Blocked in the Black Mirror

An Unsettling “Black Mirror”
First airing on Netflix in 2011, Black Mirror is one of the most disturbing shows ever. Each stand-alone episode is set in the uncomfortably near future, exploring the ever-increasing (and often unsettling) role of technology in everyday life. As technology advances at a faster and faster pace in our world, the show raises questions about the ethical use of technology and what happens when technology gets out of control—or rather, when humans get out of control with technology.

The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, taking his cues from The Twilight Zone, said that Black Mirror is designed to unsettle people. You never quite know what you will get in an episode of Black Mirror, but you know that it will always be about the dark and disturbing consequences of technology run amok. However, according to Brooker, technology is not the enemy. Brooker noted that people just can’t relate to a big bad piece of technology. What they can relate to is a human who becomes obsessed with and consumed by technology (or anything else, for that matter).¹

This is one of the things that makes the show as interesting as it is. Time and again we are confronted with the sinful and obsessive nature of humans. Of course, technology in and of itself is probably not as neutral as it is often assumed. There are definitely questions here that need to be examined. However, the show has more to say about what humans actually do with technology, rather than what it does to them.

And what about the title, Black Mirror? According to Brooker, the idea came to him from the black screen of a powered off cell phone, laptop, or tablet. “There is something cold and horrifying” about the black mirror of a screen, Brooker said.² He may be on to something. We are constantly on our screens looking at other people’s lives, following news feeds, and “living” in virtual reality. However, when the screen is off, we see only our own reflection in a black mirror. Perhaps this is scary because we are uncomfortable with ourselves. Maybe we don’t like ourselves, so we spend our time absorbed in other people’s virtual lives. Indeed, many people have become so addicted to technology, that they do not know what to do, how to think, or how to interact with others without their screens.

A New Way to Deal with Conflict
Let’s look briefly at Black Mirror’s highest-rated episode (according to IMDb), “White Christmas” (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD). The episode stars Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Rafe Spall (Roadies) as two men stranded in a winter outpost over Christmas. Assigned to this frozen outpost because of their criminal history, the two men trade their stories of technological and moral disaster.

Jon shares about his former day job, which involved making digital copies of people and then enslaving them; as well as his evening hobby, which helped guys get dates in an illegal online service. Jon’s life spirals out of control when he witnesses the murder of one of his friends while his friend attempts to get a date. As he is confronted for his actions, we learn about “blocking,” the episode’s most interesting form of technology. What is blocking? Simple: when you are upset with someone, they get on your nerves, or you just want to keep your distance from them, you can block them. When you block someone, all they can see in front of them is a white outline of static fuzz and they hear only a muffled rumble when you speak. And the worst part is, there is nothing you can do about it until they unblock you.

With blocking, we no longer have to argue through things. We no longer have to have difficult conversations. We no longer have to deal with those uncomfortable and annoying people. We no longer have to tell the truth. We can just block out of our lives anyone who bothers us. It’s a profoundly dark idea, and it’s unsettling that society would accept such an idea. Though it may appear as a convenient way to neutralize conflict (since we don’t have to deal with anyone who causes us pain or inconvenience), what does it do to our souls? And what does it do to the souls of others?

Hopefully, such technology is not in our future. However, as people spend more and more time online with social media and virtual reality, we might consider that this problem is closer than we think. In real life you cannot always control your interactions, their outcomes, or who they involve. But on social media and virtual reality, you have full control of your interactions. You can manage and control your friends and conversations. You can keep all “negativity” out of your life and avoid “toxic relationships.” Don’t want to be bothered by that strange person? Just block them or reject their friend request. Don’t want to hear any more about your friends’ problems? Just snooze them from your feed for a few days.

Of course, this is not advocating that we should accept every friend request on social media, or that we need to know about every last meal someone had today. Furthermore, the technology of social media is not a bad thing in and of itself. It is often used to help people connect who might not otherwise be able to do so, and it’s fun to see pictures of our friends’ lives. However, that does not mean that social media is a completely neutral platform. We need to be awake to the way that it changes the way we communicate, and we should notice that the idea of controlling our interactions and blocking people out of our lives could be a more contemporary problem than we think.

A Harder Way to Deal with Conflict
As the show continues, we see more and more the dark and destructive consequences of blocking. This episode gives us pause to step back and examine the way that we handle conflict, as well as how we treat those people we find difficult or annoying. Social media can make it easier to avoid dealing with conflict, but in and of itself, the platform isn’t necessarily the problem. If our hearts were not already sinful, we would not turn to social media or anything else to “block” others. We may not have the technology to block someone in real life, like in Black Mirror, and we may not even be on social media, but many of us are already blocking people out of our lives, either because of conflict or dislike. We see this in relationships where family members refuse to speak to each other for years, or in Christian denominations who won’t affiliate with anyone from another “camp.”

The Scripture’s injunction for living in peace (Romans 12:18) with all kinds of people is not to close our social media account or to resist technology (though sometimes, these may be necessary actions). The Scriptures tell us to confront our fellow image-bearers with humility and grace, knowing that we have been forgiven so that we may also forgive (Ephesians 4:32, Galatians 6:1-2). Sometimes this means having a long, hard conversation (or argument) with the person you are at odds with. Sometimes, it means getting counsel from wise friends or professionals in order to deal with the situation. Sometimes, it means taking a break and getting alone with God for awhile.

This side of the Fall, we, unfortunately, may not be able to resolve every conflict through these means. Sometimes, boundaries may need to be set for safety or the good of both parties. For some, this can be just as difficult of a step. In the end, dealing with conflict and learning to love others will not be easy. It will take time and it will often take other people to help us. But if we simply block people out instead, we will miss out on what God wants to teach us through the difficulty. We will also miss out on the rewards that may come from working through our difficulties together.

Unfortunately, Christians can be just as guilty as anyone else of shunning those we are at odds with or those who make us feel uncomfortable. If we are to live out the Christian worldview, however, then we need to take a different approach. For Christians, the goal is peace and resolution as much as is possible in this life. That means hard conversations, hard work, and a whole lot of love. God help us.

Who is a person that you have blocked? Are you ready to ask God for help to work toward peace?

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.