Research Paper: Black Mirror and Always-on Culture

Our phones are always on. I don’t mean this as an exaggeration, complaining of a generation that never looks up from their phones. I mean they’ve created a culture in which they’re always present, even if not literally on 24/7. This is the “always-on” culture that’s developed over the last 10 years due to our increase in smartphone technology. Recent trends in critiquing our phone usage usually revolves around our actual being on the phone, but while our usage of screens has dramatically increased with smartphones, if we take a step back we can dive into how these phones are always on our person, and this is what’s really causing the culture shift.

Always on the tip of the cultural spear, Black Mirror has taken aim at our always-on culture in many episodes. Afterall, negative consequences from this always-on culture can be dire. The two I’m looking into are social disconnection and increased authoritarian control, that have a corresponding thematic deep dive in the episodes Be Right Back and Fifteen Million Merits.

Hunsinger (2013) describes how social media works in his Social Media Handbook: “Social media interfaces engage us through interactivity and the appearance of co-presence, community, and, in the end, the appearance of social connection.” It all sounds great, up until the last few words. Saying “Appearance of social connection” cuts into why our society at large has deliberated social media use to the extent it has. Social Media, and the always-on culture that is intrinsically tied to it, give the appearance of social connection, but fail to fulfill one of the most important factors, the reality of face-to-face interaction.

Be Right Back tackles this when the main character Asch has an untimely death, he is brought back to life as a re-creation of his online self. At first it’s smooth enough, after all, it allows Asch’s wife Martha to take some solace in her grievance. However, she isn’t satisfied, and what was once simply texts programmed to sound like Asch becomes a robot Asch stand-in, with personality built straight from his social feed. The episode’s conflicts boil down to that for as close as the social media version of him is to the real one, its simply not him. In many ways, the problem seems to be Asch 2.0 is too perfect. He doesn’t get angry, he doesn’t have bad habits, he even has great sex, but this isn’t the real Asch.

He’s based his own personally constructed social media version of himself, putting emphasis on how these social media identities aren’t our real selves (Singh, 2014). In Jungian terms, we use social interaction as a mirror to “know we exist” and ultimately, prove our identity to ourselves (Singh, 2014). Social media is therefore the most modern version of this, which we use as a barometer for how people view us more than using it to allow others to see into your life.

Sherry Turkle’s 2008 essay Always On/ Always On You reinforces this, saying “I am wired into social existence through it.” This “it” refers to our lack of existence outside of our online identities. This is because our existence no longer relies on physical boundaries that it used to. We can talk on the phone in public spaces, perhaps not about our deepest personal feelings, but with overall assumption that no one will be listening or caring about what you’re saying, the physical space you share doesn’t matter as it is no longer a pre-cursor to social interaction (Turkle, 2008).

The problem we’re face with is that our brains simply haven’t evolved quickly enough to deal with this phenomenon. As result we don’t quite know how to deal with this immense change in communication. One example is “a reduced sense of responsibility for one’s actions online, and a propensity for self-disclosure of intimate details” (Singh, 2014). This means online communities are by far closer than before, as demonstrated with Coppa’s study of online fandom (Hunsinger, Jeremy, et. al., 2013), but as a result, many of the tightest communities are close-minded or exclusive. Despite the internet’s hugely diverse user base, anything it’s size will cause grouping of people that only interact with each other.

And at the end of the day, these communities are great, but don’t compare to the feelings of real-life companionship. They’re just easier to access and interact with. This is at the root of the commentary Be Right Back makes about our society. Martha may prefer to have the real version of Asch, but she is willing to settle for a constructed version of him. This is just Black Mirror’s extension of our daily trade-off between physical and digital connection. We can live forever through a digital space, but do we really want to?

I broke my phone this semester and was without it for several frustrating days. It was a mild inconvenience to not have an entertainment device constantly on my person, but the real concern was the lack of notification. While I could communicate with the same applications as before it was broken, I couldn’t receive notifications when I was contacted. This created a lot of stress, I had to check my laptop constantly to see if someone had replied, I didn’t have my digital calendar that reminds me of everything, people were texting me and I had no way to tell, it felt like I was being left out of the loop, and that people would be frustrated I wasn’t there like I usually was. This made me realize its not about the applications, I could access those on the computer, it’s the always-on part of our phones that make them a generation defining technology.

Therefore, the feeling that a phone both organizes our lives and makes them more flexible for communication is simply a trade we’ve made for being so dependent. This affects our lives with an increase in authoritarian control by those in power. I mean this in reference to both how industries control culture as well as how occupations expect more than ever. While we often think of time-wasting apps as the problem with our phones, the real problems are much deeper. A good example of how jobs expect more than ever is the way many well-paying jobs require you to be reachable at all hours of the day (Middleton, 2007). Jobs used to be all about the time at the office, and now our personal time is being tangled with our work to a great degree.

In Fifteen Million Merits this idea is explored to the extreme degree. Everyone in the episode lives in a grey, windowless complex, with only a place to work (cycling to generate power) and a small personal room with no decorations. They’re always being watched by an oppressive government too, there are very strict rules for what people can do. As a result, the only form of entertainment is watching videos, in particular a future version of American Idol. Even this can be done riding the bikes, meaning there’s every incentive to work all waking hours.

Even the entertainment videos aren’t all chosen by a person, there are many advertisements intrusively scattered throughout their viewing. The most authoritative control of what people view in the episode is when we see a porn advertisement video come on screen for the main character, and despite his desperation to not view it (it features his love interest), he is out of tokens to skip the ad is forced to open his eyes and look at the screen. In a world where consuming media culture is all people do, the business of it is carried to the extreme (Boren, 2015).

The only way to “make it out” is through this media as well. The American Idol clone is one of the only ways to make enough tokens to never have to work again. In the episode “A person can earn money only by conforming to the culture industry.” (Boren, 2015). This is true in our world too, and while our culture is not so monolithic, in a world where criticism of the president is fake news and China has a social ranking system, we could project a future in which always on culture operates to support fascist principals.

The deftly constructed world of Fifteen Million Merits is an allegory for if we literally lived inside our phones. This is because it contains the three elements of “social media logic” (Van Dijck & Poell, 2013). These are datafication, popularity and programmability, exemplified in having real life un-blockable popups advertisements, online popularity contests in the talent game show, and trivial game hierarchies to be chased after. In this way it’s a great episode to study always-on culture through, because the characters are living in a world built to function exactly like our phones do. As a result we get a window into what its like to extrapolate our current problems of authoritarianism associated with our phone usage.

Black Mirror is designed to be hard to watch. Many of the episodes leave an audience member feeling drained or worried about the future, and this is because they tackle our modern technology problems so directly. Even in episodes with sci-fi settings, we can draw direct lines between what we’re doing with our modern technology and what’s happening in these worlds. It takes on always-on culture in many episodes, given its such an overarching narrative in our modern technology, but Be Right Back and Fifteen Million Merits get to the heart of what could go wrong with this always on culture. No one wants to live in a world where we’re entirely socially disconnected or ruled authoritatively in all aspects of our life, so the episodes make us stop and think about our technology usage.

Bibliography:

Boren, Alex. “A Rhetorical of Black Mirror: Entertaining Reflections of Digital Technology’s Darker Effects.” Undergraduate Research Journal at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2015.

Dijck, José Van, and Thomas Poell. “Understanding Social Media Logic.” Media and Communication, 2013, doi:10.12924/mac2013.01010002.

Hunsinger, Jeremy, et. al. “The Social Media Handbook.” Routledge, 2013.

Middleton, Catherine A. “Illusions of Balance and Control in an Always-on Environment: a Case Study of BlackBerry Users.” Continuum, vol. 21, no. 2, Aug. 2007, pp. 165–178., doi:10.1080/10304310701268695.

Singh, Greg. “Recognition and the Image of Mastery as Themes In Black Mirror(Channel 4, 2011–Present): an Eco-Jungian Approach to ‘Always-on’ Culture.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 120–132., doi:10.1080/19409052.2014.905968.

Turkle, Sherry. “Always On/ Always On You: The Tethered Self.” Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies, by James E. Katz, MIT Press, 2008.

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Creative Project

          For my creative project, I decided to make a podcast about my wider topic, Black Mirror. I recorded on a Snowball microphone I own from recording other podcasts, with 3 friends of mine I knew were all big Black Mirror fans. From here, I put the file on my iPad because I had iMovie editing on it, cut some material, and put in intro music and the visual background. While my editing wasn’t a heavy workload, it still took longer than I expected, mainly because I haven’t used iMovie before. Finally, I uploaded the video to Youtube, so I’d have a place to send a link from.

          The goal of having a podcast on episodes we liked and didn’t was too rooted in the idea that people will enjoy the episodes whose technological message speaks to them the most. There are also distracting variables, like writing and acting, but this was the general premise. In saying that, people tended to like episodes that weren’t too far removed from our reality but did feature some technology that was an extension from what we currently have. Examples of this would include episodes like Play Test and National Anthem being less liked because they didn’t think about technology creatively. Meanwhile episodes like San Junipero and 15 Million Merits were more science fiction than reality, but made us think through our technology to a greater degree, given the easily identifiable line from our current technology.

          I believe this relates to the psychological fallacy where we only care about problems that are imminent. At the same time, for the technology to have a truly chilling effect, it must be a projection, as we generally don’t believe it’s viable for our current technology to have these damning effects yet. I felt as though getting multiple people’s opinions would help demonstrate what was effective, and thus help us to examine ways we can caution people about their technology use effectively. It does create some clouding of results to consider multiple opinions, but if anything, this demonstrates why it is so hard to get people to reflect on their technology use, people respond in different ways.

Research Paper Draft

Black Mirror and “Always On” Culture

The development of always-on culture is one of the biggest differences in our society for the last ten years. But what is always-on culture and if it’s so important, why would it not be a more well-known term? Firstly, this phenomenon emerges as a result of our smart phones, which we are seldom found without. Given they are always on our person, and used hours per day, its not surprising new effects would emerge out of technology that we’ve never seen before. We’re only now realizing the potential effects of social disconnection and increased governmental control, but now that we are, it’s a hot topic in the minds of many. As a result, shows like Black Mirror have taken aim at these anxieties that are rampant in our society. So while most people may not be aware of the terminology of “always-on culture” there has been a flood of discussion over the effects of our smart phones, Black Mirror is simply the tip of the ice-berg.

One of the most adept commentaries on this cultural development is within the episode Be Right Back. The topic this episode wants to address is our social disconnection due to our smart-phones being substituted for face-to-face contact. In the episode, when main character Asch has an untimely death, he is brought back to life as a re-creation of his online self. At first, it appears as a good idea, it allows Martha, Asch’s wife, to take some solace in her grievance. However, the more it’s implemented, the more the problems arise. The issues boil down to that for as close as the social media version of him is to the real one, its simply not a re-creation. In many ways, the problem seems to be Asch 2.0 is too perfect. He doesn’t get angry, he doesn’t have bad habits, he has great sex even, but we must remain cognizant this is the filtered, online version of him. He is based on the constructed social media version of himself, meaning the show’s representation of him puts emphasis on how these social media identities aren’t our real selves (Singh, 2014). In Jungian terms, we use social interaction as a mirror to “know we exist” and ultimately, prove our identity to ourselves (Singh, 2014). Social media is therefore the most modern version of this, which we use as a barometer for how people view us more than using it to allow others to see into your life.

Turkle’s 2008 essay “Always On/ Always On You” reinforces this, saying “I am wired into social existence through it.” This refers to our lack of existence outside of our online identities. Since our connectedness doesn’t rely on physical boundaries, this is no longer a pre-cursor to social interaction. Now what matters is the constant connection through the digital space and our ever-present phones. In a modern world, did an event really happen if it isn’t posted to social media? The commentary the episode makes about our society is the character Martha may prefer to have the real version of Asch, but she is willing to settle for a constructed version of him. This is meant to be an extension of our daily trade-off between physical and digital connection, and a critique on our settling for digital communication over genuine social interaction. This has impacted us in a wealth of ways such as increasing need to make good moments last forever, a lack of social responsibility online due to physical separation, and coming to see others as objects to assess, not people we know, but really these all boil down to how we just don’t connect to other people socially the way we use to.

 

Final Website Self-Assessment

Overall, making a website was harder than I thought. At the beginning of the semester, I chose a design that was simple but professional looking, so I still like the theme. As for things I changed, I did do some tweaking to the menu system and categories, as the links were broken and didn’t lead to anywhere. I found these systems the most frustrating to try and use, because they were unintuitive to me, even when I looked up guides for how to work them, and in the end didn’t make much of a difference. I played around with a static home page throughout the semester but found that it didn’t make a lot of sense given my blog- style of website and not being able to find a specific purpose for the home page. I think the “most recent” side-bar works for me for now, given there aren’t so many posts that one wouldn’t be able to find what they’re looking for, although, if I added many more pages I would likely have to invest more time into figuring out a robust menu system that allowed navigation through many pages.

Image result for website

              The goals I made throughout the semester were mostly met, given I just set out for a simple, clean, look and I managed to keep it uncluttered. I didn’t end up posting about news articles like I planned to, but I found the discussion in class about them sufficient for me when the semester’s workload started to pile up. One of the elements I didn’t plan at all was uploading my recently recorded podcast with Table Talkto my website, but as I was thinking about how the semester is coming to aclose, I considered how I can use the website going forward. Since I’ve already put the time into basic formatting of a website, I figured that I could keep this as my web presence, adapting it based on what I’m involved with and want to show off.

Black Mirror Creative Project Draft

Best Black Mirror Episodes Podcast

I believe this topic is relevant because every episodes’ point is to convey a message about technology, so how strongly the message of the episodes resonates with people will correlate to the episodes they think are best.

The idea of a podcast format will also be so that I can include opinions from other people. The format will be with 4 people at a table, including me, and each person nominates an episode or two (depending on how long it runs for) to discuss. Afterwards I’ll discuss what people said on my own to draw some conclusions.

The idea of including other people is to reach connection points on the theme statements of episodes, finding what makes conveying a message about technology more likeable, and thus more useful for reaching people. Hopefully this will allow me to underline some level of how we could use this knowledge for getting people to think about their technology use. On the flip side, if there is little consensus, I can hopefully draw conclusions out of what this means.

Some of my personal nominations for best:

·       USS Callister- This episode intrigued me because of its intense moral dilemma associated with simulation. Since the people that were copied into the game are real people, that should continue their human rights inside the simulation. However, this territory is largely uncharted, there are no laws about this and after all, the real-life version of the person is unaffected.

·       San Junipero- This episode might be my favorite just because it was so sweet, and I like the way it explored how technology can extend our lives. The idea of living in a simulation has always fascinated me, so the idea of creating a perfect one to cheat death just captured me. Also, I can see how this is a far-flung extension of always- on technology, to the point where you need it to be on to exist.

·       Shut Up and Dance- Scared me more than any other episode of the series. I think the more grounded horror that I could see realistically happening (as opposed to the over-the-top and in my opinion, poorly executed Play Test). The idea that someone could be watching you through your technology until you mess up and they can blackmail you just terrified me.

·       Be Right Back- I think this episode had a great balance between having a strong emotional component and making one of the most poignant commentaries on our social media usage. When Ash dies, he is re-created through his social media, and the relational struggles his wife finds following exemplify how we create a perfect version of ourselves online, and to actually live with this is something we wouldn’t want.

Worst:

·       Play Test- Besides the bad acting, this episode felt a little too forward with how it wanted to scare the audience. It felt more like a horror movie than a black mirror episode, because while it was a warning about virtual reality, the idea that it was experimental felt like an obvious plot device to show the dangers of untested technology.  

·       Arkangel- Found this one to be obnoxious because the message was too ham-handed. I think there just could have been a better way to present ideas of over-protection and censorship than making it this literal.

·       The National Anthem- This episode for the most just was too graphic. I think episodes that use graphic-ness can utilize this very effectively if it draws on the right emotional strings to tie it to the narrative. This episode just felt like being graphic for the sake of it, though.

Annotated Bibliography

Singh, Greg. “Recognition and the Image of Mastery as Themes In Black Mirror(Channel 4, 2011–Present): an Eco-Jungian Approach to ‘Always-on’ Culture.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 120–132., doi:10.1080/19409052.2014.905968.

As an academic article that is focused directly on Black Mirror, this source will be a very valuable resource. It talks a lot about the episode Be Right Back as an extension of our “always on” culture that dictates a need to record and display everything that happens in our life on social media. It takes this further, saying we use social media as a mirror into “knowing we exist” and ultimately proving our identity to ourselves. This is brought to light in Be Right Back when the character Ash is brought back, he is creepy because he acts too perfectly. This is because he is based on the constructed social media version of himself, with the show putting emphasis on how these social media identities aren’t our real selves. The article is quite in depth with its Jungian interpretation because of its focus on the single episode of Black Mirror so it will be useful as a basis for a deep dive into how always on culture causes social disconnectedness through our propensity to represent ourselves inaccurately online.

 

Boren, Alex. “A Rhetorical of Black Mirror: Entertaining Reflections of Digital Technology’s Darker Effects.” Undergraduate Research Journal at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2015. http://ojs.uccs.edu/index.php/urj/article/view/181/123.

This article discusses how “always on” culture can be extended to increased control of the individual by those in power. In the episode Fifteen Million Merits, digital culture is literally always on. The characters can’t escape from being broadcasted to, exemplified in a scene where the main character can’t close his eyes or skip an ad for porn featuring his friend. This is a critique of how culture is always commodified and made into a business. The part we’re responsible for is that we allow this to occur by feeding our money into the biggest corporations that control what culture is. Even when the main character escapes the cycle by rebelling, those in power are able to make him give up his position by offering him an easy life. Therefore “A person can earn money only by conforming to the culture industry.” This aspect of always on culture that potentially reinforces fascist control of culture is an interesting discussion here.

 

Middleton, Catherine A. “Illusions of Balance and Control in an Always-on Environment: a Case Study of BlackBerry Users.” Continuum, vol. 21, no. 2, Aug. 2007, pp. 165–178., doi:10.1080/10304310701268695.

The inspiration of the article stems from the initial idea of Black Berry phones (but in our context all all smart phones) being liberating due to their always on nature. They give us more control of our daily lives in terms of planning and flexibility. On the flip side, being always on is talked about in the light of how these phones perpetuate the culture of having little say as a worker, in that you must always be available by phone for one. The ultimate discussion here is if a tool of ultimate efficiency causes us to micro-manage our lives to the point of always thinking of how we could be more efficient, thus robbing us of good moments outside of work. This relates to the concepts in black mirror episodes like Fifteen Million Merits quite directly in terms of living to work and media and culture never having an off switch. It’s useful in that it’s an academic study, giving perhaps more concrete conclusions than articles that simply discuss the concepts.

 

Turkle, Sherry. “Always On/ Always On You: The Tethered Self.” Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies, by James E. Katz, MIT Press, 2008. http://sodacity.net/system/files/Sherry-Turkle_The-Tethered-Self.pdf.

A great line that starts this article is “I am wired into social existence through it.” The chapter revolves around a new version of the self, itself. This is referring to our lack of existence outside of our online identities. Since our connectedness doesn’t rely on physical boundaries, its no longer a pre-cursor that matters. Now what matters is the constant connection through the phone. For example, people have private conversations in public on the phone because the physical space isn’t what matters, it’s the digital connection. While not directly talked about in the article, there are strong thematic connections to the Be Right Back episode of Black Mirror. The character Martha may prefer to have the real version of Ash, but she is willing to settle for a false, entirely constructed version of him. This is an extension of our daily trade-off between physical and digital connection, and a critique on our settling for digital communication.

 

Sofie Steenhaut. “Between the Real and Simulated.” Ghent University Faculty of Political and Social Sciences. 2016-2017.  https://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/002/377/260/RUG01-002377260_2017_0001_AC.pdf

The article presents both sides of people who believe always on culture has gone too far (BM) and those that disagree with this. Points for the plus side include an assertion that offline culture is fetishized and has “always been a phantom”. To this point, there is discussion of the reverse of social disconnection, such as proof people can connect with those farther away, and with a wider array (gender, race, age) than they typically have the chance to in real life. This is discussed with the episode San Junipero and how an unlikely couple falls in love in the digital realm, where there are no physical barriers to meeting. While there is plenty of negatives discussed, I outlined the positives because this hasn’t been talked about as much in other articles and makes this piece more valuable.