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‘Like’ Is Protected Speech, Appeals Court Says

Since the promise of money is broken, far out of reach, young people’s currency is attention

The imagined traces of my would-be scrobbling seemed like photographs for sound: scrobble, or it didn’t happen

The organisms are probably not alive, but, excitingly, probably do contain DNA

“Work” trains us to pay special attention to tempo, and this habit follows us into our leisure time

Social media, of course, is both a mirror and an audience at once

War on Instagram: Framing conflict photojournalism with mobile photography apps

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

toward an understanding of being human that contains being online

it’s mind-boggling that Business Insider hired a CTO who doesn’t even understand that the Internet is real life

Titstare got “very loud applause.” Bros are pack animals

a larger project to make Facebook’s public interactions not just public but visible

Siri might not want to be like you. Siri might want to be Siri

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

This was a lead image in a story from the New York Times titled, “Your Phone Versus Your Heart“. Let’s break this image down, shall we?

Becoming a parent has inflected how I see everything in the world, including the practice of “being online.” I apologize for using scare quotes so soon into this essay, but it feels necessary. “Online” contains several types of possible connection, as Jenny Davis and others at Cyborgology have argued. And the “being” part is what needs to be at stake: how does the way in which we exist change when that existence is networked and distributed? The anthropology of “being online” therefore includes a consideration of the ontological effects on people as much as empirically measurable effects of using iPads and Facebook.

A common narrative, and one Cyborgology has consistently disputed, is that “technology” or “social media” or “the digital” have impinged on an authentic mode of life that previously existed and which we retroactively call “offline.” This narrative relies on constructing images that can quickly code as “authentic,” as in this video that Nathan Jurgenson has dissected. The graphic above, from a New York Times essay, crystallizes this narrative as it makes us of family and child-rearing as an icon of authentic offline living. Devices and the information they present come between a parent and the child. They blot out the child’s pleading face. Tellingly, the phone is represented as blank–the viewer is not asked to make a judgment about the value of what the person is doing with the phone (checking Twitter? responding to an email? calling 911?), they are asked to condemn its vacuity.

There is a grain of truth to this story, but one that leads us to a more complicated account of networked devices than we would find in a digital witch hunt. Speaking anecdotally, it is my experience that interactions with an infant require me to minimize the use of electronic supplements. I think this is because the capabilities of an infant cannot be meaningfully supplemented by what those platforms offer. My main forms of interaction with my 3 month old are eye contact, gesture, touch, warmth, food, and sound. Those are not types of information that current electronics are especially good at storing or transmitting.

By contrast, I find interactions with other adults via computers to be very satisfying. That shouldn’t be a surprise–we are in a golden age of consumer electronics designed to facilitate communication between adults. With most adults, I want to exchange words or images quickly, and computers are very good with words and images. In some cases it even helps me communicate to have my voice stripped down to bare text. I’m comfortable as a writer but not as an actor, and always doubt that my voice will sound the way I mean it to (part of the reason IM and SMS are good platforms for flirting). I can imagine people on the other side of the fence might find that frustrating, but we also have Facetime and Skype–technologies that provide better fidelity for conversations between adults but do not begin to touch the haptic channels that are so important for connecting with an infant.

Starting with that observation–that online communications have higher fidelity with adults than with babies or children–it is tempting to map a division between “online” and “offline” onto other, older methods for describing how adult humans are a unique type of being. Online and offline take on the ontological textures of language or even “world” in the Heideggerian sense: full blown humans have it, animals and lesser humans are poor in it or have prototypical/degenerate/facsimile versions of it, and brute matter is without it. “Online” would then provide a curiously historical-material metaphor for the mysterious relationship between humans and language. Whereas inspired language uses the Muses as the go-between with the realm of the divine–in the beginning was the Word–those of us who are online have electronic clients that can quickly send and receive large amounts of data to and from distant servers. A description of the mode of activity where we are online is not too far from a concretization of the mystical theory of language. On one hand, the online represents an historical rupture–being online requires technology and infrastructure that have never before been possible–but insomuch as they are geared around the transfer of certain types of information they reinscribe a concept of the human that is very old.

To the extent that such an ontological-anthropological account of language works–and we need to inject some heavy caveats for it to work– it also helps us understand onlineness. Many, many people have criticized the use of language to separate humans from animals. The two broadest arguments are that humans are neither as much masters of language as they would like to think, nor are animals as bereft of it. (Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway have probably made these arguments as well as anyone, if you are interested). But if we accept that different types of beings have access to different communicative systems, and that how a being communicates with itself and its environment is part of what constitutes its way of life, then we can add the “online” mode to our analytic toolbox for describing those ways of life. Some beings are rich in online and some are poor in it. (The important step to avoid is correlating communicative abilities with ethical standing. Humans, for example, are extremely poor in the communicative system of scent, but that doesn’t mean our suffering is less morally relevant than a pig’s).

While animals are not posting pictures of themselves online, the internet is full of animal pictures. With the rise of social networks, cute animal pics may someday account for more views than porn. Babies, also unable to access the internet, command considerable attention online. They are what Michel Serres call quasi-objects: objects in the sense of not exercising agency but subject-ish in that they compel and organize the activity of subjects acting around them (Serres’s example is the relationship between soccer players and the ball).

To the limited extent that my daughter can be represented within the online order, I am glad that she is. When I look at that New York Times graphic, my first thought is that the adult is taking a picture of his or her child to send to a relative. When I went back to work, my wife would send me pictures every day to make it easier for me to be apart from my daughter. Now I have a video of her giggling that never fails to make me smile. My daughter’s capacity to be rendered in the types of media that exist online are increasing as she enters the linguistic order that has informed the construction of the online. And while my daughter might not like that my phone comes between us when I’m taking her picture, that’s a small price to pay to keep my mom, who lives across the country, connected to her. Before cell phones–way before them–we were already social creatures living in networks. It might be confusing for children that they can’t fully exercise themselves in the online order but to categorically pit digital media against family connectedness is facile and untrue. That has been said before–the online does not lack for advocates–but when we take a side in a dichotomous debate about internet connectedness we miss the ontological effects of the online as a constant modality of our being.

Saying that “online” is a modality means, as many at Cyborgology and elsewhere have argued before, that “being online” is not something that is either on or off, true or false, but always there in varying degrees of attention, intensity, and praxis. It also means that being online is not zero sum with being offline. Pulling out your phone doesn’t flip you over from offline to online. The phone was sending and receiving data while out of sight. Your brain was also aware of the potential for digital communication at a background level. Engagement with the digital modality can be more or less or intense, and regulating that modality of being is not a bad thing–it is probably a necessary practice in the care of the self, just as other modalities have been in the past.

For my part, it also allows me to think of my child’s growing engagement with her environment in terms that are more flexible than a dichotomy between online/offline, and less laden with a metanarrative of transgression and guilt than digital abstinence. Online is not a bewitched place to treat with mystical apprehension. Like other modes of human experience–sex, the sacred, memory–one should develop a relation to it that is intentional and empowering rather than overwhelming and addictive. One step is to redefine the debate away from its current dilemma and toward an understanding of being human that contains being online.

Greg Pollock is a game designer and writer in San Jose.

Lead image via.

how people use music when doing intellectual labour: people use it as a symbol to say ‘keep away from me’

Ever buy a movie on iTunes instead of downloading it for free on The Pirate Bay? Yeah, keep not doing that

the surprisingly broad overlap between prison & museum design

If schools follow dualist specifications, education becomes less in tune with the way students actually consume texts

the Introversion Meme is the newest face on a many-headed hydra of conservative backlash against a changing society

they’re more than capable of fucking with minds. I’m looking forward to more games that fuck with mine

with Glass, the contents of your screen are a mystery to others

the self merely a set of techniques for self-documentation rather than a matter of what it is documented

Mark Zuckerberg reportedly helicoptered in to hand out grilled cheese

it is perfectly legitimate to describe Burning Man as the foundation of a secular religion

Digital dualism acts in concert with sexism by deflecting critical attention away from sexism in action

the cultural conventions that have helped to produce digital dualism and which help it persist

a 3-D printer for printing pizza in outer space

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

A link that disappears after a certain number of people have seen it

the solution is not to imagine technology free of societal constraints but to fully engage with all of its messy human implications

as managing editor of, I want our readers to know this: All you are to us are eyeballs

a place where CEOs, venture capitalists and startuppers can network

re: sonic/musical trolling, I would put forth Cage’s 4’33″ as the seminal example

Social media invite experiments in inertia, continual additions & variations on themes hard-coded into platforms

PornHub has just released a big, ol’ sticky mess of data about the country’s porn habits

Twitter users express their discontent through an NSA accessible platform

Formed from nerd and jerkish, it describes a substantial portion of the Internet

Gangnam Style remix causes moment of K-pop unity in West Bank

technology and life often overlap, sometimes with lethal consequences

not bringing one’s phone…is the new standing around in the middle of a party staring at one’s phone

Lawrence Lessig may be the last guy you would want to pick a fight with over copyright issues over the Internet

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

cool selfie
adorno selfie
or just get new friends
…or just get new friends?

The easiest, laziest, most click-baitiest op-ed, trend video, or thing to scream at a bar right now is how, with today’s technologies, we are more connected but also more alone. Ooh. Zuckerberg has 500 million friends but it was never really a spoiler to say that Sorkin’s The Social Network ends with him sitting alone at a computer. Ooh. The Turkle-esque irony is just too good for it not to zeitgeist all over the place.

That argument should not be altogether dismissed but I am quite skeptical of where it’s so often coming from and how it’s articulated. This trend might be largely disingenuous, and by that I do not mean intentionally insincere but instead a sort of cultural positioning: we-are-connected-but-alone not only drips with that delicious ironic juxtaposition, it simultaneously props the person making the case as being somehow deeper, more human, more in touch with others and experience.

We could critique this prominent cultural narrative about technology at this level alone, but there’s an added layer: the whole premise is largely false. Research suggests over and over again that people are using mobile devices and social media to connect more with others, even face to face. The technologies of isolation and loneliness were the automobile and the television, and even though we’re starting to see a reversal of the long term rise in social isolation (for some [pdf]), there continues to be cultural insecurity around loneliness. Which is understandable, but misplacing our worries on one of the few trends that is pushing back against isolation isn’t helpful.

I’ve said all of that more than a few times before, and I’m bringing it up again here to comment on a short video that has very recently and totally unsurprisingly gone all viral. I’ve written about it in longer form and lesser snark for a larger piece I’m working on, but some folks asked for my thoughts in the interim. So, “I Forgot My Phone”:

The genius of this video is showing highly intimate or social occasions ruined by people looking at their phones. The smartphone blatantly intrudes on moments in bed or mouth-to-mouth that should be had sans mediation. The dinner table or bowling league are communal gatherings wasted because everyone’s nose-froze to a screen. If people are paying attention to what is happening, it’s still mediated by the device: the comic, the band, the birthday candles all mere Facebook fodder. People are too busy documenting what is happening to experience it. Though, not everyone in the video is so antisocial, disrespectful, and disconnected from the moment. The protagonist can recognize how terribly things have gone wrong. She alone has the special, childlike ability to experience friendship and intimacy in this world of techno-automatons missing life in favor of their handheld stimulation machines. Powerful stuff.

This is an art piece, not a documentary. It’s meant to provoke rather than be totally accurate, so tossing out a bunch of research isn’t as important as the point that people really do feel like phones are intruding on personal experience. People really do act awful with their phones all the time. If you are at a table with a bunch of people and you’re annoyed that they’re thumb-deep much of the time, you’re probably hanging out with the wrong people. (And if you are forced to hang out with these people, then whipping out your own device [if you have one] is probably a good idea: rudeness as resistance). I get it: there are people I don’t love being around because they are always on their phones. I get bored and start pulling my own phone out and I subsequently hang out with them less. If what you get from this video is not to be rude with your phone, cool.

But don’t-be-rude is just the most charitable reaction to this video. Really, there’s more going on here and it has to do with the fetishization of the real and human and connected. The sentimental sappiness of this trend on display in this video is the fiction that people are not connecting anymore, that people are robots rather than human, that we’ve lost experience in the moment…but I am the special exception. Opposed to this video, the result of mobile phones isn’t that we spend every minute looking at our screens but that we enjoy the moments away from our screens even more.

This isn’t about the problems of digital connection, it’s about propping oneself up as more human and alive. By identifying with and sharing the video, we can put ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I too recognize this! I am human and deep and carpe diem. But let’s consider the implication of showing others as robots who don’t live in the moment: you are basically saying they are less human in order to assert how above the unthinking-cellphone-zombie masses you are. Human connection, togetherness, and in-the-moment experience isn’t going away, indeed, we cherish it more than ever. Rad. But, then, more than that, we’ve become obsessed with it, treating the real as a fetish object, all in the name of appealing to the deeply conservative impulse to rank who is more or less human. In an upcoming piece, I’ll discuss more how turning on a screen at a concert or dinner has come to warrant such deep moral concern, more than simple etiquette but this kind of melodramatic, existential, anxiety.

In sum, the video makes a cliché point in the least interesting way possible by simply showing people on their phones while a protagonist frowns. I Forgot My Phone is basically a 130-second self-righteous Sorkinization of an Atlantic cover. It’s driven by the reality that some people are rude with their phones. But much of its popularity is the result of the larger narrative that we’re trading-the-real-for-the-virtual which is largely untrue and instead functions to make those sharing the video sure of themselves as a very extra special person.

[note: the piece i referenced in this post as being in the process of writing was finished and posted here]

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

technology and society quotes from the past week.

a religion based around getting Facebook Likes

Facebook has a ways to go before it catches up to coffee

it explicitly privileges communicative practices of speech and voice over text without justifying this gigantic assumption

I am now watching Twitter become morally depopulated

the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days

you provide such a neat explanation of technological determinism that I can’t wait to share it with my undergrads

At some point, it may (may) have made sense to associate Facebook with peace. But that time is over

academics have a lot of bad options and a handful of acceptable ones that zigzag across academia and industry

Airbnb illustrates algorithmic living

Medium wasn’t building a magazine, I realized, but a magazine killer

when the majority of people are telling you not to do something, that might be an indication that it’s something worth doing

Funeral directors in a handful of states must tap out death certificates on a typewriter

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

technology and society quotes from the past week

Facebook is useless without friends. My only friend is, like, my grandma

research about the Internet done by white ppl that rarely acknowledges the salience of race but clings to a fantasy of a color-blind web

when Google finally launches a search engine for women, we will be capable of locating the websites targeted at us

Social media seem like a new way to buy the bulk of us off with affect

The discourse of the comment section invites readers to round the essay up to scandalous

a person close enough to the toilet to connect to it via Bluetooth with their phone could take control of it

Aha, I am a Cultured person in a Cultured space and I am Experiencing Books

Cop Selfies are illegitimate selfies complicit in the fetishism of violence

Anyone who thinks that texting lacks nuance has failed to mine the vast emotional potential of the Emoji keyboard

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].


The British Channel Four series, Black Mirror, tells a series of disconnected stories taking place in what might be parallel worlds, in which technology is resolutely familiar, but always a bit uncanny. It is a show of this epoch, and of the insecurities and fears which tag along as we watch history unfold itself in front of us. In the same way that The Twilight Zone screened our nagging questions about Mutually Assured Destruction, space flight, and the lurking Other inside the suburban facade, Black Mirror delves into our doubts about social media, ubiquitous computing, surveillance society, and the justice of consumerism, as we struggle to comprehend the growing, always glitching, network around us. The show is, according to Wikipedia, quite popular in China, which might be all that you need to know.

The way we describe the series says as much about what we want it to be as what it is. The easiest way to talk about the show is as a dark vision, another nightmarish glimpse of potential dystopia. It connects to our imaginations through fear, confusion, paranoia, anxiety–the emotional equivalents of the show’s short logo roll–jagged black glass, over a jarring panoply of disconnected symbols. But this is television. It is driven by what we desire, even as it comes in the shape of what we fear. The dream of near-future science fiction might take the shape of a horror show, but like any liminal Halloween fantasy, it is sexually charged. Whether the seduction or the threat takes the lead, depends on how deep we peer into that vision.

In addition to reaching backward to Rod Serling’s observations of the dark side of the middle 20th Century, Black Mirror reaches forward to join other contemporary visions of the near-future of our technological evolution. The series has as much in common with the futurist-infused design-fiction advertisement reels of Coring and Microsoft as it does with science-fiction. Like any other industry vision laden with the consensus dreams of consulting experts, Black Mirror says as much about the present as it does about the future. But the explicit brand being sold here is not just any commodity. It is the continued neurosis of our relationship to technology, which we refuse to deal with in a coherent fashion, even as we dance around it, nervous, as if it were a potential partner on a blind date. We now recognize nuclear war, Other politics, and societal unrest as the characteristic issues of the 20th Century. It seems likely that in as great a distance into the future as then from now, we will consider consumer technology, its use and production, and the host of global and local issues that accompany it the mysterious siren of the early 21st Century psyche. But until that time, we will likely continue to struggle, unable to deal with the problems we make for ourselves, except to express them in our media dreams.


Black Mirror is a series on the British station Channel Four, that has run two seasons of three episodes each in 2012 and 2013. Created by Charlie Brooker, the show has won an International Emmy and been nominated for a BAFTA TV award, In addition to its Chinese popularity. Rather than setting up a memorable aesthetic or creating a strong cast of characters like other TV series, Black Mirror completely reinvents the future in each episode. The six worlds of the episodes do not share any commonalities, and might take place in different dimensions for all we know (but then again, one might argue that they don’t). This is a program that focuses on concepts. For the span of the episode, we are introduced to a particular technological world that will only exist for the hour. We see, in succession: a world of politics in social media, a life media-based labor, an existence when all memories are recorded, a form of virtual life after death, a possibility of the injustice of voyeurism, and what happens when virtual characters become real. For an hour, we are induced to dream of these possibilities, and then we wake up.

Black Mirror is one artfully produced media dream, with a quality to the minimal special-effects of the future gadgets that sells them to the viewer’s belief. The small repetitive gestures, the vague glances of attention that signify a person’s attention to a technological-elsewhere–these small details animate the design-fiction of the episodes in gorgeous, understated detail. The plot also has a minimal brilliance. While none of the scenarios are covering absolutely new science-fiction terrain, the course of each story has enough tricks and turns to keep the viewer considering all the options. One can see the end reveal approaching, but as one of several possible outcomes in a true scenario-building exercise. The avid consumer of science-fiction will recognize this, and see that these stories are the legendary forking paths–each a lesson without a final principle, each one more instance in a vast labyrinth of possibilities that are simultaneously likely and yet unlikely to actually occur. The window of the future into which we are looking for these possibilities always changes from episode to episode, shifting from a “perhaps tomorrow”, to a far-flung, obscure apocalyptic scenario, and then back to the realm of comfort as characters pull out what appear to be standard smartphones, before integrating them an unfamiliar curved screen-desk of some kind. Like any compelling form of prognostication, the details are left unspecified so the imagination can do the work of connecting the leads.

It is these qualities that allow the show to function as well as it does. A defined and set dreamworld is not useful for exploring our anxieties. Any science-fiction world has rules that are quickly learned, and ceases to become uncanny as we uncover how this simulation functions. Like a dream, in which memories are overlapped and combined by our mind to create hybrid realities for the playing out of our daily repressions, science-fiction of this caliber avoids basic cliches and keeps us guessing, while at the same time not straying too far from our experiences, so that we can continue to use its speculation as speculation, and not just as space-fantasy.

Comparing this sort of science-fiction to dreams is not an idle analogy. Freud, one of the most influential theorists of dreams, was the first to suggest that it is not necessarily the content of dreams that we should be paying the most attention towards, but it is the mechanism of how dreams work that tell us the most about our internal thought processes. Similarly, certain instances of science-fiction tell us more about ourselves through their function, rather than via the specifics of their plot.

Black Mirror’s most important function is not to show us a particular vision of future technology that is more compelling than others–suggesting that we will actually have brain-computer interfaces before flying cars is not a revelation it seeks. It works by showing us the fact of our present technology, deconstructed and reconstructed, so that we might intensify our current desires and anxieties in its reflection. The technology it depicts is not futuristic, but fundamentally contemporary. If one of the worlds of Black Mirror contains brain-computer interfaces, it is only because we think of our current technology as so nearly existent in cultural value if not through science, that we might as well begin to consider it as if it were possible. The technology functions as metaphor, like any social monster, representative of our current unknowns. It is a highly symbolic form of make-believe, a kind of play for us. As we watch these episodes play out on our own flat black screens, our smart phones continue to chirp, the internet updates with new products available, the government continues to scan us for threats, and our social connections realign their network of opinion, providing both cultural reinforcement and detriment as the clattering pachinko balls of updates, posts, Likes, and retweets dictate, as they snow in slowly concreting sediment. The fictional principles of this television program are only more memes added to the mix–more short, utterable phrases in the continuously evolving discourse that is our discovery of what we are inventing. The relationship between the show and the real world is not simply commentary or prediction, but the creation of a ludic, liminal space, in which our minds can play out its dreams while we simultaneously continue to thumb our touchscreens. Neither a sense of authentic reality nor dramatic irony is the result. We are left right where we started, in the now, with the same problems we had.


Perhaps the best way of showing how the fictional show so closely interfaces with our reality, is to dive into its content. Submitted for your approval: the plots of the three episodes of the first season of Black Mirror, which each express current feelings about current technology, shrouded in the obscuring disguise of a speculative future. (Spoilers for the next seven paragraphs.)

In episode one, “The National Anthem”, a video is uploaded to Youtube showing a kidnapped British princess, threatening to kill her unless the Prime Minister goes on national television and has sex with a pig. The government attempts to hide the news, but in true internet fashion it leaks uncontrollably and goes viral. Attempts to find the kidnapper are thwarted by proxy servers, and a plot to simulate the broadcast is foiled by social media. As the deadline approaches, the incident evolves from being considered a hoax, to a consideration of what the duty of a public official ought to be in extreme, uncharted circumstances.

This episode is perhaps the most “true-to-life”, in that there is no technology shown that does not currently exist, and the major features of Twitter, Youtube, video phones, proxy servers, and the live news cycle give the plot a very contemporary feel. Violent individuals’ ability to pressure a networked society, and thereby force particular public officials to act is all too real of a scenario. And while the sexual aspect of the threat lends a certain ambiguity to the memetic terrorism of the kidnapper, it also makes it all the more malignant. The usual effect of kidnappings is typically pressure for and against war and political stances, and is the stuff of large headlines. But this sort of rape-trolling exists across the internet on a daily basis and doesn’t get the media notice it should. But at the end of the day, the media, politics, and the hypothetical threat on display in this episode stand out on the basis of their shock value. And this shock value is a current day currency, the most ready and willing market indicator for the strength of cultural memes. It is not this hypothetical society and characters that we judge–it is our own society and characters which are up for revaluation. We look at the screen, but we are looking at ourselves.

In episode two, “Fifteen Million Merits”, we are taken to a world much more different from our own–a hyper-mediatized world in which nearly every surface is a screen, and we are to understand that most people conduct their existence wearing grey exercise clothes and pedal stationary bikes to generate the electricity to power all of these machines. Meanwhile, the flow of entertainment and advertisement on these screens is constant, sucking away at the credits that people earn for pedaling, with no off-switch available. A romance initiates, and a dream of one member of the romantic pair to feature on a Pop Idol show analog ends, as she becomes a porn star instead. This leads the remaining member to dedicate all his efforts to getting on the reality show himself, so that he can threaten suicide, and condemn the lack of authenticity in the society. However, his rant is absorbed by the media machine, and he is co-opted into his own channel of shock-jock invective–one more programming format for all the pedalling proles.

This is perhaps the most dystopian of all the scenarios, with the tropes of grey jumpsuits and unblinking screens. But it is just a stylized and disguised version of today. We work constantly for abstract currency. We spend it primarily on entertainment and other comforts. This expansive media network encloses us into a controlled environment and we try to earn more money, to skip ads by paying for premium online access, or DV-R technology. Occasionally, we think of following the narrative of our “creative dream”, whether it be to make something beautiful, to be beautiful, or to lash out in anger and destroy something beautiful. But these narratives are already wholly owned by the system, and often simply serve to empower it.

But this is still a caricature of the world–reality is much more complex than the grey clothes, and a solid wall of unending screen. And yet, we think via such caricatures. We consider “the system” as an all-encompassing, inescapable entity. We simplify our choices to “Yes, buy the app”, or “No, skip the ad”. Yes, buy into the system; or no, rebel. Even as we critique the gamification of authenticity, we make our criticism a simplified game of talking points, blog posts, and clever Twitter updates, because it is far simpler for us to use such a simplification as this dystopia, than to think about our technological world in its complexity. This episode’s plot mirrors our society both on the level of the content, and the standard reaction one might have to such a scenario.

In episode three, “The Entire History of You”, we see a world very much like our own, but with a single piece of technology that changes everything. People in this world wear a “grain”, which is a small chip inserted behind their ear that records all of their memories from their sensory point of view. They can replay these memories at will using a small clickwheel device, and either view them in their eye or display them on any nearby screen. The speculation here is ostensibly about ubiquitous surveillance. But we see only four quick instances of institutional control being applied through this device in the episode: a mention of screening memories for a job interview, airport security replacing body scanners with a quick scan of the traveler’s recent memories, a car being notified that the driver is intoxicated through the grain, and an inability to get a police response to an emergency without forwarding them one’s minds-eye view. The majority of the plot is a social drama, in which a man discovers his partner’s infidelity by closely analyzing replayed memories and hounding her with them until she confesses.

The main use of this technology in this fictional world seems to be the ability to wield one’s memories as evidence, to trap others in lies and to gain social power over each other. The implication–shown dramatically in a sex scene in which both partners are re-watching separate memories of previous sexual encounters with their partner rather than focus on the sex currently occurring–is that the video becomes more real than reality. And when his wife leaves him, the husband who was so bent on discovering the truth about her affair is left in their empty house, re-watching memories of her. But even without the ability to throw our video-recorded memories on a screen, this is precisely how we act already. We construct our current reality through our memories, and though we might disagree with others about the veracity of those memories and lie more effectively, we still play a constant memory shell game, moving around what we choose to perceive about the world and each other as best suits us in any particular situation. Eventually, the truth comes out–and the truth is that despite how we choose to perceive the past and present, it is the misperceptions and the miscommunications between us that define what tomorrow will look like.

Freud’s working theory of consciousness concludes that our present awareness is only the very exterior portion of the mind. The vast depths of our psyche are actually unconscious, a life’s worth of memories that we are storing deep inside us. We must repress them, and keep them unconscious, because otherwise we would be unable to focus on a singular present, with a singular personality. And yet, these repressed memories attempt to come back, visiting us with strange associations, haunting apparitions of the majority of our self, influencing our consciousness whether we notice it or not. And one of the most common ways that these ghosts appear is through dreams.


Television like Black Mirror holds our attention because it functions like a dream. These alluring speculative fantasies correspond to the anxieties that we already have about technology, and they appear like a dream in our conscious lives, to contribute a cryptic non-memory allusion to feelings which we are repressing. We worry about the impact of social media on politics and individual’s integrity, and suddenly, the episode “The National Anthem” appears. We have doubts about the cycles of capitalism and consumerism, and yet our doubts cannot escape that cycle. The episode “Fifteen Million Merits” materializes. We travel down the rabbit hole of how we construct reality from of memories–especially the strange realities created by smartphones, instant messaging, and asynchronous social networks. And then, “An Entire History of You” creates a speculative scenario in which technology allows us to interact with the construction of reality and how that affects us socially. The episode is itself a constructed consensual television hallucination we can all watch on our screens together. Freud’s student, Carl Jung, went on to theorize that culture has its own unconscious, and it suffers from the recurrence of repression as a whole. But society as a whole did not make Black Mirror. Individuals wrote, filmed, and produced it, and individuals watch it. It holds a unique position, as a separate, parallel media dream for many different people simultaneously, whether we have and love the latest gadgets or not, whether we live in the UK or China. It comes along at a time when we are looking for this sort of waking dream, when our unconsciousnesses are searching for some sort of technological media to imbue with the powerful feelings we share. This show was created at precisely the right time, fell into the role, and performs admirably.

But the concern is that we spend too much time dreaming. Between advertisements for the latest gadget, science-fiction television, and those uncanny technological memories that we stitch together from our own lives, we spend a lot of time displaying and re-running these feelings, but little time digging deeper into them. The suggestion is not that we “unplug”, avoid Google Glass or dashboard cameras, or somehow cultivate a more “authentic” experience in some sort of quarantined vacuum free from information. Freud, the theorist of dreams, knew that although dreams are an important function of our minds, they were not the extent of the work we have to do. Analysis of dreams is necessary to understand them. Without the analysis, we would just continue to dream, night after night, as our traumas and neuroses circulate through our psyche. There is no escape from what we repress. The only way out is to go on and work through.

But how do we begin to work through our relationship with technology? It isn’t going to happen with television programs alone. It’s not going to come with the sudden cultural epiphany that a new device will bring. And it won’t happen by attempting to cloister ourselves off from technology with ascetic vows. Psychoanalysis is a means of engaging the functions of the psyche by means of the psyche. We use tech the same way–by picking it up and trying it, learning the tech by means of the tech. Together, the psyche and our electronics form their own technological space. We can explore the emotions that are brought up into the media dream, engaging our anxieties as the material of our psyche in the present. Like a new device, we slowly become familiar with it by trying it, figuring out the buttons under our fingers. The psyche is not a machine, but if we are going to use machines to alter the psyche, we should probably be digging deeper into both, to become knowledgeable users. But what is the definition of a knowledgeable user, when we are only just beginning to discover the full extent of the technology? Behind each question displayed on a screen, lies more screens, with more questions.

Adam Rothstein is an insurgent archivist and writes about politics, media, and technology wherever he can get a signal. He is most interested in the canons of history and prediction, the so-called “Future-Weird”, and the unstable ramifications of today’s cultural technology. He tweets as @interdome, and his website is POSZU.

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“cyber” has, in a way, returned to its dark science-fiction roots

What the NSA needs to do, clearly, is start giving away Jay-Z albums

Power moves through drones; so we can write and talk and think through drones. So we have to

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].