articles

The consequences of power and design in Black Mirror

People are probably unaware that many powerful people in Black Mirror are abusing the technology. Medium shows how this happens in several episodes.


With the upcoming fifth season dropping on June 5, Black Mirror has been known for its stories surrounding humans and their relationship to technology. The message that one would usually take away after a few episodes would be: “technology can be harmful towards human beings”, but to say that is an oversimplification. A more interesting and dynamic approach would be to explore how the anthology series explores the abuse of technology at the hands of people and companies with power. This consequence, in turn, is deeply rooted in how they are designed in the first place.

This pattern was already present from the first season. In Fifteen Million Merits, much of society earns merits through pedaling away on stationary bikes. They live in small rooms with entertainment panels on every wall; if one were to look away, the videos and ads would follow their gaze. Technology, as a result, enforces the government’s needs and the way the society operates. These invasive techniques of monitoring society and its individuals continues in episodes such as White Bear, Men Against Fire, and Hated in the Nation.

Men Against Fire

Ensuring citizens’ safety and rights get heavily distorted thanks to the government’s willingness to disregard ethics in using technology. In Men Against Fire, neural implants called MASS are “installed” into soldiers to ensure better results through the dehumanization of their targets. The implants change what the soldiers see or hear and despite this being unethical, the reason why this occurred in the first place is due to the amount of power that the military organization has on its personnel. Stripe, the protagonist, is coerced into a memory wipe as his superiors threaten to imprison him and torture him with continuous replays of his massacre of innocent civilians. With little to no power, the protagonists often cannot change the system already set in place.

White Bear

White Bear is another depiction of a futuristic justice system. The punishment of criminals is now highly interactive, with members of the public being able to take part through a ‘theme park’ in which they act as spectators, ranging from the average bystander to a part of the jeering crowd. The episode’s protagonist, Victoria, is forced to endure the possibility of being murdered with everyone around passively looking on, much like the way she had behaved when her boyfriend murdered a child in front of her own eyes.

While this may seem like poetic justice, exploiting someone’s rightful punishment into self-righteous entertainment seems to be more like a way to monetize and profit from the tragic murder of a child. The authorities willingly make Victoria suffer through the exact same events every day, without even exploring the possibility of her remorse in her involvement in the child’s murder. Desensitization towards the harsh, even inhumane, treatment of criminals also occurs here using memory wipes, enabling the cycle all over again. With the power of the general public and the government on their side, it becomes easy to justify and enact a supposedly fitting punishment for letting a child die horrifically.

What’s even more horrific is that these pieces of technology are inherently flawed, not just by their use but also through the mechanics by which they perform their intended functions. MASS (a HUD-like display), for example, enhances a soldier’s senses. This gives their employers footage (of them committing horrific crimes for a eugenics movement) and desensitizes them against their fellow humans. If needed, they are able to force soldiers into submission through potential torture.

The Autonomous Drone Insects (ADIs) of Hated in the Nation played a pivotal part in the episode

The Yelp-esque ratings system debuted in Nosedive was meant to be addictive and integral to people’s lives, as higher ratings meant better opportunities for one’s personal and professional life; lower ratings led to blue-collar jobs, exclusion from social circles, and even imprisonment. The refusal of using one meant that one would be excluded from life as they knew it. The Autonomous Drone Insects (ADIs) of Hated in the Nation played a pivotal part in the episode, as they were hacked to attack and kill the list of people who participated in online harassment. Beforehand, it is also confirmed that they were used for government surveillance. The public is none the wiser to the ADIs’ true function; the people that designed and then hacked these mechanical insects were the ones that were at fault.

To blame the everyday people of Black Mirror’s universe for adapting to new technology is to blame them for things that are mostly beyond their control. The sway that their government has and the way the technological implements are designed are meant to keep people manageable and surveilled. While it’s important to question or think critically about the use of technology in our daily lives, Black Mirror also serves as a reminder for us to question the intentions behind those who developed them for our use.

Cover: Jade87

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