For the last several years, I've been trying to incorporate new assignments and activities that encourage students to think of the work they do in my courses as having real impact on their lives outside of the classroom. I'm trying to work against their tendency to sit through a course as if they were a mere "repository" for information-- Professor puts it in, they regurgitate it on command, and then all is forgotten at the end of the term-- a model unfortunately encouraged by the laser-focus on "testing" in primary and secondary education. I want my students to have learned something at the end of the semester, obviously, but I also want them to have something to say. I want them to be producers and evaluators of knowledge, not just temporary storing-houses for it.
I'm also trying to encourage (okay, force) students to proactively undertake the social and political responsibilities that come along with being an educated person in a grossly undereducated, deeply unjust, and actually dangerous nation like ours. At a small Catholic university with a significant student demographic of DACA students, first-gen students, and working-class students, it is sometimes difficult to convince them to take ownership of their place in that ambiguous thing we call "the academic community." (Mine is not a R1 university.) But, my students know very well that the education they are receiving is something many of their parents don't have, a lot of their friends won't get, and most of the people from their communities couldn't dream of. I try to remind them of this often.
My strategy of late has been to frame this project of 'taking responsibility for your education outside of the classroom' as a kind of obligation to "pay it forward." Last year, I introduced my Experiment in the Redistribution of Grades (ERG) which, among other things, requires students to seriously evaluate the advantages/disadvantages they arrive in the classroom with, the extent to which their academic achievements are actually "merited," and how measures of academic achievement could be most justly distributed in a highly-competitive learning environment that exists on an uneven playing-field. You can read my full account of ERG here, but one of the most surprising (and rewarding, for me) outcomes of that experiment was that students independently devised plans that bequeathed credit to "future generations" (i.e., students in the same class the following semester). I think the "pay it forward" message is getting through.
So, this semester, I introduced a new assignment: the "Postmillennial Public Service Announcement."
Students in my courses this semester-- an introductory-level ethics course called "Contemporary Moral Issues" and an upper-division Philosophy course called "Technology and Human Values"-- were given the option of creating a "Postmillennial Public Service Announcement" video in lieu of taking the Final Exam. (Whenever I introduce new pedagogical devices into my courses, I always make them "optional" for the first semester so I can work out the kinks!) My basic idea behind this assignment was to give students the opportunity to take what they had learned over the course of the semester and offer some educated, informed advice to their peers (and/or people younger than them) in the medium postmillennials access/consume most for "information."
[NOTE: The youngest "millennials" are post-college-aged (22), and the oldest millennials are pushing 40yo. Students in college/university now are "Gen Z." This year's freshman class was born in 2001. I suspect the "Gen Z" generational moniker will change soon, so I used "postmillennial" in my assignment to refer to people aged 7-22yo.] Before getting into the specifics of my Postmillenial PSA assignment, I want to head-off one potential criticism of it, namely, that every student may not have the tools necessary for completing it available to them. The first time I required students to create a short-film for a course was way back in 2012 (see here). Today, almost every student carries around in their pocket a smartphone with higher-quality filmmaking capabilities than professional filmmakers had a decade ago. Students today are not only far more aesthetically attuned to how images are best employed and manipulated to communicate-- this is the Snapchat/Instagram generation we're talking about, after all-- but they're decades more tech-savvy than students even 5yrs ago. I think there may remain some (rapidly diminishing) reasons to worry that not all students have a smartphone, so I designed this assignment in such a way that it could be done without one. Every Mac and PC comes equipped with super user-friendly video editing programs, also available for free via Google, and students can use images/video from the web to complete the assignment. Every college/university has computer labs. So, in sum, every student can do this assignment.
Here's the assignment for the lower level "Contemporary Moral Issues" course:
CONTEMPORARY MORAL VALUES "POSTMILLENNIAL PSA": Students enrolled in this course have the option to create a short video “Public Service Announcement” (PSA) in lieu of talking the final exam. A “PSA” is a message in the public interest that is disseminated with the objective of raising awareness or changing public attitudes and behaviors towards a contemporary moral, political, or social issue.
Over the course of the semester, we will have considered several contemporary moral, political, social, and technological issues. Some of them will seem unimportant to you, but at least one (hopefully more) will be something that impacts your life and well-bring directly. Students who opt to submit a PSA will create a short video for a “postmillennial” audience (i.e., people who are now between the ages of 7 and 21) that directly answers one of the following questions:
What do I value and why?
What is the most important emergent technology today and why should postmillennials know/care more about it?
What is the most important contemporary moral issue and why should postmillennials know/care more about it?
What philosopher should postmillennials read and why?
And here's the assignment for the upper-division "Technology and Human Values" course:
TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN VALUES "POSTMILLENNIAL PSA": Students enrolled in this course have the option to create a short video “Public Service Announcement” (PSA) in lieu of talking the final exam. A “PSA” is a message in the public interest that is disseminated with the objective of raising awareness or changing public attitudes and behaviors towards a contemporary moral, political, or social issue. Your PSA must address the importance of being informed about at least one of the emergent technologies that we have discussed this semester.
What follows are the minimum requirements I set for the Postmillennial PSA assignment. I will admit in advance that I made several on-the-fly adjustments to these requirements and I made more than a few exceptions to them as I met with students about their projects.
Videos must be between 1-2 minutes long (for narrative PSA’s) or 2-4 minutes long (for music video PSA’s). Only original music/lyrics are allowed in music video PSA’s.
Narrative PSA’s must include a minimum of seven jump-cuts. (A “jump-cut” is a video-editing term, which indicates an abrupt transition from one scene to another.) Music video PSA’s must include a minimum of five jump-cuts.
Videos must be shot in horizontal orientation. (If you’re using a smartphone, TURN IT SIDEWAYS!)
Videos must directly, substantively, and correctly reference at least one philosopher that we have studied in this course. Bonus if it includes a picture of that philosopher.
Videos must include a “title card” and credits. These do not count toward the time-limit restrictions.
Videos must be uploaded to a site that is viewable by the public (i.e., YouTube or Vimeo) and they cannot be password-protected.
Videos must be well-conceived, well-edited, engaging, and informative.
Videos must be styled for, and obviously targeted to, a postmillennial audience.
Just a couple of other notes: (1) Students were required to let me know at least 3 weeks in advance whether or not they were opting to take the Final Exam or create a Postmillennial PSA, and there was no reversing that decision, and (2) Students were required to speak with me in person about their intended PSA project before beginning it, mostly just so I could veto ideas that were impossible or terrible.
As is the case with all pedagogical experiments, students turned in some real duds for this assignment. But, overall, I was really impressed with what they produced, and I think I have a pretty good idea about how to tweak/clarify the assignment next semester. Anyway, here are some of my favorites:
From the Contemporary Moral Issues course, a PSA on the importance of philosopher Marilyn Frye (by Riley Chafin):
Post-Millennial PSA - Vimeo
From the Contemporary Moral Values course, a PSA about the emergent technology of in vitro meat (by Emilee Hawkins):
From the Technology and Human Values course, a PSA about the Da Vinci Surgical System and how it may transform the healthcare system (by Heidi Stonecipher):
PSA- da Vinci Surgical System - YouTube
From the Contemporary Moral Values course, a PSA about the importance of John Stuart Mill (by Maximilano Gallizzi):
Postmillennial PSA-John Stuart Mill - Vimeo
From the Technology and Human Values Course, a PSA about augmented reality (by Joseph Smith):
Augmented Reality PSA - YouTube
From the Technology and Human Values class, a truly hilarious PSA from the perspective of our future robot overlords on why we should not fear them (by Zachary Yancy). I don't want to play favorites but this video is so brilliant in so many ways, not least of which is the fact that Yancy used only "stock" photos of humans and a robot voice-over for narration. Okay, whatever, this is def my favorite:
From the Technology and Human Values course, a PSA on the addictive influence of social media (by Kiana Lashay):
From the Contemporary Moral Issues course, a PSA about drones (by Abbey Criswell):
From the Contemporary Moral Issues class, a PSA about immigration reform (by Matthew Nguyen):
FWIW, I teach more than 100 students per semester. I have at least a dozen more really excellent videos that I could have shared. After only one semester, I'm already persuaded that this is an excellent assignment. There are still some kinks to work out-- I welcome your suggestions in the comment section below!-- so I will probably keep this as an "optional" assignment (i.e.,alternative to taking the comprehensive Final Exam) for now, but I'm very happy with it's inaugural run.As I tell my students on the first and last day of my courses:
"Right now, you are are pursuing a tertiary degree in what is still one of the most free and envied educational systems in the world. In this class, you sit in a safe, climate-controlled, and technologically-advanced room for three hours a week and are permitted to talk about ideas. For almost 75% of Americans and 93% of the global population, what you are doing will never be possible. Of the 7 billion humans living on the planet right now, you are literally the "elite."
Twenty years from now, humanity will be looking to YOU-- the taxpayers, the job creators, the Senators and Congresspersons and Mayors and City Councilpersons, the activists, the scientists, the engineers, the doctors, the lawyers, and the "educated select" of the general workforce-- to make the world a better place. One hundred years from now-- if and only if humanity still exists-- people are going to wonder how and why YOU did (or didn't) do what was necessary to make things better.
DO NOT take your privilege for granted. Earning an advanced education is not about grades, even less about your job prospects or your future earning potentials. It is about assuming a set of responsibilities-- to learn, to educate, to share and explain, to improve and advance, to protect and to serve-- that the overwhelming majority of human beings will simply never have the adequate tools to assume.
Since I posted my list of tech book recommendations a few weeks ago, several people have asked me to explain why I describe myself as a "techno-optimist." I get this question a lot, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to give a quick account (and defense) of my position. But, first, a few preliminary remarks about what I mean by "techno-optimism."
Techno-optimism, in my view, is not some Pollyanna-ish, uncritical embrace of all things shiny and new. I am not a techno-utopian. I do not think technology is the answer to all human problems, and even it it was, I do not think those answers would guarantee a utopia (at least not for us, humans). There are many, many things about the way we are making, using, and (mis)understanding emergent technologies that can still go terribly wrong. In fact, I've spent far more time on this blog issuing warnings and sounding alarm bells than frollicking with androids.
(Frollicking with androids is totes something I would be into, though.)
I tend to think of my techno-optimism as, primarily, a political position. And so, like all political positions in my estimation, it is a form of activism. I'm very sympathetic with Cory Doctorow's definition of techno-optimism: "the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better." I like Doctorow's account because, first, he also understands techno-optimism as a praxis and, second, because he recognizes that the "optimism" of techno-optimism must always be tempered by a kind of clear-eyed and well-informed realism about potential human uses and abuses of technology. So, there is a tinge of pessimism at the heart of my techno-optimism, though that pessimism is primarily about humans, not technology.
When I call myself a techno-optimist, I think of that identifier as being of a piece with other political identifiers I use-- feminist, socialist, anti-racist, globalist, progressive-- all of which indicate value-laden commitments to act, to speak, to learn, to educate, and to engage others in a manner that might (borrowing from Doctorow) "steer the world" toward its better possibilities.
On my view, the proper antonym of "techno-optimism" is not "techno-pessimism." It's either techno-utopianism, techno-apocalypticism, Luddism, or--worst of all-- techno-ignorance.
So, below are the five main reasons why I count myself among the techno-optimists:
1. Technology has, on the whole, made human life better.
And it continues to do so. Despite the many and varied existential hazards that technological developments now pose to humanity, there are exactly zero conditions that would motivate me to return to a time before the printing press, or the light bulb, or the combustible engine, or penicillin, or indoor plumbing, or (hello Memphis summers!) the air conditioner. If given a time-machine, I wouldn't even choose to return to a time before smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence (and I know a lot more than the average bear about their dangers!). I think that when most people express their desire to go "off the grid," or to "return to Nature," or travel back in time to any other romanticized, imaginary iteration of "the halcyon days before advanced technology," they are expressing a desire that is unforgivably solipsistic. What is more, I simply do not believe them.
It is, of course, true that the benefits (and risks) of technological development remain unevenly distributed across races, classes, genders, and global locations. Reasonable people will point to this fact as a reason to reject techno-optimism on the grounds that it is a position indicative of "first world privilege." Because I find this to be prima facie persuasive, but deeply flawed, I want to address that argument specifically.
First, I think that argument is better directed at techno-utopians, who regularly overvalue the benefits and disregard the risks of technological progress, and who almost exclusively occupy privileged socio-economic positions. Techno-optimists like myself, on the other hand, are (a) not in a socio-economic position to live forever or move to Mars when everything goes to shit for the plebes, (b) primarily interested in advocating non-proprietary, open-access, free, and therefore maximally-advantageous technologies, and (c) disinclined to think of technology as having the capacity to bring about a human utopia, either because a human utopia is delusional or because.. nevermind, it's delusional. Second, it is my view that these critics are guilty of an even more naive and blameworthy ilk of "first world privilege," namely, the sort that supposes that rejecting emergent technologies or going "off the grid" is an desirable option for everyone. (Sorry you don't like being tracked by your smartphone. I'm sure the Self-Employed Women's Association in India, who only recently were able to use SMS to send agricultural workers commodity prices, would love to hear all about your struggles.) Third, the sort of anarcho-primitivist, "rewilding" alternatives offered by contemporary neo-Luddites-- who reject the very obvious fact that technological advancements have made human life better and who occasionally dip their toes IRL to forward their case on anti-globalist grounds-- are quite simply neither viable nor desirable alternatives for the overwhelming majority of humans living today.
I suppose, at some level, I just cannot accept the proposition that, over the course of human history and on the whole, technological development has done more harm than good any more than I can accept that it better to not know than to know. So, any argument that starts with that non-starter is going to ring hollow to me.
In 1879, Edison said "let there be light." And there was light. And it was good.
2. Information wants to be free.
This is a pretty hefty metaphysical claim, I know, but it really is the principle that lies at the heart of my techno-optimism. I firmly believe it is in the very nature of information itself to endeavor be free: both "free as in speech" (libre, "with little or no restriction") and "free as in beer" (gratis, "without need for payment"). I do not mean to suggest that information "endeavors" in a volitional sense here-- information is not a "subject" on the classically liberal, Western, humanist model -- but rather that information might possess what Spinoza called conatus, the innate inclination of all finite things to continue to exist and enhance themselves.
My basic belief about the nature of the Universe (as I've explained on this blog before here) is that it is, at its most elemental level, information. And my basic belief about the evolution of the Universe is that it has, since its inceptions, continued to exist by developing more and more complex ways of encoding information. These views are more or less derived from Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, in which Kurzweil extends Moore's Law ("the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years") to apply not only to all human technological advancement, but to the Universe itself.
A corresponding epistemological principle that I would also affirm: if something can be known, it will be known. (There is no such thing as "forbidden knowledge," and even if there was, the proscriptions against it would be futile.) Human beings have, for millennia, endeavored to know new things, to discover new things, to make new things, and to use old things in new ways. On my view, ALL technologies are "information technologies." Technology is the way that we "encode" our knowledge and our understanding of the world in material things for survival, for flourishing, and for posterity. I do not believe that all technology is value-neutral (see: the AK47) nor that all technological innovations are simply "tools" (see: AI), but I do believe that technological innovation, emergence, and development is inevitable in the same sense that I believe that what can be known will be known.
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Here's what Brand got wrong, a mistake too-often repeated by those incapable of thinking outside of capitalist logic: information does not "want to be expensive." Information will always be "valuable" to humans, but it need not be proprietary, so the "fight" of which Brand speaks (between libre and gratis) is a conflict entirely manufactured by capitalism. Most, if not all, of the dangers we are currently confronting with regard to emergent technologies are not the consequence of information "wanting to be expensive," but rather of proprietary owners of information wanting to exploit the value of information technologies for profit at the expense of the Good, at the expense of humanity, and at the expense of freedom itself.
3. The alternatives to techno-optimism (techno-apocalypticism, techno-utopianism, techno-phobia, and techno-ignorance) are unacceptable.
One thing I've noticed among my fellow middle-aged (gah!) friends is how easy it is, as one grows older, to become disturbingly comfortable with choosing the least-worst option among otherwise undesirable options. (See: 2016 Presidential Election) This is not the case with my techno-optimism, which I adopt as an affirmative choice. Still, I want to be clear about why I view the alternative dispositions to be deficient.
Problems with techno-phobia and techno-ignorance: I'm lumping techno-phobia (or neo-Luddism) and techno-ignorance together because their effects are the same. We fear what we don't know. We don't know what we make no effort to understand. As a philosopher and an educator, not-knowing and making-no-effort-to-understand are both completely intolerable positions. I've written a lot on this blog over the past several years about the almost-unequalled importance of basic tech literacy, starting as early as primary school. We are doing a terrible job in this country of equipping young people with the knowledge and understanding they need to avoid approaching their future with only fear and ignorance as their guides.
Problems with techno-apocalypticism: The sirens of techno-apocalypticism, which warn that emergent technologies will ruin some or all things, have been deafening for as long as human beings have been making things. The written word was supposed to destroy our memory. The light bulb was supposed to destroy our ability to sleep. Photographs and moving pictures were supposed to destroy our perception of reality. Contraception was supposed to destroy our desire to reproduce. Microwave ovens were supposed to destroy our food and give us cancer. Television, computers, smartphones, [insert anything with a screen here] were supposed to destroy our eyes and our minds. AI is supposed to destroy humanity (by taking our jobs, RoboCop overlords, or just straight grey goo style.) The dystopian predictions forecast by techno-apocalypticism are as many as they are forebodingly dark.
I don't want to cast too wide a net here but, in my experience most people who repeat and affirm these techno-apocalyptic scenarios are grossly un- or under-informed about emergent technologies, alternative possibilities, and... well, human history. (James Barrat is the stand-out exception.) So, my first problem with techno-apocalypticism is that it is, just on the facts of the matter, wrong. (If you want to be accurately apocalyptic, talk about the environment, not technology!) Second, there is a kind of "oh-well-we're-all-f*cked-anyway" quietism implied by techno-apocalypticism that I find lazy, if not also intellectually and morally objectionable. And, finally, I think techno-apocalypticism involves a number of philosophical mis-steps: (a) it confuses correlation and causation, assuming that the deleterious socio-political effects that can be correlated with technological development are caused by technological development, (b) its imaginings of our dystopian future tend to commit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, so its explanatory force is weak (c) it is almost always a case of an apagogical argument, and (d) it's slope is more slippery than a wet sidewalk in February.
Problems with techno-utopianism: This is the real enemy to be combatted, in my view. Techno-utopians mindlessly chase, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described it in The Great Gatsby, “the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Techno-utopianism is a position often, and wrongly in my view, ascribed to people like Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk-- both of whom definitely exhibit symptoms of it, to be sure-- but it is more accurately descriptive of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and David Sinclair, whose confidence in the utopian ends of their technologies have numbed them to the often unscrupulous venality of their means.
If rudimentary education is the difference between techno-optimism and techno-ignorance, and hopeful imagination is the difference between techno-optimism and techno-apocalypticism, I'd say that something like critical acumen is the difference between techno-optimism and techno-utopianism.
4. I really want to see what machine intelligence is capable of.
The developments being made in AI right now are literally mind-blowing, in no small part due to the fact that the developments being made in AI right now include developments of minds that we humans do not fully understand. We are not only in the process of reverse-engineering the very thing that distinguishes humans from the rest of the living Universe-- or so we thought!-- but also engineering a better version of it. Maybe what we're making is a "mind," maybe it's an "intelligence," may it will someday soon exhibit something like what we call "consciousness." We're finding it hard to categorize what AI is because we still haven't figured out whatever it is that we're doing when we try to figure it out.
Whatever you want to call them, current machine "thinking" capabilities are OMG WTF awesome; they inspire genuine awe. Whatever happens as a result their continued lightning-speed development-- and I'm 100% confident that "what happens as a result" will be the end of humanity as we know it (see #5 below)-- I, for one, am super-stoked to be alive to see this through. I often ask my students-- who are all with 2yrs of 20 years old-- to imagine taking their current smartphone, travelling back two decades in time, showing it to someone in 1999 and explaining to that person what their smartphone could do, and then asking that person: "what year in the future do you think I'm from?" When I play this game myself, I guess that 1999 Person would put Time-Travelling-Me at least 100 years in the future. Probably more.
Just think about that for a second. "Kids today" have already lived through what you, twenty years ago, would have likely guessed to be more than a century's worth of technological change. In fact, I'd bet that twenty-years-ago-you would reckon that the ubiquitous, garden variety, machine intelligences that present-day-you interacts with every day were so indeterminably far off in the future as to be actually impossible.
Many of us don't even notice anymore the amazing technological advancements surrounding us, and most people aren't even aware of the advancements that are currently underway. I'm of a mind that we, humans, are very soon going to have to make the decision to merge with machine intelligence and advanced robotics or else be rendered extinct... not by their malevolence, but rather by our own irrelevance.
Which brings me to...
5. I believe the last "human" has already been born, that machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence in every way, that the near-future (< 50yrs) will look nothing like anything we can imagine... and that all of these are good things.
Might as well just pile it on since we're at the end of the list. There's a lot to unpack in #5, obviously, so I'd first point you to my essay "Humanity: How To Tell Your Students They're The End of It" if you're interested in a slightly-longer account of why I am confident that the last human is already walking the earth with us now. I won't get into a deep discussion of what comes next here, mostly because the many and varied nuances distinguishing transhumanism and posthumanism are still up for debate (and I have some of my own idiosyncratic nuances to add to those debates). For perspective, I suppose I'd just remind you that the Universe has been around for about 14 BILLION years, and our little planet Earth has been around for only roughly 1/3rd of that time. There's been "life" on Earth for 3.8 billion years, but the evolution of "human" life has only happened in the last 5 million years.
Now, let's move things back a whole decimal: what we call human "civilization" is only 6 thousand years old. Oh, and btw, most of the humans walking the Earth today only gained recognition as full members of "humanity" in many parts of the global North and West lest than a century ago, if then.
Here's the thing: "humanity" is barely a blip on the Universal timeline, really. We humans have made a lot (and destroyed a lot) in our short time here, but our survival thus far should be solely credited to the evolutionary development, and subsequently technological development (by hook and by crook), of our unique form of advanced, self-aware intelligence. Ours is an intelligence capable of encoding information-- in language, in writing, in social structures and political institutions, in culture and folklore, in buildings and artifacts and machines, and now in immaterial digital code-- such that whatever knowledge any one of use gains can be preserved and shared intergenerationally. We're pretty flimsy, vulnerable, and sloppily-designed as animals, but we've got big brains and even bigger egos, and the latter two have served us well...
At this point in history, I think it is fair to say that humanity has made too many bad (environmental, economic, political, social, moral) decisions to be unreservedly confident in its long-term (or even short-term) survival. Some of those decisions have painted us into a metaphorical corner as a species. Chief among those species-threatening, terrible decisions are capitalism, nationalism/anti-globalism, racism, and environmental disregard. Humanity's future prospects, if we continue on with business as usual, look very, very bleak. If current global trends continue without dramatic intervention and change, I'd mark the beginnings of the human apocalypse at around 1998-- that is not a typo, I mean more than two decades in the past-- and the eventual, longsuffering and miserable, extinction of humanity by the mid-2050s.
Good for you, readers, that I am NOT techno-apocalyptic! We need not proceed like lambs to the slaughter! I believe there is still time to intervene! To change our ways! To not only diminish human suffering in the near-future but to flourish and evolve!
We're nearing the end of the semester and I'm wrapping up two of the most exciting and intellectually invigorating courses I've taught in a long time. One of them was an upper-division undergraduate course entitled "Technology and Human Values" (syllabus here) The other was an intro-level undergrad Ethics course called "Contemporary Moral Issues" (syllabus here), half of which is a historical survey of moral theory and the other half of which is primarily focused on contemporary moral issues surrounding technology.
Full disclosure: I'm currently in the process of writing a book on emergent technologies, and I have an extremely heavy (usually 5/5) teaching load, so I'm always eager to take advantage of opportunities to combine my course prep-time with my research time. For the past couple of years, I've pretty much gone all-in on that combination. This semester, I perfected it.
Maybe I should have seen this coming, but one of the things that I realized this term was how painfully little students understand about the technologies that they use every day and that thoroughly shape their lives. (To be fair, almost everything that I say in the following about "students" also applies to most people I know.) I'm talking about very basic technologies here-- likesearch engines and GPS navigation and social media platforms and genetic testing and autocorrect-- all of which are current technologies made possible by what we call "narrow AI," so commonly used by all of us as to be practically invisible. (I've written about that "disappearing tech" phenomenon here.) When we talked about variants of artificial intelligence in class this term, I noticed that students had a tendency to either grossly overestimate AI capabilities (a la "robot overlords") or grossly underestimate them (a la "super advanced calculators"). Leaving aside the monumental importance and ubiquity of AI, I was dismayed to realize that just explaining how algorithms work was a challenge, even to STEM majors.
In fact, somewhere around the sixth week of my upper-division course, one of the students raised her hand and said: "I don't think when I say 'contemporary technology' I mean the same thing as when you say 'contemporary technology.' The things you're talking about sound like science-fiction to me. Can you describe what you're thinking of when you say it?"
A few things about this incredibly productive moment in my course:
First, kudos to that student for asking the question that I am sure everyone else in the room wanted to ask. Second, this is exactly the sort of question that, if it remains unasked, can totally derail a course. (Check out my "Why I Invited Students To Give Me The Finger" post on exactly this problem of unasked questions in class!) Third, her question served as a timely and important reality-check for me. I have been so deep into my research on emergent technologies that I actually sounded delusional to regular people! And, fourth, I realized not only how deficient my students' understanding of contemporary tech was, but that THIS IS A REAL PROBLEM.
If students don't understand (and only barely recognize) the most quotidian technological capabilities all around them, the ones they use everyday, how can we expect them to be forward-looking in their evaluations and assessments? Despite all of our emphasis on STEM in higher ed, we're teaching students how to make, to repair, and to manage-- or, in many cases, just to babysit-- machines that they do not fully understand, about which they rarely ask non-technical questions, and the implications of which they are neither equipped nor encouraged to appraise.
This kind of ignorance and apathy will be our undoing as a species, if it is not already.
If I had to put a finger on it, the other crucial insight from this semester was that. perhaps now more than ever before in human history, it's hard to think about the future. Of course, that's partially because we can't know the future-- duh-- but that has always been true. What I think distinguishes our contemporary efforts to reckon with the future is the very real and imminent possibility of our extinction as a species, which challenges not only our understanding, but also our imagination. I might be inclined to compare it to the early 20th C. threat of nuclear power--except the "nuclear threat" permitted obvious diplomatic dversions of disaster-- or the bubonic plague-- except that humanity survived the plague three times.
We're getting poorer, sicker, stupider, less relevant, less free, and more robotic by the day.
If you don't know, it is already possible (thanks to CRISPR technologies) to edit the human genome at not only the somatic level, but also the germ level, which could easily accomplish the very worst aims of 19th and 20th C. eugenics programs by the time your great-grandchildren are born. Deep ML and neural-network AI research is progressing so quickly that if-- I would say "when"-- general AI is achieved, you and I mere plebes will likely not know about it. Tens of millions of jobs previously done by humans will be automated within the next decade, including the most obvious ones (like drivers and pilots, postal workers, radiologists/pathologists, travel agents, "customer service," bankers, financial analysts, accountants, and everyone in the print industry), but also the less obvious ones (like nurses, surgeons, waiters, farmers, sex workers, mechanics, judges, even teachers/professors).
We, humans, are this close to being considered by whatever advanced intelligence replaces us like we, humans, consider the great apes.
Despite all this, I remain a techno-optimist. Unlike the dumpster fire that is our current environmental sitch, we still have a fighting chance to commandeer the ship of technology. What is more, commandeering that ship may be our last and best hope for extinguishing the climate-change dumpster fire.
So, if you're interested in these questions and if you're of a mind that the Gen Z cohort of undergrads should be, too, here's a list of eminently important texts that I used in my courses this semester. You should read them. You should teach them. You should stand on the street corner and pass them out.
I've divided the following into four general categories: (1) texts on social media, its history and implications, (2) texts on algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, (3) texts on actually "emergent" technologies (so, things that are not yet real, but will be soon), and (4) texts that I haven't yet taught but I will be incorporating into my classes in the next few semesters.This should go without saying, but there are plenty of fantastic texts that are not listed here that would also be great. I'm just listing the books that I've tried and found to be successful at the undergraduate level.
Earlier in the semester, I was really doubting my decision to assign texts on social media since Zuckerberg et al were in the news practically every other day. Then, I remembered that (a) students don't read the news and (b) they DGAF about Facebook, so I'm glad that I kept Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads and Zeynep Tufekci's Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Network Protestson the syllabus. Wu's text is a history of how-we-got here to the era of social media behemoths, who don't sell us goods or services so much as they capture our attention and then sell our attention to others who want to sell us goods and services (or ideologies) or who want our data for more nefarious purposes. It's eminently readable with a lot of great anecdotes, and the new addition includes an extra chapter arguing that Trump is the first "attention merchant President." (The last chapter is fantastic!) Tufekci is one of my favorite tech writers today, and I would assign almost anything she writes. One challenge I noticed with teaching Twitter and Tear Gas is that students are woefully under-informed about the Arab Spring uprisings, but I was able to translate many of her insights about "movement cultures" with reference to movements closer to my students' experience (esp #BlackLivesMatter and #DefendDACA). I think Tufekci's text generated some of the most interesting questions and conversations from students this semester.
*An aside about teaching social media: Social media has only been around for less than two decades, and the primary demographic of users for each platform changes dramatically and quickly. By the time we started talking/teaching about social media, platforms like SixDegrees and MySpace were already long gone or irrelevant. For GenXers like myself, our go-to references are Facebook and Twitter. Those are still the most populous platforms, but they are not the platforms used by college-aged students today.So, for your handy reference, I recommend the following taxonomy that I just made up:
Yes, yes, I know: Facebook and Instagram (and Whatsapp) are all a part of the Zuckerberg Empire, and that's an important thing to talk about if you want to talk about the business of social media. But, the platforms are very different, as are their user demographic, and anecdotes about one rarely translate well to the others.
[ Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning ]
When I'm thinking about what books to assign on AI (broadly speaking), the following criteria are most important to me:
Accessibility: How much technical expertise is necessary to understand the text? Can it hold the attention of a non-STEM undergraduate major while at the same time not seeming "rudimentary" to a STEM undergraduate?
Authorial Disposition Is the text pessimistic/apocalyptic or optimistic about AI? Does the author provide compelling evidence for their pessimism or concrete suggestions for the rest of us, going forward, to accompany their optimism? Is the author a Luddite?
Timeliness: In general, I don't assign tech texts that weren't written in the last 5 years.
Philosophical Heft: Does the text ask important questions of meaning and value? Does the text put forward, explicitly or implicitly, a theory of mind, or technology, or humanity, or intelligence, or society, or politics, etc, etc? Bonus points if it employs actual philosophers.
Explanatory Force: Will the reader have (at least) a nodding familiarity with the vocabulary, the capabilities, and the limitations of artificial intelligence after reading it? Will they be to recognize (and assess) the capabilities/limitations of emergent AI technology in their lives as a result?
As I said above, I think it's very risky business to try to talk about actually emergent technologies in classes where basic tech literacy can't already be assumed. Doudna and Sternberger's A Crack in Creation: Gene editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution might be an exception to that warning, as I think it can (and should) be taught in most Medical Ethics courses. Jennifer Doudna is, of course, the multiple-prize-winning inventor of CRISPR technology. Since her discovery of that game-changing gene-editing technology in 2012, she has also been the loudest and harshest critic of its use. A Crack in Creation is definitely one of the most accessible introductions to CRISPR capabilities, and next to AI there is no more important emergent tech than CRISPR today.. so, really, everyone should read it.
Kate Devlin's Turned On: Science Sex, and Robots-- the title says it all-- is a hilariously fun read, and it hides some of the most important philosophical questions about emerging tech just underneath all that fun. I often tell my students that when we talk about coexisting with our coming "robot overlords,"..
In sum, Moreiras contends that we have a moral and political obligation not to be informants. This is not primarily because snitches get stitches, mind you, but rather because permitting oneself to conform to the figure of an "informant" accelerates the arrival of a totalitarian state and, with it, the end of human freedom.
[Please keep in mind that I am glossing over many of the very important nuances in what follows!]
Moreiras argued that the contemporary political condition is one in which we, humans, find ourselves regularly reduced to that of political subjects qua data-sets or repositories of information. (I trust that regular readers of this blog can see already why my interest was piqued.) On Moreiras' account, our relationship to the State is one of a political subject to a political authority in which the latter's primary exercise of authority is subjugation-via-forced-exposition or "extraction." For Moreiras, the "expository State" in which we now live (a term he borrows from Bernard Harcourt's Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age) is consistent with, but excessive of, other well-rehearsed and largely Foucaultian configurations of State authority in late modernity e.g., the "disciplinary" State, the "control" State, the "security" State, or the "surveillance" State.
Ventriloquizing Moreiras, we might say that, yes, it is still the case that The Man wants to discipline you. Yes, it remains the case that The Man aims to control you. Yes, The Man still manufactures all sorts of security theaters and commands all manner of security apparatuses, which you are involuntarily compelled to participate in and which utilize your passive consent to conscript you into volunteering for larger surveillance systems that do not require your consent, but only your complicity. At the end of the day, however, what The Man actually wants is not discipline or control, not security or surveillance, not even really your consent to or your complicity with its instrumental tools of subjectificaton. Rather, what The Man wants is to extract your information. The State of Extraction wants both the information you haveand the information you are. The political authority of the expository State, on Moreiras' account, is most clearly manifest in its "extractionary" function, its implicit demand (via the "Force of Law," or what Derrida called its metaphysical foundation of authority) -- but, more often, its explicit demand (via frequent, coercive, cruel, and often torturous interrogations by state agents)-- that one "exposit," reveal, disclose, translate, de-cipher, or serve as an informant. Moreiras' argument depends, in a deeply Gramscian sense, on the presumption that what he calls "the State of Extraction" is something like the perfect execution of hegemony, which even in Gramsci's account always depended on the unholy conjunction of coercion and consent. The expository state (or, in Moreiras' account, "the State of Extraction") requires informants in the same way that we, flimsy mortal humans, require air and water and food. It turns out, though, that informants come in many varieties. In his paper, Moreiras articulated an entire taxonomy of "informants" that included both the familiar (garden-variety, self-interested "snitch"), the imaginary (allegedly "just" informant, who acts in accordance with what Kant would have recognized as a good will), and every manner of voluntary or coerced confessor in between. Those taxonomic differences between forms of informants notwithstanding, Moreiras argued that informants as such are always morally suspect, not because it is impossible to imagine a morally upright informant-- e.g., an informant who informs in the interest of justice, like the "undercover cop"-- but rather because "the Law" itself, which marks the border between informant and extractor-of-information, only rewards "evil" (in the Kantian sense) informants and never rewards (for lack of a better descriptor) morally just informants. It does so because "justice" or "the Good" is not a primary, or even auxiliary, concern for the State of Extraction. To an information-collector, charged only with the task of collecting information, all information in equally valuable, after all. It does not matter if the information is"true" or "false." It only incidentally matters if the information is utile. The primary concern is that the information is extractable, or that the possessor of information takes the form (or can be made to take the form) of an informant. The acquisition of information-- more information, better information-- such that it can be possessed and controlled by an absolutely centralized Information Authority is the sine qua non of the State of Extraction. And that is the basis of Moreiras' well-founded worry that, aided by information technologies, the State of Extraction is on a fast-track to totalitarianism.
No surprise then, that Moreiras goes on to argue that we have both a moral and a political duty to resist being deciphered, to resist being coerced into expositing ourselves in the service of the instrumental ends of State authority, to resist disclosing, divulging, translating, or confessing the information we have and the information we are. That sort of resistance is hard work in this, our Information Age. We regularly (daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute) volunteer expositions of ourselves in Facebook statuses, tweets, Instagram images, and all manner of digitized communications (voicemails, emails, Snapchats, text messages) with one another. We semi-involuntary do the same whenever we shop, or bank, or look for Google/Amazon/Netflix recommendations, or visit a doctor, or vote, or go to school. We carry around tracking and extracting devices with us everywhere, which we adorably call "smartphones." We cannot help but be locatable, readable, iterable, analyzable, and monetizable every waking moment of our existence. (Sleeping moments, too!) So, Moreiras implores us to intentionally and conscientiously invest in the hard work of preserving-- or, perhaps, discovering for the first time-- a state in which our secrets can remain secret, a state in which we can remain silent, a state in which we arenotforced to be informants. Moreiras allows for the possibility of such a human "state," by which he does not mean a political State, but rather something more like an existential situation. In fact, he consistently described this non-extractionary and non-extractable human space as prior to or belowor beyond what we currently think of as the political condition. It is a "protoplitical" or "infrapolitical" condition. (Moreiras offered it as an alternative account of what Arendt or Hamacher might have called "the right to have rights.") In one of the most compelling moments of his talk, Moreiras described this protopolitical/infrapolitical state as such:
I could think of a place, the border of the border, where information would not have to be shared, where language and politics would not come together under the imperative to inform, an opaque space of silence and secrecy, a place of radical reticence concerning unconcealment..
As someone thoroughly disenchanted with the nation-state and deeply invested in border-erasure, I found this description of the "protopolitical" or "infrapolitical" condition qua "an opaque space of silence and secrecy" compelling. And I found myself genuinely moved by Moreiras' call for us to imagine a political condition that would assume this as a proto-political right: the right to refuse disclosure, to refuse to inform, to refuse to share secrets or, in what Moreiras suggested amounts to the same thing, a right to remain silent. Moreover, I think that Moreiras is correct to insist that, at least in the near future, we have an immediate moral obligation to learn "how not to be an informant" if we want to allow for the the possibility of a (human, political) future that is non-totalitarian. But, alas, you knew this was coming... I have some reservations.
Before I jump into the specific concerns that Moreiras' paper raised in my own mind, let me first say that his was one of the most brilliant and provocative papers that I have heard since the panel on "monotheism(s), politics and democracy" at SPEP in 2017 (which I wrote about here). I trust I am not the only one for whom this is the case but, in my experience, as I have grown older and more sedimented in my views, I find precious too few opportunities to interact with other scholars in venues like the symposium this past weekend, where one finds oneself in an intimate-enough "thinking space" that allows for people-who-otherwise-share-common-concerns to really consider the manner in which the way their concerns are considered are often informed by un-reflected-upon or not-yet-thematized "first principles" that inevitably steer "shared" concerns in often contradictory directions. (That was an unforgivably clunky sentence. Mea culpa.) I spent a good amount of time chatting with Moreiras between sessions and those were some of the most productive conversations I've had in a long time with someone who I would describe as a techno-pessimist. I am well aware that my own (bordering-on-pathological) techno-optimism sometimes has a tendency to cloud my judgment of tech-suspicious arguments. In my experience, that is usually because my interlocutors either (a) possess a grossly reductive, outdated, or uninformed understanding of emergent technologies, (b) want to romanticize "unplugged" life in a way that is no longer realistically possible or, in what amounts to the same thing, in a manner that their own daily use of technology betrays, or (c) are clinging to some mystical/magical conception of "the human" with a medieval Great-Chain-of-Being death-grip that does not allow for the impending and inevitable death of "the human." Moreiras' arguments, thankfully, escaped all three of above. Rather, my experience listening to Moreiras' paper and speaking with him informally was to find myself pressed upon by this question: how is it that I can unreservedly agree with all of the premises and yet find myself denying the conclusion? Would that I had this experience more often! At any rate, if I had to put a finger on the sticky point between Moreiras' argument and my own reservations, it would be something like the following: Silence and secrecy cannot, and ought not, be conflated.
I'm convinced that the contemporary democratic (classical liberal) understanding of the "right to remain silent" already presumes a conflation of silence and secrecy that is ultimately unsustainable. In fact, "the right to remain silent" is exemplary of exactly the same sort of autoimmune tendencies that Derrida argued (rightly, in my view) are operational in all fundamentally democratic concepts: friendship, cosmopolitanism and forgiveness, hospitality, animality, gift-giving, even "democracy" itself. There are, of course, many good reasons to advocate for a more expansive interpretation of the right to remain silent, especially in what Moreiras described as our current State of Extraction. (If you haven't already, I highly recommend everyone read James Duane's You Have The Right to Remain Innocent, a text that I will be incorporating into all of my classes next semester, inspired by Moreiras' paper.) Nevertheless, the "right to remain silent" is a state-sanctioned right, Constitutionally secured by the Fifth Amendment and pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona. In the United States, it allows citizensto refuse to disclose information that might incriminate them and, therefore, is best described as a right to keep secrets "secret" from the State and not a right to keep secrets "silent." The "right to remain silent" as it is currently configured, enacted, and enforced is not, strictly speaking, a right to remain silent, but rather a right to refuse the disclosure of (already-shared) secrets. I am all on-board for reconsidering our principled, democratic Miranda right to remain silent as not only fundamental, but essential, to our effective and free participation in the political sphere as it is currently configured. But I wonder: can we consider the "right to remain silent," as Moreiras suggests, a proto-political or infra-political right? That is, can we think of "the right to remain silent" as the ("proto-political") condition for the possibility of politics, or the ("infra-political") ground of politics itself? I'm inclined to think not. That is, I'm inclined to think that "the right to remain silent" is incapable of accomplishing the same work that Arendt or Hamacher intended "the right to have rights" to accomplish, i.e., as articulating the condition for the possibility of entering the political sphere at all ("proto-"), or the condition for the possibility of participating in politics simpliciter ("infra-") because, I would argue, the natural, inevitable, and logical predicate of "politics" is disclosure. Politics abhors silence like Nature abhors a vacuum. What it means to be an active and concerned participant in the operations of "politics," of a demos, of a "people" or a polis, is not only the willingness to, but the volitional consent to, share information. Sharing information is politics. Some of that information is shared as "secrets," yes, but secrecy and silence are not synonymous. Secrets are not, and cannot be, silent.
Here's the thing about secrets: in order to be "secrets," the information contained in the secret must be shared. (I am, of course, repeating the basic argument of Derrida in Shibboleths: For Paul Celan here, but an "unshared" or "silent" secret is not, properly speaking, a secret at all.) Secrets must be disclosed, decoded, translated, or communicated-- at least with a single other-- in order to to properly fall under the category of "secrets." Secrets, qua "secrets," must not only contain information that can be transmitted, but must have been transmitted. That is to say, inasmuch as any of us know secrets, we are not just "potential" informants, we are already informants (or extractors of information). So, if I had to summarize my resistance to Moreira' argument that we have an immediate obligation to amplify or hyperbolize our "right to remain silent" as some kind of protopolitical right, it would be that there is an irreducible difference between silence and secrecy. Secrecy is political; silence is not. All that does not mean that I fundamentally disagree with the normative claim of Moreiras' paper, i.e., that we ought to resist being informants today, for the purpose of preventing (or at least slowing down) the transformation of our current State of Extraction into a totalitarian state. There are many good reasons to adopt Moreiras' position as a default civic posture. (Or anti-civic posture. I've left out all of the really interesting anarchic undercurrents of Moreiras' argument.) I suppose, though, that I would say that the "remaining silent" ship has already sailed as a resistance strategy. All we have left is to manage, as best we are able, the extent to which we can be coerced to disclose, the extent to which we can be forced to inform, the extent to which we respect (or disrespect) the borders that are drawn for us, the extent to which we still reserve the right to share our secrets and with whom. But all of those strategies of resisting the State of Extraction absolutely require that we loudly, intrusively, and conspicuously occupy the space of political activity and not the proto- or infra-political space. I'm inclined to think of Moreiras' invocation to "be silent" along the same lines as the oft-repeated advice to "just unplug" or to return to Nature and live "off the grid." Those recommendations are not without some merit, of course, but they are fundamentally apolitical recommendations. They are not so much strategies of resistance as they a refusal of politics altogether. Consequently, I find it very difficult to see how they might impede the rapidly approaching totalitarian State or how they might enhance or preserve whatever human freedom we have left.
One last thing about snitches... Let's consider the reason why snitches get stitches, why informants are considered traitorous, which is because they have betrayed a non-universalizable obligation to keep their secrets secret. Snitches, in the garden-variety sense, trade information for favors. Sometimes those favors are trifling, sometimes that are a matter of life and death. Whether informants "exposit" voluntarily or under coercion is, in the getting-stitches sense, immaterial. They have betrayed a special obligation. "Special obligations," which oblige us to some others but not to all others, are always difficult to parse philosophically, though common sense morality seems to understand them intuitively. Our relationships to other humans are many and varied. Each variety-- family, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens, comrades, lovers, et al-- requires a site-specific set of (spoken or unspoken) promises that serve as the ties that bind that relationship and obligate us to it.. Special obligations are interesting, in part, because they are a subset of what Kant..
This is another installment in my series of reviews of Black Mirror. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know! [Note from Dr. J: What follows is Part 2 of a two-part guest post fromJeffrey Gower. You can read Part One here.]
Near the end of "White Bear," as Victoria sits bound to a chair facing an audience consisting of the reassembled onlookers who, throughout the day, had refused her any help or human solidarity, a video recording of televised news reports the following about her verdict:
"The trial of Victoria Skillane finally concluded today. The verdict: guilty. Together with her fiancé Iain Rannoch, whose death in custody had delayed the trial, Skillane abducted Jemima Sykes just miles from her home. Prompting a nation-wide search amidst emotional pleas from her parents. For months the youngster’s disappearance had been a mystery, the sole clue being her distinctive white teddy bear discovered in a lay-by two miles from the family home. The white bear became an enduring symbol in the hunt for Jemima, a hunt that ended in a local forest. Jemima’s body was found here. It had been wrapped in a sleeping bag and burnt. The couple were caught after harrowing footage of Jemima’s torture and murder was discovered on a mobile phone in Skillane’s possession. Iain Rannoch, identified by his distinctive tattoo, killed the youngster as Victoria Skillane held the camera. Breaking down in tears, Skillane admitted to filming Jemima’s final moments, claiming her fiancé had pressured her into helping him, maintaining she was under his spell. The jury was not convinced by Skillane’s story, and neither was the judge, who labelled her a uniquely wicked and poisonous individual. “You were an enthusiastic spectator to Jemima’s suffering. You actively reveled in her anguish,” he said. Adding that her punishment would be proportionate and considered. By hanging himself in his cell, many believe Iain Rannoch evaded justice. The public mood is now focused on ensuring his accomplice can’t do the same."
There are a few things to note about this news report recounting the rationale justifying Victoria Skillane’s punishment.
First, note the emphasis on the juridical production of the truth of Victoria Skillane’s subjectivity: “who you are” is identified with what you did to Jemima Sykes, and especially with the judge’s evaluation of her criminal nature, rooted in a rejection of her own account of being under Iain’s spell. For the judge, Skillane is “a uniquely wicked and poisonous individual.”
Second, note the explicit invocation of the principle of retribution. After the screening of the news report is concluded, the dramaturge, “Baxter,” excoriates Skillane with the words, “A poor little girl, helpless and terrified. And you just watched. …How do you like it?” Skillane’s punishment consists of being subjected to the gaze of the onlookers because her contribution to the torture and murder of Jemima Sykes was to look, to passively look on as Iain Rannoch committed his atrocious crimes. Following a general table equating crimes with punishments, Skillane’s crimes might warrant a certain amount of time in prison. But when this table of general equivalencies is adapted to the particular case by being uniquely fitted to the circumstances of the crime and the character traits of the convicted criminal, a generally applicable equation like X crime = Y punishment is no longer tenable. According to a strictly and consistently applied principle of retribution, Skillane must be made to suffer precisely, singularly, what she made her victim Jemima suffer. And according to the judge’s assessment, her crime does not merely consist of remaining passive by refraining to intervene as Iain committed his crime. Rather, she was “an enthusiastic spectator to Jemima’s suffering,” who “actively reveled in her anguish.” Given how the governing logic of the world of “White Bear” is doled out to the viewer, at first blush we can’t help but assume that the violence that threatens her belongs to a dystopian, post-apocalyptic social order in which the strong are given license to prey on the weak. As we learn at the end of the episode, however, what we actually witness is a carefully crafted, rational, principled, and most importantly restrained logic of punishment. Skillane is forced to confront a general refusal of human solidarity because it reflects the same refusal she showed Jemima, for sure. But her punishment also asks her to confront her active participation in the crime through enthusiastic spectatorship and revelry. We might be skeptical of the judge’s dismissal of Skillane’s own story, that she was under Iain’s spell, but we can’t ignore the logic of a sentence that individualizes punishment by soliciting the active participation of the onlookers, those who are meant to play the role of actively and enthusiastically consuming the spectacle of Skillane’s suffering.
In this justice park, then, applying the principle of retribution limits the extent of violence permitted in punishment. From the second observation it follows that, third, the measured restraint of punishment is prescribed by rational principles. In the judge’s language, Victoria Skillane’s sentence is “proportionate and considered.” That is, a rational principle of retribution sets an upper and a lower limit on the severity of punishment, restricting the degree and kind of violence can be used; but also and more precisely, the principle forbids the specific logic of substitution mentioned above. As we have seen, in his theater of cruelty in the woods, Baxter stages the scene as if Skillane will serve as Jem’s substitute in torture. While this substitution is interrupted by the merely apparent contingency of Jem’s return, the news report makes it clear that the refusal of substitution is an explicit and intentional – “considered” – dimension of Skillane’s punishment. Even though Iain Rannoch “evaded justice” by hanging himself in his cell, there is no attempt to punish Skillane for his part in the crime. The punishments that would count as equivalent to Iain’s crimes according to the cited principle of proportionality are refused. With the exception of the physical pain she seems to suffer when her memory is wiped – the preamble and conclusion to each day of her punishment – she is not subject to physical torture and there is no mention of the possibility of capital punishment. She cannot substitute for Iain just as she could not substitute for Jem. Rather, there is a strict adherence to the principle of proportionality invoked by the judge. The punishment fits this crime.
None of this implies that Victoria Skillane’s punishment is light. She is not punished to the degree that Iain would have been, because the principle of retribution demands that she be treated as she treated her victim. In the world of “White Bear,” as we have seen, general equivalents are insufficient for fulfilling the logic of this principle, and an entire justice park must be established to treat Victoria as she treated Jemima down to the last details. (Nothing signifies the singularity of the punishment more precisely than the white bear itself, Jemima’s doll transformed into the name of the place within the theatrical fiction that might provide salvation, and transformed once more into the name of the episode.) The principle of retribution seems to provide a rational justification for the fitting punishment, and yet “fit” here is meant so literally and is realized with such exactitude that the minute details of the crime are taken as the precise measure of the appropriate punishment. Despite the intelligible principle that provides this punishment with its rationale, this attempt to map a general rule onto a singular case with such exactitude and without remainder produces a kind of irrational hypertrophy of punishment. The rational principle is meant to restrict the violence of punishment, but its most “accurate” application results in a new kind of irrational and violent excess. Only now, the excess consists not of sovereign violence applied to the body but of a punishment crafted to fit the minutiae of the crime. And Victoria Skillane’s crime consists of just looking, observing, watching. The theatrical gaze has become the instrument of violence.
This door to the law, this justice park, has been built for Victoria Skillane alone. Under what conditions could a society invest so many resources into punishing one crime? We might imagine the hypertrophy of punishment just mentioned spiraling out of control as the obsessively detailed application of the principle of retribution demands the establishment of justice parks that reproduce in their punishments the singular details of every crime. In such a society, the dividing lines between punishment, theater, and theme park would blur utterly as entertainment increasingly takes place in “hundreds of tiny theaters of punishment.” The logic of the episode points in this direction. Yet it is also likely that Victoria Skillane is a special sort of criminal who has her own justice park because the society is making an example of her. Why? Before spectatorship becomes relevant to this case due to Victoria’s specific crimes, Jemima’s disappearance had already become a media spectacle. The public is captivated by Jemima’s white bear, the sole clue and, as the news report tells us, an “enduring symbol” of the investigation. The public viewership has been watching from the beginning.
Toward the end of the episode, in one of the scenes presented after the credits begin to role that gives us more insight into the justice park itself, the dramaturge, who we’ve known as Baxter, welcomes the day’s group of participating audience members and offers a few “Rules for Onlookers.” 1) No Talking: Victoria Skillane must be convinced that the onlookers are mesmerized just as she was under Iain’s “spell.” 2) Keep Your Distance: Victoria Skillane is dangerous, and the onlookers should imagine that “she is an escaped lion.” 3) Enjoy Yourselves: this is the “most important rule of all.” Are these rules necessary? Or have these people always been onlookers in the sense required by Victoria’s punishment? From the beginning, haven’t they been silently mesmerized by a spectacle from which they keep their distance, consuming the spectacle of Jemima’s disappearance as “true crime” before changing the channel, as it were, to watch a new reality television show, a new genre located somewhere between court TV and the hunger games? In spellbound silence before the spectacle, they enjoy themselves. They keep their distance and refuse to intervene, but they are still enthusiastic spectators and active revelers. And spectatorship is not incidental to the punishment at the heart of this piece of theater. Rather, the gaze is the punishment.
In exploring the proximity between theater and punishment, “White Bear” certainly highlights the theatrical techniques employed in administering punishments. Staging and framing punishment as a public spectacle lies at the center of its concerns. And yet the episode pushes the proximity of theater and punishment to its limit by exploring what happens when the difference between the two is effaced, when theater wholly becomes punishment and punishment wholly becomes theater. While staging punishments as public spectacles may have once made sense as a vehicle for displaying the power of the state and deterring crime by instilling fear in the spectators, “White Bear” suggests that when theater and punishment become indistinguishable, the theatrical gaze itself becomes an instrument of punishment. When executions and other punishments took place in the public square, watching the condemned criminal suffer was meant to convince the spectator to avoid acting in a way that might cause them to suffer the same fate. In “White Bear,” by contrast, the spectator’s gaze is turned into the instrument of punishment. The onlookers are passive insofar as they refuse to help. And the refusal of human solidarity constitutes an integral part of Victoria Skillane’s suffering. But this suffering is heightened by the fact that the onlookers are not merely passive; rather, they are enthusiastic spectators, active revelers. This fact might prompt us to turn the critical gaze on ourselves as viewers and consumers of spectacle. White Bear is, after all, a justice park, a theater, a reality TV show. And we love it.
[This is the another installment in my series of reviews of Black Mirror. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!] [Note from Dr. J: What follows is a guest post fromJeffrey Gower, a brilliant philosopher, dear friend, and VAP in Philosophy at Wabash College. Like me, Jeff also teaches the "White Bear" episode of Black Mirror in his courses, so I invited him to share his thoughts about it in this series. This is a two-parter, so stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow!]
The Black Mirror episode “White Bear” (S2E2) imagines a penal justice system in which punishment and theater converge. As retribution for her crime, Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) is subjected to the gaze of an enthusiastic throng of onlookers. The public spectacle does not serve a purpose external to the punishment; it is not something added on to the “real” purpose of punishment, and so it differs from an execution whose publicity is meant to deter crime. Instead, for essential reasons that I’ll explore here, Skillane is punished through her subjection to the gaze of others who refuse to intervene as she is rendered helpless and terrorized. In this sense, the justifying rationale for her ordeal bears some resemblance to the use of stocks, a corporeal punishment meant to expose the criminal to public humiliation. After all, toward the end of the episode, spectators throw rotten tomatoes at the transparent carriage transporting her. We might be tempted by this comparison to interpret “White Bear” as anticipating a return to the barbarity of corporeal punishment, and hence as a reversal of the historical transformation analyzed in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish whereby modern punishments recede from the public view and focus increasingly on the soul rather than the body. But it seems to me that the episode does not imagine a high-tech return to pre-Enlightenment barbarity. Rather, it envisions a world in which a technology of the spectacle allows us to apply Enlightenment principles more rigorously and consistently than ever before.
On Foucault’s analysis of pre-Enlightenment systems of punishment, the public execution provided a theatrical stage where the excess that defines sovereign power was put on display through the excessive suffering of the condemned. But the theater of cruelty in “White Bear” does not provide a stage for transforming sovereign power into spectacle. By contrast, it reveals a violence unique to restrained, “humane” systems of punishment – the violence of the spectacle itself. But how does being-seen – being turned into a theatrical spectacle – constitute punishment? Foucault helps us understand how the cruel and inhumane treatment that Skillane is forced to endure might arise from the consistent and rigorous application of rational principles meant to undergird a less severe and more humane system of punishments. Being subjected to the gaze of the onlookers is thus the only punishment that fits her crime.
On Foucault’s account, Enlightenment reformers advocated rational systems of punishment that would maximize the effect of deterring future crime while minimizing costs. The theater of punishment would no longer showcase gratuitous acts of sovereign expenditure unleashed on the body of the condemned, yet theatrical spectacle would not be abandoned. Foucault writes: “what is required is to establish, in the theatre of punishments, a relation that is immediately intelligible to the senses and on which a simple calculation may be based: a sort of reasonable aesthetics of punishment. …The punishment must proceed from the crime” (106). On the one hand, the need for maximal intelligibility requires that this use of the notion that the punishment must fit the crime, that the crime serves as the ultimate measure of the severity and character of the punishment be articulated in universal terms. Tables of general equivalencies could align certain punishments with corresponding types of crime, even though the uniqueness of each crime and each criminal always exceeds the intelligible generality of the law. On the other hand, then, sentences will have to be individualized to more precisely fit the unique circumstances of each crime and the unique subjectivity of each criminal: “Individualization appears as the ultimate aim of a precisely adapted code” (99), which calls for an investment in discovering the “truth” of the criminal – of investigating who the criminal has shown herself to be in committing the crime.
Foucault again: “Let us conceive of places of punishment as a Garden of the Laws that families would visit on Sundays” (111). The “punitive city” of the Enlightenment reformers will consist of “hundreds of tiny theaters of punishment. Each crime will have its law; each criminal his punishment” (113). Toward the end of “White Bear” – indeed, this setting is fully disclosed only after the credits begin to role – we learn that the events we have just witnessed take place in White Bear Justice Park. This institution combines elements of the theme park, the theater, reality television, and a court of law. There is a high value placed on audience participation: the onlookers have a role to play. The name of the justice park indicates that this massive institution has be erected for the sole purpose of applying this particular punishment to this particular criminal. This door to the law has been opened for Victoria Skillane alone.
The structure of the narrative crucially shows why because it reproduces in us, the viewers, the utter disorientation that Skillane experiences upon waking up in a strange apartment with no memory of how she got there or who she is (her name will be withheld until about thirty minutes into the episode). A jarring noise emanates from a television flashing a strange symbol. The only traces of her identity and personal history are two photographs, one picturing Victoria arm in arm with a man, another of a little girl. She emerges, baffled, onto sparsely populated streets and cries out to anyone who might listen, “Do you know who I am? I can’t remember.” Voyeurs watch her from second story windows and, without responding to her plea, take pictures or videos with their phones. A masked hunter gets a shotgun out of the trunk of his car and begins pursuit. Hordes of smartphone wielding spectators follow the hunter as he chases Victoria. They record everything.
The action reads like dystopia. One supposes that there has been some breakdown of the social order that Skillane can’t remember. She only has access to her past through fragmented flashes of memory, and since we are introduced to this world from her perspective we remain in the dark about the nature of her ordeal. When she escapes this initial danger with the help of Jem (Tuppence Middleton), Skillane’s new companion seems to confirm our suspicions. Prompted by the ominous signal flashing on Skillane’s (and every other) television screen, most of the population has been put under some mysterious spell and reduced to “onlookers” – passive spectators of the violence unleashed by the breakdown of the social order – while some people have become “hunters” and others like Victoria and Jem, unaffected by the signal, have become the hunted.
While Victoria and Jem escape the hunters at the convenience store, they eventually need to be rescued by a guy in a van, Baxter (Michael Smiley), who whisks them away just in time. But Baxter turns out to be a hunter, too. He lures the women to the woods with the promise of offering refuge, but instead takes them hostage and forces Jem to aid in binding and hooding Victoria and leading her to an outdoor torture chamber. Baxter takes pleasure in having Jem unhood Victoria at the first moment when his outdoor torture chamber, his theater of cruelty, becomes visible, when the geography of the forest allows for a line of sight from an elevated vantage point looking down into a small valley replete with various roughly hewn devices for causing pain, including crucifixes on which previous victims still hang.
Now, we haven’t yet learned that this whole drama is an elaborately staged punishment. And yet, in retrospect, we can recognize how the visibility of this world has been controlled, for us, in a way similar to how it is meted out to Skillane. Just as she is very gradually introduced throughout the episode to the meaning of her experience as punishment, our view of what is really going on in the justice park is carefully controlled. Baxter takes pleasure in the moment of unhooding because making his theater of cruelty visible at the right moment heightens the punitive effect. Skillane is made to suffer all the more because she is made to anticipate her torture. In fact, we’ll see that her punishment consists mostly if not entirely of this terrorizing anticipation, and not of physical pain. The dynamics of visibility, of revealing and concealing, are strictly controlled both for Skillane and for us, the viewers. The fact that the meaning of Skillane’s suffering as retributive punishment is withheld from the viewer as it is withheld from the convict until late in the episode, and the fact that the name of the justice park is withheld until after the credits start to role, underscore how the episode invites us to think about how theatrical techniques and the optics of punishment reinforce one another.
Jem escapes while Baxter is distracted by a phone call, angering Baxter and prompting him to double his efforts with regard to Skillane’s torture. The onlookers encircle the fallen, desiccated tree trunk to which Baxter has bound his victim as he readies his instruments of torture and describes what he plans to do. Since his staged torture show has been deprived of one of its victims, Baxter insists that Skillane will have to suffer for two, and the description serves to heighten Victoria’s terror as she cries out to the onlookers for help. But “They’re not gonna help you,” Baxter says, “they’re gonna watch.”
Notice the logic of substitution at work here. Since Baxter has been deprived of his second victim, he promises to intensify Skillane’s suffering twofold. And this verdict, this “sentence” has nothing to do with anything she has done. It is a promise of gratuitous violence that only makes sense in a dystopian world without law, where the hunters are invited to prey upon the vulnerable for the entertainment of those who consume the spectacle. Jem has avoided the “punishment” deemed warranted by the justice of this new social order, and the logic of the spectacle, the good show, demands that the violence that would have been directed at her land on another target.
But Skillane will be spared corporeal torture. The substitution is refused. Just as Baxter is about to begin, Jem returns – not out of solidarity, but to retrieve a bag of supplies – and shoots Baxter with the shotgun he’s set aside. Taking Baxter’s van, the two drive to White Bear, a place outside of town where they might be able to interrupt, by sabotage, the signal that has put the population under a spell. Though Skillane experiences flashbacks that give her a bad premonition about White Bear, they continue, with the hunters in hot pursuit. Jem and Skillane set bombs and detonators to destroy the source of the signal, but the hunters catch up and attack. In the final battle, Jem is wounded and Skillane picks up Baxter’s shotgun. Turning it on an attacking hunter, she pulls the trigger and… confetti shoots out! She is so disoriented that she becomes completely docile as the hunters, the wounded and the dead surround her, take her body in hand, sit her down in a chair resembling an electric chair, and bind her to it with manacles. Skillane is blinded by stage lights as curtains open onto an audience assembled in their seats. We realize that this dystopian social order has all been theater, though the revelation occurs not from the point of view of the audience but from the point of view of Skillane and the players, who she has taken up to this point as real people. The meaning of her ordeal as punishment is meted out to her, just as it is meted out to us, in small increments that are strictly controlled.
“It’s time to tell you who you are,” says Baxter, who turns out to be the dramaturge of this theatrical spectacle. In adapting a general table of punishments to the singularity of particular crimes, the theater of punishment fixes the “truth” of the juridical subject through the process of a trial. Since Victoria’s memory has been wiped as an essential part of her punishment, the explicitly theatrical stage of her punishment will need to rehearse certain aspects of the trial.
In late December of last year, the fourth season of Black Mirrorwas released on Netflix, which is why many fans (myself included) had been hoping to see the much-anticipated fifth season released over the holidays. As 2018 draws to a close, though, no official release date has been announced and we still haven't seen any Season 5 trailers. Mum's been the word from both Charlie Brooker and Netflix. And so, alas, it's become very clear that-- barring some unprecedented surprise-- we're not getting a new slate of episodes for this holiday season. Sad trombone.
But there's reason to hope! Earlier this month, one of the official Netflix accounts tweeted-- then quickly deleted-- a schedule (pictured left) of new sci-fi releases for December, which curiously included a single Black Mirror episode entitled "Bandersnatch." As fans of Sherlock and Downton Abbey already know, one-off "holiday" episodes are not at all unusual in British television series and, before being bought by Netflix, Black Mirror was a UK Channel 4 series. In fact, Black Mirror's Season 2 included one of these holiday specials, "White Christmas," which was released separate from the regular season, so it isn't outside the realm of possibility to expect another late-December episode like it. Moreover, rumors of a "Bandersnatch" episode have been circulating on Twitter since at least April of this year, when Black Mirror crews reportedly retro-fitted the Croydon area of London to its 1980's glory. I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that that the now-deleted tweet announcing "Bandersnatch" was part of a cruel and elaborate hoax, but the news was released yesterday that not only is "Bandersnatch" definitely being released on December 28 but also that it is feature film and not an episode! Ninety whole minutes!
(total geek out) The "Bandersnatch" plot remains tightly under wraps, but we know from Twitter that the episode (like San Junipero) takes place in the 80's. We also know that there actually was a Bandersnatch video game developed in 1984 (hey there, Orwell!) by a company called Imagine Software, about which there exists a documentary on YouTube, though the Bandersnatch game was never released because its creators went bankrupt. Aaaaand, Charlie Brooker-- who is known to drop hints from time to time about the series-- recently changed his Twitter profile pic to the keyboard for which Bandersnatch was made. Brooker and his fellow Black Mirror creators have been promising an "interactive" episode for the last year or so, and many people who know more about the Bandersnatch video game than I do believe that this might be the one. SQUEEEE! (/total geek out)
All of that re-watching and re-thinking Black Mirror over the course of the last year has given me plenty of opportunity to reconsider what I think of the series in whole and in its parts, including the order in which I originally ranked Black Mirror's nineteen episodes. So, as 2018 winds down, I figured this is the perfect time to offer up a more advanced version of my original "Black Mirror for Beginners," only this time for my fellow expert devotees. In what follows, I want to first revise my January 2017 episode rankings, but also to offer up some new observations and predictions about the series.
First things first, the revised ranking. You may recall that I did not include "White Christmas" in my initial rankings lsat January, an omission that I now count among my most egregious BM misjudgments. (I won't make the same mistake with "Bandersnatch," however good or bad it is.) Most of the other amendments in this revised list are a consequence of my reevaluating (a) what it is that Black Mirror is, (b) what it is that Black Mirror does, (c) how well (or poorly) individual episodes actualize their potential, (d) how predictive, reflective, and/or teachable individual episodes are (those three measures are not always interchangeable), and finally (e) the extent to which any individual episode accomplishes something qau cinema that could not be accomplished (or could not be accomplished as well) qua text or argument.Here's the new order:Dr. J's (Slightly Revised) Ranking of Black Mirror Episodes
The National Anthem (S1E1) and Nosedive (S3E1) I still think that "The National Anthem" is the best episode. In my previous list, I had it tied with "White Bear," but all the news about China's Sesame ranking system this year really proved just how prophetic Black Mirror is. For that reason, "Nosedive" slid up in the rankings to overtake "White Bear," but only by a hair.
White Bear (S2E2)
Be Right Back (S2E1)
Shut Up and Dance (S3E3) and White Christmas (S2E4) As I said before, I grossly underestimated "White Christmas," so it appears on this new list for the first time at #4. I switched the rankings of "Shut Up and Dance" and "Be Right Back" because, well, the androids are coming.
USS Callister (S4E1)
The Entire History of You (S1E3) Funny story: one night a few months ago, I was sick and feeling terrible and just wanted to cozy up on the couch and watch a stupid movie. I found the 2018 film Hurricane Heist on Netflix and it seemed to perfectly suit my needs. (The plot of Hurricane Heist is-- get this-- a HEIST that happens during a HURRICANE!) Now, I'm not saying that Hurricane Heist belongs in the AFI Top 100 or anything, but it was a really enjoyable film. (I've since become somewhat of a proselyte for HH.) Anyway, the star of HH is Toby Kebbell, who I immediately recognized from Black Mirror's "The Entire History of You." So, I went back and re-watched S1E3 and was shocked-- shocked, I say!-- at how absolutely brilliant his performance in that episode was. More importantly, I realized that TEHoY gives us the most truly human glimpse into humans' reactions to emerging technology.
The Waldo Moment (S2E3) I think I originally ranked "The Waldo Moment" higher because it seemed to predict Trump so accurately, but now I just think we all should have seen Trump coming. Still a great episode, though.
Men Against Fire (S3E5)
Hated in the Nation (S3E6)
San Junipero (S3E4) and Hang the DJ (S4E4) Sorry, y'all, I still don't love "San Junipero."
There remain some ties, I know. And some episodes made not-insignificant moves up or down the list. I think we can all agree that "Metalhead" still sucks, though.
Here are some of my random, but expert, observations about the series after having watched, and re-watched, every episode at least 4 times.
DID YOU KNOW?:
In the timeline of the Black Mirror universe, there are six episodes that are roughly contemporaneous, i.e., they all occur within the frame of a single lifetime.One of the things that stood out to me upon re-watching the series this year is how brilliantly and subtly the show's creators nestle references to other storylines in each episode. From these breadcrumbs, I've managed to reconstruct the following timeline: "Shut Up and Dance" (S3E3) takes place slightly after both "The Waldo Moment" (S2E3) and "The National Anthem" (S1E1), and slightly prior to "White Christmas" (S2E4), "White Bear" (S2E2), and "Fifteen Million Merits" (S1E2).
Here's my evidence: The young protagonist of "Shut Up and Dance" has a Waldo sticker on his laptop, so we know that what occurs in that episode is happening after"The Waldo Moment." In one of the final scenes of "Shut Up and Dance," we're able to see over the shoulder of a CEO as she looks at her office desktop computer screen to see that one of the headlines reads "PM Callow 'No Divorce," an obvious reference to "The National Anthem," so we know that the PM/pig debacle has already been televised. On the same screen, the headline that reads "Victoria Skillane trial latest" is a reference to "White Bear," which means that the White Bear Justice Park hasn't been built yet, but will be soon. There's also a pop-up ad that reads "ONE SMART COOKIE! Click to witness the kitchen tech of tomorrow!," a reference to "White Christmas," apparently coming soon. Finally, and it's hard to see, but the social media horizontal bar on the CEO's screen includes a headline that reads "15 MIllion Merits launches next week" which is, obviously, a reference to "15 Million Merits," Now give me my Nerd Trophy.
"Be Right Back" includes a hanging storyline.Okay, keep in mind that I screen "Be Right Back" in my classes every semester, so I've probably watched this episode close to 40 times. This semester, though, I noticed something I had completely missed so far. In the very first scene of "Be Right Back," before we are introduced to either of the protagonists-- really, before anything at all happens-- we see Ash sitting in a van, playing on his phone. In the background, on the van's radio, we can hear the following report: "Georgian rebels have formally claimed responsibility for the Narwahl virus that brought Russia's financial infrastructure to the brink of collapse." As far as I know, there hasn't been another reference to the Narwahl virus in any other episode, but we know that Black Mirror doesn't just drop hints like that willy-nilly.
"Nosedive" predicts that Sesame is coming to America.This is a bit of a long-shot interpretation, but consider: "Nosedive" accurately anticipated the Sesame/Zhima credit system AND it's the only episode with an all-American case. (Nary a British accent!) I don't think it's that much of a stretch to conclude that "Nosedive" is showing us how likely it is that Americans will (automatically and mindlessly) consent to Sesame, how much more effed-up Sesama will be in the U.S., and how it is far better-suited for us than it is for China, after all. [3.b.} Ever noticed how super black-and-white Black Mirror is? Where the Asians at?
Black Mirror's Theory of Mind is absolutely NOT "brainy."We're given a lot of insight into writers' room speculations about the human mind in episodes like "White Christmas," "Be Right Back," "Black Museum," "San Junipero," "Playtest," and "USS Callister." Those speculations seem, on the whole, to take the human mind to be largely (even if so-far mysteriously) mechanistic and therefore (potentially) reproducible. Their stories cast the human mind as (somewhat regrettably) socially-constructed, easily manipulated, but empowered with whatever it is that we call "free will." Ergo, also idiosyncratic, stubborn, impulsive, difficult to mathematize, inclined to irrational fits of resistance (a la Dostoevsky's "Underground Man"), and more than a bit of kluge. Most importantly, though, Black Mirror seems confident that the human "mind" is separable from the human "brain," which means that Black Mirror takes "human" consciousness to be, first and foremost, severable from whatever particular human body happens to be holding it in custody.
I'm largely sympathetic with this view, because I think consciousness is mostly epiphenomenal. So, I'm both endlessly fascinated and confused by the fact that people find episodes like "White Christmas," "White Bear," and "USS Callister" so horrifying, while at the same time finding comfort in "San Junipero." (I doubt I'm the first to despair over the lack of nuance or reflection in popular considerations of human consciousness.) I sometimes say that there are basically two types of Philosophers of Mind: (a) those who do Philosophy of Mind, and (b) those who like to look at colorful fMRI pictures of brains and commit naturalistic fallacies. I think I would now add a third category: (c) those who have subscriptions to Wired, i.e., those who give even the tiniest amount of shit about emerging technology.
At least 9 (of 19) Black Mirror episodes are already possible.By my count, these are the episodes that have already happened (more or less) as they were written: "The National Anthem," "The Waldo Moment," and "Metalhead." These are the episodes that could happen (more or less) exactly as they were written with already-existing technologies: "Nosedive," "Fifteen Million Merits," "Shut Up and Dance," "Men Against Fire," "Hated in the Nation," and "Arkangel."
Of the remaining episodes, at least part of almost all of them are currently possible: augmented reality in "Playtest," 3-D printing and CRISPR in "USS Callister," for-profit incarceration in "White Bear," comprehensive surveillance in "The Entire History of You," extremely lifelike humanoids in "Be Right Back," and super-predictive dating algorithms in "Hang the DJ."
For those keeping score at home, the Singularity is here.
Now, some predictions. These include things I hope to see in the upcoming Season 5, both good and bad, as well as things that I hope I not to see. "Hopeful" S5 Predictions:
CRISPR will make an appearance. With the exception of "USS Callister," Black Mirror has so far steered clear of biomedical engineering, an area with some the most interesting (and frightening) developments in emergent technology. As Dr. Eugene Gu said on Twitter last week after the recent new news of Facebook's ongoing funny business, "If you’re concerned that Facebook let Netflix and Spotify access your private messages and basically sold your private data to all the tech giants without your consent, just wait until you see what 23andMe and Ancestry will do with your genetic information sometime soon." Word, Doctor Gu. If you're a Black Mirror fan and you don't yet know what CRISPR is, better get yourself to Wikipedia post haste.
The natural environment will figure more prominently, and more forebodingly. Twenty years ago, scientists concluded, in the journal Nature, that recent global warming trends were unprecedented in previous six centuries. This year, they revised that assessment to determine that current global warming trends are now unprecedented in the last ELEVEN MILLENNIA. (For scale, consider that human civilization is only about 6k years old.) The clock is ticking, we're lollygagging, and the Leader of the Free World is an Actual Idiot with regard to climate change. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we are sooooo f*cked. The good news is that we could work together to arrest this seemingly-inevitable disaster, but that would take massive, concerted, literally global cooperation, a highly unlikely option in our increasingly nationalist and isolationist global political environment. Emergent "green" technologies, many of which are highlighted in the Green New Deal, might help us a lot, if anyone of any import believed in science. I have a lot of hope in the potential of pop culture to effect widespread attitudinal changes, but I think Black Mirror is going to need to gain a shit-tom of new viewers and deliver an earth-shattering scare for that to happen in this case. Still, I count the possibility of this happening as one of our last realistic hopes. Alas and alack.
The mysterious "Narwahl virus" will be explained. As I mentioned above, "Be Right Back" left a dangling plot-line that has yet to be taken up or resolved. I don't think there's anything "accidental" in the Black Mirror series, so I can't imagine that there haven't been plans in the works since Season 2 for a political-economic crisis caused by a computer virus. The IRL narwahl is a porpoise found in Arctic coastal waters and rivers, also known as the "unicorn of the sea." This is a super long-shot prediction, but I think there is at least a remote possibility that the Narwahl virus may show up in next week's "Bandersnatch" episode. Bandersnatch is a fictional creature in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass that, like the narwahl, has "snapping tusks." (If I'm right about this, Black Mirror should hire me immediately, and everybody who reads this blog owes me a million drinks.)
Season 5 will be targeted to scare Americans. Black Mirror was bought by Netflix after Season 2, so we should assume that all post-S2 episodes are explicitly targeted at Americans. Maybe that's a good thing. Americans really, really need to be intentionally scared by emergent technologies. I don't say that because I think that emergent technologies are, ipso facto, frightening-- I'm an avowed techno-optimist!-- but rather because I think the widespread and willful ignorance of the American demos with regard to technology is both dangerous and inexcusable. (Including and especially our elected representatives, who are dumb as bag of hair when it comes to tech.) I count the scaring of the American public among my "hopeful" predictions for Season 5 of Black Mirror for the following reasons: (i) Americans, who have more access to emergent technologies than any other citizenry worldwide, somehow remain the most willfully ignorant about them, (ii)..
What follows is the conclusion to a series of posts detailing a pedagogical experiment that I tried out for the first time this term, which I called "An Experiment in the Redistribution of Grades" (ERG). You should read all the details of ERG in the original post here, but the basic idea was to give students the opportunity to collectively devise a plan for redistributing among their classmates any "extra" points they had accumulated at the end of the semester. Two important things to note: first, the redistributed points were not "extra credit" points, but rather "surplus" points, or what I call "pointless points." (For example, a student with a 96 average at the end of the semester will receive an grade of "A," but will also have six "pointless points" leftover.) Second, if a class decided to adopt a redistribution plan, there was no way that the plan could hurt any individual student's grade. It could only help. That is, no student in my classes this semester could receive a grade lower than what they "earned."
I designed ERG to take place in three steps. The first two steps happened at the end of the first week of the semester-- so, in students' third class period together. Each section of my PHIL220 (Contemporary Moral Values) course was given the opportunity (STEP 1) to decide whether or not they wanted to adopt a redistribution plan and, if they did, (STEP 2) to deliberateabout the terms of the collection and redistribution of points at the end of the course. As it turned out, all four sections of my PHIL220 course decided in favor of redistribution, and I detailed the separate plans they devised in my post earlier this semester here.
The final phase of ERG didn't happen until the last day of class. In STEP 3, students were reminded of the redistribution plan they adopted back in August, and they were give the opportunity to accept, amend, or discard it. This is where things got... well, interesting.
One somewhat surprising fact of STEP 3 was that many of the students had completely forgotten about the ERG plan they adopted only four months ago. (This was a good thing for me to learn, because one of my concerns last August was that having a redistribution plan in place might alter students' behavior and/or performance in my course.) When I reminded them of the details of their plans, CLASS A and CLASS B immediately and unanimously voted to accept their original proposals without amendment. Not so with the other two sections, however.
(Just a reminder that you can read each section's original redistribution plans here.)
Initially, a slim majority of CLASS C voted to adopt their plan without amendment, but the class as a whole quickly determined that the dissenters should be heard out before making a final decision. The hold-outs' primary sticking point was that the initial plan required points to be redistributed "low to high," i.e., first to those with grades closest to an A, then to those closest to a B, and so on. After some (really careful and very impressive) discussion, the dissenters were able to convince their classmates to reconsider, and CLASS C ended up reversing their order of redistribution. Like CLASS A and CLASS B, not one student in CLASS C even suggested discarding the redistribution plan altogether. All three of these sections had arrived at a final decision in less than 15 minutes.
CLASS D, on the other hand...
It's funny how classes manage to take on their own collective identities. Not haha funny. Inexplicably curious, sometimes exasperating, really strange funny. Students arrive to my class in August as twenty-five strangers. Very quickly, leaders emerge. Then, those principals set a tone, establish an ethos, enact a disposition, model a set of thoughts or behaviors or manner of interacting that, slowly but steadily, everyone else begins to adopt as a norm. By the time December rolls around, I find myself thinking of each separate section as a distinct personality. If the students in any section actually did morph and merge into a single person, I'd easily recognize them on the street. I'd describe the "personality" of CLASS D as classically liberal (in both its positive and negative connotations). They're principled in a Kantian/Rawlsian kind of way-- ideal, abstract, universal-- but they are also deeply, passionately meritocratic, which means that there's always a tiny, entitled, Nozickian libertarian hiding under the bridge there, waiting and ready to gobble up anything that looks like charity. They're strategically, punctiliously, committed to procedure. They're excellent technocrats and practiced bureaucrats. And so, given the opportunity to revisit a decision that would substantively impact their station, they seized it like a Golden Ring. CLASS D was the only section that took the entire class period to complete STEP 3. Their deliberations were exclusively directed at amending their original plan in such a way that would maximize benefits for the already well-positioned. CLASS D also spent a significant amount of time trying to determine the best way to "game" the game: looking for loopholes in the ERG rules, floating super-complex redistribution amendments (some of which amounted to multiple-level redistributions, i.e., redistributions of redistributions, which I vetoed), and surveying their classmates to "guesstimate" each students' current standing in the course, so that the amended plan could be tailored to not benefit the "undeserving." It was like IRL reality TV. Fwiw, the amendments that CLASS D finally settled upon weren't all that dramatically different from their original plan. (They changed the increment-structure of rewards from 5pts to 1pt, and they adopted the I'm thinking that for all future iterations of ERG, I will institute a 15min time limit on STEP 3. That's partly because I have a really great "last class" lecture, but also because I've decided that I want to give significantly more weight to students' behind-the-veil-of-ignorance plan over their end-of-the-semester (and decidedly self-interested) revision of that plan. Now that ERG has completed it's first cycle, I'd like to share some lessons learned.
On the whole, I'm very happy with how ERG went, both as a pedagogical experiment (for me) and as an substantive lesson (for students). If you are so inclined, I really do encourage you to give it a try as currently designed. I should also say that this was my first academic year as an Associate Professor, and I doubt I would have tried out ERG without the security of tenure. (If you are a precariously-employed academic, I recommend running ERG by your chairperson first. Do not neglect to note that no student's grade can be harmed by ERG, it can only be helped.) I had the good fortune of receiving enthusiastic support for this experiment from my Department Chair (Bru Wallace), who is as committed to pedagogical innovation as he is to student success. Still, CYA before tring ERG. Here are some lessons learned from my first go-round with ERG:
Students' ability to imagine socio-economic orders alternative to those dictated by the logics of capitalism or classical liberalism is severely limited. Like all intelligent, politically-engaged, and morally-reflective persons, I have my own commitments to how matters of "good," "right," "true," and "just" are best determined. However, I do not view my role in the classroom to be that of a proselyte. My responsibility, as I understand it, is to teach students how to think-- logically, consistently, responsibly, defensibly, and with an informed historical, social, and political awareness-- but never what to think.
It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that my personal views lean very strongly socialist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, gender-critical, and techno-optimistic. In my day-to-day interactions with students in my classrooms, though, my default strategy is always to take the position of whatever philosophical figure I am teaching that day. I find that this is often confusing for my students, because their default strategy is to presume that professors are more or less ventriloquizing the Truth.
Of course, anyone who teaches unfamiliar ideas will regularly encounter resistance from students to those ideas. What ERG has made (painfully) evident to me is that not only are current students disinclined to consider social organizations or resource distributions alternative to the order in which they currently exist, but they seem almost incapable of imaging those alternatives as merely possible.
At the end of the day, the classroom is the ONLY civilized (even if sometimes uncivil) place we have to safely explore disruptive, unorthodox, unconventional, or radical ideas. If we cannot protect the classroom as a space where thinkers are encouraged to permit their reach to exceed their grasp, what's a classroom for?
The Meritocracy is strong with these ones.As I described at length in my original post about ERG, one of the main goals of this experiment was to encourage students to reconsider their default, largely-unexamined presumption that "grades" are assigned according to merit and, more generally, that the metrics that determine GPAs, which are the primary assessment of students underwritten by Universities/ Colleges, accurately reflect students' merit. And, as I also said in that earlier post, I think most (if not all) students know that grades/GPAs are not representative measurements of merit..
But, Lordy Bagordy, students are sloppy drunk on that Meritocracy Kool-Aid.
I don't know that I have a remedy for this, except to keep trying, gently but persuasively, to disabuse them of the delusions from which they suffer. Try this:
Academia is not a meritocracy. The job market is not a meritocracy. The justice system is not a meritocracy. Wealth is not a meritocratic determination Social status is not meritocratic determination. Rinse and repeat.
And repeat again.
ERG will not work unless the Professor commits to total non-interference in students' deliberations. This was really difficult for me, but I committed from the get-go to not interfering in students' deliberations except in those cases where clarification or explanation of the basic ERG parameters was necessary. In STEP 1 and STEP 2, which happen in the first week of classes, I could (of course) already identify students who were inclined or disinclined, on principle, to adopting a redistribution plan. I was personally rooting for those who wanted to adopt a plan, but it absolutely had to be "mum's the word" from me.
To be honest, I was genuinely surprised that all sections of my PHIL220 course adopted a redistribution plan in the first week. (As I said in my original post about ERG, I expected the exact opposite.) This being the first time around with ERG, I found it challenging to not intervene in their deliberations, but upon reflection, I think it is of the utmost importance to stay out of the way as much as possible for a number of reasons.
First, ERG is a great opportunity, in the first week of class, to more or less "take the temperature" of your students. There are so many issues that come up in the redistribution deliberations, implicitly or explicitly, that allow you (as the prof) to get a real sense of the general dispositions of your students that it is really best to stay out of the way. Second, there is almost no way to intervene in their deliberations in a non-coercive manner. (Remember: this is the first week of classes, and so they are trying to impress.) Third, you have to let them make their own decisions-- good or bad-- and you have to trust in the ErG process.(They will get another chance at the end of the semester!)
Finally, and most importantly, you have to remind yourself that you have no vested interest in their decisions. At the end of the day, the points and how they are distributed (or redistributed) doesn't affect your life at all.
STEP 3 is super tricky. I never could have imagined what a minefield STEP 3 could be if it weren't for one section of my classes this semester. Smart, savvy students who are super-invested in their grades will come up with all kinds of ways to "game" the game, so you've got to be crystal-clear on your parameters before you get to STEP 3.
As I mentioned above, I recommend allowing a max of 15mins for students to complete STEP 3. If, at the end of those 15mins, they are still undecided, I recommend taking an up or down, simple majority, "accept" or "discard" vote on their original plan.
By way of conclusion, I should say that I don't think this experiment is for everyone. If you genuinely believe that you are a fair, unbiased, impartial, expert grader and that the grades you assign are accurate and objective measures of your students' performance in your courses, ERG is not for you.
But also, bless your heart if you believe you are that.
[NOTE: This is the another installment in my series of reviews of Black Mirror. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!] "White Bear" (S2E2) is one of only two Black Mirror episodes that I use in class. (The other is "Be Right Back," which I reviewed here.) In my regular, face-to-face classes, the students read an excerpt from Locke's "On Identity and Diversity," then I give a lecture on the relationship between justice and identity in digital age, then we screen "White Bear" together in class, followed by another whole class period-long discussion of it. (I also have a PowerPoint version, with embedded narration of the semi-same lecture, for my fully-online classes. You can download that one here, if you're interested.) I set my students up to think that the primary question we are grappling with is the question of identity-- how to ensure that a person being punished for a crime is the same person who committed the crime-- but, as anyone who has seen it knows, "White Bear" insists upon a much darker and much more serious grappling with the very nature of punishment itself.
What, if anything, does punishment accomplish? Can we determine "just" punishments? How do we distinguish between the sorts of violence/offense that are criminal and the sorts of violence/offense that are intended to rectify crimes? What does punishment do to the punishers?
Both the crime and the punishment depicted in "White Bear" are truly horrifying. In fact, "White Bear" is among the top three episodes that I find the most brutal to watch. (The other two are "Shut Up and Dance," which I reviewed here, and "The National Anthem," which I have not yet mustered the strength to review.) So, I issue a very carefully-crafted trigger warning at the end of my lecture in the class prior to screening "White Bear," which reads:
"In the next class, we will be viewing a short film that contains material that some of you may find disturbing or offensive, including strong language, realistic depictions of psychological suffering, suggestions of violence, and suggestions of non-consensual sexual activity."
In general, as a philosophy professor who is regularly charged with teaching "controversial" material, I admit of some ambivalence about the use and value of trigger warnings. especially when it comes to teaching film, as I have explained before on this blog (se: "Trigger Warnings, Spoiler Alerts, Philosophy and Film"). However, I have exactly zero ambivalence about the prudence of issuing a trigger warning for "White Bear," and I encourage anyone who is considering using it in their classes to do the same. Each semester, I have a not-insignificant number of students come and speak to me after being alerted to this TW-- most of whom are concerned about the "non-consensual sex" part of the warning, and many of whom volunteer stories of their own sexual assault. My response has been to inform those students that there is no explicit, on-screen violence in the episode, sexual or otherwise, but that they can be excused from viewing the film if they choose.
So far, none have. And, so far, none have indicated regret for having chosen so. In fact, those students who expressed concern before viewing "White Bear" have written some of the very best essays-- most nuanced, most insightful, most incisive, instructive, and perspicacious-- in response to the episode.
Now, let's get into the nitty-gritty of "White Bear." REMINDER: Spoilers ahead.
The episode opens with Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) being startled awake in a nondescript room, where she finds herself with bandages on her wrists and scattered pills on the floor. We are meant to believe that she has survived an attempted suicide, but we quickly learn that she has no ideas who she is and no memory of how or why she ended up in this room. What is to be unravelled in Victoria's subsequent discovery of her identity is even more unsettling than this opening scene.
For the majority of what follows, we see Victoria confused, terrified, haunted, and hunted. She is moves through a world that is not only actively hostile to her-- for no discernable reason-- but also deeply invested in not helping her. (The many, varied, and inexplicable terrors that she experiences are witnessed, and blithely filmed on cellphones, by disinterested "onlookers.") Just as the danger to Victoria reaches its pitch, it is suddenly and abruptly revealed that all of her suffering was but a play. The curtain is drawn back, a fourth wall is literally dismantled, and we see that there has been, all along, a rapt audience relishing in the performance of her dramatic tragedy.
Victoria is (still) terrified and confused. We, viewers, are as well.
Everything of import is revealed in the last 15 minutes of "White Bear"-- those 15 minutes include the credits to the episode, a truly ingenious authorial/directorial decision by Charlie Brooker-- during which we learn (a) that Victoria was, prior to our introduction to her, an active participant in the abduction, torture, and murder of a child, (b) that Victoria and her boyfriend/co-conspirator, Ian, were caught because Victoria had cellphone-filmed the torture and murder of the child, (c) that Ian escaped punishment by hanging himself in custody, and (d) that the judge in Victoria's trial, motivated by public outrage, determined that Victoria's punishment should be "proportionate and considered."
Everything that we had witnessed in the preceding half-hour of the episode was, it turns out, Victoria's punishment.
As it plays out in the episode, Victoria's punishment was precisely proportionate, at least so on the order of lex talionis, anyway. Subsequent to her trial and conviction, a "White Bear Justice Park" had been established, with the sole purpose of revisiting upon Victoria, as punishment, the exact terror, confusion, helplessness, abandon, and psychological trauma that her child-victim (Jemima) suffered. Regular citizens of this near-future dystopia enthusiastically visit the park, voluntarily pay admission, and willingly participate as "onlookers" to Victoria's suffering day after day. We (viewers) learn that Victoria's memory is wiped clean at the end of each White Bear Justice Park "performance" day, and so Victoria is bring made to suffer the same punishing terror over and over again, though it is always only happening for the first time in Victoria's experience.
The "white bear" in "White Bear Justice Park" is in reference to a teddy-bear that was a constant companion to Jemima and that became, in the episode's backstory, the enduring public symbol of her abduction. The "justice" in "White Bear Justice Park" is in reference to... well...
There's the rub.
The fact that "White Bear" is more or less narrated in reverse, thus encouraging viewers to empathize with Victoria first as a human being and only later as a "monster," presents considerable challenges both for evaluating the justness of her punishment and for determining the "evilness" of Victoria herself. The first question I ask students after screening the episode is-- and keep in mind that there are only about 5 minutes left in that 50-minute class period-- did we see "justice" executed in White Bear Justice Park?
In my experience, most students-- but not all-- immediately concede that White Bear Justice Park is not just. For some, it's "cruel and unusual" and thus, to Americans with even a high-school familiarity with the Eighth Amendment, unconstitutional. For others, the un-justness is decidedly divorced from the actual nature of the White Bear Justice Park's punishment, but rather grounded in its, presumably indefensible, dissociation of the person-who-committed-the-crime from the person-who-is-being-punished-for-the-crime. (The latter group actually did the Locke reading!) Still others-- I should say, most others-- can't quite locate or articulate their objection to the injustice of the White Bear Justice Park.
These (latter) vague and inarticulate objections come in many forms. Some object to the operations of the White Bear Justice Park because it just "feels" excessive and unfair (as shaming always does, even to those who are not the targets of it). Some object because, they admit, the episode gave them a space to empathize with the criminal and, thus, to see Victoria's punishment as morally paralel to her crime. Some object because they see themselves in the role of the "onlookers," which they find simultaneously implicating and revolting. Still others, far fewer (but not an insignificant number), object to the seemingly-endless repetition of Victoria's punishment, though not to the punishment itself.
[NB: if you can't manufacture a truly stellar and productive in-class conversation out of these conditions, you should retire your teaching pants right now.]
At the end of this post, I've included some reflections on teaching "White Bear," but I'd like to offer a few thoughts on what I take to be the punishing lesson of the episode first.
I have no reservations whatsoever about naming the punishment enacted upon Victoria in this episode "torture." (I've written about torture quite a bit on this blog before-- see here, here, here-- and it was a primary area of my research for many years.) Torture is, in every instance, immoral and undemocratic, in large part because the essential aim of torture is to reduce a human being to the point where they are no longer capable of acting as a rational, deliberative agent. As David Sussman has argued, torture should hold a special place in our moral and legal disapprobation—qualitatively different than other forms of violence or harm—because only torture demands that the victim be forced “into the position of colluding with himself through his own affects and emotions, so that he experiences himself as simultaneously powerless and yet actively complicit in his own violation.” Sussman calls torture the “pre-eminent instance of a kind of forced self-betrayal," an entirely accurate characterization in my view.
Torture places both the torturer and the tortured in a uniquely dehumanizing kind of relationship. Torturers must divorce themselves from empathy, compassion, and sensitivity to others' physical and psychological suffering. Victims of torture are reduced to a state of utter compliance and complicity; they both are and understands themselves to be completely at the mercy of their torturer. This is a relationship that requires both to compromise the most fundamental of human instincts, and those are compromises from which human beings do not recover.
To this day, it remains absolutely inconceivable to me how any person of good conscience can defend torture.
In "White Bear," Victoria's technologically-manufactured amnesia is the plot-twist that makes it possible for her drama to be effectively unfolded in reverse, which in turn permits viewers to see Victoria's suffering, confusion, and terror as punishing before they learn that it is punishment. (This, I think, is the genius of "White Bear" and the reason that I ranked it in the top five episodes of the Black Mirror franchise.) Leaving aside, for the moment, the craveness and depravity of the "onlookers" in the episode-- people who pay money to go to the White Bear Justice Park and relish in suffering as entertainment-- the episode demands that we ask ourselves one of the most essential questions of moral and political life: what is punishment meant to accomplish?
In the contemporary United States, legal "punishment" comes mainly in the form of incarceration, a form that is neither deterrent nor rehabilitative. I think it is absolutely essential to acknowledge what is the case, but which most law-abiding citizens/students do not want to confess, namely, that most state-sanctioned punishments are not meant to accomplish any "good" at all, but rather are wholly and exclusively punitive. Especially in the U.S., state-sanctioned punishments are only meant to exact harm on those who have caused harm, to extract wealth from those who have "stolen" property, or to isolate from society persons who have been determined (most, unjustly) to be dangers to society.
If we could stop repeating the noble lie that prison makes us safer (or worse, that incarceration does some good for the incarcerated), then we would be forced to immediately reckon with this punishing lesson: punishment in the United States is not so different from what we see in "White Bear." An increasing number of our prisons are for-profit (like the White Bear Justice Park). Many of us actively participate as "onlookers" (whole television channels almost exclusively devote programming to providing viewers opportunity to relish-at-a-distance punishment qua entertainment). An extremely common form of punishment delivered inside our prisons is "cruel and unusual" (see the ACLU report on solitary confinement).
One important difference, though: we are not told the stories of incarcerated persons in reverse, a la "White Bear." We do not see them as human beings first before we come to know them as criminals. We are not encouraged to sympathize or empathize with prisoners, even less to extend to them compassion or mercy. We are repeatedly and relentlessly forced into judging them-- first, last, and always-- as "monsters," forever frozen in the moment of their worst decision, like a bug in amber.
Now, back to the classroom.
As is true of anyone who has taught the same material many times, I can usually anticipate all of the twists and turns that the in-class symposium will take. Usually. When it comes to the "White Bear" symposium, however, it's often been a free-for-all. In fact, don't think there is any text, thinker, film, or issue that I teach that so regularly engenders such wide and varying responses as "White Bear" does. (And that includes all of the films I teach in my "Philosophy and Film" course!) So, if you choose to teach "White Bear," better practice some pedagogical yoga first, because you're gonna need to be flexible.
Still, there is a basic plan that I try to stick to when navigating classroom discussions of "White Bear," the plan that I described as my "bait-and-switch" above. In the background of all the other, really important, matters to be discussed in this episode is a question that I consider a kind of litmus-test for moral and political reasoning, namely: is it possible for people to really-- fundamentally-- change who they are?
I tend to couch this possibility in a "bait" story about salvation. Imagine a child-murderer is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, but is later "saved" in jail-- should that person be executed? Of course, anyone who claims to believe in the traditional Christian story of salvation should concede that, in such a case, the person being punished (and possibly executed) is a substantially different person than the person who committed the crime. In my experience, though, very few students-- even those who profess to be Christian-- allow for the possibility that forgiveness, pardon, or commutation is not primarily about a change in the merciful, but rather a response to change in those to whom mercy is being granted.
For what it's worth, I don't think ii is necessary to appeal to the specific Christian story of forgiveness to make the same point, though I find that it is a story familiar to the majority of my particular student-demographic. My aim is primarily to motivate students to think seriously about (a) how extensive their allowances for "change" in other people extend and, correspondingly, (b) whether or not those allowances for other people are more restrictive than the ones they apply to their own possibility for change.
So I ask them to imagine the worst act they have ever committed. Do they believe they are forever and always that person? Can they imagine their lives forever and always frozen in that moment, their identities caught there unchanging and unchangeable, like a bug in amber?
I should say that I do believe that, in a non-ideal society, punishment has (limited) utility and there are good prudential reasons for states to employ it. More importantly, I think it is important to evaluate the specific sorts of punishment that non-ideal states employ on utilitarian and/or prudential grounds. But I do not think that these are the proper "starting" grounds for evaluating the host of conditions that make states non-ideal, and thus make punishment necessary, in the first place.
What I want to avoid in the discussions with my students about "White Bear" is giving too much space for the knee-jerk reaction that presumes (to borrow a line from my favorite Ethan Coen poem) that "de jure is de facto's slave." It needn't be so.
[NOTE: This is the another installment in my series of reviews of Black Mirror. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]
When I originally posted my ranking of Black Mirror episodes at the beginning of this year, I didn't include "White Christmas" in part because, in the grand architecture of the series, "White Christmas" is a bit of an oddity. It wasn't originally released as a part of any season, but rather as a one-off "holiday special" episode. (On Netflix, it is included as Episode 4 of Season 2, but that's an ad-hoc accomodation of it.) However, the reason I gave for omitting it from my list was that I considered "White Christmas" to be more or less a remake of (S2E2) "White Bear." Admittedly, I had only watched the episode once when I originally composed my rankings, but this seemed (to me, anyway) like a relatively non-objectionable claim. And then the protests began.
I really can't exaggerate how many people have written or spoken to me about HOW WRONG I WAS for omitting "White Christmas." And so, after suffering through a number of these more or less aggressive protests, I decided that, yeah, okay, I should reconsider my evaluation. The main credit goes to Shannon Mussett (a frequent guest contributor to Black Mirror reviews on this blog) for finally convincing me to give "White Christmas" another viewing, but I also want to shout-out my colleague and Departmental Chair, Bru Wallace, who ultimately served as the tipping-point for my reappraisal of the episode. In the hallway one afternoon several months ago, Wallace gave me pause with his compelling argument that "White Christmas" isn't really about near-future tech at all-- not "cookies," or VR, or super-scary super- surveillance techniques, or brains-in vats-- but, rather, the episode is about how desperately, inescapably, and existentially devastating loneliness can be. In the episode, loneliness is the consequential affect of being "blocked" (more on that below), which is something that I found interesting when I watched it the first time, but not something that I had taken to be the center of the episode.
I stand corrected.
Before getting to the really interesting stuff, though, we need to do a bit of plot(s) summary first. Here's what you need to know about "White Christmas": there are basically three and a half concurrently running storylines, mostly revealed through flashbacks, which merge together in either tragedy or justice (depending on your disposition and commitments) near the end.
I'll try to keep this part brief, but if you've already seen "White Christmas" and want to skip the summary, just jump to the end of the section marked by "----" below.
Meta Plot: The episode opens with a glimpse into what I'll call the Meta Plot, which introduces us the two main characters, Matt (Jon Hamm) and Potter (Rafe Spall) and establishes the mise en scène for everything that follows. Matt and Potter appear to be trapped in a remote cabin where they have been for some indeterminate but considerable amount of time and from which they do not appear to have the option to leave. They are not friends; Potter has not spoken to Matt for their entire time together in the cabin. It is Christmas.
Matt attempts to encourage Potter to "open up" by asking Potter about his pre-cabin life. Potter insists that Matt go first. So, Matt begins to tell his story.
Plot 1: The first sub-plot storyline involves a flashback slow-reveal of the character Matt, who worked in his "previous life" as a kind of Tinder remote-assistant, coaching poor ne'er-do-wells through their IRL dates in real-time (via a combo-eyepiece/earpiece) and helping them to overcome their social awkwardness and get laid. During one of these coaching sessions, Matt's "student" Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) gets involved with a suicidal paramour, and they (Harry and his paramour) both die in the end. Subsequently, Matt's wife finds out about his secret professional life, though not about his complicity in the murder/suicide. She is pissed, they have an argument, and Matt's wife "blocks" him.
This is the first time that we see what "blocking" means in the near-future Black Mirror world. It is creepily like an IRL phenomenal instantiation of what happens when we (today, in 2018) "block" someone on the internet, only the "you cannot see this person" or "you cannot interact with this person" effects are manifest in real meatspace. Matt's wife blocks him and then, where her bodily schema once appeared available for reception by Matt's sensory perceptions, there is now only a void. Matt cannot no longer hear her words. (They are garbled, muted, noise-without-signal.). He cannot see her. (She appears as a white-washed, crudely pixelated, and null silhouette.) Moreover, Matt has become invisible and imperceptible to her, as she is to him.
[Plot 1a: There is a seemingly tangential, but monumentally significant to the overall arc of the episode, sub-plot to Plot 1 that really should merit being called its own storyline, but since it's couched as a sub-plot in the episode, we'll respect that editorial decision here. In Plot 1a, we find out that Matt's digital-Tinder-coach job was just a side hustle, while his real day job involved something even darker. In his day job, Matt was effectively a "coach" for digital clones of IRL people-- in the episode, these are known as "cookies"-- and Matt's charge is to help the newly-disembodied-but-still-conscious clones/cookies adapt to their new meatless-space existence and environs. This is perhaps the most interesting tech-y aspect of "White Christmas," and I hate that I cannot say more about it here, but stay tuned because there are other posts forthcoming that focus on Black Mirror "cookies," which show up again in episodes I haven't yet reviewed like "San Junipero" "Hang the DJ." and "Black Museum."]
At this point, we still have no idea why Matt is in the cabin with Potter.
Plot 2: In the Potter-centric second storyline, we learn that Potter, in his "previous life," also had an argument with his girlfriend and was subsequently "blocked" by her, using the same blocking technology that we saw introduced in Plot 1. (SKIPPING A LOT OF DETAILS HERE.) Most important to Potter's story is the fact that only moments before being blocked by his girlfriend, Potter learned that she was pregnant. Potter assumes that the child-to-come is his, so his inability to actively participate in his girlfriend's pregnancy and evential childbearing, because he is blocked, intensifies his suffering. He becomes obsessed with stalking the shadow-figures of his former life, who remain pixelated but not invisible to him. There is another important tragic reveal in Potter's story, but it seems like a spoiler worth keeping under wraps here, so I'll just note that what you need to know is that it involves Potter killing someone, being arrested for the murder, but refusing to confess to it.
Meta Plot, Revisited: Plots 1, 1a, and 2 all merge near the end of the episode when we learn that Potter is actually a cookie, the cabin he is cohabitating with Matt "exists" only in meatless-space, Matt has been turned state's witness and is now cooperating with the police (to mitigate punishment for his own complicity in a crime), and Matt has been charged with befriending and coercing a confession from his cabin mate. (Yes, I know, I haven't given enough details of "White Christmas" for all of that to make sense. You'll just have to watch the episode.)
What I'm really interested in talking about here is the contemporary phenomenon of blocking, and what it does or does not reveal about how we experience loneliness and social isolation.
I'd like to put aside, for the moment, the many and varied reasons that other human beings may neglect us. Let's just talk about the lived-experience of loneliness.
Loneliness is a miserable feeling. It is a painful, desolate, forlorn, truly wretched condition. It is heartbreaking. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, it feels (or is) unfair. And because we are not designed to be sequestered or quarantined, it is deeply alienating.
Human beings are fundamentally social animals. We may be able to survive for a little while by ourselves, but we are absolutely incapable of thriving alone. Interaction with other people is as necessary for human flourishing as food, air, and water. We starve, we suffocate, we wilt and wither away in isolation. Read, for example, the ACLU's statement to the UN Human Rights Council arguing that solitary confinement violates the basic human rights of incarcerated persons. It should come as no surprise that existing in such an unnatural state as loneliness has consequences that extend far beyond the "bad feelings" of the afflicted.
There is a kind of tragically ironic reversal of cause and effect that happens when people are shunned. In fact, psychological and sociological studies show that those among us who are socially alienated or isolated frequently end up exhibiting what is clinically diagnosed as "antisocial" behaviors: anger, aggression, resentment, violence, remorselessness, and/or a disregard for the safety of oneself or others. We really must reckon with the fact that, in the same way that contemporary models of punitive incarceration neither safeguard nor strengthen our communities, extra-judicial "social" relegation of individual persons to the "outskirts" of society, even if done with good intentions, neither safeguards nor strengthens our communities.
Rather, punitive isolation does real harm both to the offender and to the web of connections from which the offender has been cut.
Exile-- whether from "humanity," the polis, the society, the friend-group, the family, the strategic coalition, the cause, or any number of other ad-hoc constitutions of a collective -- is almost never instructive for the exiled. It is almost always destructive. Moreover, juridical or extra-juridical shunning actually contributes to the proliferation of anti-social behaviors among the isolated, in effect doubling the punishment and saddling the punished with pathologies that prevent their re-entry to the world from which they have been banished. Manufacturing a population of the alone and lonely, by any body, both frays the fabric of and endangers that body.
No surprise, then, that Black Mirror elected to serve up in "White Christmas" a painfully poignant cinematic rendering of something that is, IRL, an epidemic. The series creator, Charlie Brooker, once said that Black Mirror is "about the way we live now-- and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy."
Those 10 minutes may already be up.
Social media blocking is more or less the contemporary, digital version of shunning. Literally speaking, to "block" someone on social media is just to deny that person access to your information. Metaphorically, though, it is an act of social rejection.
Blocking has its virtues and vices and, like all things on the internet, it can be employed responsibly or irresponsibly. I can certainly understand the decision of people who are the victims of online harassment to block their harassers. I understand the motivations of people who block friends, family, or coworkers to whom (for whatever reason) they have a vested interest in presenting an "edited" version of themselves. Some people block their exes because constant reminders of a relationship-turned-sour in their TLs is painful. Some people block racists, sexists, homophobes, or other loudmouth proponents of deplorable demagoguery because, well, ain't nobody got time for that. Especially on Facebook, some people block friend-of-friends because, as we all know, friendship is not a transitive property. All these acts of social rejection seem reasonable to me, even if unfortunate, and I think many of them can be reasonably justified.
On the other hand, there is also a (very) dark side to blocking. For as many people who use blocking as a defense, there are people who use blocking as a weapon. Bullies and cowards regularly "block" so that they can subtweet with impunity, or shield themselves from sight of criticism, or gossip, or catfish, or engage any number of other morally suspect and fundamentally antisocial behaviors. It is, of course, every internet user's right-- so far, at least, but watch out for Ajit Pai-- to draw the borders of his or her digital-social world and to determine who is allowed in and who is not. But there are a whole lot of people who have abused that right (including the President of the United States).
[A VERY IMPORTANT ASIDE: Currently, I have only zero people "blocked" on any of my social media sites, even and in spite of repeated incidents of direct online harassment. Everything I post on the internet-- on Facebook page, on my Twitter page, on my Instagram page, on my YouTube page, on my Vimeo page, on my LinkedIn page, on my Google+ page and, yes, even right here on Blogger-- is entirely and unrestrictedly public, and has been for almost two decades now. I get it that my "full disclosure" approach to online identity is not for everyone, but it has been and continues to be important to me for three reasons: (1) I want to be able to affirm, to whatever extent such a claim even makes sense, that there is basically zero space between the real or true "IRL" me and the "digital" me, (2) I want to model for my students, as an avowed and enthusiastic technophile, the manner in which we ought to treat the digitalagora exactly like we treat IRL socio-political space, and (3) I want to secure my bona fides when it comes time for me to mercilessly criticize the bullies and cowards who hide behind anonymity, pseudonymity, and/or "blocking" to do the damage that they do.]
The internet debate du jour is primarily focused on whether or not it is the responsibility of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to consistently enforce their users' agreements and block or ban accounts like the one (previously) used by Alex Jones (of Infowars infamy, now blocked .. and no, I will absolutely NOT link to that excremental site). Earlier this year, a federal court decided that our current President Donald Trump's "blocking" of U.S. citizens on Twitter is unconstitutional, both under his seldom-used @POTUS handle and his frequently-used @realDonaldTrump handle. In my anecdotal experience, it appears that the number of people sentenced to Facebook jail or Twitter jail dramatically increased in the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. (Shoutout to sociologists: can someone please get us some real data that tracks the trends in digital-jail sentences?!) Exactly what role privately-owned corporations like Facebook and Twitter should assume in the determination of "public" speech regulations is a sticky and complicated issue, especially given the utter neglect on the part of the FCC and the U.S. Congress to get our ahead of this issue and determine, as a matter of policy and/or law, exactly what the status of the internet qua "public space" is.
[Aside: We are, at present, in a bona fide quagmire with regard to what we think the internet is, what we think it does, what we want to do with it, and how we ought to regulate those who build it, participate in it, or profit off of it. Also, not for nothing, we have exactly (less than) zero time to make these determinations.]
All of that is just to draw attention to the fact that who gets to block whom and why, not to mention also who gets to regulate who blocks whom, are massively important conversations we need to have right now, especially given the lightning speed with which the digital agora is replacing the IRL agora. The singularity is near, y'all.
But let's get back to "White Christmas."
One of the most compelling things about "White Christmas," in my estimation, is that it manages to represent in images something that we ought to have been able to imagine as a possibility before now, and we ought to have been able to make arguments in words about before now, though precious few (if any) of us have. "Blocking" is an utterly..