Capitalist Pig 4: Black Mirror, Grey Miasma of Bland Cultural Commentary


There is a moment in the first episode of Black Mirror, in which, in the midst of conjuring the future that is now our pigfucking reality, a character mentions that the Guardian has posted a brief column about the cultural significance of the pig. The script does not specify whether it is by Jonathan Jones, but it’s safe to assume that it is. Call it a headcanon, as the kids say on social media.

It’s a soft jab, to be sure, not least because Brooker is himself a Guardian columnist, offering such gripping insights as an unfunny ripoff of Jack’s “Tricky Dicky” series and this shitty thing about a German project to build an adaptive AI to play Super Mario World in which Brooker blatanty brainstorms for the forthcoming-to-Netflix twelve-episode third season of Black Mirror while demonstrating a complete lack of interest in any sort of material understanding of the technology he’s decided to undertake as his journalistic beat. Or perhaps more accurately a loving jab; after all, part of the heady genius of “The National Anthem” is the sublime coherence of its premise. In short, it works because the choice of fucking a pig is tremendously clever.

Well, no, that’s too simple. It works because it constrains itself to the world it’s set in. It’s still built largely out of satirical absurdism, but it keeps its excesses carefully chosen and strangely modest, and then follows them to a logical end. Put another way, it’s about a man who fucks a pig, but it takes its pigfucking seriously, not just following the premise to its inevitable and squealing conclusion but appreciably far past it as mass spectacle turns to mass horror and finally the same banal political reality that presumably preceded it.

The problem, to be blunt, comes when Black Mirror embraces technology, which it does with tedious half-heartedness. The second season episode “Be Right Back” is illustrative. In one sense it shares all the glimmering high points of “The National Anthem.” Its casting is impeccable - Haley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson are as good a leading pair as any show has ever had. It’s gleefully high concept, revelling in rural gothic iconography and cod-Frankenstein moments. It’s emotional and clever and well-done. And literally the only thing it has to say about the world is “social media’s kind of artificial, isn’t it?”

There are two problems here. The first is that Black Mirror, and indeed Brooker’s work in general, is irksomely non-materialist in its approach to technology. The aforementioned Mario AI column is instructive. Here’s the actual paper that inspired the article. What quickly becomes apparent here is the extent to which all of the enthused talk about how the AI “experiences basic emotions, is compelled to act by urges such as “hunger” and “curiosity”, and is painfully aware that he only exists within a meaningless two-dimensional artificial framework from which he can never escape,” in fact all that’s happened is that the researchers have come up with clickbait-friendly ways to describe the process of solving Mario. “Hunger” amounts to nothing more than “Mario should get coins.” “Curiosity” just means “Mario should default to wanting to go forward.” All they’ve done, in other words, is anthropomorphize the tactics involved in solving a Mario level and then turned an AI loose to learn the rules. The resulting decision tree, although the video suggests that it’s complex, honestly isn’t.

Now yes, of course Brooker is exaggerating for satirical effect, that being what he does as a satirist and all. But there’s a crucial and in many ways more important aspect that gets overlooked in the process, which is that for the most part AI hasn’t actually advanced particularly meaningfully from the days of ELIZA, there are very possible fundamental limits to our ability to understand and model this whole “consciousness” thing, and the entire edifice of the posthuman Singularity is likely to turn out to be as much crap as the edifice of space travel. The dystopian nightmare isn’t that Mario “learns that jumping on a Goomba (the scuttling mushroom enemies common to all Mario games) will cause it to die, thereby making him a self-aware murderer trapped in a cartoon world, his cheerful surroundings belying the achingly bleak nature of his existence.” It’s that party tricks like winning Jeopardy, playing Super Mario World, and identifying pictures of cats are all AI is ever going to do, and while the tricks might get gradually more impressive, the sense of them as gimmicky tricks will simply never alleviate.

Which might sound like a description of “Be Right Back,” which is after all about the fact that the computerized clone of Ash is an inadequate substitution, but in fact it makes the exact opposite and almost certainly entirely vapid point. As an AI, Ash is largely flawless. His natural language processing is superb and nearly instantaneous. He’s adaptive and capable of learning. He can correctly deduce complex emotional reactions. His gaps and failures are almost all visibly stupid - he’s apparently been programmed to have sex, but nobody thought to put an “act like you’re sleeping” routine in. His adaptiveness has seemingly arbitrary gaps. And this is explicitly blamed on the artifice of social media; on the idea that the selves we present online aren’t real. But even here Brooker is stupidly non-materialist: one of the things Ash specifically can’t do is get into a fight, which surely makes him literally the only person to have never left any sense of what they’re like when they’re angry on the Internet.

Surely it is not controversial to suggest that this is a bit shit. That a biting satire or a black mirror held up to society in the year 2013 could maybe stand to have something more to say than “we aren’t entirely honest about who we are on Facebook.” That “damn kids get off my lawn” is, simply put, just not a gripping point. Although frankly, banality is preferable to the 2014 “Black Mirror White Christmas” special, an appalling piece of sexism that everyone involved in should feel actively bad about themselves for making save arguably for Jon Hamm, who is at least just playing the sort of part he’s good at.

Where shall we even begin in trashing this? The comedy schizophrenic who engages in a nonconsensual murder-suicide pact because mental illness is funny amirite? The fact that its two main characters are a PUA and an abusive stalker, both of whom the story is visibly more interested in than any of their victims? The fact that a story whose central technological metaphor is porting the idea of blocking people on social media to real life, that groks the fact that these blocking tools are only partial solutions and that the people we block can still hurt us, that filmed pretty much at the apex of early Gamergate, and that is still first and foremost about sad white men and their fucking feels? Nah. Let’s just focus on the end, in which a violent abuser is tortured for all eternity at the hands of a female police officer whose only character trait is visibly “stone cold bitch.” I mean, Jesus fucking Christ, Charlie, if you’re going to write a script whose only visible trait is being completely fucking wrong about everything just get Jonathan Jones to do it.

In many ways this becomes one of those unfortunate points where the basic quality of the text starts to work against it. Because the truth is that even at its most infuriating Black Mirror is well-written, well-directed, and fucking amazingly cast. It’s a profoundly intelligent and well-made show except for one tiny little aspect of it, which is, you know, actually doing what the title demands of it and holding up a black and terrifying mirror to our society.

I mean, look, a world in which our late capitalist drive for growth at all costs is blatantly running against the fundamental resource limitations of the planet, where our insistence on the Protestant ethic remains a fundamental and inarguable part of political discourse despite the blatant reality that we in no way have enough work that needs doing, and where the efforts to produce enough work to maintain some semblance of the Protestant ethic is literally killing us all, a black mirror is not a fucking observation that we should look up from our phone screens or that it’s tough to be an abusive stalker.

And for one brief and squealing moment it seemed like we might get this; that Black Mirror might actually stare long and hard into the darkness and summon forth something that revealed the awful reality of the world. Indeed, for one moment, as the camera panned across the people watching the Prime Minister fuck a pig, their faces turning from amusement to horror at the awful carnality of it, it does just that.

And then it flinches, and we get a series about sad little manfeels. A bunch of Guardian columns brought to life, shambling around like the liberal consensus is going to save us from itself. It won’t, and Charlie Brooker’s clearly intelligent enough to realize that, but apparently his “satirical pessimism” (to quote Wikipedia) doesn’t actually extend comfortably past how these damn kids will never be as witty and insightful as he is. But then, perhaps that’s the real appeal of a black mirror: you can’t actually see anything in it, least of all the way the future is creeping up behind you, its teeth bared.


theshrunkenbeat 5 years, 2 months ago

"where our insistence on the Protestant ethic remains a fundamental and inarguable part of political discourse despite the blatant reality that we in no way have enough work that needs doing, and where the efforts to produce enough work to maintain some semblance of the Protestant ethic is literally killing us all"

I'd argue that is addressed in 15 Million Merits. Those exercise bikes are blatantly not hooked up to anything other than the points system.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

Fair, and also notably the only episode Brooker didn't write.

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Sean Dillon 5 years, 2 months ago

Looking on Wikipedia, I think you mixed up that one with the following episode, The Entire History of You. 15 Million Merrits was co written by Brooker and his wife.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

Well fair enough.

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Simon Kane 5 years, 2 months ago

I bet those bikes are supposed to be hooked up. If they weren't, not mentioning it once over ninety minutes or whatever it was seems a bit of a miss. I loved The Entire History of You but yes, every other overlong episode boiled down to just: "Aren't people awful?"
Also, I think it should have been the Queen fucking that pig. It would have made a nice companion piece to "Diana".

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David Anderson 5 years, 2 months ago

My headcanon for the real world is that Jones is an attempted parody of a snotty arts journalist cooked up by a group of art students who lack the self-awareness to know they're just as snotty themselves and the talent to actually be funny.

He is not nearly as interesting as Phil's description of him as 'completely fucking wrong about everything' makes him sound.

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Jack Graham 5 years, 2 months ago

This is the thing about Jones... he manages to be extravagantly, spectacularly wrong about everything yet also to be tedious. He's like Inspector Clouseau but not funny.

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Sean Dillon 5 years, 2 months ago

So Steve Martin.

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Aberrant Eyes 5 years, 2 months ago

"parody of a snotty arts journalist cooked up by a group of art students who lack the self-awareness to know they're just as snotty themselves"

Like when Joel Stein did a "Shouts and Murmurs" for The New Yorker, written in what I presume was meant to be the voice of a smugly narcissistic waiter, but which I found indistinguishable from the smugly narcissistic voice in which Stein writes his "The Awesome Column" for TIME magazine.

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Champiness 5 years, 2 months ago

Not to debate the contents of the article (though I would agree that, as mentioned in a comment above, "Fifteen Million Merits" at the very least seems to suggest a different vision of the show than the one painted here), but that title just strikes me as a parodically obvious put-down of the show. Like, the kind of thing you'd see the "snooty critic" archetype in a fictional work call Black Mirror in his plot-advancing put-down. Again, not a criticism - I'm just in awe of it. It's like an anti-blurb. "'Grey miasma of bland cultural commentary' - Phil Sandifer. Black Mirror, on Netflix now."

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Jarl 5 years, 2 months ago

"Phil Sandifer raves, 'Cultural Commentary'!"

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plutoniumboss 5 years, 2 months ago

Black Mirror is over-hyped.

And TV is reflexively unable to have a discussion about technology. Unless it's a magical surveillance system to catch criminals, it's evil and tearing society apart.

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encyclops 5 years, 2 months ago

Even then, right? I mean, The Dark Knight? The giant yawn that was Spectre?

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Anonymous 5 years, 2 months ago

"The comedy schizophrenic who engages in a nonconsensual murder-suicide pact because mental illness is funny amirite?"

Are you absolutely nuts? How could you watch that scene and think there was anything remotely comedic about it? I watched White Chirstmas with about half a dozen other people and everyone, including me, was pretty visibly horrified by that twist and not because it was making fun of the mentally ill or anything, but because it was pretty clearly played for straight horror. I urge you to rewatch it and if you pay attention to the music and the very realistic way all the characters react to what's going on, I don't know how you could think anyone was intended to laugh at the insane woman's actions.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

Irony of your phrasing this as "are you nuts" aside, the plot of this section is a comedy of errors: a series of miscommunications leading to a grotesquely exaggerated result. It's straightforward comedy, dark as the humor may be.

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Matt Moore 5 years, 2 months ago

Charlie Brooker is not a Marxist nor a radical and he is getting an avalanche of tongue baths at the moment. I have a more positive view of Black Mirror - and a more optimistic view of its future as television which I will briefly outline here.

Black Mirror oscillates uneasily between the political and the personal. Be Right Back is not so much a satire on social media use as an exploration of grief, memory and technology. If our technologies can keep our memories (lest we forget) - and indeed make them flesh - then is that necessarily good for us? The Entire History Of You is another look at memory and perception through the prism of jealousy. Neither are really satire as such.

When Black Mirror aims at social/political satire (The National Anthem, 15 Million Merits, White Bear*), a primary target is the complicity of audiences. The viewers tuning into watch the PM fucking a pig on TV; the bike riders gorging on talent shows, porn and fatty humiliation; the baying crowds of the White Bear Justice Park. The world is a terrible place because we all let it be that way. I get the sense that Brooker is both mesmerised and appalled by popular culture (esp. in its kitschy, prurient moralism).

In terms of a materialist view of the world, Brooker's previous work on Screen Wipe has been obsessed with demystifying the means of TV production - how choices get made, how unglamorous and tedious much of it all is, how much particular things cost and the petty hierarchies and status games that go on. In terms of his positioning of technology, I would suggest that it's not that he's unmaterialist, it's that he's happy to sacrifice logical consistency if it means he can get a clearer view of the emotional landscape he wants to explore (hey, who does that remind us of?)

Black Mirror is not wholly successful but it is attempting to explore ideas that few others in the mainstream are. I think the move to Netflix will be good for Brooker because he'll need a bigger writing team - which is an opportunity for a more diverse writing team. If the thinking goes "Lets really push the boundaries and hire Sam Bain or Chris Morris" then it's probably as screwed as that pig. As I'm currently watching "Master of None", I'm optimistic about Netflix's ability to make demands of Brooker and help him deliver the goods.

*I haven't watched White Christmas because its not available on Netflix Australia. I haven't watched The Waldo Moment because I've heard it's a bit rubbish.

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