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Utopia and Dystopia in Today’s Culture: Black Mirror

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Over the last ten years, technology has transformed almost every aspect of our lives before we have had time to stop and question it. In every home, on every desk, in every palm, a black mirror of our 21st Century exist: a plasma screen, a monitor, a smartphone. First of all, the aim of this essay is to analyse and criticize how advanced technologies affect our life through some episodes of the television series Black Mirror. It is a known science fiction television series, whose critics say that it is perfect for fans of dystopian fiction. It adopts the anthology format to tell separate narratives with different cast for each episode. Brooker, its creator, has described the show as ‘the way we might be living in 10 minutes’. Along this essay I am going to focus in three concrete episodes: White bear, Nosedive and Arkangel; going in depth with each one, looking for those details which show us how dystopian can be our today’s culture. After that, clear conclusions will be extracted to get to the point. The main reason why I have chosen this television series is because I have watch it and I find it really interesting. I have seen the opportunity of going further with the topic about ‘utopia and dystopia’ through something familiar to me, so that is why I decided to go ahead with it. [The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, edited by Gregory Claeys. Cambridge 2010]

The concept of Utopia [page 3]. The study of the concept utopia can certainly not be reduced to the history of the word coined by Thomas More in 1516 to baptize the island described in his book. In that time, the word utopia was a neologism. Utopia, as a neologism, is an interesting case: it began its life as a lexical neologism, but over the centuries, after the process of deneologization, its meaning changed many times, and it has been adopted by authors and researchers from different fields of study. The word utopia has itself often been used as the root for the formation of new words. These include words such as eutopia, dystopia, anti-utopia, alotopia, euchronia, heteropia, ecotopia and hyperutopia. Before coining the word utopia, more used another one to name his imaginary island: Nusquama. Nusquam is the Latin word for ‘nowhere’, ‘is no place’, ‘on no occasion’. The concept of utopia is no doubt an attribute of modern thought and one of its most visible consequences. Historically, the concept of utopia has been defined with regard to one of four characteristics: (1) the content of the imagined society, (2) the literary form into which utopian imagination has been crystallized, (3) the function of utopia, (4) the desire for a better life, caused by a feeling of discontentment towards the society one lives in. This latter characteristic is no doubt the most important one.

The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley and Orwell [page 107]. Dystopias are often described as ‘conservative’, though they may in fact be sharply critical of the societies they reflect. Dystopia is often used interchangeably with ‘anti-utopia’ or ‘negative utopia’, to describe a fictional portrayal of a society which evil, or negative social and political developments, have the upper hand, or as a satire of utopian aspirations which attempts to show up their fallacies, or which demonstrate in B. F. Skinner’s words, ‘way of life we must be sure to avoid’. The term dystopia enters common currency only in the 20th Century, though it appears intermittently beforehand. The dystopian ideal has also been linked both historically and logically proclamations of the ‘end of utopia’, and sometimes also been wedded to the now-debunked hypothesis of the ‘end of history’.

After contextualizing the contents, the basis of the essay and looking for valid and interesting information, let’s focus on the television series chosen, Black Mirror. To begin with, Black Mirror is a science fiction television series created by Charlie Brooker. It examines modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. Episodes are standalone, usually set in an alternative present or the near future, with a totally different cast and plots, whose only common point is the power of new technologies to move the world. In the beginning, the television series was inspired by The Twilight Zone, an older anthology series, which were able to deal with controversial topics without fear of censorship. The series premiered for two seasons on a British television channel, Channel 4, in 2011 and in 2013. After its addition to the catalogue in December 2014, the company which purchased the television series was Netflix. It has received many awards and nominations, garnering positive reception from critics.

The science fiction show makes an analysis of the new technologies in an advanced and futuristic way that in occasions threats the integrity of people. A path characterized for danger, obsessions, morals, loneliness and feelings involved in different worlds controlled by technological things, with an end, mostly catastrophic, but other times satisfactory. Following, three episodes are going to be explained and analysed: White Bear, Nosedive and Arkangel.

White bear is the second episode of the second season. A women awakes to a violent world that ends up being an elaborate play by a justice system to punish her. She notices that people on the street who is recording her also ignore her when she tries to say something to them. They also erase her memory every night so she awakes to a hellish Groundhog’s Day every morning. She is told that she has been found guilty for ger part in the brutal killing of a young girl, so she has been sentenced to undergo this psychological torture daily in the With Bear Justice Park, where visitors are allowed to record her daily suffering.

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The reflection extracted here is that even in justice aspects, as we can see here, technology has an influenceable paper. This woman has committed a crime and a way of suffering those consequences is through this White Bear Justice Park. The aim of the show of this park is not about violence neither revenge. Through technological techniques they achieve the punisher’s suffering, a mental and psychological suffering. Thanks to the roll-playing of visitors with their phones, recording every movement done by the women, seeming that they are hypnotic. The protagonist gets annoyed easily when she realizes that even in a dangerous or critical situation, people do not react and just keep recording what is happening. Therefore, we can appreciate the cruelty of technology.

Nosedive takes part of the third season, being the first episode of it. Mainly, it is a Community where people rate each other through a phone app. Centered around one social climbing woman who seeks to better her status by attending an old friend’s wedding. The more she seeks to go up, the more she spirals out of control. This system cultivates insincere relationships, as a person’s rating significantly affects their socioeconomic status. Laice is the protagonist, currently rated at 4.2 and hoping to achieve 4.5 to be maid-of-honour at the upcoming wedding of her old friend. She looses most of the rating on the way to the wedding due to a series of mishaps. Finally, she arrives to the wedding even though her rating is so low. Feeling liberated, she gives her speech. Everybody rate her negatively, even more.

In this episode, a clear technological dystopia can be seen and there is a similarity with today’s culture. It is making a critique of how we perceive each other, by rating others out of five. Here we can see the dystopian possibilities of an app that grades you as a person without your consent. Furthermore, the episode aims at the anxiety stoked by a modern obsessions with quantification. Nowadays, people give more importance to the Likes and Comments of Social Networks than ever. This is an exaggeration of reality, as the meaning of the word dystopia says, but we are not so far. People are always engrossed in these services, whether it be tweeting their friends, updating their Facebook status, or posting pictures of their daily meals on Instagram. Lot of people worry about what others think about them. If someone loses followers or gets no likes on their photo, it can really put a dent in their self-esteem, which just shows our developed dependency to the internet and addiction to social media. Lacie, the protagonist, is a representation of the modern population. Arkangel is the second chapter of the fourth season. Marie briefly loses track of her daughter Sara, and decides to have her implanted with the Arkangel system, allowing her to use a tablet to track her, monitoring her health and emotional state and censoring sights she does not want Sara to see, such as blood. As Sara grows up, Marie recognises that Arkangel is hampering Sara’s growth so she disables the tablet. After some rebellious acts of Sara, Marie reactivates Arkangel, discovering her to be taking drugs and so on. It ends when Sara realizes that her mother reactivated Arkangel, she beats her with the tablet, unaware of how much harm she has done due to the censoring filter.

This episode takes parental surveillance to its darkest, most obvious extreme. It makes a living nightmare out of parental controls. Here, technology is represented with an advanced chip inserted into a child’s brain and thanks to that, parents can monitor everything their child is feeling, and even put parental controls on what she is seeing, with a casual swipe on their designated tablet. This fact is controversial; is it necessary to control every child’s movement, to know how is she feeling in every moment?

Shielding children or whoever from the truth is nothing else that temporal. It is amazing how technologies can deform our life, and how people depend on them. From my point of view, no one desires a dystopian society, inspired in the total control of technologies. Nevertheless, we are all demanding to mechanize everything, to make our life easier. Thus, we find ourselves in a constant debate, between what we want and what we need. In terms of advanced technology, most of the people desire the latest version of everything, the best smartphone, the biggest television, the loudest headphones, the most expensive device. But, is it the best way of living, having as much as we can have, without being aware of what we really need, what others less lucky have or need? People are becoming more and more egocentric, blinding themselves with a screen in front of their faces.

The world is getting out of hand, technology is driving us crazy, making us to do things we never could imagined. Think about those episodes explained before, we are closer to this situations and facts than we think. In the case of Nosedive, many people is suffering all this pressure coming from the opinion of others, probably unknown for her. The term of ‘technological dystopia’ already exists, and its meaning is ‘an association between technology and catastrophic changes and a contaminated humanness that compromises social intercourse’. We are beginning to see all this technological dystopia shaping the world around us. Black Mirror shows us a technological dystopia and it does not go so wrong. Technology is having such a dramatic impact on our lives, and it is not yet clear where this technological progress will lead society. That means that technological dystopias are a useful way to explore the implications of technological progress and help us to guide ourselves away from danger which it presents. No one knows what is going to happen but in my opinion, everything should be done from the heart, feeling it, and leaving apart technologies, in a background.

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Utopia and Dystopia in Today’s Culture: Black Mirror. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/utopia-and-dystopia-in-todays-culture-black-mirror/
“Utopia and Dystopia in Today’s Culture: Black Mirror.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/utopia-and-dystopia-in-todays-culture-black-mirror/
Utopia and Dystopia in Today’s Culture: Black Mirror. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/utopia-and-dystopia-in-todays-culture-black-mirror/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Utopia and Dystopia in Today’s Culture: Black Mirror [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 08 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/utopia-and-dystopia-in-todays-culture-black-mirror/
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