“I just want something real to happen.”
Picture me up early, half hour sitting in silence on the floor, up and tying my shoes, chasing my own breath on dark streets, back home, shave, shower, walking the dog, zipping my bag, out the door, in the car, stop lights, stop lights, stop lights, sad news on the radio, this stuff has got to stop, we can do better than this, we can be better than this, slowing down, into the garage, beep-the-car-is-locked, up the elevator, lights on, coffee made, log in, hello textedit…
Is the mirror black, or is it the world? In the midst of what is probably one of the darkest visions I have seen depicted on screen, there is a small moment of hope. About halfway through the second episode of Black Mirror — a British program produced in 2011 and long awaited on this side of the pond by those of us who didn’t batch-torrent it along with The Adjustment Bureau and Cowboys & Aliens — a man offers a gift to a woman he admires. A big gift that costs him everything and stands to give her even more. Of his offering, he says, “I just want something real to happen.” And even though all signs point to it being ruined — and oh, is it ever horribly, ruthlessly ruined — his act is a beacon of kindness that shines brightly enough to not be lost entirely in the swirling maelstrom of cynicism to come. It’s the symbol to which any viewer will more desperately cling as the story moves forward through a glass ever more darkly.
But Black Mirror is not “steeped in easy cynicism,” as Emily VanDerWerff pointed out in her review of the show’s first season at The A.V. Club. Instead, as she continues, Black Mirror is “a call to overcome the ways technology makes it easy to sit back and lob ironic barbs — all the while refusing to truly engage with our fellow human beings or hold the systems of power to account for anything of real importance.”
Black Mirror does exactly what good cultural critique should do. It begins with premises so audacious and absurd that it feels like the “easy” satire VanDerWerff argues it is not — the sort of lampooning at a safe distance that sketch comedy does so well. It does this to make us comfortable, so that as it methodically builds a more rich reality around its story, it also builds that reality around us. We’re caught within it, where we must reckon with it on its terms. It doesn’t settle for leaving a trail of soundbites we can gather and parrot around the water cooler. It wants us to inhabit its reality, to fully experience the horror and unease of it so that our faces tell the story later when we say, “you just need to watch it for yourself.”
But don’t binge it. It’s not that kind of show.
It’s not a critique of technology, so much as it’s a critique of willful entrenchment. In choosing to stop worrying and love the rot. That many of the conditions are technological is, at least in part, the realistic choice. The vernacular of the moment is unequivocally technological. And that so many of our collective hopes and dreams are wrapped up in the promise of shiny, packaged innovation keeps us in denial of the tail-chasing we are actually engaged in. The endless cycle of here’s-a-problem, there’s-an-app-for-that which continues to rack up debts no society can pay. Debts of purpose and time and nature. Black Mirror uses technology in the same way other fables have used art — not as the object of criticism, but as a measure of the heart. Beneath the formidably harsh dystopian technoparanoia of its stories is a look into the desperate heart of humanity. We look into the mirror and see ourselves looking back, nothing more. Black Mirror is the story of looking at looking, of being caught in a feedback loop of emptiness. But it seems to believe we can break free.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, replaying the moments of my day, troubled by what I see. By all the time spent absorbed by my own needs. By barely looking up. It’s deeply ironic to experience the world as visually as I do — to watch my memories, replaying them over and over and intercutting alternate scenes, often in the midst of experiencing something else — and yet realize how absolutely blind I’d been to the better choices. Not the big choices. Not the I-could-have-moved-to-New-York or the I-could-have-been-an-artist choices. No, at 3:30 in the morning, those don’t matter anymore. It’s the many, small, better choices I could have made that are the sculpture of our world. The slow and patient shaping of who we are. Either the piling on of weight and burden or the stripping away of those thick, outer layers of falseness and pretense and striving. If we let it. Through our small choices. Because as easy as it is to see this being done to us — as the unforgiving moral erosion of the universe — it’s our work. We are the blind artists.
What if, instead of chasing after that big thing — that defining achievement, that grand epitaph — we lived our lives for small things? For not being annoyed when our friends need us, yet again. For taking care of them. For doing the same for a stranger. For finding peace in that. For celebrating the victories of others, rather than hoping they notice ours. For sharing time, rather than links. For making eye contact. For not filling every empty moment with a forgettable glance at a screen. For holding that door. For sparing change. For not honking at that person who doesn’t notice the light has changed. Even if it is because they’re looking down at their phone. For finally meeting your neighbor. For looking deeply in to your pet’s eyes and grasping even the tiniest notion of their view of the world and their unconditional, unpolluted, unmerited love for you. And after recovering from that, trying to do the same for the people around you. For listening, not talking. For giving, not taking.
Every day I pass up opportunities to see something real happen. Every day I prefer the drone of the virtual noise machine over even the smallest, tangible signal in the world. Every day I get caught in the loop of looking at looking. But I don’t have to. I can practice connection. I can treat it like any other discipline I want to build into my life, with the hope that after enough time spent making better, smaller choices, the “big thing” won’t remain in the distance, but will have been widely distributed and already underfoot.
Just as I finished these thoughts, I paused and happened to see this lovely message pop up on my screen: Ash Huang said, “Planning to be extra nice to people today. Spaceship earth needs some good karma.” I’m right there with her. (And there’s another “for” opportunity, by the way: for not rolling our eyes when someone else is deep enough into that happy place to say such a thing publicly when we are still in our stone cold Grinch cave nursing our tiny, shriveled hearts. That’s our chance to let someone else’s joy spread.) A nicer world is not one we will receive, it’s one we’ll have to work to create. Our feelings will take care of themselves. Or, as a fortune cookie once told me, “our happiness is greatest when we contribute most to the happiness of others.” Basically, I could have just cut to the chase and sent you that fortune. Short and sweet.
Heavy Rotation: After all that, this was an easy one. It’s been all A Charlie Brown Christmas all the time.
Recent Tabs: Computer art pioneer, Lillian Schwartz, filmed at her home. 21st century Busy Town, wherein content creators are at the center and, oh, I dunno, Super PAC money launderers are heading in their direction. And another to file under “21st century economic curiosity” or “when normalizing avarice poisons childhood”: this kid, who, appropriately, has the unmistakable look of “WTF” down. Because he’s 16, rich off of Bitcoin, and a valley entrepreneur. WTF? indeed. “Four years after writing that first blog post I’m still not a fully formed human, but it’s comforting to realize that self-actualization can be a slow, private, and gradual process.” That, from one woman’s story of internet addiction, which might be a worthy #longread for that kid. Here’s another kid who got rich. He turned $10k into $300k by investing in penny stocks. Remember getting lost? Om Malik is launching a new, small site in “an attempt to capture the zeitgeist.” Oh, so it’s a blog? Because that sounds like Vallese for “I have a new blog.” And to end on an appropriately hopeful note: New legs that can do what legs are supposed to do.