One of the great things about science fiction is that it can tell us about ourselves.
In sci-fi, technology is a distraction meant to couch current issues or problems in a future-looking context so that it’s harder to recognize the everyday baggage we often bring to such discussions, the stuff that can be a barrier to real dialogue. Strip those contexts away, and you can create entry points for conversations about society that would be difficult if the story were more contemporary. The original Star Trek series, for example, used the notion of humans traveling the galaxy in a starship to tell stories about race, gender, class, and moral choices.
This semester I’ve used the critically acclaimed Netflix show Black Mirror to launch those conversations with my journalism students. Because the episodes are unconnected and feature completely different characters and societies every episode, it lets us approach discussions about technology, media and society with a fresh focus each week.
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever taught.
Wednesdays are “Black Mirror days” in my class. They are tasked with watching the episode beforehand and tweeting out a 140-character review on my #littauclass hashtag. Every week one student leads the discussion, and beforehand they post an episode guide on our WordPress blog. I also try to pepper them with additional articles that show the featured technology that week isn’t far-fetched.
— Amber Cardona (@amber_cardona) February 22, 2017
“The Iron Cage”
I often talk with my students about the “iron cage” of gadgets and social media – a concept borrowed from Max Weber and modified for my own field. In my own usage, the iron cage is this: using digital tools is necessary if you want to work in media careers, but they have social consequences in regards to privacy, free time, ability to speak freely and your social relationships. You have to use these tools to be good at them, but they can have diminishing returns.
This is an important discussion for me to lead. I am the one often teaching the tools to them and telling them to be online and engaged, but I don’t want them to think I’m utopian about the tools. Hearing me talk about the downsides is vital.
Almost weekly, our Black Mirror discussions return to this iron cage idea. The episode “Nosedive” features a society where people use a ubiquitous social network to rate every interaction with others (and thus people themselves) on a 1-to-5 star scale, and the overall rating a person has can either lead to higher social status or lesser opportunities depending on where you are on the social ladder.
Other episodes such as “The Entire History Of You” deal with cameras implanted in eyes and saving all visual memory to hard drives so that moments can be replayed later, which sounds great if it’s a pleasant memory but it also can drive a person to madness if we find ourselves obsessing over a moment and keeping it on a replay loop.
One thing Black Mirror does is introduce them to the consequences of this technology they are forced to use professionally. What role do journalists play in shaping how people perceive not just the technology change now and in the future?
Artificial intelligence and the future
While there are journalism and media elements throughout Black Mirror, I also want them to think philosophically about where technology is going as society becomes more driven by artificial intelligence and automation.
“Be Right Back,” for example, is an episode about how someone resurrected a recently deceased lover using all of the media they’d ever created — email, photos, videos, writing, etc. — as the basis for an AI version of that person that felt real. This artificial consciousness later was downloaded into a robot body that looked like the person. Was that person real, I asked them? Are we just behaviors built on memories, or are we more than that?
Another episode featuring Jon Hamm depicted a technology that allowed someone to download another’s brain into a computer, essentially creating a copy. Those copies could anticipate the needs of their master, the original.
Scientists are closing in on breakthroughs in AI and machine learning that will force a debate on how we treat artificial forms of intelligence. Journalists will play a key role here. Many of my students have barely thought about these issues, but Black Mirror has offered us a way to talk about the stain of slavery and understand that the sins of the past can manifest in future contexts if we aren’t thoughtful.
But about the pig ….
And then there’s The Pig Episode. “National Anthem,” the real name of the episode, is squeamish to say the least. An anonymous cyberterrorist has kidnapped a princess in the UK and threatens to kill her unless the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live national television. The episode dealt with several current problems in news, such as the ethics of covering a shocking video, even though it’s viral, or cable news’ role in creating a public mob by focusing on pundits and speculation rather than the facts of the story.
“National Anthem” is uncomfortable television. But just like sci-fi isn’t about the technology, Black Mirror isn’t about the shock factor. Shock is a textual layer meant to take the viewer’s brain to a place of that-couldn’t-possibly-happen so that their guard is down and the real discussions can begin.
Other shows can be uncomfortable for a different reason. “The Waldo Moment” which featured a cartoon character running for a local election based on anger at the system, felt far-fetched to me two years ago when I first watched it, but after last November’s election it feels prescient (and apparently the series creator Charlie Booker agrees).
Black Mirror isn’t for everyone, and it probably should be handled with care if used in a class. But the ideas are fresh and relevant.
Jeremy Littau is a former journalist with who specializes in teaching and researching digital media as an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. He teaches courses in multimedia that include components on audio and video production, web building, social media, and interactive media. Follow his class Black Mirror blog for more a look at student reactions.