Monday, January 15, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Black Museum" ~ What If "Black Mirror" But Too Much?

SPOILER WARNING: This post covers "Black Museum" and several other elements of season 4 of Black Mirror. If you aren't caught up and don't want spoilers, please hang back from this post.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This episode hits upon a variety of issues that, though I consider them essential to the read of the story, I also consider myself unqualified to speak intelligently on. I recommend you read this piece and this piece to fill yourself in on the underlying social issues brought to light and critiqued. I am not ignoring them in my piece -- I just know that I am not the person to elucidate them properly.

As I mention in my note above, the overarching story presented by "Black Museum" is not one that I can necessarily give the proper weight to. In turning this piece over in my head, I realized that my choices were either to speak on it with the same level of authority as my previous pieces (uncalled for) or ignore it entirely (also uncalled for). My happy medium is the link above. And I deeply encourage any of you watching it to pursue further critiques on the racial issues presented in "Black Museum." There's a lot to take in, and much of it flies at us in the final minutes, but it's also inherent to the episode's structure.

While I don't consider myself an educated enough mouthpiece for that particular angle of it, I do note that there is a great deal going on in the story as relates to Brooker's work as a whole. Returning to the format of "White Christmas" -- three stand-alone stories inextricably linked and waiting until just the right moment to show us how -- we see a complicated web of issues emerge linking the rights of both humans and those that people aren't quite ready to call human without a few legal rulings in place first.

The Mirrorverse has evolved a bit since "White Christmas," though -- sentience is established based on the number of observable emotions a being is able to exhibit. And the fact that that's even a point reveals something that's been snuck up on us for four seasons now: there is a caste system in this world, and our understanding of it has grown at a fairly consistent pace despite the time period skipping around.

From Remakes to Ride-Alongs

Our first glimpse at any sort of artificial intelligent in Black Mirror was in "Be Right Back" -- the prescient story of a woman who recreates her late lover via his social media activity, only to discover that it's not him at all. As a stand-alone piece, it's a very straightforward observation on the concept of humans vs. their social media "characters" (for extra context, remember that Brooker has referred to Twitter as the world's largest MMO) and how what we share and craft for the outside world doesn't truly define us.

However, Ash Mk. II is also something more historic in terms of the series: he is Black Mirror's first AI. And despite the fact that he is an incomplete construction of someone else's life and lives to serve his lover, the show still humanizes him and begs empathy for him.

We first encountered truly complete copies of people in the form of the cookies of "White Christmas" -- both of them fully believing they are their source human and fully able to express joy, sadness, fear, pain, anger, and a whole slew of emotions. Too, both are subjugated by the same Ellisonian time dilation, driving them into madness for largely inhumane reasons.

Not until Season 3's "San Junipero" do we see any respect for a digitized life; and then, it is because said digitized life is the "source," the soul made data. Even so, in this case we are asked to empathize because they are The Actual Person continuing forward. As far as we know. We get a brief flash in "Hated in the Nation" that tells us that cookies are ruled (at least in Europe) to have human rights.

Then came Season 4, with more AI characters than we've seen yet. And here, where "White Christmas" left us to decide how we felt about the AIs' treatment (with a gentle prodding toward shocked disapproval), "USS Callister" handed us the show's truth: these digital copies of humans can think and feel and express, enough to be the audience-association characters, enough that the source humans become stooges in a side story.

"Hang the DJ" shoots out 2,000 thinking, feeling copies of humans to see if they'll get together all right. And finally, in "Black Museum," we confront whole new levels of digital beings' rights: forced into eternal pain, shaved off into smaller sentient copies who live in one-second pain loops, abandoned and unable to express anything but "happy" or "sad."

It's Nish who steps in and begins to make that change. For her father, yes, but she doesn't leave other innocents behind.

Even with the time-jumping nature of the show throughout an indefinite timeline, we see linear progress:

-- Digital beings are are scary vaguely humanish freaks, to
-- Digital beings seem to have feelings but whatever, to
-- Digital beings deserve respect but only if they used to be human (I guess), to
-- Digital beings have rights overall (I guess), to
-- Someone's gonna come kick your ass if you don't respect the digital beings.

Setting Them up to Knock Them Down

In "Black Museum," the world of the show finally has one villain-esque entity: Rolo Haynes, the owner of the Museum, neurological researcher, and all-round garbage fire of a human. As with Jon Hamm in "White Christmas," we get a sense quickly of just how many Black Mirror pies Haynes has indirectly had his fingers in. And, red-stringing it all together on the bulletin boards of our minds, he and others like him can be considered heavily responsible for the state of artificial intelligence in the show's world.

Fans were not slow to notice Haynes's familiar look. Despite the dissimilar features and the lack of that fabulous quiff, Haynes's look and wardrobe and role as tour guide through digital atrocities link him back strongly to showrunner and writer Charlie Brooker. In fact, it led some to believe that "Black Museum" was, rather than a takedown of modern racism, a takedown of Black Mirror audiences for eating up the dark material. One publication even called the episode Brooker's "cry for help" and wondered if he was still happy in his show.

Obviously, it's hard to make a choice like this accidentally; we can assume Haynes is a Brooker analogue completely on purpose, and made so by Brooker himself. But as a cry for help? As a judgment of his fan base? That seems unlikely.

The "why" is up in the air. Perhaps he needed a white male media mogul to place as bad guy, and realized the only one that wouldn't take him to court or hell for it was himself. Perhaps, as the creator of the shared universe, he is acknowledging his role as the arbiter of his characters' suffering. Perhaps he was having a laugh. All are equally possible with him.

But four seasons later, it all comes back to Haynes and his company. Something is unfolding here -- the life cycle of a digital (and digitized) society -- and we've watched it rise from feared to abused to pitied to fought for.

The metaphor is strong here. Of course. But the slow burn of this feels like a story slowly drifting to the surface. And while Black Mirror is absolutely a long-form morality play, Brooker is also a writer, and a lover of video games and science fiction. It wouldn't be shocking for him to play a long game.

It's not a certainty. It may just be an idea he's been toying with. Hell, he may not even be entirely aware that he's doing it; it, like many great ideas from great writers, may be finding its way to the page on its own. But just as Black Mirror is and has always been an episodic critique of the human condition, it's also shaping up to be a slow-burn story of the rise of the Digital Human.

Will it continue when (if) we see a Season 5? Were "Metalhead" and "Black Museum" our closing-out of the strange, doomed world of the series where people bend hard tech to their will and eventually pay the price? Or are we still on our way to seeing the full hybridization of humanity and technology in Brooker's world?

If we're going to find out, I hope we get word soon.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!