Black Mirror: subjectivity and technology in “The Entire History of You”

Toby Kebbel in Black Mirror

Hello, earther. This article is basically a huge philosophical trip about human relations and the use of technology nowadays, all extracted from “The Entire History of You”, as showed in Black Mirror.

But of course, what the heck is Black Mirror? Well, it’s a tv anthology series created by a guy named Charlie Brooker, with its first season launched in 2011. Right now, Netflix got the rights of production and a third season with thirteen episodes is coming this year, while the first two seasons have three episodes each. Each episode tells a different story, set in the same universe, basically about life dramas, all surrounded by an interesting technological environment, showing what we, as humans, can do with the things we create. So, it’s not an anthem against technology, it’s very important to understand this: Black Mirror is about the misuse of technology. It’s on us if we spend too much time on the internet, if we bully other people through social media, if we share intimate pictures of a person that doesn’t gave us the permission to do, and other things like that. Not about luddism, sir.

The Entire History of You tells the story of a man called Liam that, through a device capable of recording every second of his life, starts to think that his wife, Ffion, has an affair. The device is a usual thing here, just like cellphones are today, and people use it for many reasons, with the main goal to keep all the memories. A tiny piece of future inserted behind the ear of it’s owner, that can literally record everything you see. Deep shit.

Ah, it’s a spoiler free review, in case you’re wondering!

Uncomfortable situations and Emile Durkheim

You’re fired. Smile!

We know that there’s a tendency for humankind to pay more attention to bad aspects, to criticize and point the flaws than to look for the good aspects. Imagine that you could rewind all the uncomfortable situations that you’ve been through, and ask yourself: what did I do wrong? An example that happens in this episode is when Liam, the main character, is dismissed from his job, in such a very polite and dubious way that he keeps replaying it to try to make sense of that. The sensation that everything is being recorded very often shows that people are being phony, fake, to try to make things “lighter” to deal. We do this a lot, imagine if we have such a device. I also kept thinking: what if a person a few steps from depression had a thing like that device? It would be dangerous, just to say the least; there’s a lot of pressure and problems with self-steem in our society, and you don’t necessarily has to have depression to keep wondering.

In a moment, Liam forgets the name of his wife’s friend, and to remember it he just needed a click to check out the moment that he first heard the friend’s name. Sometimes we’re just being polite, like when we’re offering something, and it’s up to the person to realize that’s just it: politeness. You can see that in the episode, not in the moments when people are being polite but also when they’re avoiding uncomfortable situations. It’s a “plasticity” that we forge to live in society.

Talking about plasticity, the episode reminded me of Emile Durkheim’s social facts concept. In case somebody doesn’t know what it is: social facts are coercive and general things, that works from the outside to each individual, a common behavior, ways of acting, thinking, celebrating and such. Like getting married, celebrating birthdays, those types of things. Even if you’re an atheist you’re going to celebrate christmas with your family, aren’t you? That’s right, celebrating christmas, despite you think about the meaning of it or not, it’s such a coercive social situation that even the most brutal atheist will eat some turkey in that special day. Economy rushes, stores and homes get all bedecked, families unite.

Observing like an outsider, it feels that when you know that everything you’re doing is being recorded, social facts tend to feel more and more coercive. This is so true that even in the aesthetics of the episode we can see that everything is extremely clean, uptight, a perfect environment boxed in social facts and cutting edge technology. Almost everybody acts like a perfect individual. Think about all the things you do, not because you really wanted to, but because it was expected from you. Going to med school to praise your parents, for example.

Of course, even with all of this plasticity, nothing can bend the drama and the conflict that humankind makes, and it happens here in this episode: lack of trust and paranoia.

Public vigilance — discipline power and social control

There’s an example of public use of the memory device right in the beginning of the episode. Liam’s going to the airport and a security guard stops him, he has to show the guard his last 24 hours and a little bit more. That’s the new tactic for anti terrorism and other criminal matters that could happen if a dangerous person got into the airport. It’s not shown, but it’s implicit that this method of crime preventing it’s a usual thing, probably working in many other different social ambient. In Black Mirror, through the memory device, there are many possibilities of control, of vigilance. It’s not only about cameras around, authority and institutions, it’s a camera literally inside you. Think about that: even if you’re completely alone, you will still record what you’re doing, and a random police officer can demand it to see fast-forward. There’s a huge camp for cyber criminology studies here, because when the institutions get advanced, the criminal elements tend to be one step ahead.

So, talking about social control is talking about Michel Foucault. To him, in many different ways, society works as a chain of control. Almost everywhere, there’s a pre-established order, there’s some kind of authority, a center of power. Like in a classroom, for example, there’s a professor, a teacher, and students that should obey.

Our society work with many points of power and control, between two people, between the State and it’s people. Foucault says that this control is ready to make people “docile bodies”. In case somebody doesn’t know what a docile body is:

  • “Discipline manufactures submissive and exercised bodies, docile bodies, which are based on efficient gesture. It increases the force of the body in economic terms of usefulness and decreases those same forces, in political terms of obedience.” — Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Basically, be a useful, obedient and non-rebel citizen. Reminds me of an interesting phrase recently spread here in Brazil: “Forget about the crisis, work”. Because of course, people here apparently never worked our asses out before. It’s just to make us forget about the corruption of our government.

There’s some kind of power exercised on us that makes us more socially productive. We can see in The Entire History of You. Sometimes your privacy will be overrun by the public necessity of control, like in the airport. The thing is: the fragile line between your privacy and this public necessity, a matter of considering constitutional principles. What is more important, your intimacy or the possible criminal situation?

About public and private use, there’s a really interesting situation in the episode. Liam starts his car but he is completely drunk, and there’s a voice that comes from the device, after analyzing the situation, saying that he should not drive in that condition. Unfortunately, he ignores the warning. It would be useful for society if this technology could actually stop you from driving, if you were so drunk. I mean, we have freewill, but if you use your freewill to do something illegal it’s other thing. In this case, observing the episode, the private use overruns public usefulness. Of course, it’s his car, and society here decided that it’s better for the person to use it’s property and to respond to the consequences that may come with it.

Search for perfection

We do this a lot, but with the help of a cutting-edge device, imagine the possibilities of giving a damn about any detail you’ve seen, ever! There is a scene where Ffion, the wife, is with some old friends and one of them is showing the others how awful it is to have a scratch in his carpet. He says he paid good money to have the perfect details in his suite.

There are many situations in life that being a perfectionist it’s a good thing, it’s useful. At work, at your studies, with your family’s needs and caring for your friends. Those things are worth trying to be perfectionist. But if you step in the misuse that I said in the beginning, think about the outcome. There are many models of perfection in our society, physical, psychological.

We receive tons of this in a daily bases, and it rushes our craving for perfection. If you go to Instagram you’re going to find millions of people with beautiful pics, parties, amazing landscapes and such. We don’t usually see people posting things that would make them feel more… Normal, I guess. Physical imperfections like pimples, a bad smile and things like that nobody wants to put on the internet. I wouldn’t, for sure, but there’s always that ugly pic someone took of you when you weren’t seeing.

We see in the magazines how we should look. People make surgical interventions to try to like what they consider to be beautiful, to be perfect. There are many examples to quote, just pick one. I guess the main goal it’s to find a balance between what’s useful and what’s paranoid.

Technology and normality

In the same table that Ffion, Liam and some friends are having a meal, there’s a woman that doesn’t have the device and there’s another that works in the company that provides the device. The company woman makes it clear that she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to not have one those devices. Like I keep saying, there’s a pattern in society. The woman with no device-behind-the-ear it’s an element out of this usual pattern.

Who doesn’t have Facebook? It’s a usual thing to participate of this social media. Forty five percent of Brazil’s population uses facebook, and worldwide, there’s 1.65 billion facebook users. That’s a lot of people. I read an article that described this normality with technology like a “phantom limb”: when you don’t have it, you can still feel it, and misses it. When you’re in a place that doesn’t have wifi, for example.

I don’t participate of all of the social media, but I recall when I wasn’t in WhatsApp. I was completely out of my friends online conversations. Using technology to relate with people it’s a reality, sometimes a creepy one, but it’s how it’s. Again, it’s about the way we use the technology, not because we created it.

Technology and intimacy

Liam and Ffion had a fight, but they had sex after that. If you watched it, you know how creepy and mechanical it looked like. If you haven’t seen it, just put it on google (not a spoiler). They’re not in the mood, they have a problem in their relationship that they need to solve, but it’s easier to look in the past to put the memory of their best sex in their minds. It’s an escape from reality. Again: misuse!

At the same time that technology makes who’s far, closer, we need to be careful to not get far from who is next to us. There’s an author called Zygmunt Bauman that wrote a book called “Liquid Love”. I didn’t finished the reading, but he explores the fragility of human relations in modern society, and it’s very interesting. Put technology in the equation and you have another world of debatable topics.

In the scene they’re practically masturbating, watching porn; they’re just physically connected, but their minds are completely away. A thing that should create a connection is actually making them more alone. We are copying the way that we deal with technology (it’s fast, quick, easy, practical) in our humans interaction. To just reach an orgasm it’s easier than to fix years of trust and confidence. As people say, it takes years to build trust, and only seconds to destroy. Ctrl C+Ctrl V it’s way practical.

Nietzsche’s construction of the truth

All of this episode is a quest that Liam’s making to find the truth: “is my wife cheating on me?”. Thinking about truth is thining about Nietzsche. To him, the truth is a construction, something that we build. Many times in our society we establish a truth, what’s right and what’s wrong, based on our culture, our history, our morals. Something that was wrong centuries ago can be a right thing in our century. But this quest is not like Bentinho in Dom Casmurro, a book by Machado de Assis, trying to find if Capitu cheated on him. We’re talking about a device that can shows a proof of what you’re searching for. Through the episode, Liam constructs his truth, based on those proofs, but the main conflict on this is what you’re capable of doing to find the truth. It’s kind of a macchiavellic thing to achieve, and there’s the option that you may not find what you want to believe.

  • What would you be capable of doing to find out something that you desperately want to know?

That’s the ultimate thought on this amazing episode of Black Mirror. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now!