Fingers of Familiar TV

“We speak of a ‘black’ mirror. But where it mirrors, it darkens, of course, but it doesn’t look black, and that which is seen in it does not appear ‘dirty’ but ‘deep.’”

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour



Post-modern pop culture points to itself. Or at least it did in 1990, when David Foster Wallace, idol to many Warby-Parker’d lit mag wannabes (myself included, minus the glasses), wrote his meandering manifesto on modern TV, E Unibus Pluram. Early in the essay, Wallace identifies a cultural switch from the television of the 1960’s, which pointed “beyond itself...usually at versions of ‘real life’ made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation1,” to the self-conscious and self-referential TV of the 90’s, where the drama of an amnesiac who thinks he’s Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show might play only minutes after an MTMS marathon. If Wallace painted sixties TV as something of a rose-colored mirror showing us the reality we want, his portrait of nineties TV resembles a hall of mirrors: a closed box, reflecting nothing but itself. 

Charlie Brooker’s vision for his hit series Black Mirror sounds a lot like a twist on Wallace’s sixties type. Brooker’s idea was a cultural mirror turned cruel—Black Mirror, as its title suggests, would show us the reflection we don’t want to see. Like the white-washed realities of sixties sitcoms, Black Mirror’s worlds are modifications of our own—usually with a twist towards the techno-dystopian. In one episode, all humans are outtted with a device called a “grain,” which records all of their memories in an immediately accessible timeline. In another, human consciousness is uploaded into some-thing called a “cookie,” and then downloaded into a synthetic body to serve as the person’s double. But unlike those sitcoms whose polished alt-realities obscured the blemishes of our own, Brooker’s universes function like a self-help prescription: ‘getting-away-from-it-all’ so as to see more clearly the flaws which are shockingly, unpleasantly, and inarguably familiar. In an article for The Guardian, Brooker describes how he modeled the show after The Twilight Zone: “Every week you were plunged into a slightly different world. There was a signature tone to the stories, the same dark chocolate coating – but the filling was always a surprise.” When Black Mirror collapses that difference—between the worlds of the show and the world of the viewer—as is often the case in season three, it forgoes that surprise filling. What’s left is an unsurprising sameness, too on-the-nose to be compelling or critical.

On-the-nose-ness peaks (onomatopoetically) in Nosedive, the opening episode of season three. Save for a pastel palette nabbed from a drug store Easter display, the world—where people curate their online presence on an unambiguously iPhone-y oblong—is an only slightly exaggerated version of our own. When the protagonist proves to care too much about the “likes” she collects online and suffers for it, we’re left without novel technology or new norms. It’s just a world we already know, heavy with a social [media] commentary we’ve already heard.

Even attempting the guise of alt-reality, the new Black Mirror still veers out of alt. The final episode of the season might strike you as distant: in this world, natural bees have gone extinct and small robotic replicas have been let loose to pollinate in their place. In truth, that technology already exists2: robot bees have buzzed around since 2013, when the three centimeter microdrones rst became air-born. But technology is really a sideshow in this story—the actual action surrounds a hashtag. 

The story unfolds when a #DeathTo tag begins to trend, aimed by outraged tweeters at any offender of public sensibility (the writer of an inammatory article, the rapper who mocks a young fan, the woman who pees on a war memorial). One person tweets #DeathTo [object of hatred here], then another follows—soon the offender is drowning in death threats. You don’t need to read a Lindy West think piece to see the finger pointing to the twitter assault on Leslie Jones or the buzzings of the Beyhive. Cyberbullying hurts people, says Black Mirror, but it says little else.

There is a shred of novelty in there: the hashtag actually inicts injury. A hacker booby-traps the hashtag to trigger a robo-bee once it’s been tweeted enough times. The drone tracks the offending person down, burrows into their brain and kills them, slowly and painfully. In other words, the hashtag becomes a literal hit-list, picking off the people the masses choose to hate.

The notion that a cyber attack might cause physical harm, and not just emotional, was pretty foreign when the episode first aired on October 21st of last year. Only a month later, when news broke that Kurt Eichenwald— Newsweek journalist, harsh critic of Donald Trump, and outspoken epileptic—had been barraged with violently ashing tweets designed to bring on a seizure, it seemed almost prescient. One of those tweets—a fast-paced strobe in red and yellow, pulsing behind the message “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS”—succeeded. Eichenwald is now suing the tweeter for assault.

This slight but foresighted social comment—that virtual behavior might have fleshy, weighty real-world consequences—gets lost in the episode’s heavy-handed moralizing. At the end, the hacker sets off the whole swarm. He turns the tables and sics them on the very people who tweeted #DeathTo. Within hours, the colony commits virtual genocide, eliminating anyone who ever trolled. But when it’s the tweeters who die (and die so pointedly), we’re back in the tidy world of karma: familiar messages about the dangers of internet anonymity, the mentality of the mob, the decline of humanism in the digital age, and so on, and so forth.

The problem with these familiar plot lines isn’t that they’re “more real” than dystopian fictions —they’re too simple to be sincere descriptions of our society. But they are more accepted: these are the narratives we already know about ourselves.

Consider, for example, a website the internet welcomed in 2009: Formspring, the social media platform where anyone could post anonymous questions or comments to your profile. The site devolved quickly into the bathroom walls of the internet –– a place for unambiguous cyberbullying, no punches pulled. But Formspring was wildly popular: people signed up in droves, positively impatient to read what others were wondering behind their backs.

So why did people get a kick out of this virtual Venus in Furs? What, exactly, is appealing about confronting your criticisms? Only the hope that they are compliments –– or criticisms you already know. It’s benign to hear you’re cocky (read: condent!) or unreliable (you knew that already); but it’s an agony to find you have fat ankles or chronic onion breath. Common criticisms are tantamount to compliments: they tell us we know what’s up, we have a handle on things, we are flawed within reason.

When Black Mirror’s fictional worlds moves closer to ours, it goes back on its promise. Instead of showing us our ugly side—the grim reflection we can’t confront on our own—the stories tell us only what we already know: the same fearful hand-wringing we’d find in a Huffington Post listicle. Without the bite, the show’s black mirror might as well be rose-colored.

And just as the technology of Black Mirror began to point toward the real world instead of beyond it, the show itself moved closer to the very place it pointed. For its third season, the series left British Channel 4 (a public broadcasting network, for whom “broadcast” and “channel” are literal and not merely symbolic terms) to the online service, Netflix. For Wallace, self-reference came to TV via syndi- cation (recall, Mary Tyler Moore), where the possibility for repetition and broader dissemination brought more people into the world of the in-joke. Syndication is not much of a player online, but streaming is—and what- ever repetition or dissemination the former allowed, the latter doubles it. (While writing this, for example, I clicked away to a Facebook tab framed with ads for both Netix and the non-profit JDRF, celebrating the 80th birthday of their International Chairman, Mary Tyler Moore). The move to Netflix drove Black Mirror deeper into the very object of its criticism: moved it closer to the very thing it pointed to.

Wallace saw TV’s self-reference as a kind of salvation. Post-modern TV was immune to the common criticism that television didn’t meaningfully connect to the outside world. Nineties TV didn’t need to resonate outside itself, because it was self-conscious: it understood its position in the pecking order. The new season of Black Mirror combines the worst parts of Wallace’s types: it’s self-referential, but not self-aware. It seems to aspire to point outward (to represent an alt-reality and in the process unveil the uglier parts of our own), but ultimately aims its finger no farther than itself—or really, what it already knows itself to be. 


1 Wallace, David. “E Unibus Pluram: American Televi- sion & Fiction.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. 

2 Since 2009, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, an interdisciplinary research institute run out of Harvard, has been developing a microrobot, called the “Robobee,” based on the biology of its namesake. Like the Black Mirror bees, the RoboBees are designed to work on their own, pollinating owers, detecting toxins and surveilling hard-to-reach locations. But they will also operate as a swarm, communicating with one another to ensure entire elds have been pollinated, and even col- laborating on search and rescue missions. The bees still need work –– namely, they are so small, no microchip is micro enough to serve as their “brain” and no battery is light enough to power them for very long –– but once completed (researchers estimate 5-7 years), Harvard’s Ro- boBees will behave a lot like Black Mirror’s.