‘Hated in the nation’, the last in the current round of Charlie Brooker’s speculative fiction/ sci fi series Black Mirror deals with a very near future in which Twitter storms and synthetic bees combine to murderous effect.
A hateful celebrity, let’s call her Katie Hopkins for ease of explanation, is killed by a hacked robo-bee which burrows in through her nose. In this world (as in ours) bees are on the verge of extinction due to hive collapse syndrome. A corporation has developed simple, self-replicating replacement artificial insects to fill the vacated ecological niche and prevent environmental catastrophe.
Shortly after Hopkins a rude rapper bites the dust and our protagonists, a divorced, cynical old-school copper who eats ice-cream from a tub and a pouty whizz kid do-gooder ex-cyber-crime copper join the dots. Turns out that a Twitter hash tag #deathto[insertnamehere] precipitated the killings. Someone is running an online contest where the name with the highest number of mentions with the hashtag becomes the next victim. The mastermind behind the scheme calls it the ‘game of consequences’.
The chancellor has the highest number of votes leading to all arms of the UK state mobilising. It appears that GCHQ has taken advantage of the bees to use for monitoring subjects (surprise-surprise) which meant including a back-door in the software. As anyone who’s installed a back-door will be aware… other people can use it. Hence the mysterious hacker seizing the bees.
Due to a ‘slip up’ by the nemesis his hide-out is discovered and with it a partially destroyed hard-drive with some source code. The team rushes to the corporation HQ and looks at a big map of bees, which all turn red. This is bad news. It’s time to make use of the source code. Unfortunately this was all part of the bad hacker’s plan which now enters its final stage. The bees’ real target is everyone who’s used the #deathto… hash tag (including a police flatfoot). At this point, and despite the fact that the bees only have a primitive sensor and facial recognition software which means that putting on a balaclava would make you undetectable by the ersatz insects, the rogue bees take out all of the SJWs and trolls IRL leading to a “tremendous loss of life”. Turns out the hacker had a crush on a woman who got cyber-bullied and attempted suicide and this is his revenge. It’s now year zero in the online culture wars.
The relationship between the bees and the Twitter community is obvious. Seeing a handful of bees gathering on a window pane, then escalating into an unstoppable, murderous swarm is analogous with the Twitter storm which has become a predictable feature of the online climate. When Hopkins gets her fatal nose-job she’s looking through a rapidly proliferating list of angry hateful interactions and chuckling. Only when “#deathto…” online results in actual “death to…” an attitude of detachment, whether ironic in its deployment or callous in receipt becomes impossible. This is the core of the episode – the question of what the consequences for our society would be if the relations we have online attained material reality. If we faced each other directly – as ourselves and not indirectly. However, because this premise is constrained by (bourgeois) tropes of the genre in which the show is made we are not able to draw fundamentally useful conclusions. These limitations are both artistic, which manifest as aesthetic defects, and material/philosophical, which manifest as internal inconsistencies and a feeling of a lack of satisfaction. Obviously the two categories are related.
The first problem is that whilst the Twitterati (or to be specific certain of their ways of interaction) is set out as a sort of collective antagonist, because of the reliance on the procedural format of the show the bad guy has to be just that – a bad guy. A rogue hacker rather than (what would have been much more satisfactory) a collective enemy, say a hive consciousness of bees which had learned behaviour from Twitter and were not subject to direction and control. Creating a separate and opposite nemesis rather than one which emerges from and is self-permeated by the online phenomena give a deus ex machina quality to the plot.
Secondly, we must sympathise with the police characters, which means amongst other things that they engage in furious and implausible criticisms of state surveillance and corporate power. As if the police themselves were not engaged in more than collusion on both counts. This is a minor point and comes with the territory in cop shows.
From the exasperation of our divorcee sleuth and her worldly-wise approach to suspects we know she craves the authentic and rational, establishing leads are dead-ends, applying accumulated knowledge to situations. She is certainly ill-equipped to deal with the computer age, remote control blinds or no. The jaded, yet tech-savvy whiz kid has had herself reassigned to physical crimes because she wants to make a difference “in the real world”. Thus we have set up a distinction between real and unreal hinging on the platform through which interaction takes place, whether this is digital or not. The real world is rational and direct, the virtual world is irrational and indirect.
The metal bees form the ideal bridge between these worlds, and our embittered hacker is able to drag the virtual into the real by fixing persons and consequences to personae and consequenceless statements respectively. The show resolves naturally, according to this pattern, by the whizz kid tracking the hacker down to his South/Central American hideaway, showing that the process of justice must grind on once set into gear.
Although we are not shown the capture of the bees’ master the remaining tension at the end of the show is our humbled, sanguine old-school copper leaving an official enquiry and being hounded by protestors brandishing signs demanding the #truth. Would these demands would be fulfilled by a confession from the imprisoned super-hacker? The suggestion, from the cop’s wry smile is that they will.
What would the end of impersonal relations really be like though. For a liberal, or a luddite, and for this show it would mean everything virtual and insubstantial solidifying and taking real-world form. Taking their place with the tangible violence of the police as phenomena, online death threats would be subject to control by a judiciary system with a monopoly of violence behind it. Covert surveillance by the state apparatus would also be dragged out into the light and forced to justify itself to the real-world cops on the beat and the public enquiries that hold them accountable.
Unfortunately for the viewing audience as well as for those seeking resolution to the alienation of modern life, online or otherwise, everyone knows that we do not live in a society where citizen oversight is a realistic solution to pretty much anything.
The critique remains on the level of discourse and technology and does not examine the real sources of ironic detachment and impotent rage on Twitter: that we face each other not through direct social relations, but via material objects. The hard reality of the cop-civilian interaction and the unambiguity of the worker-boss relation do not form an ultimate realm of materiality into which we need to draw all other human-human inter-relations. Rather we should act to expose the contingent and therefore not-necessarily real nature of these current facts which structure our world. Rather than solidifying what is not real and restructuring or rejecting it based on rationality (the Enlightenment approach) we should dissolve those elements of the real which underpin the rationality which maintains mediated relations. This means building a world where the power of our productive forces is subject to unmediated control. The current categories and the thinking which upholds them would “melt into thin air” (Marx). At last we would not have a collective consciousness which appeared to us as a angry an irrational swarm, in our fictions or our lives.