A new season of “Black Mirror” just dropped on Netflix, and it’s worth your time. Liberalism is ahead of conservatives when it comes to technological nightmares, perhaps because it invests more in redefining America (and the world) in light of scientific advancement. All the things we fear about technological powers taking control of human life are available for the curious viewer to ponder, as the show aims to describe our humanity by its most agonizing characteristic: our individuality.
That’s the problem we want to fix, the tragic knowledge that each of us will inevitably, but unpredictably, die. We cannot forget it, and we don’t know how to deal with it.
Maybe this future is so scary precisely because it reduces humanity to our individual fates. The implication is moralistic: we are human while at the same limits apply to all of us. If we use technology to break through those boundaries, we have nothing left in common. And that would open the floodgates to wickedness. We might not think ourselves all of a kind anymore, with reciprocal duties and rights, or even mutually comprehensible. If technological powers are there to explore our nature, we will find our nature unredeemed, incapable of grace, atheistic, and destructive.
In each episode of “Black Mirror,” individuality turns out to be a trap.
Each episode also assumes this is the new normal and that it is more or less self-sustaining. It’s a libertarian future, driven by tech, but a nightmare only for a chosen few. Everyone else gets on with life; sheep untroubled by the new reality. Only tragic individuals are interesting. The whole purpose of the show seems to be to re-elevate tragedy to its rightful place in our lives. Most critics have compared “Black Mirror” to “The Twilight Zone,” but the show goes far beyond Rod Serling’s morality plays.
Tragedy is Villainy
The new season starts with symbols of patricide and matricide and a mention of the most famous tragic hero, Oedipus, the first character in poetry to claim kingship because of his knowledge of human nature. All these characters caught in catastrophes not of their design are his children. Tragedy is now villainy. In fact, since the storytelling suggests these are particular expressions of a general situation, we can all be tragic heroes—most of us just didn’t get caught in catastrophic series of events.
So let’s look at the sociology and politics of the story. It’s full of strange details. Almost all of the new season’s protagonists are female—surely no accident. It’s hard to talk about social classes in futuristic terms, but some things are obvious: this is a show for and about successful classes—those who are part of the tech future. It’s important to learn about the fears of tech and the insecurity of lonely people because the rhetoric of “Black Mirror” is far likelier to get through to the Netflix audience than any anti-liberal or anti-libertarian screed.
Tragedy might create the basis, as storytelling is concerned, for a new sense of what people have in common. Our secret fears are revelations of things we do not wish to know about ourselves. Once we understand this, we can begin to look past the shallow arguments that so absorb public press and learn to see something deeper—fundamental truths about who we are as Americans and as human beings.
The first source of contemporary tragedy is medicine. The powers we use to protect our lives are not entirely compatible with the human character of our lives. In part, that means that medical powers create new vulnerabilities and new weapons at the same time that they improve health. But in part, it’s because they make us think that, to be ourselves truly, we should be utterly in control of our lives. There is always a temptation to get more out of life. To leave less to chance and to assert our will more.
The importance of medicine is its ultimately democratic character. Life is life for all human beings. We’re all mortal and we all are part of a miracle of medicine that’s both historically recent, previously unimaginable, and radically uncertain concerning its future. In the midst of health and longevity unlike anything we’ve known in history, we are apparently haunted by nightmares. We are flesh and blood beings, we have that in common, but we are haunted by something—or else shows like “Black Mirror” would have no audience.
What we loosely call information technology is the second source of our contemporary tragedy. You can think of this as acquiring all possible knowledge about the actions of human beings. Ultimately, this is a replacement for politics.
Politics is a thing of the past, where human beings act in essentially adversarial ways. What’s characteristic of politics is that people who agree on what’s good and worthwhile nevertheless have to become enemies because of their limits—borders, for example, the limits of political communities. Different countries are natural enemies, but beyond politics, we’re all the same, without those limits, and without countries. None of these stories take place in a specific community. They’re as global as hotel chains or worldwide apps.
This brings us to our liberalism, as opposed to our democracy. Liberalism is constituted by our deep belief that each one of us harbors a secret that cannot be uttered. That secret is our private life, our privacy, ultimately our self or soul.
Even in an age when we’re supposed to be the same or equal, we still have protagonists and in some way hope we’re each the protagonists of our lives. Science is what tempts our liberal individualism. Why not download your soul into a machine? This is how we go through the looking glass—the black mirror of the title—and find out terrifying secrets about ourselves, above all that we cannot live alone.
The combination of democratic concern for life and liberal concern for individual choice or self-expression describes all these stories, but does not yet explain why they’re supposed to be tragic, why they’re supposed to have villains and shocking deeds. The answer, each time, is that the burden of humanity is too great for any one of us to bear.
Forced by circumstances to bear it, we become inhuman. Tempted by power, we become corrupted. Wickedness, however, now comes as a surprise, because we think we’re all supposed to be good. Who among us admits to being bad or evil?
You Get What You Deserve
So we see that for all the ideas or tech on display, the only real question is justice. What justice is there left in a world where people blindly chase their fantasies or try to escape their fear of death by projecting onto the black mirrors of their technological power, getting what they think they want only to learn to their horror that it’s not what they thought? Poetic justice—that’s the only justice left, the only way to make sense of that world. This strange future completely bereft of divine providence retains one attribute of the divine: wrath.
This, then, is an intensely moralistic form of storytelling. The last sure thing in a world of unceasing, unpredictable change is getting what you deserve. “Black Mirror” is either a matter of telling you that you learn by suffering, which was the typical phrase of Greek tragedy, or that you’re fated, which seems to be the consensus opinion among tragic heroes. Who we are, an audience of tragedy, or protagonists of it, might or might not be for us to choose.
Not all the stories are tragic. Deserving something good or getting something good isn’t intended to be impossible. At least at its best, “Black Mirror” is neither nihilistic nor intent on shocking people’s humane expectations. Whether the show gives us a near-future version of how we live or just a tech-based disguise for our everyday life, it’s an achievement: it dramatizes the every day until the moral seriousness involved in our technological opportunity and dangers becomes a matter of urgency.
It leads us to a non-polemical, nonideological understanding of the psychology that underlies the big political conflicts of our times. That’s where we have to go to understand the strange mutations of identity politics and the possibility of a liberal-libertarian convergence, a Silicon Valley-D.C. alliance, that would seclude itself from the rest of America to leave out tech-based fantasies and nightmares.