I'll be the judge of that.

On Black Mirror, Stephen Hawking and the Future Freaking Us Out

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The sci-fi lite anthology series Black Mirror has come to be characterized primarily by its paranoiac treatment of the ever-impending near future, particularly focusing on the accelerating technologicalization of our everyday existence.

Whether it be the insular hamster wheel of the office cubicle and the severely diminishing returns of “reality” based entertainment, or our tenacious desire to digitally memorialize our experience and the obsessive narcissism that goes along with it, Black Mirror aims to be precisely that: a dark mirror-image to our daily lives.

This, of course, is to state the obvious. Series creator Charlie Brooker has already said, “I like technology, but Black Mirror is more what the consequences are, and it doesn’t tend to be about technology itself, it tends to be how we use or misuse it.” He adds portentously, “we’ve not really thought through the consequences of it.”

I like the show, but Black Mirror could probably survive with less of this overt preaching. As interesting as many of the episodes’ core concepts are in the abstract, the execution too often feels to me like a scolding, as if delivered from on high by someone who thinks he or she knows better.

To be clear, I say this with complete respect for the fact that an important function of science fiction is to allow us to think about the future before we have to live through the future. Giving us a preview into one possible consequence of our current social framework is the bread-and-butter of science fiction –I get it.

But to me, the frequently obvious and surface-level moralizing, the mark-my-words and you’ll-be-sorry of it all can feel condescending. It runs the constant risk of sounding out of touch and grumpy, not to mention hokey, as if intended to scare children into putting their iPads away at the dinner table.

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To be sure, concerns about the supposedly dehumanizing effect of technology are everywhere in contemporary discourse: we remind others to put their phones away while socializing; we discuss the economic distortions of internet piracy and streaming services on modern cinema; we debate the relative merits of iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify; we caution one another to be careful what we tweet, retweet, and like; we feign horror at internet hackers yet gleefully consume their output; and we bitch about the superficiality of social media while shaking our heads at the person who doesn’t have a Facebook profile.

It’s all over pop culture too. Last year, there was that short film “I Forgot My Phone” that made the rounds on the internet and changed absolutely nothing about the way we use our phones. Louis C.K. gave his exhausted father routine. Brian K. Vaughn depicts a post-internet society in his insanely awesome comic book The Private Eye. Witness even the divide among up-and-coming pop-punk bands like Knuckle Puck and Modern Baseball, the former decrying social media and the latter embracing its emotional vicissitudes.

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All of these are simply different ways of talking about whether and how technology destroys or at least inhibits “what it means to be human.”

But Black Mirror doesn’t just take part in this conversation; it zealously capitalizes on it. The show’s writers don’t thoughtfully ponder these matters; they cut straight to the terror. I’m not criticizing that method as such. After all, it’s kind of the whole point of the show.

However, I note that the flawed unstated premise of this kind of sci-fi is the notion that there is anything static whatsoever about “what it means to be human.” There isn’t.

 

On the contrary, dwelling even for a moment on all the technological advances that took place in the 20th Century alone reveals the human condition to be constantly in flux vis-à-vis technology. Truly, the only thing more dynamic than the technology itself is our ability to adapt to it, to automatically and intuitively humanize the experience.

Indeed, there’s good reason to believe that the human mind is made for this. In a provocative essay called “Natural Born Cyborgs,” cognitive scientist Andy Clark argues that humans are “creatures whose minds are special precisely because they are tailor-made to mix and match neural, bodily and technological ploys.” As such, we need to give up “the prejudice that whatever matters about mind must depend solely on what goes on inside the biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull… this fortress has been built to be breached.”

In other words, if your phone feels like it is part of you, it’s precisely because it really is a part of you.

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Of course, it’s equally tone-deaf to assume that technology is a pure benefit to human society. Even worse is to deify technological progress into the very essence of human vocation, as imagined by the techno-capitalism of Christopher Nolan. In a review last month, I discussed how Interstellar positions itself vis-à-vis technological endeavor and its ugly sibling, environmental catastrophe. For Nolan and his staunch, intrepid characters, technology is synonymous with human destiny. The focus is not on the present but rather on pursuing the endlessly replicating Future ideal, as if one day we’ll hit a transcendent scientific moment, some splendid techno-nirvana of omniscience.

We see this attitude elsewhere at the movies this year. In the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, the preeminent scientific mind of our time is caught up in a wild good chase called theoretical physics. For Hawking, if not for the film itself, the core drama of our lives –love triangles, medical miracles, family, friendship, faith –are all quite pedestrian concerns compared to the majesty of the God particle.

In the film, a welcome but somewhat underdeveloped thematic tension emerges, which involves Stephen’s religious skepticism (contempt, one might say) bumping up against the Christianity of Jane, his wife. The resolution that the film gives us is lifted from the concluding sentence of Hawking’s famed work of scientific popularization, A Brief History of Time, namely that the unification of physics (i.e., a theory of everything) will enable us to “know the mind of God.”

The implication, of course, is that physics is in some twisted sense a spiritual project. In this connection, it’s worth observing the extent to which scientist-celebrities like Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson sometimes seem to carry the authority of priests.

But if this physics-as-God notion represents a certain emotional reconciliation between Stephen and Jane Hawking, it’s a superficial compromise for the rest of us. Philosophers and social critics have demonstrated for centuries the ultimately empty nature of pantheism and scientism. It was the grave mistake of utilitarianism and logical positivism to imagine that the truly important questions in our society –at minimum, why we treat one another the way we do– have anything whatsoever to do with the scientific method.

Perhaps the “God particle” concept is just another form of backward materialism, simply naïve to the fact that, by definition, God is not a particle.

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So where does this leave us?

To me, the most reasonable idea is to neither privilege nor decry the upheavals and distortions of telescoping technological progress, since ultimately its side-effects are mostly illusory. We fear things are changing too fast, but they’re not. We hope science will save us, but it won’t.

At most, technological development and scientific endeavor represent at most a separate and parallel track to the spiritual-ethical-social track that fans of sci-fi and pop-scientism frequently find themselves preoccupied with.

In other words, I’m suggesting that the technological is not nearly as bound up with the spiritual as Black Mirror and Stephen Hawking may assume or suggest.

 

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