Maybe it’s fitting that I finally got to watch the Black Mirror Christmas special at a time when my personal life had taken a turn for the shitty and tumultuous. Like, seriously shitty.
The fact that the special levied much of its pathos on relationships and how we relate to one another through digital media only added venom to the wound. Sadly, that’s not something I’m writing about today and may never share on *this* particular platform.
I digress though…
I’ve written about how damn good Black Mirror is on this here site before. But, there’s something about this special (which originally aired Dec. 16th, 2014) that vindicates my previous words. From the way the narratives are constructed, to the superb acting, to the continuity of universes, this special is at once quintessential Black Mirror and something new entirely.
But, strangely, I don’t really want to talk about it. For one, I don’t want to spoil it too much for those who have yet to fire up Netflix (Semi-spoil-free Dap? #NewYearNewMe). But actually, because I want to dive into how the special really locks on a disturbing and unfortunate truth in today’s society: digital media has allowed us incredibly powerful and disturbingly rational ways to create our social circles, relationships, and interactions.
On one hand, it’s amazing right? I can log onto Facebook and know exactly how much cornmeal my mom is using to make cornbread, because she’s documenting it in real time. I can also check in with my racist friends and see what pro-Trump or non-sensical meme they’re posting today.
And I can build walls. I can block those racist friends. I can tell Facebook to only show updates about my mom’s cooking every two weeks, instead of instantaneously.
This ability to time shift our social interactions, if not excise them completely, is frightening. In an effort to create a space where data is most easily extracted (let’s not shit ourselves here, these social media companies care as much about the social good and “connecting” as a spider cares about where flies come from), these companies have given us a gross and unbridled ability to surgically tweak and prune our interactions with people.
But this can be used for good, right? 2015 was a year of activism, if nothing else. And the idea of safe spaces became something very central to that movement. Thankfully, there are much smarter and cooler people than me fighting to create and find ways to make digital spaces safer for the underrepresented and unheard. From subversive language to closing ranks and building actual tools, these folks have found ways to bend the rules of social media into something useful. It’s amazing and a testament to human integrity and ingenuity.
But, in a casual reality, how are these tools affecting our ability to interact?
Let’s back up a bit.
In White Christmas, we’re introduced to the concept of “blocking.” When blocked, a person becomes a static-filled avatar, unable to be seen or heard by the person doing the blocking. Note that this inability to communicate is mutual; both people become amorphous phantoms. In addition, they are unable to contact the blocker by any digital means. Even worse, when you’re blocked, you’re unable to look at any media (pictures, video, etc) of the blocker; instead that static phantom will appear – obscuring them from your view forever.
Ain’t that some shit?
In the special, this blocking manifests on a full spectrum of iterations. But the concept itself is important here because it’s not too different from reality (as is most of Black Mirror). Right now, you can log on somewhere and block someone from your life. Literally. Cutting them out of any single or myriad of channels of digital communication. While we see these things (partially by inundation) as a fact of life in an Internet of Things and a digital world, it’s important to sit down and think about it too.
Is it not frightening how we can erase and obscure, cut out and banish, people from our lives? The act is so robotic in theory and sold as simple in action, from popular memery (“Blockdt!”) to social media FAQ’s (“Just press the block button and they disappear.”)
It’s also deceptive. Because people don’t just disappear, word to Jimmy Hoffa.
People exist. People have effects on the world around them. And people are organic, gross, tangible, and human. This is something that is often at odds with many things in tech as we understand it. In a lot of tech speak, people are “users:” agents who use products and create or act on variables and behaviors used to create and collect data.
Every time we excise someone from our lives using these tools, we feed into that mindset and vindicate this understanding. Whether for good or bad, it’s a realm that is inextricably as real as it is fantasy. The fantasy is that we are actually banishing people away. The reality is that we’re simply shuttering our digital windows. This siloing of experience is something that takes on very real consequences in White Christmas. And, I think, it’s something that takes a toll in real life.
The designs we employ to build these little worlds, in reality, are only as real as the self-work (and outer-work) done to move forward. However, because we’re organic, living, fleshy things with abstract understandings, much of this requires an interaction with the offending situation or person or any number of triggers. This includes, but not limited to, indirect interaction; the very potential of an offending remark, strange interaction, experience, etc. When we isolate ourselves and treat our lives as nothing but data waiting to be funneled, we endanger our own emotional (spiritual, mental, seuxal, etc, etc) growth and experience. Not because we’re not consciously putting ourselves in harm’s way. I’m by no means advocating that.
Rather, when we sell into this pre-packaged, mass-marketed, simple-to-understand ideal that our lives can be simpler when we treat them as datasets and problems (see: functional and ultimately logical) waiting to be fixed, we risk turning ourselves into delusional and much more unaware and unfeeling humans.
The human experience is gross and awkward and organic and dangerous and delightful and illogical as all hell. Mourning included. We can’t boil that down to a block button. Nor should we.
So, inasmuch as these things are often great tools for ensuring safety, we should also recognize when our humanity demands something more — from intuition to closure to irrationality. They are not always good things, but they are things we need to accept. Because it’s what makes us human, and ultimately (hopefully), greater than the mere sum of our parts and collected data.
Don’t be afraid to feel my friends. It hurts, but it’s worth it. Don’t let Skynet win.
The Original Homeboy with a Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. @dapisdope