Black Mirror: White Christmas

Picking a favourite episode of Black Mirror is a challenge. “The Waldo Moment” and “The National Anthem” aren’t contenders but there are plenty others, ranging from “Shut Up and Dance”, “Be Right Back”, to “The Entire History of You”. Among this list is “White Christmas”, which after careful consideration, I will have to say edges out the competition.

Like my post on “The Entire History of You“, I don’t want to focus on the plot itself. Black Mirror‘s central thesis is that technology can have corrosive effects on how humans interact with one another and I want to focus on how that is displayed here.

Matt Trent (Jon Hamm) is undoubtedly a highlight of the episode, a character who is both charming and repulsive at the same time. The more vile aspects of his character emerge as his story unfolds. His past-life as a wannabe dating guru seems somewhat harmless at first. As a lanky film geek, I’d probably be an easy target for his services. However, it only takes a few seconds to realize that his real-time coaching is a grave invasion of privacy. Aside from the simple act of watching, Trent’s technology (referred to as the Z-Eye) also provides him with face recognition software he can use to research anyone his clients come in contact with, allowing him to feed any pertinent information to a party crasher. It gets only worse when we realize all of the members of his class share in their peers’ experiences, including any luck they get with unsuspecting women. The date that lands Trent in legal trouble also reminds me of the few I’ve had: promising starts with catastrophic endings.

It was great to see Oona Chaplin in another role, after seeing her for the first time in Taboo. She was undoubtedly a weak link on Taboo but does a better job here, portraying Greta, a wealthy woman about to undergo surgery. Prior to her surgery, a digital copy or “cookie” of Greta is created.

This cookie is intended to control Greta’s smart house, serving the rest of its “life” performing functions such as regulating heat and displaying Greta’s schedule. As expected the cookie is reluctant to spend its life this way, but Matt’s job is to make it compliant. By manipulating the time settings in the cookie’s digital world, he is able to make the cookie “live” for months at a time, stuck in a white room with nothing but a control panel. The room itself is only a projection within the cookie, but it is Greta’s prison now.

One of the characters, “Joe” remarks that this is slavery, but Trent believes it isn’t since the cookie isn’t a real being. I have to agree with Joe on this. Any sci-fi story that deals with the issue of consciousness, with Ex-Machina being a recent example, raises the question of what makes a being conscious and the morality of keeping a conscious being captive.

Is Greta’s cookie a conscious being? Matt doesn’t think so, because she’s just a string of code. However, if we analyze consciousness the way it is analyzed in Ex-Machina, then we understand that the components of a being don’t define its eligibility for consciousness. In Ex-Machina, Caleb argues that one of the central tests for consciousness is the “chess” question. A chess computer knows the game of chess and can make good plays, but can it describe what chess is? Does it even know what chess is? Simulation vs consciousness.

This cookie, from what we understand, is mentally no different than the person it was spawned from. We see it panicking as it is extracted from Greta and Matt has to explain the nature of its creation and its assigned purpose. Essentially, a copy of Greta’s mind was grafted and planted into a different environment. Until Matt explained what she was, she thought she was a conscious human being. She may be just code, but consciousness isn’t about matter, it’s about thought.

Although the cookie is the most advanced technology we see in the episode, it is actually not what interests me most. We are probably all familiar with ghosting, the act of ending a relationship with someone by cutting off all communication without explanation. Ghosting is usually discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but can apply to anyone. Someone decides to end the relationship, but decides that they want to avoid the difficult decision, call or text required for that. Instead, they simply cut off the other person. Ghosting preceded technology such as phones and computers, and some may see it is just a new name for something old. However, I believe technology makes it easier to become disconnected from other people. We don’t have to move or  shred letters, we can unfollow, delete or block with a click. Ghosting is convenient for people who have become accustomed to hiding behind screens when they interact. It is spineless and immature, and technology only makes it easier.

When “Joe” confronts his wife about her pregnancy, she is quick to block him. She doesn’t do this on her phone or some app, she blocks his entire body using the technology her world has to offer. She sees nothing but a grey silhouette where he stands and can only hear muffled static when he speaks. When Matt’s wife is confronted with the truth of his actions, she elects to do the same thing. The people who would have previously gone for a walk or tried to avoid their spouse, instead of contronting an issue, can now feel free to block someone’s entire body. The current level of cowardice that we see doesn’t prove effective if you’re likely to see someone again at work, school etc. With the capability to block someone as we see in “White Christmas”, the ghosted may be able to see you but they can’t interact with you. When Joe confronts his wife, after she blocks him, she only walks away and then proceeds to file a restraining order. Blocking becomes legally binding and the argument that you simply wanted to be able to confront someone directly doesn’t protect you. The authorities take the side of someone who decided to block her husband because he insisted on discussing their baby with her.

I have no doubt that authorities would defend this behaviour. Ghosting is already on the rise. Find any article online that discusses it, and allows comments. You will find plenty of people criticizing the practice, but you will also find many supporting it for one reason or another. All of the positive reasons boil down to “It’s easier for me (or both of us)”. Article after article will tell you that people who get ghosted may be able to deal with a relationship ending, but hate the way that their partner decided to do it. Blocking takes ghosting to an almost sadistic level.

Speaking of sadism, “White Christmas” gives us another twisted ending. Once Joe confesses that he murdered his ex-wife’s father, the authorities decide to tamper with the time settings. Each minute becomes 1000 years to Joe’s cookie, leaving him trapped in a projection of the cabin where he committed murder. We’re already living in a society where policemen have killed civilians for a thrill, I can definitely believe law enforcement officials would take a little glee in messing with someone they view as a lowly criminal. Even better, I can believe they would punish a sex offender with not being able to interact with anyone for the rest of his life.

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