Season three of the science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” has finally arrived on Netflix. Previous seasons explored our relationship to technology, specifically how evolving technologies might have a frightening impact on our lives. Season three, by and large, continues this trend. When storytelling is at its best it not only entertains, but also teaches us something about ourselves. “Black Mirror” attempts to look into a nebulous future and point out potential pitfalls. Like the seafaring maps of centuries past, the series outlines areas of uncharted territory and warns the viewer, fellow travelers on the road to the future, to tread lightly because here there be monsters.
Each episode tells a self-contained story with its own message or moral lesson. Within the coming digital pages, we’ll ponder the gospel of series to see if we can learn anything that might direct us more safely along our way.
Episode Three: “Shut Up And Dance”
Most of “Black Mirror’s” outings present some sort of near future technology and the negative ways it may impact our lives if it goes unchecked. In “Shut Up And Dance” we’re presented with something couched entirely in the real world. The episode follows Kenny, a teenager who works at a local restaurant and lives with his mom. He seems like a normal kid, fights with his sister, goes to work, and keeps to himself for the most part. We’re even shown a sequence wherein a child at the restaurant forgets their toy and Kenny returns it before they exit the building. It serves to humanize Kenny by showing us that he’s kind and willing to step outside his comfort zone for a kid.
Kenny returns home after his shift to find that his sister has stolen his laptop and downloaded software to watch movies which put malware on his computer. He gets angry, tells her off, downloads an anti-malware program, and later installs a padlock on his door to keep her out. It feels like overkill but also seems like something a teenager would do just to spite a sibling.
Before you know it you could be scrambling to fulfill an increasingly dire set of actions in order to restore normality to your life.
We then watch as Kenny goes to his room and prepares to spend a little quality time alone. Thankfully, the offending actions happen off screen but the implications are there. We all know what he’s doing. After finishing up, Kenny washes up in the bathroom and returns to his room where he has received an email from a mysterious address with the message “WE SAW WHAT YOU DID” and a video of him masturbating taken from his own webcam. The malware program wasn’t what he suspected. A second email comes through demanding that he respond with his phone number or the video will be leaked to everyone in his contact list. Kenny begins to visibly crack but acquiesces.
From here, Kenny is directed through a series of text messages to take a number of actions in order to prevent the video from being sent to everyone he knows. His crime, as far as we know, is innocent enough. Not the sort of life destroying revelation that would ruin someone but embarrassing enough in an age where nothing every really disappears from the internet to force him into doing as he’s told.
The tension here is palpable. Certainly, each one of us has done something shameful in our secret moments that would set our hearts to quicken were someone to find out. The real monster under the bed in this episode is shame and the fear of discovery in an increasingly surveilled world.
The following day Kenny receives a message that sends him to a map coordinate where he meets with another victim who hands off a package. He speaks briefly with the man who tells him that if he does what “they” tell him they’ll let him off and he can go back to his ordinary life.
From here the stakes are continually raised. Kenny teams up with an adult man being blackmailed for hiring a prostitute to cheat on his wife. Faced with potentially losing his wife and children they both embark on their orders as they get more and more severe leading eventually to a bank robbery and a fight to the death.
The viewer sympathizes with Kenny in a visceral way due mostly to the stellar performance by Alex Lawther. You’ll sympathize with him so much that you’ll feel bad about it when it’s eventually revealed that Kenny wasn’t scared of his friends and family discovering he was masturbating, and seeing it on camera, but that he was masturbating to pictures of children. A revelation that paints the earlier scene, when he returns the toy to the little girl, in a much more sinister light, whether that new interpretation is justified or not.
While the victims of this hacker organization have done objectively bad things (cheating, child pornography, and racist comments) your moral sense of justice will take a hit when you see the lengths to which they are pushed trying to get out from being crushed by their respective sins.
The horror comes from seeing it so up close and personal. While the real world analogues of our protagonists haven’t been pushed to such extremes, it hearkens to internet vigilantism hefted upon users of the site Ashley Madison in June 2015. For those unaware, Ashley Madison was a site with the sole purpose of allowing married individuals to set up extramarital affairs. While the users, as with the victims of “Shut Up And Dance” were doing something objectively uncool, one has to wonder if having their information spread all over the web, and the eventual consequences of that, was a step too far.
The twist of the episode is that when all is said and done, each of their sins were revealed regardless of how well they followed instructions. The powers behind the emails and messages seemingly had no intention of releasing them. Instead, their motive was presumably to heft additional punishment upon them before they ultimately had to pay the piper. In at least one case it cost them their very lives.
These threats aren't exclusive only to those with secrets to hide. Malware and ransomware are threats each of us have to avoid. Clickbait leads to questionable websites and even a completely innocent looking search or email could leave you with digital barbs buried in your back. Before you know it you could be scrambling to fulfill an increasingly dire set of actions in order to restore normality to your life.
The episode leaves us with two central questions. First, is the assumption of anonymity of action, one that we should be operating under? Is it realistic to assume that our private actions online will always remain so? And if not, should we all take that into account before we log on? Secondly, what sort of actions will we as a society accept as anonymous justice? Are we willing to accept the revelation of private information so long as those involved were cheating on their spouses? Are we willing to accept harassment and threats so long as they are lobbed at a dentist who kills animals for fun? And if we’re not, then what are we prepared to do about it?