Back in July, my colleague Paul Noonan wrote a stand-out blog on the philosophies of Jean Baudrillard. He (Jean, not Paul) is famous for his prophecies of electronic media influencing our reality as they become more pervasive. It’s a fabulous read, so do flick back before I go on.
The past week has brought this subject back to the top of my mind thanks to the release of series three of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi horror series charting dystopian near-futures that have a tendency to come true slightly too soon, a bit like The Thick Of It’s predictions of community banks and silicon playgrounds. The show is heavily indebted to the ideas produced by Baudrillard, giving us a sneak peek of a future made up of a “digital illusion” that is “rapidly colonising and controlling our lives.”
In his blog, Paul mentions a “mind-reading” wrist device that monitors electrodermal response, movement, blood pressure and skin temperature, all to understand the emotional state you are in. Sensing when it gets too high or low, it nudges you towards behaviours that will help control your emotions, using knowledge of past calming situations. Technology that understands your emotional states forms the basis of episode two in the new Black Mirror series, “Playtest”, theorising what would happen if you paired such technology with a VR horror game. As one can easily predict, the consequences are not happy, and raise the question posed by Baudrillard regarding what does constitute reality, and how on earth we should tell the difference. It’s terrifying and brilliant.
Episode one, “Nosedive”, takes the concept of Uber ratings one step further and applies them to everyday life; all interactions are rated, from the chat with your local barista to checking in at the airport. Paul himself has first-hand knowledge of bad ratings; an unhelpful friend once ordered a series of taxi rides on his phone that didn’t end well, driving his rating down. For weeks after, he was regularly left standing by the wayside as Uber drivers refused to pick him up. The echo chamber of Twitter too prioritises reputation over content; in my first job in PR I was told “you know you’ve made it on Twitter when you have more followers than the amount of people you follow.” These brave new world of ratings reeks of classist undertones, and the episode plays on this brilliantly.
The question I always come back to when watching Black Mirror is, will it really happen? Despite the evidence of the above (and this brain-upload concept reported on this week, which is nearly identical to episode four, “San Junipero”) I try to be optimistic. Surely by virtue of watching and enjoying such shows, we’re gathering enough knowledge to avert the future they predict? Isn’t forewarned forearmed?
But then pessimism sets in. As I write this Paul has reiterated to me a founding idea of Baudrillard’s: that media – both print and digital – is a magic mirror, creating reality rather than reflecting it. And I can’t help but feel that this is true. This week, The Guardian’s long read series published an article called “Revenge of the Tabloids”, charting the influence that these papers may have had over the past eighteen months of electoral turmoil. Polls and broadsheet commentators were left stunned by the Conservative majority of May 2015 and the vote to leave the EU in June 2016. Yet these were two things the tabloids had campaigned for relentlessly, throwing fact – and therefore reality – by the wayside in the process. Was it really “The Sun wot won it”?
As Michael Gove infamously said, we’ve all apparently had enough of experts, much like “The Waldo Moment” from series two. Yet it is quite easy to replace the word “experts” with “reality”. Dishearteningly, this alternative to reality seems to be gaining traction, an alternative that, according to Black Mirror, doesn’t seem to have much promise.
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