Technology can be creepy. If you’ve ever looked around a train station, a restaurant, or even the dinner table and noticed everyone peering into a glowing screen, the experience is remarkably eerie, regardless of how comfortable you are with our digital age. A new era always offers new things to make us nervous, but as we pour more and more of ourselves into our smartphones and tablets, those concerns begin to feel bigger, brighter, and louder, “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.”
It’s not About the Tech, Silly!
If you’re unfamiliar, the quote is from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the go-to source for hacks like me trying to reference a vague discomfort with modernity. Luckily, some fresher material on the subject has recently been added to Netflix: updating Eliot’s 20th century discomfort is Black Mirror, a BBC show that uses hour-long vignettes to explore the dark directions that technology might take us in the not-so-distant future. And like “Prufrock,” the conflicts in Black Mirror tend to germinate in the mind before the modern world begins to cultivate them.
One of these vignettes, “The Entire History of You,” revolves around a chip that is implanted into your brain and records every moment of your life. The flashing screens and sleek hardware the show invents to display each memory are dazzling for a moment, then become uncannily mundane. While the idea of memory chips belongs to another era, they’re used and seen in a way that’s meant to remind us of our own. Black Mirror’s special effects are effective because of their familiarity, not their imagination.
This chip, known colloquially as “the Grain,” isn’t some “Big Brother”-type surveillance program—it’s a commercial product that carries social capital. Characters use the product to relive cherished experiences, back up anecdotes shared at parties, and other things we can imagine being acted out by 20-something models in an Apple commercial, set to the sounds of some flavor-of-the-month indie group that has somehow inherited a glockenspiel. But our focus is quickly drawn to digital memory’s more sinister allure: the chips encourage users to investigate their own paranoid suspicions, to fixate on reservations and hunches they might have otherwise forgotten.
Technology is not exactly the culprit here: suspicion, anxiety, and obsession over things we don’t or can’t know have always come quite naturally to us. If you stumble on a letter your husband wrote to a woman you’ve never heard of, your suspicions are bound to eat at you—whether the letter was on an iPad or papyrus is immaterial.
But unlike a letter, the Grain is not so much the source as it is the instrument of its users’ anxiety: it is literally the screen onto which their nerves are projected, made larger and more vivid. Even the slightest tic in an otherwise innocuous conversation is replayed for endless analysis, with HD zoom providing more minute details than the characters could ever access otherwise.
A Black Mirror Image
A casual viewer might simply say, “That’s gonna happen to us one day!” and be done with it, shelving any concerns the show might raise with global warming and the other ten billion worries we’re saving for a distant future. But the future in question is essentially already here: smartphones have already become both the source and the instrument of of our anxiety.
I doubt there are many iPhone users who haven’t agonized over text conversations, making spurious deductions from the wording, punctuation, and timing of every message. The same could be said about a comment on a Facebook post, or a photo that appears on your newsfeed of someone where they’re not supposed to be. Our devices offer us shiny new ways to engage with all our worries and insecurities, sharper tools for the Oedipal pursuit of unhappy truths.
Again, it’s not that technology has made us pathologically desirous of the unknown—we’ve always been that way. But it has made us better at identifying the blind spots in our everyday experiences. In this sense, what’s scary about our gadgets is that they enhance rather than diminish our humanity. If there’s a parable here, it’s that we can’t be trusted to better ourselves, that much of what protects us from utter misery is ignorance.
Black Mirror reflects something truly dark because it implies that all the power we constantly seek, the knowledge needed to control even our petty, day-to-day lives, would destroy us if we ever achieved it.
But as haunting and eerie as Black Mirror can be, it’s not an indictment of our age. Much like Eliot’s “Prufrock,” it’s merely a chronicle of human frailty that is made more vivid by its modern devices. And if there’s something comforting about human frailty, it’s that it’s impossible to avoid. As always, human consciousness is fraught with anxiety; as always, it is better coped with through expression than through avoidance. Paradoxically, our worries become a lot less burdensome when we accept that they exist.
If there is a danger to the technology we use, it’s that it doesn’t let us get comfortable with our discomfort. It invites us to purge anxiety from our lives without acknowledging that the two things go hand-in-hand. Doggedly pursuing your darkest suspicions may feel like facing the problem, but it’s really only avoiding a deeper issue: that suspicion and anxiety simply cannot be separated from experience itself.
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