Black Mirrors: The Entire History of You

The Entire History of You

The Black Mirrors are everywhere. Today, we stare at screens constantly; we bury our heads in smartphones, gaze at computer monitors, TVs and cinema screens. We gape and gawk at the world through glass whether we’re driving a car through a landscape, or looking down at the world from the window of a jet plane. However, these black mirrors are not passive devices, they don’t merely reflect ourselves since many of today’s black mirrors also collect information, and enable us to record vast amounts of data about our everyday experiences. If we so choose, we can already record highlights of our lives in crisp high definition 4K images on our phones. We can surreptitiously record snatches of conversation, and even take furtive snaps of strangers. And, of course, we can share all of these images, these snatches of everyday life with the world by uploading them to the cloud.

I found The Entire History of You an especially unsettling episode of the Black Mirrors series because we are already in the midst of technologies that enable us to capture our experiences. We leave large digital footprints in a plethora of media, and it’s only a matter of time before we can subject our identities to the sorts of critical analyses depicted in the episode. The characters in The Entire History of You have a recording device embedded behind one their ears that enable them to record everything they see and hear. The episode opens with a job interview scenario. A young lawyer, Liam is being grilled by an interview panel whose attitude towards the applicant is ambivalent. It’s difficult to apprehend whether Liam is making a good impression, or whether his interlocutors are politely fobbing him off. Liam attempts to get a better sense of his performance by replaying (or re-doing) the interview. He rewinds, pauses and slows down the entire scene in order to analyze the nuances of the event. He comes to the conclusion that he’s not going to get the job. Things become more complicated when he arrives at a dinner party and observes his wife vivaciously chatting to a man, Jonas, he’s never met before. It transpires that Jonas is an old boyfriend, and as the episode progresses we discover that Liam’s wife, Ffion, recently had an affair with Jonas. Moreover, the paternity of Liam’s young child is now in doubt since his wife’s tryst with Jonas occurred just before she became pregnant. Ffion protests her innocence at Liam’s accusation of infidelity, but is forced to confess her transgression when Liam demands that she replays the recordings of her affair. On one level this episode is little more than a stock love triangle, but it exceeds the limitations of the genre by presenting us with a series of probing questions about the nature of memory and fantasy in the age of digital reproduction. The estranged couple argue with reference to a digital record of their lives. They ‘re-do’ key scenes connected with their various disputes about the ‘facts’ of their lives and become, in effect, critics of their own lives. They study the nuances of each uttered sentence, and subject each movement and facial expression to close critical scrutiny. They are not just watching themselves, they are engaged in a sophisticated analytical procedure that determines the course of their interpersonal relationship.

One scene is especially thought provoking. After Ffion initially placates Liam’s suspicion, the couple makes love while scanning images of previous erotic experiences. This scene is not notable because of the presence of a futuristic technology, but because it reminds us that humans come equipped with a black mirror of sorts — call it what you will, memory, psyche, the unconscious. We have always had the capacity to ‘re-do’ life with greater or lesser degrees of fidelity. We can summon images, sensations and experiences from a vast organic repository for all sorts of purposes, and the erotic impulse is to a large extent always motivated and stimulated by fantasy. But what happens when human memory is supplemented or replaced by high fidelity technologies that record everything we do?


The Science Gallery in Dublin houses an experimental project that is


is focused on developing new assistive technologies based on lifelogging and they aim to capture as much of life experience as possible in rich multimodal detail. Using wearable sensors they gather a detailed and accurate picture of life activities. The sensors they use include wearable cameras (4,000 photos automatically captured per day), smartwatches and smartphones, resulting in about 1TB of data per year per person. This involves data analytics, artificial intelligence, search engines and human computer interaction.


What’s potentially very frightening is the fact that you do not need expensive technology to become a lifelogger. As previously stated, a significant number of people all over the world own smartphones that enable them to collect vast quantities of data about themselves. What’s more, this data is easily shared, sold, consumed and presented to the world on an unprecedented scale. What will happen to our sense of self when it becomes possible to record our entire lives? The Entire History of You is not a remote possibility, but an imminent reality.


Black Mirrors: 15 Million Merits and The Inoculation Effect

15 Million Merits and The Inoculation Effect

Bing reminds me of Sisyphus — that doomed figure from ancient Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to endlessly push a weighty rock up a mountain without purpose or reward. For Camus, the plight of Sisyphus is emblematic of the human condition, which he characterized as Absurd. That is, in a universe devoid of rhyme or reason human existence becomes absurd, and, if we confront this absurdity, life is inherently tragic — tragic because consciousness of our plight, which is a consciousness of the futility of existence, removes the possibility of hope and redemption.

In the dystopian world of ‘15 Million Merits’, Bing is compelled to pedal an exercise bike every single day — it’s his Sisyphean rock. Presumably, Bing and his cohorts function as energy sources that power their planet. They are trapped within a world ruled by habit; they accumulate ‘merits’ through their physical labor, but also accrue points through their consumption of a endless torrent of low brow television shows (talent contests, reality TV and pornography). These TV shows are not mere distractions from the drudgery of incessantly pedaling the exercise bikes; they are ideological mechanisms that reinforce a false promise, for the only way to get off the bike is to become a contestant on one of the dire transmissions. Bing recognizes his bleak, absurd situation, and longs for some kind of authentic experience in a world dominated by simulacra. He longs for truth, passion, and reality. Bing thinks he may have discovered these qualities in the character of his fellow worker, Abi, a beautiful woman with an absorbing singing voice. Bing sacrifices his ‘merits’ so Abi can audition for Hot Shot — obviously a parody of popular singing contest shows like American Idol or The Voice. Abi gets on the show, and while the judges acknowledge her prowess as a singer, they feel they have too many singers, and coerce Abi into joining the cast of Wraith Babes, a pornographic reality TV show. Disgusted, and disappointed by this unfortunate outcome, Bing rebels. He works hard to accrue enough merits to appear on Hot Shots himself. Once on the show, he defies convention by threatening to kill himself on live television unless he is allowed to rail and rant about the state of his world. Bing gets his opportunity to express his contempt for his dystopian society. However, instead of being punished, he is given his own television show, which provides him with a sanctioned space to articulate his grievances.

Of course, this episode of Black Mirror works as satire because it’s an extended metaphor for our current predicament. We live in a world dominated by biopolitics. That is, a world that monitors our bodies, prescribes health regimes in order to make us more productive cogs in the capitalist machine. We need to accumulate ‘merits’ and consume mindless images to keep the whole stinking edifice in play. We live in the era of the quantified self, an era of big data, an era capable of taking, what Sadie Plant called, ‘the most radical gesture’ and turning it into just another commodity. Writing more than half a century ago, Roland Barthes drew our attention to what he called ‘the inoculation effect’ — in simple terms, his argument goes something like this: if a society wants to blunt political resistance and the desire for revolutionary change the most effective strategy for maintaining the status quo is permit people to express their grievances. By allowing taken protest, society inoculates itself from the greater threat to its existence. Packaged rebellion serves a dual function: it acts as a safety valve that allows people to let off steam, while simultaneously reinforcing the perception of freedom of speech. Bing wins, but he loses — the machine takes his situationist gesture and turns him into just another version of Sisyphus, one that accumulates even more ‘merits’ for the dystopian state.