"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Welcome to the mirror house

The new year is a good time to ruminate; and I've been ruminating on all the "bests" lists and why they just annoy me.

Don't worry, I don't tell you.

But with the new season of "Black Mirror" on Netflix (which, yes, is like "Game of Thrones" on premium cable, accessible only to those willing to pay; reminds me of the toll roads around here accessible only by tags that require you to have a functioning bank account or, better, a credit card.  Keeps the riff-raff off the "public roads," donchaknow, darling!), I start re-watching some of the shows, largely because a "best of" list ranked the episodes and left me, not for the first time, wondering what critical faculties most on-line "critics" actually have.

I said I wouldn't go there, and I won't.

It started me thinking of common threads in the shows.  The most apparent is technology that carries over from one show to the next; more commonly now, it is the concept of technology that is common, especially the idea that consciousness (whatever that is; pace Daniel Dennett, but you didn't figure it out) can be stored as digital data.  It's one of those leaps that is magic when Harry Potter stands over Dumbledore's pensieve and watches events he didn't participate in happen around him, but is "science!" when used in science fiction.  Whatever.  The point is "Black Mirror" often plays with the possibilities of controlling our perceptions, and that control can, in the "Black Mirror" universe, extend to control of our consciousness itself.

But not in the 1950's "Manchurian Candidate" brain-washing way.  We're all too sophisticated for that.  We all understand (well, those of us who didn't watch "24" and think it was a documentary, or should have been) that torture only forces you to say what your torturer wants to hear; anything to make the pain stop.  Brain-washing and torture are not the way of "Black Mirror" stories; but punishment is.

There is a thread through many of the stories that is all about punishment and how we wield it and how we use it just to be punitive; not to be corrective, not to even extract information we think can only be extracted under duress (that plays a part in a moment), but just because we have the power.   Several episodes over several seasons illustrate the point, starting with the first and most famous episode: "National Anthem."

If you've heard of this, you know the story line:  the PM of Britain is blackmailed into having sex with a pig in order to save the life of a Princess Diana-character who has been kidnapped and held hostage.  The PM does it, live and on-line, and is shattered personally and politically by the experience.  Worse, though, the kidnapper, who has cut off his own finger to convince the authorities he will kill the princess (they don't have time to examine the finger carefully before the deadline to broadcast the act), kills himself after releasing the princess unharmed.  Seeking to punish the PM, or at least exert power over him, he ends up realizing he has punished himself and he can't live with the responsibility of his act.

Let that set the tone.

"White Bear" in season two makes the punishment the point of the show.  The protagonist is doomed to relive her act of murder over and over again, every day having her memory wiped so she doesn't realize she's in a prison which is actually a public park where voyeurs can watch as she is tormented by a situation that occurs over and over again, but which starts anew for her each day.  Society extracts its pound of flesh and then some.

In season 3 it's "Nosedive" and "Shut up and Dance."  Both involve the power of social media to invade human privacy.  In "Nosedive" all human value depends on one's approval rating, which can rocket or collapse, and leaves one constantly dependent on the kindness of strangers (of which there is precious little, especially if being kind to you will ruin their ratings.)  "Shut Up and Dance" is straight up blackmail as a young boy who posts something on the internet he shouldn't have, is forced into one horrific situation after another, until his anonymous tormenter leads the protagonist to his death.  "Men Against Fire" plays with perception, as soldiers' sensory perceptions are altered to suit the needs of the society, and they are forced to accept this condition because the punishment is to relive their actions as they actually happened, rather than as they saw and heard them happening.  It would take awhile to explain, but the point of the technology is to punish one group in society (who are deemed sub-human; you can slot in Jews or blacks or any group you want here) by controlling another group in society (the soldiers who volunteer for the duty of hunting down and killing the unwanted group).  The soldiers literally see them as monsters and beasts; the punishment replays what they did, but now they see scared human beings pleading for their lives.  Their punishment can be to relive those moments endlessly.

Which brings us around to "White Christmas," the very best of this story line.   Jon Hamm plays a man in a room with another man (a British actor you wouldn't recognize, so lets keep this simple) on Christmas Day.  Hamm cooks a light breakfast for the day, as there is little food in the place.  He speaks of having been there for 5 years, and coaxes the man into discussing his life before this room and the job they both do on any day but Christmas day.  To do this, Hamm describes his life first.

There are two stories here.  One is Hamm guiding a young man with negligible social skills through a party in an attempt to pick up a date.  Hamm speaks to the man through an implant; only the man can hear Hamm's voice, and the implant allows Hamm to look through his client's eyes.  In short order things go wrong because the woman the client ends up with overhears the man apparently talking to himself (actually to Hamm), concludes he, too, hears voices as she does, and she tricks him into a suicide pact where they are both poisoned to be "free" from the voices.  Hamm doesn't report the murder because his dating service is illegal, but the upshot first is that his wife "blocks" him on her Z-eyes.

Everyone has Z-eyes, it turns out, and they can be controlled, so all Hamm can see of his wife is a shimmering outline, and he can't hear anything she says; nor can she hear or see him.  His marriage quickly dissolves, but that's only the first story.

Hamm's job, it turns out, is more legitimate.  He works for a company that puts a chip into the heads of clients, leaves it for a brief time, then removes it and puts that chip in a device about the size of a hen's egg.  The chip contains a copy of the client's consciousness.  It is, effectively, a person, but one completely under the control of the operator, who is Hamm.  The digital copy perceives itself as the person, but it isn't, and Hamm completely controls its environment.  The idea is the digital copy will control all services of the house just as the original would do, thus making the house perfectly comfortable to the owner.  Echo on steroids, if you will, and somewhere well beyond mere AI.  Of course, the copy is human, or thinks it is, and must be, as Hamm explains, broken into service (much the way a horse is trained to accept a rider).  Hamm does this by changing the sense of time in the environment.  In the time it takes Hamm to eat half a slice of toast, the copy experiences 6 months of time, with nothing to do.  The copy quickly learns to accept its new existence.

You need that concept of punishment to get to the end of the story.  Now Hamm has finally won his roommate's confidence, and the man tells his story.  He had a girlfriend, and she got pregnant.  He wanted her to keep it, she didn't want to, he grew belligerent, and she blocked him (remember that?).  She quit her job, finally, and moved to avoid him, then got a court order blocking him completely; even the child she has is invisible to him.  A child he knows about because he has seen her outline, and seen she is pregnant, and because she visits her father every year at Christmas, and he sees a child playing there.

Time passes, in other words; and then she dies in a train crash, and the block ends with her death.  He returns to her father's house on Christmas day to see his daughter, but finds a girl of obviously Asian descent.  He is not the father (he's a bog-standard Caucasian Brit).  Shattered by this knowledge, he lashes out in anger at the grandfather, a blow that kills the old man.  He stumbles out into the snow, and drives off in an emotional fog, where he is picked up by the police days later, a drunk sleeping in the streets.  The young girl, it turns out, hid in the house until the next day, then wandered out into the snow seeking help, where she died of exposure.

And then we learn Hamm has befriended the man in order to get this confession, and the man he has been talking to is a digital copy of the original, who still sits resolutely silent in a jail cell, refusing to confess his crimes.   Gaining someone's trust is far more effective than torture would ever be.  Hamm's efforts clear him of criminal prosecution for his crimes (the first story), but not from being put on "the registry."  He is blocked to everyone, and everyone is blocked to him.  They appear as silvery silhouettes, but his is fire engine red.  We see one young man in the crowded plaza at the end of the story apparently weighing his options for attacking Hamm with no reprisal from the authorities, as Hamm would never be able to identify him.   Hamm's punishment is not only loss of social contact, and it is not only going to be carried out by the government.  Most of the punishments in "Black Mirror" are like that; we are complicit, and anonymous, through technology.

As for the copy, he is left in the room alone with a radio endlessly playing one Christmas song, and the time sense cranked up to 1000 years per minute, in a punishment that will be left for at least 24 hours, as its Christmas Day and everyone is going home for the holiday.  The original will be punished by the justice system, but the copy is at the mercy of the individual officers who could do it the mercy of simply deleting it, but prefer instead to punish it in ways they can't punish the human being.

And the question is:  who among us would not wield that power, if we could?

"Black Mirror" is often compared to "The Twilight Zone," but without fail the people who were punished in that series had earned our enmity before the punishment was justly meted out; and the punishment always fit the crime.  It's not hard to want to see Hamm's character, or the other man, punished; but the punishment doesn't fit the crime.  In most of the other stories, punishment is a matter of having control, of being able to punish, which is really what the punishments are in "White Christmas."  "Hated in the Nation," from season 3, is unusual in that the villain of the piece wants to use the power of technology to punish society.  It's almost a classic villain piece, with a hero who finally prevails and brings justice.  More commonly, justice is a matter of vengeance ("Black Museum," which may be why so many don't seem to like it) or there is no justice, just vengeance ("Shut Up and Dance"), just punishment ("White Bear").  Or there is justice, but what good is it? ("National Anthem")  And really, justice or its failure is not even the issue:  its the question of power, and what we would do with it.  "We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it," Stewart Brand said in justifying "The Whole Earth Catalog," but he was completely wrong.  We aren't as gods because we can manufacture and purchase stuff that makes life easier or more interesting; we are as gods because we can gain control over other people, the absolute control of their perceptions; and then what?  "Arkangel" answers that question as a mother who wants to protect her child ends up almost destroying her child, all because she maintained control of her daughter's perceptions for far, far, too long, and more completely than she realized.  And even when she realized it, she couldn't resist the temptation to keep using it.

Who among us would not wield that power, if we could?  Some are saying, as Dave Chapelle does in his new Netflix shows, that Trump is a watershed experience that will lead the nation away from what he represents; and it's hard not to see so much that is wrong with public life in the person of Donald Trump, and to be repulsed by it.  Maybe he will be a national object lesson.  But "Black Mirror" asks a more trenchant question:  who among us will resist the temptation to use the new power technology is giving us.  No, the direct access to consciousness is not available to us yet, and may never be.  But the indirect access, through social media and 24/7 news cycles, is affective enough to be as destructive as the nightmares of "Black Mirror."

Who among us will not wield that power, if we can?


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