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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