Design and Tech.Co
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Design and Tech.Co

Black Mirror, Hot Media, Cool Universe

Black Mirror dramatically illustrates the hot media conditions of the 24/7 spectacle. Image from “Hot and Cool Media,” two panels, printed and stretched canvas. 4’ x 5’. Image created by Barry Vacker, Julia Hildebrand, and Sara Falco, 2019; used as part of our mixed-media art exhibit at the University of Toronto.

From the first moment we saw the white circular icon spinning against the black void followed by the shrill tone and the TV series title fracturing the screen, Black Mirror has been treating us to the collision of humans with humans and humanity with its existence—via proliferating media technology. Known as a “throbber,” the pulsing icon suggests active circuitry connecting networks beyond the screen. Energies are flowing, events are happening, and existence is unfolding. Humans are close together, galaxies are far apart, and electronic screens are in between us and everything else, with the spectra of electric light flowing through the screens into our eyes, into our consciousness. The screens are black, the lights are bright, and the media are hot, shielding humans from the dark cool beyond.

In Black Mirror’s fractured screen openings and numerous episodes, we see the ultimate conditions we face as a species, as brainy beings on a tiny planet in a vast and majestic cosmos. Black Mirror reveals the existential conditions of a radically novel theory of media for the 21st century — the theory of hot and cool media. This theory connects social media with space telescopes to reveal the vastly different effects of media technologies, all dependent upon the direction of the gaze and the object on the screen.

Fractured Screens, Global Collision

The fractured screen and plotlines of Black Mirror point toward the underlying conditions of our 24/7 media spectacle, a world first theorized by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. McLuhan was a key thinker in the field of media studies who understood and pointed to the profound effects of media technologies in our lives. For example: McLuhan essentially predicted the World Wide Web thirty years before it was invented. He also used the term “the matrix” long before Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity battled it in The Matrix. Moreover, he coined a term which you may have heard elsewhere before: the global village. The global village is what we live in today; it is the environment for virtually all of the Black Mirror episodes. But what did he mean exactly?

McLuhan realized that we have effected an electronic media environment that spans our planet, making instant communication possible. Via images and information traversing the globe, we are brought closer together. Think about this concept for a moment. The “global village” is instant communication, as if face-to-face, yet spanning the planet. Face-to-face, as in a village, yet connected on a global scale.

Importantly, the global village is not a utopian state of society. It is fission, not fusion. While we get closer to each other, we also become more involved in each other’s lives. We start to live in utmost proximity to each other. And what happens when people and things are too close? Friction, fights, frustration. We rant, react, rewind. As with the local village, we organize into tribes. The tribal is the universal for hot media.

In the global village, everything happens simultaneously everywhere. Thus, the on-screen collision of ideas, images, people, things, and events, all linked and simultaneously visible on local, national, and global scales. The global village is a perpetual collision. No wonder we seek refuge in tribes.

Hot Shot and Hot Media

As most people know, social media are filled with “hot takes” — instant reactions to events, people, moments, and controversies. It’s all about us and we’re the center of everything, the center of all meaning, value, and purpose. The term “hot take” echoes one of McLuhan’s concepts from the 1960s. He develop a hot-cool binary based on how much information is provided in a medium and how much cognitive involvement is needed when processing and engaging with it. Though McLuhan’s hot-cool binary was poetic, it soon broke down with the proliferation of computers and electronic screens — laptops. tablets, mobile phones, and various HD and plasma screens.

However, the concepts of “hot” and “cool” have considerable power when reformulated for the 24/7 environments of the 21st century — those filled with the black mirrors of electronic screens. The significance is not in the amount of information on the black mirror but in the direction of the gaze. Hot media are those that promote an inward gaze among the human species, with the viewing subjects and viewed objects in close proximity to each other. In effect, the black mirrors are for viewing everyone, with light flowing through and generating reflections and reactions. Thus, hot media are a world with a higher density of humans, energy, events, and higher friction. With things in close proximity, even on a screen, images and events rub, collide, or smash directly against one another. It’s a full-spectrum collision on our screens and in our consciousnesses.

Hot media conditions are perfectly expressed in “Fifteen Million Merits,” the second episode in the first season of Black Mirror. Abi and Bing are trapped in a world of screens, of colliding images, of hot media symbolized by the reality TV show Hot Shot. Rejected on Hot Shot, Abi turns to online porn, while Bing remains trapped in a world where hot takes are the only possible action.

Hot media dominate virtually all the episodes of Black Mirror, especially “National Anthem,” “The Waldo Moment,” “Nosedive,” “White Christmas,” and “Arkangel.” Moving at the speed of light, hot media fuel acceleration, quick reactions, short attention spans, and instant feedback loops. Temperatures are higher, and tempers are hotter. Hot takes and hot media rule. Isn’t that the meaning of the meltdown in Nosedive?

The heat of the gaze cuts directly into the ego, which is why “social media” are really “ego-media,” with humans gazing upon humans—the endless antics and tribalization of our species. As Julia Hildebrand and I wrote in a previous Medium essay (Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene):

Hence, heat and friction also lie in our global layers of ego-media, giant clusters of networks and webs, all jammed with ever more contents and contexts. Platforms, websites, services, affordances. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix. Social media sharing, caring, shaming, connecting. Hashtags and emojis, clickbait and catfishers. Hot takes, hive-minds, eHarmony. YOLO. Tinder love, tribal chieftains, Internet trolls, TV realities, Twitter gods. Fake news, false flags, and filter bubbles. FOMO. Cute cat videos and candy crushes. LOL. Meming and mining. Copies of copies of copies. Reduce, remix, redact. Colliding echo chambers. Siri and Alexa. Firewalls and border walls. Breaking news, Streetviews, Times Square. Screens and screening. TSA, NSA, MI6, MSS. Governments, corporations, and capitalism. Democracy, socialism, and fascism. Arab Spring. Occupy. Women’s March. #MeToo. Superheroes, Super Bowls, and World Cups. Empowerment, domination, entertainment, distraction. Tribe rubs against tribe. Proximity, friction, and heat in hot ego-media.

Are these not the very conditions of our 24/7 media spectacle? We gaze upon screens and scroll with our fingers, navigating a total media environment, with images and information flooding toward us nonstop, a world imploding upon us. The shrill tone at the opening of Black Mirror, followed by the fractured screen — that’s the world of hot media. The only way to chill things is to adopt the cool media gaze.

The Chill of Cool Media

Cool media are technologies with mostly an outward gaze, peering away from humans, with objects further apart or moving away from us. Cool media include telescopes, satellites, and space probes. Planet Earth is below us and the starry skies are beyond us, while the voids are expanding, and the galaxies are speeding away. Though filled with information, cool media confront lower densities, lower friction, and more distant or remote events. There is less light and more cosmic darkness. Temperatures are lower, tempers are cooler, and the mind wanders and wonders. We soon realize we’re not the the center of the universe, not the center of everything. We’re the center of nothing. That is the ultimate chill for the human species.

The epitomy of “cool media,” the Hubble Space Telescope has helped reveal an awe-inspiring universe of two trillion galaxies stretching across 100 billion light years. Image courtesy, NASA; in the public domain.

With cool media, we are forced to view ourselves through the eyes of our species, to see our existence as a species as sharing a planet, not merely as individuals and tribes vying for recognition and domination of our planet. Via all the Hubble images on our screens, our daily existence collides with our cosmic existence, inhabiting a tiny region in a vast universe in which we are not central. As Julia and I wrote (in Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene):

In the cool gaze, events slow, attention spans grow, reflection trumps reaction, the species supersedes the tribe, borders and wars become artificial and absurd. Micro-particularities and hot affective conditions are not visible, but large-scale patterns, movements, and locations become more apparent. The more distant, aerial, and heightened perspective — beyond the thick, hot, reactive layers closer to us — opens up larger views and visions. Google Earth, Hubble Deep Fields, Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The cosmic web of galaxies, in a universe getting less crowded by the moment, with all galaxies are destined to disappear beyond all horizons. […] Voids, holes, and emptiness in outer space and our philosophies become visible. We are the center of nothing. Nihilism and enlightenment are the challenge. The universal over the tribal. Terrestrial heat replaced by the cosmic chill. There are no widely-accepted politics or political narratives in the cool. Hot politics freeze in the cosmic background temperature.

Obviously, hot and cool media can overlap. For example, we see Hubble images in Twitter and Instagram, while Google Earth can be both hot and cool, getting hotter the closer it zooms into Maps and Streetview but getting cooler the further it zooms out to show Earth floating against the blackness. With hot media, humans are the center of everything, while cool media show us to be the center of nothing. Hot media dominate human life on the planet, while cool media show us to be temporary and insignificant life forms in an ancient and awe-inspiring universe. Facebook, Twitter, and social media are the spectral and existential counters to the Hubble Space Telescope, making us feel special and meaningful amid the cosmic emptiness and loneliness.

Black Mirror in the Cool Universe

So far, cool media plotlines are almost nonexistent in Black Mirror. The closest we get is “USS Callister,” where a demented would-be Captain Kirk rules a video game universe, only to be overthrown and left floating in the cosmic void of endless digital oblivion. But, the Captain’s fate symbolizes the great existential challenge posed by cool media.

Cool media, such as the Hubble telescope, pose the paradox of our greatest intellectual achievement: We have discovered a vast and ancient cosmos in which we are insignificant and perhaps meaningless. Famed philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard believes this is “the sole serious question to face humanity today” and that by comparison, “everything else seems insignificant.” Referring to the fact that the sun will burn out in four billion years, Lyotard writes: “The sun, our earth and your thought will have been no more than a spasmodic state of energy, an instant of established order, a smile on the surface of matter in a remote corner of the cosmos.” Yes, we are brainy and tiny, brave and creative enough to discover that the expanding universe contains two trillion galaxies and untold numbers of planets and life forms. Given the recent emergence of the Anthropocene (the human epoch), climate disruption, and a possible sixth extinction event, we’re desperately in need of a new universal narrative that connects us to the planet we inhabit and universe from which we evolved.

In the cool media conclusion to White Christmas: the Zed-Eye blocks out humans, but reveals the origins of the universe.

In the conclusion to “White Christmas,” Matt faces one of most striking and profound fates in science-fiction history, rivaling anything that’s come from Hollywood. As penalty for Matt’s social media voyeurism, the electronic “Zed-Eyes” are activated to block anyone from seeing Matt or vice versa. With the electronic blockage, all Matt sees are outlines of others while others only see his outline — the equivalent of full absorption and utter disappearance. The electronic outlines are filled with pixelated white space spotted with dark specks, not unlike the static on television screens — the very static produced (in part) by the same background radiation confirming the expansion of the universe. As stated on NASA’s website: “Turn your television to an ‘in between’ channel, and part of the static you’ll see is the afterglow of the big bang.” For Matt, hot media are blocked, and all that’s left is the cosmic chill of cool media. Instead of viewing people, all Matt can view is the origins and the destiny of the expanding universe — expanding for 13.7 billion years and stretching almost 100 light years across.

Charlie Brooker: Where’s the Cool Media Episode?

There’s a deep horror inside Black Mirror — the collision of humans and their existence within total media environments, where bright lights buffer us from the infinite dark beyond. The truth is that we may have not evolved as much as we think, have failed to find any true significance beyond tribes and consumption, been unsuccessful at any universal meaning for our existence despite all images and information showing up in Technicolor on our glowing black mirrors. Exploring a true cool media narrative provides a great aesthetic opportunity for Charlie Brooker and the writers of Black Mirror. Ultimately, we must embrace the full meaning of the non-binary, the static that Matt himself faces forever. We can’t block out the starry profusion forever and hope to survive, no matter how much we surround ourselves with bright lights and black mirrors. That’s the ultimate meaning of Black Mirror’s fractured screen, the icon for our age of hot media.


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Barry Vacker

Barry Vacker

Theorist of big spaces and dark skies. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.