Content Warning: The following material includes references to sexual themes and pedophilia, which may be harmful or traumatising to some audiences.
Black Mirror is a sci-fi TV series which explores the dangers that may arise from the technologies of tomorrow. Shut Up and Dance, the third episode of season three, is slightly different from every other episode in that it is situated in our contemporary society as opposed to a dystopian future. There is no conceptualisation of advanced technologies which are years away from production as this episode centres around mobile phones, personal computers and the internet.
The episode begins with a panicked woman carrying out instructions which are texted to her. While we don’t see these texts, we can assume from her behaviour that if she doesn’t follow these instructions, something wicked may happen. This forebodes the context of the episode and leads straight into the opening sequence.
Our protagonist, Kenny, is introduced to us as a shy and slightly awkward teenager who struggles in social settings. We feel great sympathy for him throughout the episode as he falls victim to a malware attack on his laptop. This malware hijacks his webcam and records him masturbating to pornography, with the hacker subsequently blackmailing him to carry out illegal tasks or have his video leaked to friends and family.
Throughout the episode we learn that each character has transgressed in some way via the internet. The episode comes to a climax right before it ends, where it is inferred that Kenny, the innocent boy we are positioned to feel sorry for, was actually watching child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
Throughout this episode there is a motif of privacy. It begins in more subtle ways, such as Kenny closing his blinds and installing a lock on his door. Gradually, this motif becomes more explicit with Kenny’s privacy being violated as he is recorded through his webcam and is forced to share his location.
This theme depicts how Lessig’s model of online communication operates in the risks that we, as everyday users, take in interacting with the internet at both the content layer (through the sites Kenny accessed) and code layer (the malware installed) (Lessig, 2001). This episode emphasises that someone who is not familiar with how we interact with these three layers can be easily duped by those with malicious (or even non-malicious) intents.
When Kenny realises what has happened, his dilatoriness in covering up his webcam with a piece of blu tack is a metaphor which delineates our reactiveness to privacy scandals. It is only after a huge public scandal that we as consumers and citizens of a digital world take precautions to safeguard our right to privacy.
An example of this was the 2014 iCloud Photos Hack which saw hundreds of celebrities’ sensitive photos leaked online. Immediately after this occurred, Google searches for two-step verification increased, newspapers released articles on how to safeguard one’s private information from hackers (Arthur, 2014). Just like Kenny, we are not proactive in taking appropriate cybersecurity measures.
There is also a subtle reference to the ways in which we willingly give up our personal information, even when we understand the danger in doing so. The software Kenny downloads is called ‘shrive’, which means “to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance and absolution”. Kenny is also asked to grant the hacker access to his location via his mobile phone; something the hacker could’ve easily done after they accessed Kenny’s email.
Giving Kenny the choice in whether or not he wants to follow the hacker’s instruction is also rather clever. We know that the choice to not participate is one he cannot make and this extends again to us and our relationship with the internet. For we are not forced to use the internet, to not do so would be social suicide and ostracization from the world. While our protagonist must endure physical labour, such as fighting a man to death, the labours we endure are the aspects of our identity we willingly hand over to the likes of Facebook, Google and Apple in order to participate in wider society.
The fact that Kenny has a choice in whether to satisfy the hackers demands or defy them and risk his video being leaked reminded me of another Netflix series in which the characters are given an incredulous choice, Squid Game. In the series, the contestants are given the option to withdraw from the games at any time but in doing so they would forfeit the cash prize.
Netflix continuously draws attention to the lack of autonomy that we have as members of society. This again relates back to the arguments which underpin Zuboff’s idea of surveillance capitalism because the internet has found a way to not only profit off human behaviour, but also modify it.
Gillespie explains that the role social media conglomerates have in moderating their own platforms is that they must “respond to contemporary fears” (Gillespie, 2018, p. 6). I believe that by drawing attention to these issues through shows such as Black Mirror and Squid Game, Netflix is increasing awareness and fear of certain issues within individuals and through a flow-on effect, platforms introduce features and policies to mitigate users’ fears.
The power balance between the hacker and the culpable characters is a manifestation of Brevini’s Digital Lord concept in practice (Brevini, 2020). The Digital Lord, in our case the anonymous hacker, is able to use his or her omnipotence and position as a monopolistic power in order to exploit the weak and vulnerable. I believe that the show’s writers made a pointed decision to not unveil the identity of the hacker to emphasise that these risks do not present themselves through any one identity, platform, or software.
Both Brevini and Zuboff make it clear that surveillance capitalism poses a great threat to individuals and shows such as Black Mirror make it clear how these threats may present themselves. As Varafoukis explains, we are in a transitory period where we shift away from a competitive capitalistic economy, to a new market economy of techno-feudalism (Project Syndicate, 2021). These Digital Lords exert significant control over our networked identities and they are able to profit from capitalism in a new way. To learn more about this concept, listen to Varoufakis’ explanation in an Al Jazeera interview below.
Overall, the episode (and by extension the series) does an incredible job of bringing to light just how pertinent these issues are in our contemporary society. While the episode looks at many aspects of our relationship with our personal devices and the internet, it emphasises the significant controlling power that internet companies, tech giants and social media platforms have over us.
The structure of the episode encourages us to feel sympathy for Kenny as he is forced to obey every command to the point of him losing himself, until we find out that he has pedophilloic tendencies where we are immediately appalled by his actions. In a much more metaphorical sense, we are all Kenny; we give ourselves and our identity up to digital artefacts in hopes for safety, security and inclusion.
[Al Jazeera English]. (2021, February 19). Yanis Varoufakis: Capitalism has become ‘techno-feudalism’ | Upfront. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jW0xUmUaUc
Arthur, C. (2014, September 2). Naked celebrity hack: security experts focus on iCloud backup theory. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/01/naked-celebrity-hack-icloud-backup-jennifer-lawrence
Brevini, B., & Swiatek, L. (2020). Amazon: Understanding a Global Communication Giant (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/10.4324/9780367816711
Gillespie, T. (2018). Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. New Haven: Yale University Press. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/10.12987/9780300235029
Lessig, L. (2001). The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world (1st ed.). New York: Random House.
Project Syndicate. (2021). Techno-feudalism is taking over. Retrieved from https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/techno-feudalism-replacing-market-capitalism-by-yanis-varoufakis-2021-06
Suzor, N. [Nicolas Suzor]. (2015, July 17). Code, infrastructure, and content. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqhXMmQOOXU
Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (First edition.). New York: Public Affairs.