Reality’s Last Stand? ‘Black Mirror’ & the Analog Counter-Trend
As our headfirst plunge into the digital future gains momentum, any astute critic should take note of the resistances that have emerged over past year. In fact, while typing this post, I’ve stumbled across a new article on CNET called “Google Glass: The Opposition Grows”, which discusses an emerging “anti-cyborg movement” that has sprung up in response to Google’s new Augmented Reality glasses.
But are these resistances just examples of the alarmist rhetoric that accompanies any technological revolution? In order to answer this question, it is useful to remember how conceptually useful it is to take a new idea/trend/revolution to its end, or an absurd point that may never come to pass, in order to see how dangerous the germinating idea/trend may be. Every generation has critics who do just this, like dystopian authors (Atwood, Orwell, Huxley, etc…) who magnify new ideas/trends and imagine how they might interact with the world if they were to become hegemonic.
It’s here that I want to discuss a March, 2013 report by JWT Intelligence called “Embracing Analog: Why Physical is Hot”, which I eerily encountered on the same day as I watched Season 1 of “Black Mirror”, a fantastic British TV show that offers alternate realities where familiar aspects of contemporary technological life (hypnosis of real-time Twitter feeds; disconnection from human interaction offered by the Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wii; privacy issues that surround Facebook Timeline/Google Glass) have become the modus operandi of daily life. I say eerie because the JWT report echoes the dystopic intention of Black Mirror, when demonstrates that “Immersion in the digital world [the world of the black mirror] makes us more keenly aware of what’s unique about physical objects.”
The JWT Report, “Embracing Analog” echoes a longstanding position of Cybject that as time passes we are increasingly clawing for ‘real people’ and ‘real things’, as demonstrated by phenomena like Instagram filters, iPhone speakers shaped like gramophones, the revival of interest in vinyl records, etc… . While digital content is easier, faster, more convenient and cheaper, the report suggests that American adults find comfort in the physical world, and “romanticize the physical, ascribing more meaning to giving and receiving physical objects versus digital versions of the same things”. Basically, as has also been suggested on Cybject, digital content is devoid of the imperfections that provide physical objects their personality.
I find the JWT report fascinating, and am entirely in agreement with its diagnosis, namely that there is an analog counter-trend underway. But I’m not so sure we have adequately understood why this counter-trend is underway, and I suspect that the authors of the report have only scratched the surface. They suggest that “when everything becomes digital and immediately available, one starts to yearn for the analog”, and explain this yearning to be the result of an upset between the IQ (intellectual) and EQ (emotional) sides of our personality. Of course, in their schema IQ maps on to digital content, and EQ maps on to analog content. When we spend too long with digital content, we upset the balance. When our EQ is not being satisfied, the authors explain that we seek the “analog more than ever. We’re looking for more meaningful emotional experiences and connections. We’re seeking to re-balance our IQ and EQ states.”
“As alluring as the digital world may be, we’re beginning to realize its limits.”
While the report is an excellent start, but I’m not sure the situation is as cut and dried as the authors let on. I’d like to suggest – and this might offer a very bleak picture – that we’re not quite as hardwired as the authors make out. What if we aren’t equipped with a kind of natural defensive reaction to the loss of our EQ and wouldn’t miss the imperfections symbolized by analog content? What if the analog counter-trend under way is just a simple nostalgia, or a type of transitory conservatism? Perhaps, more darkly, we’re more adaptable than the authors give us credit for, and our nature has no natural limits? If this is the case, we cannot sit back and wait for the ship to change course, but must chart the course itself.
“Black Mirror” exemplifies the analog counter-trend by taking a quickly growing digital trend, and providing a glimpse of how – once dominant – the trend could seriously conflict with our fleshy, desirous, bodies and our existing ethics and morals.
Episode 2, “15 Million Merits”, reflects a world where individuals live in isolated cells, bombarded by advertisements which they are financially penalized from closing their eyes to. Individuals’ lives consist of using exercise bikes to power television monitors. When they have generated enough power, they can use their credits to audition on a 24/7 American Idol-like reality TV show watched by millions of howling avatars. Of course, this is an absurd future, but the protagonist who has the misfortune of falling in love, has a very difficult time reconciling this emotion which emerges from the reality of his body – very familiar to us in the year 2013 – with the insensitive, hyper-sexualized, parallel earthlings trapped in their vicious hyper-real circles. It’s an episode which years for flesh, bodies and the mystery of proximity.
Episode 3, “An Entire History of You”, offers a glimpse of a world very much like our own, except that people have their entire past stored on a storage chip. Everything they experience through their eyes is recorded onto this chip. Another very familiar emotion, jealousy, is held up to the black mirror, and what emerges is a serious disjuncture. This is a future where once cannot lie, one cannot forget, and one cannot heal. The reason we are able to move on after a difficult chapter in our lives, is because the vividness of experiences fades with time. The Google Glass-style technology ensures that events from the past exist on a timeline parallel with the present. And in this scenario, the familiar mechanisms we use to cope with jealously or infidelity lead to madness. It’s an episode which years for the fleetingness of brain based memory.
By offering these nightmarish technological scenarios, “Black Mirror” reminds us that we may not innately possess the natural balance, sensory ratios, soul, reality principle, etc…, to resist a hegemonic digital future. It puts the onus on us both to shape and adapt our culture, while deciding what is worth saving in our nature.