A Christian school friend once told me, circa 1998, that one day, technology would become so advanced that we would all have computer chips in our arms (or perhaps she said heads…) and we’d use them to communicate with each other, among other things. She said this computer chip would represent the mark of the devil and, come judgement day, this is how God will spot the sinners. I remember thinking that it all seemed pretty inconsequential – whether you had a computer chip in your arm, or not – but still remember feeling a bit uneasy and privately hoped I’d have the strength of character to decline.
Computer chips in arms is fairly Black Mirror-esque. Like many others, I’ve been enjoying the third season. The programme depicts a kind of imagined parallel-universe, where more advanced digital technologies occupy every aspect of human life, often to our detriment.
In Black Mirror, our relationship with technology seems to signal our moral demise. Every base need and desire has a technological outlet, with seemingly little regard for ethical consequences. And yet, its scenarios are alarmingly familiar; they are just one small stretch of the imagination. Black Mirror can therefore be disturbing, making us question our own (current) relationships with digital technology and we are left wondering where it will all end.
It’s easy to see how we could find ourselves living through digital technologies, or through virtual identities, as opposed to real identities and face-to-face relationships. Through digital technology, we exercise our most base desires. So what are the dangers?
Popularity, affirmation and adoration: Social media allows us to perform to an audience. It can make us feel connected with people but there’s also a risk that we are not entirely authentic and interactions are more about gaining approval and affirmation. Needless to say, it also has the potential to make us feel inadequate, or, conversely, we simply become mindless voyeurs.
Entertainment: There is an endless stream of stuff to watch – some of it trivial, some of it less so. With everything from daft cats, to mesmerising bird’s-eye-view meal preparation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to switch off. At best, we spend our time doing nothing but staring at a screen, at worst, entertainment becomes increasingly explicit, violent and ‘real’.
Empowerment: Lots of people who would never do such a thing in normal life adopt cruel online personas. They partake in the anonymous herd mentality of trolling, or other forms of ‘virtual’ abuse, harassment.
Sex: Pornography is so readily available that we might become overly-dependent, perhaps struggling to have ‘normal’ sexual relationships because real sex just doesn’t provide the same thrill. It could also be harming the way men and women understand and relate to one another, actively fostering misogyny among men and normalising objectification among women.
Partnership: Plenty of people still seek a loving relationship. The popularity and proliferation of dating apps has been a revelation for many, providing opportunities to find a partner which simply didn’t exist before. Yet the choice and availability of potential partners (or simply of sex) might mean that we are reticent to commit, or we get too picky. Equally, as initial decisions are often based on photographs, we are not afforded the traditional, more organic kind of attraction, which builds gradually and in a neutral context, without the burden of expectation.
So is this the beginning of the end? Technology gives us, what appears to be, great freedom and power to satisfy and gratify our every want and whim. But is it making us happy? Certainly, many of Charlie Brooker’s protagonists seem pretty listless or confused. The appetites that drive us are strong but do not satisfy us, intrinsically. They must be handled with care, tempered with self-control. If not, they can result in dependence or addiction. Similarly, contentment does not come from self-satisfaction. It comes from a delicate balancing between the needs of the self with the needs of others. It also comes from wholesomeness, from creating, or investing, for the greater good.
There will always be normality, anomaly and deviance in society, but it simply doesn’t make sense that we’d settle for collective misery. Admittedly, as technology develops, so our will is tested by ever greater temptation. But we will exercise our conscious choice – let’s have faith in our human nature! We have spiritual guidance at our fingertips, quite literally, because it is not external, it comes from within.