Season three of the science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” has finally arrived on Netflix. Previous seasons explored our relationship to technology, specifically how evolving technologies might have a frightening impact on our lives. Season three, by and large, continues this trend. When storytelling is at its best it not only entertains, but also teaches us something about ourselves. “Black Mirror” attempts to look into a nebulous future and point out potential pitfalls. Like the seafaring maps of centuries past, the series outlines areas of uncharted territory and warns the viewer, fellow travelers on the road to the future, to tread lightly because here there be monsters.
Each episode tells a self-contained story with its own message or moral lesson. Within the coming digital pages, we’ll ponder the gospel of series to see if we can learn anything that might direct us more safely along our way.
Episode Five: Men Against Fire
This episode is “Black Mirror’s” entrance into how technology might impact warfare of the future. Stripe, as he’s called by his fellow soldiers, is a new recruit out for his first field assignment. His squad heads to a small village recently attacked by the enemy, roaches. The episode presents a clear villain, one it’s difficult to sympathize with, mutated humanoids with demon eyes and vampire teeth.
Information gleaned in the village sends Stripe and his crew to a housing tenement. They search the premises and discover a group of roaches hiding inside. The sequence screams of Anne Frank, except instead of cute little girls, we’re dealing with objectively non-human monsters. Stripe gets two kills, one with his rifle, the other more brutally and up close, with a knife. During the hands on altercation, the roach beneath Stripe’s blade hefts a slender contraption that looks like a stripped down sonic screwdriver, shining light into Stripe’s eye before finally falling.
Having cleared the area, the squad heads back to base, patting Stripe on the back for a job well done. As a reward, sexual dreams are piped into Stripe’s head as he sleeps through an army issue implant that doubles as a tactical tool allowing for heads up displays in the field.
This isn’t the first time this season that that “Black Mirror” has toyed with the idea of augmented reality via computer/brain interface (see “Playtest”) but it is the most prescient in terms of societal morality. During Stripe’s dreams he notices the scene begins to clip and glitch.
One has to wonder if turning warfare into a game not only robs the enemy of its humanity, but if it has the same impact on ourselves.
He goes to see the onsite technician as well as a psychiatrist to make sure that everything is on the up and up. After a diagnostic test and some couch time, Stripe is given a clean bill of health and sent back into the field. On the next assignment he discovers a human being hiding out with the roaches and attempts to move her to safety when his partner guns her down. Shocked at her lack of human empathy he goes rogue, attempting to move another group of people to safety. Once they reach a safe underground location it’s revealed that who he’s actually helped are roaches, but they no longer look like monsters.
After being retrieved and brought back to base, the onsite psychiatrist reveals that the roaches are in fact people, not monsters, and the light based instrument wielded in his first encounter has turned off the mirage created by his implant. What follows is an intimate conversation about the nature of right and wrong and the justification of killing “others.”
“They look like us.” Stripe says to the shrink.
“That’s why they’re so dangerous. Do you have any idea the amount of shit that’s in their DNA? Higher rates of cancer. Muscular dystrophy. MS. SLS. Substandard IQ. Criminal tendencies, sexual deviances. It’s all there. The screening shows it. Is that what you want for the next generation?”
The episode takes its name from a study done in 1947 by S.L.A. Marshall which claimed that in WWII less than twenty-five percent of American soldiers actually fired their weapons at the enemy and that even when they did, they often intentionally aimed over their enemies’ heads. While the results of that study have been a source of some controversy, it seems that at least to some degree, human beings are bad at killing one another, even when their own lives are on the line.
Human beings have found ways around this for as long as we’ve been warring, which is to say as long as we’ve been human. The more traditional tactic is through propaganda which dehumanizes the enemy, making them less than. This episode of “Black Mirror” takes that same tactic to its logical technological end. The military issue implant literally makes the enemy non-human. By turning them into monsters they become easier to kill. The shrink tells Stripe that the implant helps in other ways as well, by blocking out the screams and the smells usually associated with taking a life.
While the specifics of the episode are fantastical in nature, the message hits close to home. It makes us consider the dangers of defining “other” groups. Of drawing cultural, religious, and border lines. And it makes us wonder how these lines may be redrawn with the introduction of technology into the mix. Right now there are soldiers in undisclosed locations piloting remote control drones armed with lethal weapons. They’re ending lives from the comfort of a chair, through a screen, with a joystick. One has to wonder if turning warfare into a game not only robs the enemy of its humanity, but if it has the same impact on ourselves.