The Ethical Reflections of Technofetishism in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

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“Without desire, there is no need of a scheming mind devising tools to possess an object.”

Alessandro Tomasi, “The Role of Intimacy in the Evolution of Technology”

All too quickly the technologies of science fiction, like those imagined in the British TV anthology Black Mirror, turn into technologies of science fact as humanity continues in its love affair with the inextricable machine “towards an ideal end that promises at least an approximation to the absolute intimacy that is unique to the gods” (Tomasi). This process of technofetishism isn’t necessarily based on a premeditated plan for the future but rather on our response to current desires and problems. And, this process continues regardless of whether the technologies are good or bad for us, but why?

While certainly desire, the erotic experience, and intimacy-as-closeness play a part in our drive for new technologies, to understand the sort of intimacy referred to in this case we must consider an evolutionary framework posited by French intellectual Georges Bataille. Bataille establishes three types of intimacy. Immanence is the intimacy of inorganic matter. Such matter has no sense of itself, no desires to satisfy, and yet it has being and thus exists in physical continuity with the rest of creation. Unlike inorganic matter, animals have nutritional and reproductive needs to satisfy, so they must make some distinctions between themselves and their landscapes. Yet, despite having some “sentiment of self,” animals still “live immanently ‘like water in water’” (Bataille qtd. in Tomasi). (Think of the ways in which animals react to themselves in mirrors.)

Humanity, however, lost its intimacy with the world when it developed the first tool—its first technology—thereby transcending its animality and creating a consciousness that split the world into subjects and objects. Even our own bodies, that with which we experience the most intimacy, suffer from conscious self-objectification. (Think of the ways in which humans react to themselves in mirrors.) Thus, the human being lives discontinuously, but simultaneously desires continuity, with the rest of the cosmos. For Bataille, it is only through the destruction of technology or “the negation of its usefulness” that humanity will ever dissolve this distinction between subject and object and once again “open up a possibility of an experience of intimacy” with the rest of creation (Tomasi).

However, in “The Role of Intimacy in the Evolution of Technology,” Alessandro Tomasi reinterprets Bataille’s definition of intimacy in order to illustrate that we already experience a variation of it with certain technologies, and this intimacy determines the criteria for technological evolution. He claims “certain technologies have certain qualities that allow them to disappear from consciousness through use, that is, by becoming transparent or intimately connected. . . . With total familiarity, technological objects recede into the background of consciousness and become nothing, but extensions of our body.” So, if a technology satisfies desires or solves present-day problems, and gives us effortless control in doing so by closing the time and distance gaps between ourselves and the objects of our desires, that technology disappears from our objectifying consciousness, and we accept it. So, where in this process does a human ethics of technology have a place?

Consider the memory grain in the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You.” Designed to solve the problems of organic human memory, as the character Colleen tells us, the grain permits humans to record everything they see, hear, and do. The grain, named no doubt for its size, is literally out of sight once it’s implanted in the body, behind the person’s ear. With a small, smooth, handheld remote, a person can instantly recall a memory or series of memories that are projected either privately onto invisible screens implanted in the person’s eyes or publicly onto a flat screen TV in the person’s living room. As a result, the characters in the world of this episode often spend much of their time looking at “redoes.” Though imaginary at this point, it’s easy to understand how such fiction might evolve into fact when we consider the technologies that we presently accept without questioning.

In the subsequent episode, “Be Right Back,” our ubiquitous present-day software—email, photographs, social media, text, and voice messages, etc.—have been harnessed by a company who specializes in animating a new kind of hardware that virtually and corporeally resurrects the dead. In the world of this episode, technology has evolved to solve the problems of death and grief (and perhaps capitalize on them, too?), but we recognize in Martha’s secrecy regarding Ash, the android lover come back from the dead, that this technology may still carry with it a sort of stigma.

Indeed Black Mirror on the whole is a series designed to address inevitable ethical crises caused by technological progress. These ethical dilemmas in turn disrupt our intimacy with current technologies that have the potential to evolve toward the ends exemplified in each episode, for, as Tomasi admits, “the arising of a technology to the level of an ethical consciousness makes that technology unable to uphold its place in intimacy. It fails to fit in and work out.” In “The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back” in particular, we are presented with something of a paradox. Both episodes use the intimate relationships of lovers to stir up ethical questions about technologies that move us ever closer to the sovereignty of godly intimacy with the world. But why? What’s love got to do with it? Or is something else at work here?

When we look carefully at Liam’s character, and his relationship with Ffion, and her relationship with Jonas, what insights can we glean about why the grain technology “fails to fit in and work out”? Why ultimately does Liam decide to remove his grain? As we follow Martha on her exploit to reclaim her lost love with an android, what sorts of ethical questions arise, especially in regard to Martha’s decision revealed in the show’s final scene? What are the specific ethical crises these episodes mean to address?

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