Black Mirror and Philosophy
Suggested Further Readings
Editor’s Note: In most cases, the articles suggested take opposing sides on a question that the chapter or episode raises. The nature of some chapters and episodes, however, does not lend itself to this approach. In those cases, readings that are merely on or about the relevant topic have been suggested. Some notes about the suggested readings have been included.
Also, as I mentioned in the introduction to the book, Charlie Brooker has said that Black Mirror is not primarily about the dangers of technology, but instead about the human condition. “It’s not a technological problem we have, it’s a human one.” Essentially, in each episode, while the technology on display might be on trial, that technology also magnifies some human foible or flaw. In addition to the suggested readings, I have also included my take on what technology (real or imagined) I take each episode to putting on display or trial, and what human flaw that episode of technology magnifies.
(Update: After editing the book, but before it’s publication, I also came across a fascinating assignment that one could use in a Black Mirror class, where students essentially outline their own Black Mirror episode. It was conceived by Casey Lynn Fiesler, and details regarding it can be found here.)
- The National Anthem and Weighing Moral Obligations: Is It Ever OK to F*ck a Pig?
By Brian J. Collins with Brandon Boesch
Pro: J.J.C. Smart, “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 6.25, 1956. Full text available online at http://personal.lse.ac.uk/robert49/teaching/mm/articles/Smart_1956Utilitarianism.pdf
Con: W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930. Full text available online at https://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/readings/ross.pdf
Con: G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, 33, 1958. Full text available online at https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf
Technology on Trial/Display: News and Social Media
Magnified Human Foible: Obsession with Spectacle
- Fifteen Million Merits and Fighting the System: How Can We Resist?
By Chris Byron with Matthew Brake
Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences (1941), Vol. IX, No. 1, pp. 17-18.
Theodor W. Adorno and Anson G. Rabinbach “Culture Industry Reconsidered” New German Critique No. 6 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 12-19 https://www.jstor.org/stable/487650?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).
Chris Johnston, “Banksy auction stunt leaves art world in shreds.” The Guardian, Oct 6th, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/oct/06/banksy-sothebys-auction-prank-leaves-art-world-in-shreds-girl-with-balloon
The editor feels that the latter story is highly relevant to Adorno’s idea that art ceases to be art one it is commodified. As soon as the painting was sold, it’s author shredded it as if it was worthless.
Technology on Trial/Display: Entertainment Technology that Drives Consumer Capitalism
Magnified Human Foible: Easy Distractibility, Lack of Conviction to Principles, Being Consumaristic
- The Entire History of You and Knowing Too Much: Should You Want the Grain?
By Gregor Balke and Bart Engelen
Pro [transparency]: Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran Božovič, London: Verso, 1995. Full text available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20040211164555/http://cartome.org/panopticon2.htm (more specifically letter 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7).
With the panopticon, in the 18th century Bentham designed a comprehensive system of complete surveillance and control “with the most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen”. Initially designed for “PRISONS, HOUSES OF INDUSTRY, WORK-HOUSES, POOR-HOUSES, LAZARETTOS, MANUFACTORIES, HOSPITALS, MAD-HOUSES, AND SCHOOLS”, the panopticon became an emblematic symbol of the disciplinary role institutions can have, which later paved the way for the transparency society.
Con [transparency]: Byung-Chul Han: The Transparency Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.
In this short booklet, the German-Korean philosopher Han points out that behind the apparent accessibility of knowledge lies the disappearance of privacy and the collapse of trust. More information does not necessarily produce more knowledge or faith. Therefore, Han denounces transparency as a false ideal and a contemporary mythology.
Technology on Trial/Display: The Grain
Magnified Human Foible: Mistrust and Paranoia (especially regarding relationships)
- Be Right Back and Rejecting Tragedy: Would You Bring Back Your Deceased Loved One?
By Bradley Richards
Robert Nozick, “Love’s bond,” The Examined Life, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 68–86.
Peter Unger, “The physical view,” in Daniel Kolak and Martin Raymond eds., Self and Identity: Contemporary Philosophical Issues (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 192–211.
Technology on Trial/Display: Chatbot/Android Tech
Magnified Human Foible: Inability to Accept/Move On After a Death
- White Bear and Criminal Punishment: How Far Is Too Far?
By Sid Simpson with Chris Lay
Pro: Tunick, Mark. “Genealogist as Radical Critic: Nietzsche and Foucault.” in Punishment: Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. pp. 19-27
Tunick provides an accessible primer to Nietzsche’s genealogical critique of modern justifications for punishment.
Con: Rachels, James. “Are There Absolute Moral Rules?” The Elements of Moral Philosophy, eds. 5-7. New York, McGraw Hill Education, 1994. pp. 125-135
Rachels gives an overview of moral absolutes, in particular Kant’s categorical imperative. While this chapter is not explicitly about justifications for punishment, Rachels articulates the moral absolutism characteristic of both deontological and utilitarian theories of punishment.
Technology on Trial/Display: Memory Wipe Device/Justice Park
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Retributive Justice/Legally Sanctioned Vengeance.
- The Waldo Moment and Political Discourse: What’s Wrong with Disrespect in Politics?
By Greg Littmann
Pro: Bornstein, David, “Recovering the (Lost) Art of Civility”, New York Times, Oct, 29, 2018. Full text available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/opinion/recovering-the-lost-art-of-civility.html
Con: Zurn, Christopher F., “Political Civility: Another Idealist Illusion”, Public Affairs Quarterly 27 (4) (2013)
Technology on Trial/Display: Digital Animation (as Political Candidate)
Magnified Human Foible: Non-thinking “Anti-establishment” Politics/ Political Disengagement
The Christmas Special
- White Christmas and Technological Restraining Orders: Are Digital Blocks Ethical?
By Laura Haaber Ihle and Cansu Canca
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Richard Manson, “To Block or Not: The Ethics and Externalities of Online Discourse” Libertarianism.org. Aug 16, 2018.
Technology on Trial/Display: Digital Blocking
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Easy Solution to Personal Conflict
- Nosedive and the Anxieties of Social Media: Is the Future Already Here?
By Sergio Urueña and Nonna Melikyan
Pro: Albrechtslund, Anders (2008). Online social networking as participatory surveillance. First Monday, 13(3). doi: 10.5210/fm.v13i3.2142.
Albrechtslund sees online social networking as an opportunity to rethink the concept of surveillance. He argues that online social networking may introduce a participatory approach to surveillance, which can empower—and not necessarily violate—the user.
Con: Lopato, Michael Stephen (2016). Social Media, Love, and Sartre’s Look of the Other: Why Online Communication Is Not Fulfilling. Philosophy & Technology, 29(3), 195-210. doi: 10.1007/s13347-015-0207-x.
Lopato explores why social media communication is not fulfilling by applying the framework of social communication established by Jean-Paul Sartre to the realm of social media.
Technology on Trial/Display: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter
Magnified Human Foible: Obsession with Popularity
- Playtest and The Power of Virtual Reality: Are Our Fears Real?
By Claire Benn
Brey, Philip, ‘Virtual Reality and Computer Simulation’ Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, ed. Himma and Tavani (2008).
Brey outlines key concepts in understanding and defining virtual reality and describes the importance and possibility of ethical questions arising in VR.
Luck, Morgan, ‘The Gamer’s Dilemma’ Ethics and Information Technology 11 (2009) pp.31–36.
A classic paper concerning ethics and virtual reality: poses the problem of if everything is permissible in a virtual space then virtual rape and virtual pedophilia must also be acceptable; however, if what is wrong in reality is wrong in virtual reality (like rape), then we must object to virtual murder, which currently makes up a lot of online games.
Bostrom, Nick, ‘Are you living in a computer simulation?’ Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 211, (2003) pp. 243‐255.
This paper is cited in the chapter and explores the possibility that we are in fact living in a computer simulation and what beliefs you would have to give up to deny that possibility.
Technology on Trial/Display: Virtual Reality
Magnified Human Foible: Inability to Face Our Fears
- Shut Up And Dance and Vigilante Justice: Should We Ever Take The Law Into Our Own Hands?
By Juliele Maria Sievers and Luiz Henrique da Silva Santos
Pro: Reeves, Joshua. “If You See Something, Say Something: Lateral Surveillance and the Uses of Responsibility”. Surveillance and Society, Vol. 10, No. 3/4, 2012, pp. 235–248.
Con: Rosenbaum, H. Jon & Sederberg, Peter C. ‘‘Vigilantism: An Analysis of Establishment Violence’’. Comparative Politics, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Jul., 1974), pp. 541-570 .
Technology on Trial/Display: Webcam, Hacking, Monitoring
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Vigilante Justice
- San Junipero and the Digital Afterlife: Could Heaven Be a Place on Earth?
By James Cook
Con: Williams, Bernard. 1973. The Makropulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality. In his Problems of the self, 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Technology on Trial/Display: Cookie Uploading/ San Junipero
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Immortality
- Men Against Fire and Political Manipulation: How Are We Tricked into Dehumanizing Others?
By Bertha Alvarez Manninen
David Livingstone Smith. 2011. Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, ad Exterminate Others.New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 26-71.
Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity. 1991. Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 197-216.
Technology on Trial/Display: MASS Implant/ Political Propaganda (via News Outlets)
Magnified Human Foible: Propensity to Demonize “The Other”
- Hated in The Nation and #DeathTo: What are the Consequences of Trial by Twitter?
By Aline Maya
Pro: Heaney, Katie., (2018), Almost No One Is Falsely Accused of Rape, The Cut, https://www.thecut.com/article/false-rape-accusations.html. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
Con: Bloom, Paul and Jordan, Matthew., (2018), Are We All ‘Harmless Torturers? Now’, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/opinion/are-we-all-harmless-torturers-now.html.
Technology on Trial/Display: Twitter
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Mob Justice, Punishment Without Fair Trial
- USS Callister and Non-Player-Characters: How Should We Act in Video Games?
By Russ Hamer with Steven Gubka
Christopher Ferguson, “Do Angry Birds make for angry children? A metaanalysis of video game influences on children’s and adolescents’ aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior, and academic performance,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10 (2015), 646–666.
David Zendle, Daniel Kudenko, and Paul Cairns, “Behavioural realism and the activation of aggressive concepts in violent video games,” Entertainment Computing, 24 (2018), 21–29.
Technology on Trial/Display: Realistic Video Games
Magnified Human Foible: Petty Jealousy, Revenge Fantasies
- Arkangel and Parental Surveillance: What are a Parent’s Obligations?
By Catherine Villanueva Gardner with Alexander Christian
Martin Guggenheim, 2005. What’s Wrong with Children’s Rights. Chapter Two. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Onora O’Neill. 1988. “Children’s Rights and Children’s Lives.” Ethics 98 (3): 445-463.
Technology on Trial/Display: Archangel Device
Magnified Human Foible: Overparenting
- Crocodile and The Ethics of Self-Preservation: How Far is Too Far?
By Darci Doll
Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Ethics. Chapter 20 in Book Editor(s): Hugh LaFollette Ingmar Persson (eds). The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory Blackwell, 2013. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/b.9780631201199.1999.00022.x
Daryl Koehn, Rethinking Feminist Ethics: Care, Trust and Empahty. New York: Routledge. 1998. https://content.taylorfrancis.com/books/download?dac=C2010-0-33032-7&isbn=9780203015650&format=googlePreviewPdf
Technology on Trial/Display: Memory Retrieval
Magnified Human Foible: Self-preservation (at the expense of others)
- Hang the DJ and Digital Dating: Should We Use Computers to Help Us Find Mates?
By Skye C. Cleary and Massimo Pigliucci
Pigliucci, M. (2019) Stoicism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available online at https://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicism/
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1943/1992).
Technology on Trial/Display: Digital Matchmaking
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Easy Romance
- Metalhead and Technophobia: How Dangerous Will Robots Be?
By Scott Midson with Justin Donhauser
Pro: Noel Sharkey, ‘Cassandra or False Prophet of Doom: AI Robots and War’, IEEE Intelligent Systems, Vol. 23, No. 4 (2008), pp. 14-17.
Noel Sharkey, co-founder and chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and activist and UK spokesperson for the Campaign Against Killer Robots, outlines some of the premises of his arguments against robots that can kill humans autonomously and callously, much like the robo-dogs that terrorize Bella in Metalhead.
Con: Amy Michelle DeBaets, ‘Can a Robot Pursue the Good? Exploring Artificial Moral Agency’, Journal of Evolution & Technology, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2014), pp. 76-86.
Amy Michelle DeBaets asks about the ability to develop empathy in human-robot relationships, and explores whether this could enable robots to pursue a kind of moral good. Empathy also features prominently in the dystopian post-apocalyptic world of Metalhead. Sharkey and DeBaets suggest different approaches to robotic agency which is important for how we approach our interactions and relationships with robots.
For even further reading on this topic, see Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and George A. Bekey (eds.), Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics (Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 2014).
Technology on Trial/Display: Artificial Intelligence
Magnified Human Foible: Unquestioned Desire to Advance Artificial Intelligence
- Black Museum and Righting Wrongs: Should We Seek Revenge?
By Gregory L. Bock, Jeffrey L. Bock, and Kora Smith
Pro: Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice
Nussbaum explores the phenomenon of anger in many different contexts and argues that anger isn’t morally justified in most of them. She argues for the alternatives of “transition anger” and “love and generosity.”
Con: David Kyle Johnson’s “Revenge and Mercy in Tarantino: The Lesson of Ezekiel 25:17”
Johnson argues that revenge can be morally justified, within limits.
Technology on Trial/Display: Cookie Uploading and Torture
Magnified Human Foible: Desire for Retribution and Revenge
- Bandersnatch: A Choose Your Own Philosophical Adventure
By Chris Lay and David Kyle Johnson
Pro: Peter van Ingwagen’s “The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism”
Peter van Inwagen argues that, since free will requires the ability to act otherwise than we will, the idea that the universe is deterministic is incompatible with the idea that humans have free will.
Con: Daniel Dennett’s “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?”
Daniel Dennett argues that the ability to act otherwise than we will is not required for free will.
Technology on Trial/Display: Netflix’s “Choose YOur Own Adventure” Technology
Magnified Human Foible: Our Belief we Have Free Will
- Striking Vipers and Closed Doors: How Meaningful are Sexual Fantasies?
By Daren M. Slade
Pro: Claudia Card, “Against Marriage and Motherhood,” Hypatia 11, no. 3 (1996): 1‒23.
Con: Louise Collins, “Emotional Adultery: Cybersex and Commitment,” Social Theory and Practice 25, no. 2 (1999): 243‒70
Technology on Trial/Display: Virtual Interactive Video Games
Magnified Human Foible: Desire Sexual Adventure or Desire for Monogamy (depending on how you interpret the episode)
- Smithereens and The Economy of Attention: Are We All Dopamine Addicts?
By Pieruca D’Amato
Gerald Moore, (2017). “Dopamining and Disadjustment: Addiction and Digital Capitalism,” in Vanessa Bartlett and Henrietta Bowden-Jones eds., Are We All Addicts Now? Digital Dependence. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 68-75.
Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads (London: Atlantic Books, 2017), pp. 11-18.
Technology on Trial/Display: Smartphone
Magnified Human Foible: Technological Addiction
- Empathy, Emulation, and Ashley Too: Can A Robot Be a Friend?
By George A. Dunn
Pro: Luisa Damiano and Paul Dumouchel, “Anthropomorphism in Human-Robot Co-Evolution,” Frontiers in Psychology, March 2018
Con: Nicholai Rougier, “Why you’ll never be able to upload your brain to the cloud,” The Conversation, January 6, 2016: https://theconversation.com/why-youll-never-be-able-to-upload-your-brain-to-the-cloud-52408
Technology on Trial/Display: Digital Replications of Persons
Magnified Human Foible: Artistic In-authenticity
Black Mirror Reflections
- Conscious Technology in Black Mirror: Do Cookies Feel Pain?
By David Gamez with David Kyle Johnson
Pro: Searle, J., 1980, ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3: 417–57
Con: Copeland, J., 2002, ‘The Chinese Room from a Logical Point of View’, in Preston and Bishop (eds.) 2002, 104–122.
- Personal Identity in Black Mirror: Is Your Cookie You?
By Molly Gardner and Robert Slone
Robert Nozick, “The closest continuer view,” in Daniel Kolak and Martin Raymond eds., Self and Identity: Contemporary Philosophical Issues (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 212–226.
David Lewis, “Survival and identity” in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty ed., The Identities of Persons, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), 17–40.
Derek Parfit, “Lewis, Perry, and what matters,” in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty ed., The Identities of Persons, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), 91–108.
- Death in Black Mirror: How Should We Deal with Our Mortality?
By Edwardo Pérez and Sergio Genovesi
Jeffrey P. Bishop, “Transhumanism, Metaphysics, and the Posthuman God,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35 (2010)
Jullian Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press: 2007.
- Love in Black Mirror: Who Do We Really Love?
By Robert Grant Price
Pro: Faith, Hope, Love by Josef Pieper delivers a lengthy reflection on the nature of love, relating love as a gift that must be given.
Con: Love and Lies by Clancy Martin. Martin offers a contrary take on love by arguing that to love one must learn how to lie; love only lasts when lovers learn how to lie to one another.
- Perception in Black Mirror: Who Controls What You See?
By Brian Stiltner and Anna Vaughn
Pro: Nick Bostrom. “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Philosophical Quarterly 53, no. 211 (2003): 243–255. Reprinted in The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd ed., edited by Gideon Rosen, et al., 443–451 New York: Norton, 2018. Full text available online at https://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.pdf.
Bostrom argues that the question of whether we are living in a computer simulation is not unanswerable and, in fact, it is highly likely that we are. His conclusion is based on a thought experiment regarding the likelihood that a “posthuman” civilization would have the computing power and interest in running computer simulations of its human ancestors’ life experiences.
Con: Evan Thompson and Diego Cosmelli. “Brain in a Vat or Body in a World? Brainbound versus Enactive Views of Experience.” Philosophical Topics 39, no. 1 (2011): 163–180. Full text available online at https://evanthompsondotme.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/thompsoncosmelli.pdf.
Thompson and Cosmelli argue that the minimal biological requirements for consciousness include a living body, not just neuronal processes in the skull. Since consciousness is so entangled with embodiment, it is impossible that we could be conscious—in the robust way that we are conscious—if we were only computer simulations or any other kinds of disembodied experiences.
- The Dangers of Technology in Black Mirror: A Dialogue Between Uploaded Dead Philosophers
By Ben Springett with Luiz Borges
Pro: Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis. Minerva Publishing, 2018.
This is a very short 17th century book (short because he died before finishing it) taking a utopian approach to our technological future. In his utopian ruminations, Bacon conflates politics, science, technology and means-end thinking. Worrying times! Available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2434/2434-h/2434-h.htm
Con: Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Gardland Publishing. 1977.
This takes issue with exactly the sort of thinking that Bacon had expressed centuries earlier, thinking that society is guilty of it.. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/4/44/Heidegger_Martin_The_Question_Concerning_Technology_and_Other_Essays.pdf