Black Mirror’s New Happy Endings

black mirror

In “Black Museum”, the last episode of the latest season of Black Mirror, we came across the conclusion that there is one person to blame for the evils of technology, with a “Get Out”-esque ending that was very satisfying. Yet, a character seeking the thrill of technological advancement, but more importantly acclaim for their popularity, seems too easy of a reason for the destruction technology causes in this series. This brings us to a debate about whether technology is inherently evil or technology at the hands of questionable human morality is the true evil. I’m more inclined to believe that Black Mirror is about what happens when we are faced with moral issues that aren’t obviously right or wrong because technology has complicated them and provided us with even more degrees of diffusion of responsibility than we currently have now. Phew, run-on sentence.

The point is, we are faced with questions which we never had to think about before. Because it is a new situation, we are left with no reference point and instead must figure out the moral question ourselves, instead of reverting to commonly held notions, like “of course killing or hurting someone is bad”, we are asked to think who is doing the killing, who is enabling it, how many people are involved, did they have the intention to kill, and whether or not it’s really killing (in some cases). This is what morality demands of us with or without technology, that we consider the complexity of a multi-dimensional issue. So each Black Mirror episode leaves us wondering to ourselves over and over “what would I do in that situation?” When dealing with copying someone’s consciousness and having it exist, fully sentient, to do the original consciousness’ bidding, the question is not how could technology be so evil but why do we think this is wrong? What moral weight do we give to a copy of consciousness manifested through technology? And most importantly, would we consider doing that?

When I first started watching Black Mirror, one episode would leave me so perplexed about the meaning of life that I could only watch one at a time. With season 4, I whipped through the entire season in a matter of two days. Maybe I’ve become inured to the psychological trial of Black Mirror episodes. Or maybe there’s something different about season 4. The endings provide more closure and triumph. For the most part the “bad guy” loses in a lot of these episodes. There is a denouement in the end in which characters are left with hope and the option to start another chapter after we leave them. This is a first for Black Mirror plot lines, which normally leave us with a feeling of hopelessness as the characters are faced with impossible situations which they must live with for the rest of their lives.

Some part of the British satire element is lost in the fourth season. This season gives a sense of righteousness at the end of the each episode, more reminiscent of Hollywood ending than British parody. Or perhaps the series are just as shocking but the ultimate message leaves us with a more tranquil moral consciousness instead of the unanswered, ambiguous conclusion to the episodes of the former seasons. That is to say, that the characters have figured out how to control technology in a liberating way. (INTERESTING!). Consider a comparison between iconic episodes from seasons 1-3 and their related episodes in season 4.

San Junipero (series 3) : The characters, Kelly and Yorkie, find their true love only after they are past their prime age in a simulation over which they have very little control. In the end they find themselves living in the simulation instead of real life and ultimately ceasing to exist in the real world.

Hang the DJ (series 4): The characters in this episode find each other in real life after their simulations have undergone 1000 tests of love in a simulation designed to match couples with 99.8% accuracy. They are using the technology to their benefit, and as we find out that we have been watching a simulation for most of the episode, we discover the real people or original consciousness’ have been in control the entire time.

Playtest (series 3): In this episode, virtual reality and games are also the main theme, except the protagonist has no control over the virtual reality as it takes over his mind. He is not in control, the game creators are. Eventually we find out that a malfunction killed him 5 seconds into the game but created a simulation in his brain which lasted several weeks (months?).

USS Callister (series 4): In this episode a woman finds herself in a game- or rather a copy of her consciousness- that is that is run by an ego-driven, self-gratifying man. The woman is also a computer programmer in real life and she works at the company this man helped found. She ultimately takes over the virtual reality from the inside and triumphs over the perverted game her and others had been subjected to. We are left feeling hopeful for the future of the characters- even if they are copies of consciousness inside a game.

So what changed? As far writers go, writer and creator Charlie Booker is still behind the plot of Season 4.  Although not all episodes in season 4 have a happy-ending, MetalHead, for example, there is undoubtedly a change in the writing and message the show leaves us with. Ultimately, it’s a feeling: I feel more hopeful for the future than dejected after season 4. And to be honest, I’m not sure how much I like that.

 

 

Posted in tea

Making Africa for Who?

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I went to the Making Africa: a Continent of Contemporary Design exhibit at the High Museum here in Atlanta over the weekend. I caught the exhibit on a free Sunday before the it moves on. This exhibit is definitely something different for the High, which does not have a history of showcasing Afrocentric work.

When I saw the words “Making Africa” all over Atlanta’s billboards and the High’s logo, I was thinking something along the lines of interesting! And then, I was thinking “what does ‘Making Africa’ even mean?” My mind immediately rejected this phrasing in the way that it rejects any attempt at conglomerizing the concept of ‘Africa’. It wasn’t until I saw the rest of the title, “a continent of contemporary design”, on a flyer somewhere else that I considered the exhibit might live up to the vast, complex, multi-lingual, multi-cultural continent it is claiming to showcase and I decided I had to check it out.

I’ll admit that as an African, a North-African, a Moroccan from the Atlas mountains, my approach to anything that uses the monolithic term ‘Africa’ is always skeptical, always critical, always searching for the ‘but what do you really mean when you say ‘Africa’?” After looking up some details online, I found out some ingenious artists were in the exhibit, truly forward-thinking, brilliant artists. These are artists who don’t necessarily need the platform of ‘Making Africa’ or even ‘Africa’ to appreciate their work. Kudzanai Chiurai’s work, for example, speaks of political struggle relevant to a lot of the global South. So I found myself wondering, how is the western American able to view this as separate from stereotypes of Africa? In what ways does it challenge the American viewer to think critically?

What first meets your eyes at the exhibit is white text on a black wall introducing the pieces. The introduction confirms: times are changing, people are advancing, and Africa and its people are part of this advancement. Then it states: there are 650 million registered phones on the continent, this is significantly more than in the U.S. Although, you might know this particular statistic, it should really not be surprising. There are also a lot more people on the continent, given that it is, you know, 3 times larger.  The introduction, did end, to its credit, with a disclaimer that this exhibit does not claim to represent all of Africa – which nothing can ever claim to do – but rather presents a new story or narrative for ‘Africa’ in the viewer’s psyche. 

Without getting ahead of myself, I’d dare to say this statement is meant to guide you to the concept that Africa is not stuck in the Stone Ages. I will go ahead and say that this allows viewers to peek into the African contemporary art world from the comfort of their own lazy and tired perceptions of Africa. Here’s how: It puts together printed out explanations of African history with screenshots of popular African websites, updating the viewer on the current state of affairs in order to convince the viewer that Africa is advanced. If you have been following updates from the continent in even the last five years you would know not find it that surprising that some of the world’s largest urban areas such as Lagos, Johannesburg, and Casablanca are emerging tech and economic hubs on the continent. 

Although this may be a lesson some people need to have, I would like to imagine that we can appreciate African art and contemporary design in a more well-curated fashion. The art is contemporary, yes, but it is also featured alongside mobile apps developed by Nigerian company Pledge51. Soccer-game phone apps, to me, don’t count. That is to say that a mobile app, just like the fact that the continent of Africa has more registered phone users than in the U.S., should not be all that surprising. Not that they don’t deserve a space to discuss and observe, still squishing it together with “art” and “design” is a bit of a stretch.

Imagine an exhibition that did not seek to explain or justify Africa but presented various African contemporary works as they are, with its brilliance and controversy. To have a show on African art without providing the African context, whatever this context is, is to radically claim that African art can stand on its own with its message, and reach a western American audience without an explanation centering that audience. I just don’t imagine you need an exhibit displaying apps made in the African continent in order to understand and appreciate contemporary African art. Then of course, we might have a less appealing show to mainstream audiences but then we could have more engaging conversation about what little understanding and interpretation there is of African contemporary art in the U.S. mainstream culture. The art itself does this, the context it is presented in then hinders us with fully engaging in the intensity of the message presented by the art. 

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KUDZANAI CHIURAI, POPULAR MECHANICS I, 2010

Take Kudzanai Chiurai’s Popular Mechanics series. The linocut prints are commentary on the nature of power in a post-war nation, in a nation where power is defined by money, and in a nation where man-hood is defined by violence. These are all universal concepts which apply to numerous societies.

Consider advising curator Okwui Enwezor’s words, “the future has happened everywhere else already.” There is this sense that Africa is catching up to the world, but I genuinely seek to flip that interpretation around. I think developed nations are starting to realize, after having produced their fair share of CO2 emissions, over-pollution, plastic waste, and lack of creative ways of living, that they may have been doing something. Then African nations actually have the answer. Africa will not only catch up to the future but will invent and lead the world into the future is what I am getting at. So the future is happening in the sense that it is being challenged by Africa’s creators, but people in various African nations have always been inventing the future in the way they adapt to various challenges.   

In the spirit of centering contemporary African art and design, I want to move on to appreciating my favorites pieces in the exhibit, including some commentary overheard on my way through:

Black Veil, White Veil

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Left: Justin Dingwall/Thando Hopa, Untitled (White Veil), 2013; Right: Justin Dingwall/Thando Hopa, Untitled (Black Veil) | Courtesy MIA Gallery

This piece provokes the question of identity and background and how the context or background shapes identity. Notice how the same person, with the same features, looks different under different veils.

“I looked it up, it only comes up on Afro-centric websites…”

Do we ever say “it only comes up on euro-centric websites”?

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Mis Wude Style, Senegalese jewelry and fashion label

“Mom, are those outfits that people wear in Africa?”

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LV Possess, Hassan Hajjaj, Moroccan
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PONTE CITY DWT, Michael Subotzy (in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse)

This is definitely one of my favorite pieces. The middle duratrans print features windows from each apartment – 12 across- on each floor – on 54 floors of the Ponte City building in Johannesburg, South Africa. Each image is put into a really small frame then into a mosaic so that you end up with hundreds of images side by side. These images all together give the impression that you are looking out of one large window. Although this project was completed over the span of two years, the consolidating of images into one space gives the impression that they were all taken at the same time and you are seeing a cross-section of people’s lives in one moment. Some windows have curtains in them, some have people’s silhouettes. On the right panel are all the doors in the building, and on the left are all the TV sets. Very powerful concept. 

Jua Kali series, Tahir Carl Karmali

This photo series uses waste to create armor, gear, and fashion. According to the artist Tahir’s website:JUA KALI is Swahili for ‘Fierce Sun’ – referring to the informal labourers that worked under the hot sun. Now it is a term used for people that work in any informal way and used to describe work that is substandard. I want to change this perception as in reality it is the Jua Kali sector that fuels the city of Nairobi.”

“That’s fresh.”

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Duro Olowu Birds of Paradise 2013 Collection Nigeria

Did Gucci steal maximalism from Duro Olowu?

why ask why?

whyIn search of meaning, Nigerian-American writing professor and novelist Chris Abani told us he always asks his writing students the question why. While we may want final answers, that come along with what, how, where, and when questions, there are questions which can not be so exactly answered, and this is where the why comes in. Unlike how the question why demands we know the purpose and reason behind something, the heart of the matter. This will always leads to more questions before any sort of answer. Asking why is a sign of deeper consciousness. It is where we go when we do not know but we want to know if it is possible for such a thing to really be true.

How does the sun come up? In a curved line in the sky (one of many ways to answer this question). Why does the sun come up? Now we are getting to the heart of the matter of the universe’s existence.

How do you like your tea? Slightly sweetened with honey and a little less than boiling hot. Why do you like your tea this way? Now you’re asking me who I am, and how I have come to be this way.

How does this skyscraper work? This is a question of architecture. I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine who studied architecture for four years before deciding to become a writer. He describes the architecture of a building as a matter of functionality. By this reasoning, whatever is most functional determines the structure and look of the building, how many windows there are, the curve of the walls, the location of the elevators, maybe escalators, the material used, and many more minute and large decisions which go into the construction of a large space such as a 30+ story building. In considering all these elements one might assume there is a general agreement on how to measure functionality. But how are we choosing this measure? Or more appropriately, why?

Say you have a building that lets a certain number of office workers move through the space fluidly, here the measure of functionality would be  their ability to move quickly and save more time getting in or out of work. Here we are using a measure of functionality based on the concept of efficiency most likely based on the concept of profit, net profit, and making money. Of course what if we decided that the office workers were not very happy because moving quickly made them feel like they were in a factory line, and their mental health deteriorated, then we might want to build bigger windows to let more light into the space they are moving through. Then we could say we are including mental health in our measure of functionality. What happens, though, if mental health and net profit conflict? What ultimately decides what is most functional? By deciding what we consider most important. How do we decide what is most important? By determining what our beliefs about life are. 

My reasoning is that even in answering a question of functionality you inevitably end up asking a why question. The point being, even in someone deciding to use a measure of functionality for the architecture of a building, it is not devoid of the subjectivity of the human experience, of opinion, of bias, of ideology, of belief of what is most important. This is important, because we usually conflate functionality with a sense of objectivity. Yet, we can see even the concept of functionality here is imbued with ethical considerations, and sometimes ideological answers, when faced with a why question. 

How does the U.S. government work? You might begin to answer this by explaining the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, democracy, and maybe even get into explaining how democracy is compromised due to heavy interference by large corporations on the stimulation of the economy. Okay, now, why does the U.S. government work this way?

We might not bother to think often about why the government works the way it does. It’s trouble enough keeping up with the damn how. However, in not asking why, we are accepting that there is some inevitability to the way things are. That there is a natural course to “organized” society which we have unavoidably fallen into. Despite the fact that there are 100’s to 1000’s of people everyday making decisions that make things the way they are, and these people are often asking why questions- consciously or subconsciously- in order to make these decisions, we still imagine that the answer to why is “just because” or “that’s just the way things are.”  

To really answer why, you would have to go back to the origins of free market ideology, manifest destiny, and colonialism. A combination of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. Eventually it becomes evident that the story of why reflects more of an ideology and politics than a natural course. There is nothing deterministic at all about the way that the government works. It is the result of a very strong ideology and belief in capitalism and the free market, self-determinism and individualism, racism and sexism, greed, and manifest destiny. To answer the question “why does the government work this way”, you would come across the horror that is the subjectivity with which our lives, i.e. political and economic, are governed and dictated. The social constructs and concepts which shape our lives come from an ideology and a fervent belief in that ideology to accompany it. Once again, certain concepts fall apart in the face of a why question. 

So, it is also easy to see how rapidly the need for some sort of belief, be it religion or ideology, is necessary for a human to live our ultimately subjective lives. How else would we organize our life and experiences, make decisions for ourselves, make decisions for other people? As neuroscientist Beau Lotto mentions in a TED Talk “perception is grounded in our experience, the brain takes meaningless information and makes meaning out of it, meaning we never see what’s really there, we only ever see what was useful to us in the past, and perception underpins everything we think, we know, we believe, our hopes, our dreams, everything begins with perception,” describing the reality of our subjective lives.

The idea is that we are all products of our environment and that our perspectives shape how we see the world, we are never neutral or objective. The word objective is an insidious concept which is used to validate the experiences of some by co-opting the idea of “normal”, “natural” or “rational” and making others’ feel marginalized in their “abnormal” or “subjective” experiences. In sociology this can be considered a hegemony or when a dominant culture uses its cultural ideas to establish a mass domination of center and way of being. As black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins puts it, “those who control the schools, the media, and other cultural institutions are generally skilled in establishing their view of reality as superior to alternative interpretations.” (words of fire p. 340).

Then imagine that our entire world is being run by subjective decisions based similarly. We come across the idea that this society (American) is not as static and rational  as western culture likes to claim, the culture that has heralded objectivity and rationality as its emblem. In saying that we are objective, we are saying that we are making a decision based on the ultimate truth. How convenient if that ultimate truth is one we already believe in and experience. Understanding the subjective nature of our reality might then begin with asking the question why. In some spaces, this is widely accepted, especially for example, amongst women and femmes, we usually speak from a subjective perspective and explain our decisions based on why we feel they are justified.

This reminds me of a piece I saw on the internet by Grada Kilomba:

“When they speak, it is scientific;
when we speak, it is unscientific.
When they speak, it is universal;
when we speak, it is specific.
When they speak, it is objective;
when we speak, it is subjective.
When they speak, it is neutral;
when we speak, it is personal.
When they speak, it is rational;
when we speak, it is emotional.
When they speak, it is impartial;
when we speak, it is partial.
They have facts, we have opinions.
They have knowledges, we have experiences.
We are not dealing here with a ‘peaceful coexistence of
words,’ but rather with a violent hierarchy, which
defines Who Can Speak and Who Can Produce Knowledge.”
– Grada Kilomba, in “Decolonizing Knowledge” (2016)

Politics is where the battle of the subjective experience is played out. At least one of the many ways. Thus in this way political is referring to the ways in which we act in accordance with the interest of a certain group or ideology. We must recognize that in this way we live inherently political lives. To claim to not participate or be interested is way of claiming one’s experience as objective and void of subjective experience and ideologically-influenced decisions. Most likely that kind experience is more validated by the hegemony and thus gives the appearance of being “objective”. 

The question why requires honesty and courage. It requires honesty to admit that you can only answer this question through your own subjective experience. It requires courage. Everything has a why and we must delve into it wholeheartedly.

Why delve into the why? Because why reveals the heart of the matter, the paintbrush movements behind the painting, a soft echo reminder that to exist is more of an art than a science. Even when we want it to be a science, we find that science has its own art. So why reveals the art of being, in the decision made based off of the whim of that moment, the inclination, or the mood, the ideology, the strong belief, the hope of why it makes sense to you. We need to know that our world is constructed out of people’s why’s and their answers to these why’s. If “democracy lies in the expression of the effort, made by every person, to understand and be understood by everyone else,” as Cuban-Spanish artist Michelangelo Pistoletto says, then asking why is the beginning of this understanding. Thus my attempt at finding this ideal of democracy and equality or the destruction of it, in the answer to why.

Now in that same spirit I am going to explain why I believe it is so important to our human experience, political, emotional, spiritual, and social. Well for the very fact that solutions to some of the bigger human issues have been found by asking the questions why. We can begin to solve some of the bigger human problems we face today through this question. It begins with understanding the human forces, i.e. beliefs and ideologies, which shape our reality and society. That behind every condition in society is a decision and it does not occur independent of human will and consent.  Answering the question why is easily political because we are led to the political motivations behind things.  If we begin to ask the question why about every decision we make, we come across their very political influence.

If we already think with a set perspective, how can we ever think differently? To me, by asking the question why. Giving space to the why is what this place is about. Accepting uncertainty and dipping into the pool of the unknown why. That is what this space is about. If you asked me what heaven is, I would say it’s the answer to every why question I’ve ever had. For now I’ll accept asking the question. 

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Beatriz Serves the Tea at Dinner

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Beatriz says “the world doesn’t need you Doug, killing is easy, try healing for once,” and we are all left fantasizing about what we would say to a multimillionaire white man if we confronted him. This scene encompasses a great deal of tension and conflict throughout the film Beatriz At Dinner, this is the part that feels right, that confirms that no matter how much power you have accumulated through money you are still weak and have no power against your own humanity and mortality.

Salma Hayek can make an entire movie worth watching through her facial expressions alone. In Beatriz at Dinner, the story is told mostly through Beatriz, someone with a strong capacity for empathy and healing, and her face. You cannot believe a character who is unaware of themselves, and Salma Hayek brings a believable and profound awareness of self alive in Beatriz. With several long up-close shots of her face and only the sounds of conversation, the scenes she is witnessing before her are ones we have to imagine on the other side of the camera. In particular the close-up is a powerful filming device because Beatriz is all but invisible, sociologically and historically, in the space she is in throughout most of the movie.

Beatriz ends up at an intimate business dinner at an upper upper (upper?) class white client’s house after her Volkswagen gives out on her. She finds herself in a space she is used to but a position she has not occupied before. That is as the dinner guest of her wealthy client. This client, the wife of a wealthy money mongrel, asked her to come up to her secluded mansion home in the hills outside of western Los Angeles for a therapeutic massage before her husband’s business dinner. The woman, Kathy, quickly invites Beatriz to dinner when she finds out she is stranded until the mechanic gets there. Of course Kathy insists that Beatriz is part of the family, and despite her husband’s slight protest, Beatriz is invited to dinner.

The idea that a woman of color would take up space at a dinner table that is meant to be commanded by white men is a profound one played out subtly and powerfully by Salma Hayek throughout the movie. She speaks to them as if she has known them since they were children, conveying that she has abundant compassion and understanding to deal with them all. Further she demands they have compassion and understanding for her. Of course this is a tall order amongst the privileged. Beatriz is unapologetic. She shares space with these people and takes up space, as well as commands attention. That she insists on continuously speaking while they are interrupting her and attempting to exclude her is appalling to them. So, the cognitive dissonance which these upper class white people experience when a woman of color commands attention is hilarious and disturbing.

It becomes evident that Kathy’s wealthy business guests do not often interact with someone like Beatriz. “Someone like Beatriz” referring both to her unique personality and to her marginalized identity. Beatriz, a working woman of color and Kathy’s wealthy white business guests. This is plays out when she gives mandatory hugs and sincerely asks personal questions. The guests are uncertain around her, although they do their best not to display it. It is namely Doug Stewart, capitalist mogul and exploiter with whom her encounter reaches a crucial point of tension. Beatriz is unphased. People are just people after all. There is no material wealth that makes this white man better than her.

They both experience the same world, yet their realities are very different. Throughout the evening these realities clash. While Doug sees an opportunity to make money building a resort in a village in Mexico, Beatriz experiences the displacement and ravagement of her community and people. Doug directly kills elephants, Beatriz protects them. Doug doesn’t mind clearing away a known bird sanctuary to build a mall, Beatriz takes in goats to feed them. Doug has contributed to the displacement and mass murders of Mexican people and Beatriz spends her time (spoiler alert) trying to heal from the displacement that tore her family apart- and help others’ heal. Eventually, it becomes evident that these realities are impossible to reconcile. Yet, this dissension is not something Doug has ever had to address seriously. Neither does his wife have to imagine that her vacations cost a family their lives. That is the nature of privilege. This is the moment Beatriz presence becomes so powerful.

The question begins to surface, once the complex history connecting them is revealed, of whether or not Doug is the source of Beatriz’ and countless others’ suffering. And the answer is yes, of course. Yet the way this is played out is through the proxy of animals. Doug is an avid hunter, he likes to go out to the plains of “Africa” and hunt wild beasts whom he claims would otherwise be extinct if they weren’t hunted (how funny). Beatriz, who is recently mourning the murder of her goat, who she raised and provided with shelter and love, finds this appalling. Their attitude towards the creatures we live on this planet with, compassion for animals versus pure ego-gratifying exploitation of animals, becomes the point of their dissonance. It would almost cliche if it weren’t perhaps ironically touching upon the hypocrisy of privileged people to see animal lives as more important than human ones.

This point of contention between them is interesting because on the one hand it represents the perfect juxtaposition of their characters. On the other hand it provides a soft controversy-free area to display this conflict. Because it’s animals and not people, and everyone’s supposed to love animals. If you don’t, you’re obviously evil. So the questions regarding human rights to life which might be ironically considered too “political” are avoided. While this might also be interpreted as satire on the ongoing joke that people in first world countries often seem to care more about animals’ lives than humans’ lives, it could also be a clever way of skirting a potentially highly politicized message addressing the real phenomenon that is the destruction of Central and South America, as well as working class United States, that capitalist trade agreements such as NATO have caused, and which characters like Doug benefit greatly from.