Symposium: European SF and the Political
Black Mirror Prosumers and the Contemporary Domain
By virtue of its name alone, “speculative fiction” is fiction that invites speculation. Authors such as Vonnegut, Le Guin and Atwood among others have vocally expressed their discontent with their works being labelled as “science fiction,” which suggests genre-based limitations to the reading of the texts (Thomas 1-15). The term “speculative” is also the preferred choice for a significant number of individuals who engage with different media texts so as to emphasize their imaginative focus on current affairs. Speculative fiction involves a displacement of one’s assumptions about the world one lives in. This displacement, however, relies on an “anchor”: “Readers of any piece of fiction must find a touchstone, a place, person or emotion, where they can connect and engage in the story. . . . Fiction becomes a safer place for exploration and helps us resolve dissonance” (Thomas 39). The “anchor,” I propose, is the link between the reader’s reality and the speculative text that allows for cognitive estrangement, thereby enabling the reader to speculate about contemporary society. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s techno-dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror invites speculation regarding the relationship between technology and society as each episode of the anthology series extrapolates familiar examples from current technological developments and presents the viewer with a society that shares aspects which the viewer may already be familiar with. For example, the episode “Hang the DJ” (Season 4 Episode 4) opens with one of the two protagonists getting information from “Coach,” a virtual assistant not unlike Apple’s Siri. As the episode progresses, the audience learns how the two protagonists attempt to rebel against the “dating program” that dictates the initiation and expiration of their relationship with each other. In this case, virtual assistants and online dating apps such as “Tinder” serve as the anchor, while it is the unexpectedness of how these technologies assume control in the episode that invite speculation concerning those very technologies. This invitation to speculate on how technological and scientific progress informs our view of society is characteristic of Black Mirror. The show tends to challenge preconceived notions about technology and society and serve as a mirror, as the title suggests, to illustrate the darker undertones of the relationship between the two. Black Mirror, therefore, can be identified as an exercise in speculative fiction, with those involved in the storytelling processes of the text presenting an idea that challenges the viewer’s reality or expectations and in turn forces speculation about the world around them.
In June 2020, metro.co.uk published an article about an advertisement that had been put up in Madrid, Spain (Kelly). The ad features the Netflix logo as well as the title of the show Black Mirror in its original font along with the slogan, “6th Season. Live Now, everywhere” (Kelly). This advertisement arguably can be seen as a product of prosumption and meme culture along with the characteristic feature of speculative fiction to engage in a dialogue with the contemporary social and technological climate. In early 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world experienced a global shutdown. Governments all over the world urged people to stay indoors and maintain distance from friends and family members as well as wear masks in case they venture out. Businesses were also compelled to close shops to contain the spread of the virus and restrictions were enforced on restaurants, cafes, places of worship among other places where people could gather in large numbers. Concerts and events such as Coachella and the San Diego Comic Con were cancelled, too. One could certainly argue that most of the world’s population was affected by the pandemic. The incredible spreading of the virus, which led to such drastic measures and restricted free movement among the masses, invited numerous analogies to the dystopian, if not outright apocalyptic scenarios that frequently feature as central themes in numerous works of speculative fiction.
The curtailment of freedom prompted by the pandemic had been mirrored in many earlier episodes of Black Mirror. For example, in the episode “Nosedive” (Season 3 Episode 1), a “social credit system” serves as a gatekeeper concerning an individual’s socioeconomic status, barring them from certain events, opportunities or luxuries. The episode “San Junipero” (Season 3 Episode 4) also explores the theme of liberties being cut due to paralysis and death, as the episode details the simulation called San Junipero that is populated by the deceased who are “uploaded” to the simulation in the bodies of their younger selves, and who can be “visited” by the elderly. The episode “USS Callister” (Season 4 Episode 1) explores the theme of the clones of people being trapped in a simulation and their attempts to “escape” by breaching into the “real” world. Further episodes of the series also highlight limitations on one’s freedom and will as a result of technology, which constitutes an underlying theme in Black Mirror. It comes as no surprise, then, that some viewers of the show consider the impact of Covid-19 which resulted in a similar curtailment of liberties as a Black Mirror episode “gone meta.” The ad acknowledges this by claiming that Black Mirror is “live” all over the world. This sentiment is also resonated by Charlie Brooker, one of the executive producers and writers of the show, who claimed that the global scenario was too bleak for another season of Black Mirror and that he chose to focus on other projects because, “At the moment, I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart” (Pearce). A shared meaning-making and interpretation process between the producers and consumers of media texts as reflected in how the two parties view the pandemic situation within the framework of Black Mirror thus constitutes a manifestation of the practice of prosumption.
In The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, Gajjala et al. claim that prosumption is a result of activity on the part of media consumers who actively engage with media content and allow for the “disappearance” of the “distinction between making and using media” (1). Prosumption is reflected in participatory culture that involves co-creation and co-production “whereby people make their own media content, as engaged amateurs instead of paid professionals” (Gajjala et al. 1). It is these “DIY” (do-it-yourself) activities that distinguish prosumption because of their ability to disrupt “the usual power relations between makers and consumers, often conflating and democratizing them so that lines are blurred and domination is usurped . . . making more obvious the productive power of people who create while also consuming” (Gajjala et. al 1). Since the advent of Web 2.0, software and hardware tools enabled the appropriation and (re-)circulation of media content. Technology, especially Web 2.0 applications such as social networking platforms became embedded in our everyday lives, including through digital native celebrities and influencers as well as politics. Applications such as Twitter and Tumblr allowed the everyday person to engage with media celebrities that would otherwise be geographically, socially and economically removed from the viewer. Web 2.0 applications led to successful and failed political campaigning, exposure of scandals and scams, and are often used by powerful figures to communicate directly with their audiences.
The Madrid Black Mirror poster employs the official Netflix logo and Black Mirror font to lend authenticity to this piece of fan art, leading to the question whether it was actually created by Netflix, which the company denied. Authenticity, however, was not only achieved through the design of the poster, but also by the theme of the show being reflected in daily life. It enabled the reading of both, the show and the fan art, and its interpretation as mirroring “real life.” As is evident in nearly every Black Mirror episode, technology took up a significant place in global society at large as well as specific aspects of particular societies, cultures and subcultures. The reliance on technology for day-to-day functions, especially during the pandemic, which involved work-from-home, online classes for schools, universities and other institutions as well as a surge in online media consumption, highlight the relationship between society and technology that is at the heart of Black Mirror. Therefore, it indeed seemed like Black Mirror had gone live, everywhere. The “ad” also reflects the prosumption practice in that it asserts dominance over the media text by exercising creativity and engaging in a labour of love to create the poster. Furthermore, this appropriation involves a certain degree of deciphering the themes and the overall tone of the show to be able to express an interpretation of not only the show itself, but how it relates to real-life events.
The Web 2.0 applications that enabled media engagement, appropriation and community formation also served as breeding grounds for online meme culture. Tracing the origins of the term “meme” in Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976), Shifman identifies the meme in the digital age as “the rapid propagation of images, videos, and catchphrases on the internet” (199). Shifman further highlights that “a meme succeeds when certain social, cultural, psychological, and technological conditions expedite its uptake” (199). While Black Mirror as a media text was popular enough to be appropriated in memes—whether in the form of GIFs, screenshots from the show with text, dialogue from the show transposed onto images that may be deemed humorous or relevant—its propagation as a meme when combined with current events, specifically in relation to the dystopian nature of the spread of the Covid-19 virus in early 2020 led to an explosion of memes circulating over the Internet, which constitutes a comment on or interpretation of both the media text and the state of society. A significant portion of memes concerning the Covid-19 pandemic parodied the seemingly “apocalyptic” circumstances, often lending them a sardonic tone. As a steadily growing number of memes synonymised the pandemic with an apocalypse or a dystopian future, the underlying meaning enabled the making of the abovementioned Black Mirror ad created by a fan. Fig. 1, for example, employs stills from an episode of Black Mirror and serves as the poster for an article titled “5 Signs That We Might Be Living In An Episode of Black Mirror” (Matthews). The article details the effects of the spread of the pandemic on daily life and how that is reflected as an episode of Black Mirror. The 5 titular signs include not being allowed to leave one’s home or having a limitation on the places one may visit; socialising is possible only online; politicians engaging in unconventional actions; disinfectants and toilet paper have become extremely desirable goods; and people are being reported for “not following public health protocol.” All of these signs from “real life” are mirrored in Black Mirror, and this kind of an interpretation of the contemporary situation enables viewers to make the comparison to the show.
Media and technology play a crucial role in the rapid spread of information. Through the website of newspapers, news blogs and analytical organizations, one could track the swift spread of the Covid-19 virus all over the world, and how governments and the populace reacted to the crisis in different places. There were numerous reports of people stocking up their homes or garages with “emergency supplies” and buying “essentials” such as canned food and toilet paper in bulk as if they were indeed preparing for an apocalypse. As Web 2.0 applications facilitated the spread of both the pandemic and the “preppers,” there was a gradual rise in circulation of memes concerning both. Fans of Black Mirror also made the connection between technology’s hand in the panic caused by the pandemic and the underlying theme of the anthology series. Numerous episodes of the series—including “The National Anthem” (Season 1 Episode 1), “Be Right Back” (Season 2 Episode 1), “White Bear” (Season 2 Episode 2), “Nosedive” (Season 3 Episode 1), “Hated in the Nation” (Season 3 Episode 6) and “Smithereens” (Season 5 Episode 2) among others—highlight the role of social media in influencing public thought and set off a series of events that irrevocably change the lives of those involved. Owing to the importance of social media in these episodes, and its affordances that enable transmission of information and engagement in self-presentation that allows individuals to transform their social media presence into various forms of Bourdieusian capitals (such as earning fame, money, education, technical skills, etc.), the similarity between this underlying theme in the show and the “reality” of its viewers becomes apparent. Social media plays a crucial role in how a significant portion of the global population reacted to this pandemic, from hosting watch-parties and meetups on social media to sending memes and weblinks containing information to friends and family, to simply engaging in the process of physical social distancing while using the virtual platform to cope with these measures. In this context, social media can be identified as a reverse anchor, serving as a link that makes the real-life situation comparable to the fictional one in the show. By interpreting the relationship between the show and reality, fans engage in meaning-making processes of textual appropriation. Such appropriations of a text by fans can occur due to a number of reasons: as an assertion of their place in the fandom that highlights their affiliation to, for example, the fan fiction authors’ community or the fan artists’ community; as a collector of “special editions” or “Easter eggs” of a show; to showcase their ability to work with Web 2.0 applications and other software; or simply as a creative outlet for which they employ a media text of their choice. This appropriation, in turn, leads to a “bricolaged” project such as the fan-made ad in the sense of “the joining of separate media elements to form a different whole, a newly put together piece of media that orchestrates different meanings from those of the alleged original. It thus involves a notion of media users and audiences who actively make new meanings out of the different sources at hand” (Schmidt and De Kloet 1). The addition of the Netflix logo as well as the typography of the show added a certain “authenticity” to the ad, leading Metro to believe that it may have been created by Netflix. Apart from lending authenticity, however, it allowed for an understanding of the contemporary situation in relation to the text, illustrating the meaning-making process of presumption and bricolage.
The interpretive process, which leads to a particular expression on part of the media prosumer, along with the information that the audience retains not only from the text itself but also from its creators and producers—such as Charlie Brooker admitting to “reality” being too dystopian to create a new season of Black Mirror—contributes to the overall understanding that an individual may have of a text, i.e. a blend of not only the contents of the text and the message as conveyed by the producers, but also its “popular” interpretation among audiences. The involvement of all these various parties—the producer, the consumer, and the prosumer—lean into the various subcultures associated with media texts and the politics surrounding them, all of which invite further examination to theorize the cycle of media give-and-take between these parties.
Brooker, Charlie and Annabel Jones, showrunners. Black Mirror. Netflix, 2011–present.
Gajjala, Radhika, et al. “Prosumption.” The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, Aug. 2017, pp. 1–8, doi:10.1002/9781118783764.wbieme0178.
Kelly, Emma. “Black Mirror Season 6 Reminds Us That We Are Basically Living in an Episode.” Metro, 6 June, 2020, https://metro.co.uk/2020/06/06/black-mirror-season-six-ad-reminds-us-basically-living-episode-12814529/.
Matthews, Melissa A. “5 Signs That We Might Be Living in an Episode of Black Mirror.” life’s funny, 1 Apr. 2020, https://medium.com/lifes-funny/5-signs-that-we-might-living-in-an-episode-of-black-mirror-8f7e3dc207d2.
Menadue, Christopher Benjamin, and Karen Diane Cheer. “Human Culture and Science Fiction: A Review of the Literature, 1980-2016.” SAGE Open, vol. 7, no. 3, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244017723690.
Pearce, Tilly, “Black Mirror Season 6 Future Looks Bleak as Charlie Brooker Says World Doesn’t Need Another Story on a Dystopia.” Metro, 4 May 2020, https://metro.co.uk/2020/05/04/black-mirror-season-6-future-looks-bleak-charlie-brooker-says-world-doesnt-need-story-dystopia-12654474/.
Schmidt, Leonie and Jeroen De Kloet. “Bricolage: Role of Media.” The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, Aug. 2017, pp. 1–9, doi:10.1002/9781118783764.wbieme0116.
Shifman, Limor. “Meme.” Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, July 2016, pp. 197–206, doi: 10.2307/j.ctvct0023.22.
Thomas, P. L. Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres. Sense Publishers, 2013.