by Lauren Thompson
For so long we've believed that technology is a way of taking back control in our lives. This series begs the question: is rejecting technology the new way of taking back control?
The Cold Touch
In 1995, astronomer and author Clifford Stoll foreshadowed our scepticism regarding the role of technology and the internet in our lives. His book ‘Silicon Snake Oil’ - and its accompanying article in Newsweek - contains many predictions that turned out to be laughably untrue; however the conclusion to his infamous howler hits the nail on the head in more ways than one:
‘What's missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who'd prefer cybersex to the real thing?’
Twenty-four years on, the neatly packaged fifth series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a call and answer to Stoll’s unwavering distrust of digital progress. In his new three-episode rolodex of cautionary tales for the digital age, Brooker explores the use of familiar technologies like VR, social media, and voice recognition devices, giving the show a contemporary feel that is eerily close to our reality.
Black Mirror’s fifth instalment opts for a more intimate and character-focused angle. Chris, played as a spectacularly ticking time bomb by Andrew Scott in the series’ second episode Smithereens, shares a frustration many of us feel at the addictive nature of social media apps. He feels shame and guilt over their control over him, and their effect on his life and relationships.
This loss of control speaks to modern anxieties around technology, echoing those of Stoll in 1995. For so long we've believed that technology is a way of taking back control in our lives. This series begs the question: in a society that relies on everything from digital calendars, alarm clock apps and photo albums, is rejecting the pull of technology and social media the new way of taking back control?
The rise of mindfulness, and the growing popularity of tech & social media detoxes, seems to suggest so.
Retreat to Reality
In the episode’s opening scene, Chris practices guided meditation through an app - on his phone, only to be interrupted by a notification. It is a moment that seems to encapsulate the overarching issue of the story. Whilst apps, social media, phones, technology facilitate our lives in many ways, they often end up taking us out of the moment.
Twitter co-founder & CEO Jack Dorsey famously participated in a ten-day silent retreat in Myanmar last year. Criticised for his problematic and tone-deaf promotion of the country, a similar absentmindedness is displayed in Brooker’s fictional chief of social media site Smithereen, Billy Bauer. Himself on a 10-day retreat when one of his employees is taken hostage by Chris, he answers the latter’s demand to speak.
The chasm between the two characters is palpable. Chris is a working-class rideshare driver whose job may someday be replaced by automated vehicles, the technology being pioneered by tech companies just like Bauer’s. He is so far-removed from his product’s users, meanwhile, that he requires prompting to know how to respond to the tragic experience that confronts him.
Blinded by the Light
Much like Stoll’s piece, many publications have been quick to write off Smithereens as an overtly preachy PSA on the evil of social media apps. Perhaps they are missing the bigger picture. Chris expresses a boredom many of us can resonate with, a compulsion that drives him to check his phone every ten seconds even while driving, whether he was being notified of anything or not. This fear of missing out is what drives so much of our need to share, update, and refresh.
Tech companies know exactly how to keep our eyes glued to screens. They know how to do so in a way that maximises profit for advertising; minimises our time; and nullifies our attention spans. Meanwhile, we continue to open apps and scroll mindlessly through endless reams of content.
As Stoll remarked,
‘While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where—in the holy names of Education and Progress—important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.’
Interaction and engagement are monetised. People share their highlight reels as a means of shaping their personal brand. Scrolling social media in a quest for authenticity and finding staged perfection, it’s no wonder countless connections have been made between the rise in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders amongst young people and social media.
With a growing societal awareness of the power and influence tech companies hold, shady data policies included, Smithereens highlights the objections people are beginning to have with social media companies, as well as the moral grey area they inhabit.
While Stoll’s predictions were just that, Brooker’s newest instalment serves as more of a bleak observation of what is already coming to pass. But while the future is inevitable, can we be sure the pale glow of our electronic screens will light the way?