When I first watched Black Mirror, back in 2015, the show’s reputation was synonymous with quality. However, since then, the show has been pretty hit or miss, with a lot of episodes being borderline unwatchable. Despite this, I’ve more or less kept up with Black Mirror, and decided to check out the new season, starting with the episode ‘Smithereens.’
Black Mirror ‘Smithereens’ Review: the following contains spoilers
From the start, ‘Smithereens’ played out like a lesser version of ‘The National Anthem,’ which played with the effects that social media had on society. If you don’t remember it well, it’s the one where the PM fucks the pig on national TV. As such, ‘Smithereens’ is also set in a contemporary world (2018) without the aid of futuristic technology, so it is totally based on the current world we live in. The problem with the episode is that the motivations of the characters don’t make sense relative to the current society we live in. The crux of the episode is that a mentally unstable Uber drive lost his fiance because he was checking his social media page while driving, getting into a fatal car accident and killing her. Due to this guilt, he wanted to speak to the CEO of the social media company to tell him that this happened. He doesn’t really hold him responsible, and he’s aware that his own actions were largely the cause of the accident. It wasn’t the great algorithm in the sky that caused his demise, but it was his own actions, and his own addiction to social media that caused this.
I’m not saying that nobody has ever killed someone due to getting a notification on their phone, but the whole contrivance of the scenario was a bit too much for me. The fact that the great twist is something out a PSA after school special was profoundly silly. I don’t really feel like social media is ‘ruining society’ because of the way people’s brains are hardwired. It’s such like a simplified worldview to think that that’s the problem, and I think it’s a point of view that Black Mirror seems happy to promote, even though the kidnapper does acknowledge his actions aren’t totally due to the evils of technology. However, the social media CEO that he talks on the phone with, who is supposed to be a pastiche of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (the silent retreat he is one is based on one that Dorsey himself did in Myanamar), makes an argument that kind of undermines this. In the episode, he admits to sort of Frankenstein-ing his social media platform together, and for feeling terrible and having a conscience about the effects his platform has had on society.
In reality, I think this is meant to be catharsis for the audience, and I don’t think tech CEOs actually have horrible regret about the world they have wrought. The closest we have in Elon Musk, who is basically if Tony Stark was severally mentally ill and forced into the confines of creating technology that competes with other technology within market capitalism. That’s why you see him create things like The Boring Company and spark outrage with the SEC; because he wants to innovate, and wants to piss off his corporate overlords. That’s not to say that Zuckerberg and Dorsey don’t think they are changing society, they’re just too blinded by their own arrogance to realize it, and I don’t think a social media CEO would ever come to that realization in that way.
The episode ends with people getting notifications about the standoff, and kind of just brushing the entire thing under the rug. The truth is, condemning the masses for doing this, in the way that Black Mirror does, is totally absurd. Why is that a bad thing? We’re so inundated with mass shooters on a regular basis, along with political updates that rupture the fabric of our society, and we all collectively shrug at it. What else are we supposed to do really? The episode takes this tack as though it’s the failing of the system growing too insidious and that its why people are fucked up, but is it really? Or are there other issues at play that don’t have anything to do with that? The episode doesn’t really consider that maybe the kidnapper was pretty fucked up before he even got into the car accident, and that it wasn’t exactly killing his fiance that set him on to the path of psychosis.
All in all, I don’t think that newer episodes of Black Mirror quite dig into the nuanced psychological ways that technology effects the human mind in the way that earlier seasons had (especially seasons 1-3). I will be watching the rest of the season, but not with high expectations.