All of Black Mirror Happens in the Same Universe – Over-baked Fan Theory of the Month

It should go without saying but, dudes, spoilers below – also, for anyone stumbling upon this, this doesn’t include the new Netflix season, and is nothing more than a totally-not-remotely-serious bit of conjecture to fit Fifteen Million Merits  into the chronology in a more interesting way than most other attempts.

Putting all Black Mirror episodes into the same universe is fairly easy.

Of course, it’s not explicit like in the more recent films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe where they’re building a continuity and a whole story, it’s still just flashes and odd references. But keen-eyed viewers can see news reports and the occasional background flourish that nods towards the other episodes. The trial/appeal of Victoria Skillane appearing briefly in the background of a news report, or the I_AM_WALDO username, for example. The Waldo Moment comes before The National Anthem because you can see brief news tickers referring to Carlton Bloom’s art exhibit closing early – and presumably Waldo (now controlled by Jack Napier) has something to say about Michael Callow’s encounter with a farm animal a few weeks later. The technology to resurrect someone seen in Be Right Back looks like a precursor to the technology shown in White Christmas – the early AI-copies fed on your outward expressions put onto the internet. After the development of a neurological interface that was first used to wipe minds clear of a few days of memories, they learned to take it from your brain directly, synthesising a sentient agent from the preferences stored in your brain rather than on Facebook.

Yes, yes, yes, it’s not really all set in the same world.[1] And this is fan-cruft over-interpretation. Nothing serious. It’s just a bit of fun to join the dots. The world of Grains and Cookies are years away from the 15-seconds-into-the-future of The National Anthem and The Waldo Moment, the references are there just for anyone with a sharp eye. Nothing more.

That said….

The trouble is fitting Fifteen Million Merits into the continuity. It’s something of an outlier being the most blatantly futuristic sci-fi of the lot.[2] Where does it fit in? It clearly can’t be contemporary to any of the other stories given its outlier status but it must somehow if this over-baked fan theory is to work.

If you watch the first two series, you might think that it’s what society looks like when it rebuilds after the post-script sequence of The Waldo Moment – hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future after the cartoon bear with the blue cock sinks half the world into an Orwellian nightmare. BUT… consider:

  1. The society in Fifteen Million Merits has no qualms with keeping their drones in perpetual boredom.
  2. They literally do nothing productive. There are no builders or doctors or decorators – and, curiously for the setting, precious little in the way of highly trained maintenance engineers (or ways for the biker drones to become one).
  3. There seems to be no mechanism whereby they reproduce – there are no babies, kids or pregnant women to be seen. Anywhere.
  4. Nor any mechanism for them to grow old and die, for that matter. They get fat and abused, and that’s it.
  5. The bikes couldn’t possibly generate a net-gain in energy so the power thing has to be bollocks – a legend invented to disguise what is really just social control (cf. The Matrix).
  6. And White Christmas does have a flash of the show Hot Shot on it, suggesting it must be contemporary with it somehow…

So isn’t it obvious?

They’re actually Cookies.

The drones are AI copies of real people held in long-term storage. They’ve either had their long-term memories wiped by a digital version of the technology shown in White Bear, since we can assume the neural interface shown for wiping minds must be somehow related to the interface that draws information for the Cookie. Or they’ve been there so long they’ve simply forgotten their past lives. Years? Centuries? We know they can at least crank a thousand years per minute in our time. Once suitably “blanked” they’re transferred in.

Of course, they have to be doing *something* to pass the time, as Trent points out in White Christmas they get driven insane if you just leave them, so they get on a bike and buy stuff for a digital version (of the digital version) of themselves. So in reality, they’re all sat on a hard-drive somewhere, churning through their lives on bikes until they make it onto various TV shows, where producers back in the real world have experimented with using them for light entertainment. Hence the brief reference to Hot Shot and the cross-pollination of the song.

From Trent and Potter’s discussions, it seems precious few people are actually aware that the Cookies are effectively sentient slaves – and those that are simply don’t give a crap (see the “people are shitheads” point in footnote[2]) that they’re mistreating self-aware pieces of code. So where do people think this new TV show is coming from? Do they realise they can’t actually apply to be on ‘Hot Shot’? They probably don’t ask awkward questions like that when Waldo introduces it to them.[3]

And this has been a boon to TV producers. You don’t need to pay these digital copies. The drones clothe and feed themselves – they even practically produce the TV themselves by signing up and running everything. The drones are exposed to advertising constantly, with no escape unless they pay a penalty against it, and so form a captive (literally) audience to act as a huge focus group when testing the effectiveness of television adverts and product placement. Why test advertising in the real world, where you have to go through the rigmarole of filming a boom against a background and comping it into a shot getting a focus group, paying for the advertising space, correlate the result with profits, and see if it works on real people when you can test it on a literal captive audience and have months or years of data back in an instant?

And since they’re just code, they’re fairly easy to control and manipulate – just exactly how did you think “Cuppliance: Compliance in a Cup!” actually worked? It’s code, manipulative code. It is the mental projection of code infecting an AI/drone/Cookie to make it comply with a new instruction that goes against its original personality. Although clearly it only works on suitably prepared consciousness – as Trent can’t simply give it to Greta in White Christmas, he has to torture her into submission first so she’ll accept the Cuppliance-type programming. Digital-Greta wasn’t just a human psyche broken by boredom, there was clearly something else there – Cuppliance programming applied once the AI was ready. As was explained to AI-Greta, the buttons on her control panel were merely symbolic, they didn’t really do anything per se, so the bikes the Cuppliance probably work in the same way.

As you can do time-compression on Cookies, you can get a brand-new crop of desperate wannabes for reality TV and fresh people for your digitised advertising focus group every single day to exploit – and you only need to spend a few minutes at most producing and “filming” your episodes when they willingly take care of it themselves. The viewing public just watch the pre-rendered result. It’s all taken care of by the likes of Wraith, Hope and Charity, who clearly get a good benefits package to keep the system running whether they’re aware of their status as digital simulations or not.

So the punchline, almost to the entire series as a whole, is that the the Cookie, once thought to be the ultimate form of AI that could do important things such as resurrect people from the dead has become the perfect device for creating shit reality television and perpetuate consumption and consumerism. Abused, like so much great technology, to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

[1] It would certainly be interesting to very explicitly set all the stories in the same world and build a mythos and continuity with the same unifying concept. The inevitable US remake, for example, would suit this because it would fit the bill of adapting it for the television ethos of the US very well. And given the fan theory above, I think it’d make an excellent concept for a connected series. But right now in the present series they’re just sly nods. This is how it should stay. Please, no fucking sequels to episodes. Not ever. This is just pointless fun, okay?

[2] Fifteen Million Merits has been called “dystopian” but I disagree on that assessment since the society actually functions. There’s a little bit of social oppression going on, but it doesn’t have the same hallmarks of classic dystopian science fiction with the gritty industry, the towering statues and faces of the Glorious Leader, or the social breakdown at the lowest level. It’s no Nineteen Eighty-Four by a long shot. It’s not even Escape From New York. The real interesting thing about it is that while a general theme of Black Mirror is that each story requires a piece of – currently non-existent – technology to work (The National Anthem excepted) in Fifteen Million Merits the technology is just window dressing. It’s irrelevant. The social aspects could be happening right now. In fact, it is happening right now. This story could be happening right now, today, and what you see on screen is all in Bing’s head, projected onto the world as he’s driven mad by an existence that consists of nothing but his one-bedroom-flat, his cubicle in an office, and the commute between the two. This episode says a lot more about our society right now than our techno-paranoia of the future. Particularly interesting, I think, is the sexism and misogynistic elements. There’s the blatant stuff – the widely advertised pornography in this world is specifically the degrading kind that doesn’t give a damn about consent, because, as Judge Wraith points out, they can medicate against shame or discomfort. And there’s also the subtle stuff – if you want to read into Judge Charity’s reaction to Wraith and Hope undressing Abi with their eyes and their comments, you’ll see it’s almost a textbook patriarchal bargain (look it up). She neither approves wholeheartedly, nor can she voice any disapproval, so settles for looking and feeling awkward, and covering it up with a joke about “us girls wanting to join in”. That’s her choice, but the choice has been made in a restricted environment, where she has “chosen” to comply with the chauvinism and suffer through and endorse it in exchange for the recognition and the promotion up the society. Men and women wear the same clothes, bike the same bikes, get the same accommodation, food, and identical expectations of their nominal performance – yet equality of respect is still lacking. That’s not the future, that’s today. Overall, Fifteen Million Merits is the outlier in how it explores a wider social side of modern life (the “people are total shitheads” social angle is explored in all of them, of course) rather than focusing on the techno-paranoia of our creations running amok. Anyway…

[3] And don’t ask awkward questions like “where are all the Z-Eyes in White Bear if Victoria Skillane is on appeal during White Christmas?”[4] and “Why would Michael Callow need to bone a pig in The National Anthem if they have the ability to build a sex-enabled meat-puppet as shown in Be Right Back?” or “What if you just installed a Cookie into Jaime Salter’s brain and made Waldo sentient?” Just don’t ask. Okay?

[4] Or… perhaps she was on appeal after several years trapped in the White Bear Justice Park. Brooker, you bleak motherfucker…

The One – And Hopefully Only – Thing I Will Say About 50 F**king Shades of F**king Grey

50 Fucking Shades of Fucking Grey. It’s this Thing that we are increasingly incapable of avoiding as the film saunters towards its release date, milking a longer build-up and more hype than even Dawn of Justice has so-far managed.

So I found myself reading this piece on Trolling is Free about it, and it made me think how a lot of people seem to have missed the point with what is wrong with this inexplicably popular series.

The core thesis of that opinion piece is fine, of course: If you’re aroused by the content of the novel/film, that’s okay. There is no One True Way to enjoy human sexuality; do you want it with one person? Ten persons? Even no persons? Upside-down, indoors, out-of-doors? Or perhaps even not at all? None of that really matters. You won’t find many, if any, out-and-proud sex positivists saying not to do something, or not to try something, or to not be aroused by something, or even saying you must try it, do it, experience it or be aroused by it.

But – and this is a serious but – there are some meta-rules encompassing sex-positivity that you will definitely see prescribed and agreed upon. Rules about mutual enjoyment, clear communication, respect and, above all, consent. These rules exist parallel to the freedom to enjoy whatever you like, and while participation is optional, following the meta-rules is not.

This is where I think this particular opinion piece, besides some of the more pretentiously-purple prose, goes awry:

But the focus on Fifty Shades as a proscriptive guide is missing the point: perhaps everything that’s wrong about Fifty Shades as a relationship guide is what’s right about it as a piece of erotica.

A fair point – if the book joined the ranks of most other erotic fiction in its treatment of consent and the meta-rules of a sex positive relationship. But it doesn’t.

There is far, far more extreme work out there, so let’s be brutally honest here; 50 Shades is tame. There’s an entire section of the book devoted to the things the lead meat-puppet character won’t do – cutting, fire, hot wax and so on. It eliminates what a friend of mine – who shall remain nameless – referred to as “all the good stuff”. A quick browse through fan-fiction archives (or cut straight to the term “legendary badfic“), or perusing the blurbs of the average bodice-ripper, will demonstrate this with alarming rapidity.

But those stories aren’t depicted as even remotely realistic. They’re all fantasy and pure fantasy. Published novels will have disclaimers at the beginning saying as much, and authors will often be well-versed in sex-positive or third-wave feminist philosophy. They will write things they would never engage in, but find fun to think about. They skip the consent as a matter of course. They skip over the negotiations and safe-words precisely because that gets in the way of the fantasy. And if the tedious email exchange shoved in the middle of the first 50 Shades novel is anything to go by, they principally skip over it because it’s boring-as-fuck.

50 Shades of Grey, in contrast to most other smut out there, presents itself as reasonably realistic. It’s set in the real world. It’s story is built safe in the meta-knowledge that BDSM is a thing. The characters partner up, negotiate and navigate their many real-world considerations of a BDSM relationship. They are actually depicted having those meta-rule discussions (via aforementioned tedious email exchange). Those rules aren’t explicitly thrown out for the sake of the fantasy.

And 50 Shade’s core problem is that it does this badly.

The characters negotiate limits badly. They navigate the relationship badly. They discuss safety badly.

No one is going to read a low-fantasy novel featuring slave girls and “try it out”, but 50 Shades can, and in fact does, inspire people to “try it out” precisely because of its depictions of a BDSM relationship as a reality. So while the novel and subsequent adaptation hasn’t explicitly presented itself as a guidebook and a how-to, its setting and style means it has the same responsibilities of one. And it fails miserably in that responsibility.

Far braver people than I (Cliff Pervocracy to name perhaps the most useful resource) have collected specific quotes with detailed commentary to back this up. But the conclusion is a simple one to state: the central submissive character doesn’t enjoy the situation, she agonises over not wanting to proceed, she is unsure – and not in a novel, curious way – and she sub-vocalises her conflict while the male lead is frequently unconcerned for her emotional and social well-being. This is average enough for some self-declared fantasy, but in such fantasy the meta-level of consent is deliberately and explicitly ignored. It’s ignored because it’s beside the point and gets in the way.

50 Shades could use that excuse, and join the ranks of countless fictions that do the same, but it doesn’t. It includes discussion of the meta-rules, but fails to do it in an informative or socially responsible way. And as such it is a disservice to the millions of people it may inspire.

Fantasy that has no mention of limits and no use for safe-words is fantasy. Fantasy that mentions limits and safe-words, yet has a character willingly ignore them and another that doesn’t fully understand them, depicts abuse. And that’s why, as smart, intelligent, rational sex-positivists, we’re pissed with it.

Anyway, the opinion piece that inspired this post does conclude with something I can agree with:

Getting aroused by what’s depicted in Fifty Shades doesn’t necessarily mean you harbor secret urges to abuse or be abused. At worst, it means you just happen to get turned on by some less-than-stellar writing.

Perhaps some brave soul should go to the cinema with a loudspeaker and give a real-time advice and commentary on the film. Because actually, the worst that can happen is that you’ll end up in A&E when it turns out you have absolutely no idea how to use cable ties like that.

Sunday School Environmentalism

For the two-and-a-half people who care, I recently added an entry to the RationalWiki quasi-official blog on Sunday School Environmentalism. Having spent a not-insignificant part of my university eduction doing environmental chemistry and studying impact metrics (even this extensive blog scratches the surface of that topic) it’s something I’m quite involved in.