In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We’ll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.
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Black Mirror has made a name for its searing and twisted portrayals of how technology could shape the world for the worse.
The series has won critical praise and obsessive fans for its depiction of how the tech ticks of today could become full blown afflictions tomorrow. However, the most recent series has left viewers dissatisfied and questioning whether the series has lost its edge.
One of the most recent episodes, Smithereens, seemed to prompt the question: where does Charlie Brooker think that all this nasty tech comes from? The episode’s (comically flimsy) premise is that protagonist Chris (played by Andrew Scott of ‘hot priest from Fleabag’ fame) is bitter at a Facebook styled social media platform because he blames its addictiveness for his wife’s death – having glanced at it when he was driving and crashing the car.
In the episode, Brooker has the opportunity to hold a Jack Dorsey-styled social media mogul to account – to interrogate how the platform has become what it is and why. But at this crucial moment, Brooker ducks out. The CEO is portrayed as an easy-going, man-bunned valley dude who haplessly wandered into the position of CEO, and whose product is now pretty much beyond his control, man.
It’s galling to see Brooker endorse this shrugging off of responsibility that has long characterised tech founders’ attitudes to the societal impacts of their products. Instead, the episode seems to embrace the idea of techno-determinism: that the evolution of technology is ultimately beyond humanity’s control, instead mutating and propagating at will. It’s a perception that’s grossly harmful, but which benefits the tech founders who routinely employ it to escape responsibility.
The huge stacks of data these platforms accrue on their users is also made a feature of the episode, but instead of highlighting the worrying nature of this sprawling surveillance network, the episode sees the platform use it for sort-of good, assisting – and remaining one step ahead of – the police with the criminal investigation at the heart of the episode.
The potential abuses of certain technologies have been well hashed by the series, but it’s true that the origin of these technologies and how they came to exert so much power, as well as an exploration of what kind of society would allow this, has generally been conspicuously absent. That Brooker shirked an optimum chance to right this, calls into question how radical the series has ever really been.