S1E1: The National Anthem

Recap

The episode opens with British Prime Minister Michael Callow being awoken in the middle of the night by urgent phone calls to tell him that Princess Susannah has been kidnapped by an unknown person. Upon arriving at the office, his staff shows him a video that has the Princess reading a statement. She will be killed by 4 p.m. that day unless one demand is met: the PM must have intercourse on national TV with a pig. He suggests suppressing the video until they can learn more about the kidnapping, but his staff informs him that it already was released on YouTube. They had it taken down after 9 minutes, but that was too much time. Copies already have been made and they can’t take them down fast enough before more emerge. The moral choice he faces aside (do something disgusting to safe a life), Callow says he absolutely won’t do the act, and his staff defers to him; of course he won’t have to do it. British media at first cooperate to not cover the video, but once CNN gets it they go on the air with the news. Should he do it. Callow’s wife pulls him aside. She’s concerned because the Princess is a beloved symbol and the pressure to do the act will be too powerful, but Callow keeps saying it won’t come to that. The PM’s office tries to buy time with a CGI version of the act featuring the PM’s head on a porn star’s body, but that fails when the perpetrator finds out about it and sends one of the Princess’ fingers (later revealed to be a hoax) to a TV network. They also think they located the perpetrator based on a video upload trace, but that ends up being a trap. Meanwhile, as it hits the news, the debate in media and in public has begun.  Polling shows the public doesn’t expect the PM to go through with it and won’t blame him, but as it gets closer to 4 p.m. the outcry becomes loud and strong that the PM should do it to save the life. Once the finger news breaks, the PM can feel the pressure mounting; he knows the public will cut him last slack once violence was done – and indeed that is exactly what happens. In the end, the pressure is too much. He reasons she might die anyhow, but his colleagues point out that the aftermath will play out in media itself. He’ll be despised, the party and government won’t protect him, and he essentially is forced to do it. He goes through with it, and the show cuts in and out from his face to those in the viewing public watching in mass groups at places such as bars with a mix of glee at the spectacle, then horror, as if they couldn’t believe they once were watching with anticipation, then guilt and sympathy for the PM as if they knew they were partly to blame. As the broadcast continues, the princess is seen walking across an empty bridge. She had been released 30 minutes before the PM even began the act, as the perpetrator knew nobody would see her walking around because they’d be glued to the TV.

Themes

  1. Reality TV and infotainment decouple people from choices: This episode works because it has a particular understanding of the role media play in our lives. It maps the relationship between news coverage, social media discussion, and decisions made by our leaders. As things play out, the lines between news coverage and reality TV fixation become blurred and the spectacle surrounding the will-he-or-won’t-he becomes a type of infotainment, distracting the public from the heavy choices being made. Callow’s wife seems to grasp this. Collectively, the public has no empathy and perhaps a bit of bloodlust; they will use the supposed noble goal of saving a life to root on something they themselves wouldn’t want to do. In that way, the commentary here is that media dehumanize people making hard decisions by narrowing it down to social media banter and public opinion polls.
  1. Social media and mobs: Related to the first point, it becomes clear as the episode goes along that the public is driving the train here. At first they sympathize with the PM’s plight, but as the deadline approaches and the princess supposedly loses a finger, they turn on him in real time. The discussion – via polls, on Twitter, etc. – is not only driving the discourse, but it is influencing policy. The PM feels the pressure from the Queen to do it, but it appears he is most persuaded by the idea that the public will turn on him if he refuses and that he and his family will face mob justice as a result. The public is sort of the villain in this episode then, unable to look away and separate following a matter of public interest from the dark human impulse to cheer on tragedy and horror when it’s happening to someone else.

  2. Cyberterrorism: The type of terrorism done here is technologically savvy. The kidnapper knew how to cover his tracks, and the short timeline is purposeful to give those in power no time to find them. The only goal here is to cause mayhem and chaos, although the kidnapper’s motives aren’t spelled out here. I took something from it akin to what we read in The Cluetrain Manifesto – online, people do things because they can, and sometimes that’s it. We often talk in society about cyberterrorism as it relates to hacking, but it can be a type of society-level bullying as well that taps into our inability to resist sharing, talking about it, and watching it.

JOUR 325 says…

Questions

  1. “We love humiliation, we can’t not laugh,” the PM’s wife says. When he tries to assure her that the act won’t happen, she retorts: “It’s already happening in their heads.” Callow’s wife has a pretty cynical take on humanity that turns out to be accurate in this case. Is this driven by our darker natures or something else?
  2. This episode doesn’t appear to be set in the future. How does that affect the takeaway lessons from the episode?
  3. Are technology, media, and social media driving the public’s behavior or is it the reverse? Why?
  4. Did the PM actually feel like he had a choice? One way of thinking about this question – was this an altruistic act? Think through the concentric circles of stakeholders surrounding him. Closest to him, his wife, then the Princess and royal family, then his colleagues and party, then society. They all are putting different types of pressure on him. Which group probably drove his thinking?
  5. Discuss the role the news media played throughout this discussion. First deferential the PM’s office, then unrestrained, then using questionable ethics to get the story, and all along driving discussion. What can we say about their ethical duty as the story unfolded, and did they measure up?

S3E5: Men Against Fire

Recap

We open with a group of soldiers rolling out to follow up on reports that a group of “Roaches” is terrorizing a local settlement. The unit, including a main character known as “Stripe,” tracks them to a farmhouse and they end up in a firefight with three inhuman looking monsters. Stripe kills one with a weapon and another with a knife, but the second one first activates a device that causes a ringing in Stripe’s ears. Over the next couple days, Stripe occasionally experiences glitches and headaches, an implication that the activated device has messed with technological implants that help regulate his mind and body. The unit then follows up on reports of Roaches hiding in an abandoned complex. Stripe follows up with his platoon-mate Hunter and his commanding officer, and the CO is killed by a Roach sniper. Hunter and Stripe go inside, and while inside Stripe sees a human woman whom he helps escape — right before Hunter shoots her. Befuddled, he chases after Hunter and watches her mow down a large group of humans. He struggles with her to take away her weapon and knocks her out, but not before she shoots him. One of the human woman Hunter was targeting gathers her son and takes Stripe away from the building to a hideout nearby. Inside she explains to him that the implant in his brain is controlling what he sees, and it’s making him see some humans as Roaches — monsters. The implication is that the ruling authority is trying to exterminate a group of humans after a costly war, and the means to do that is to turn the enemy into subhuman-looking creatures. Hunter shows up and shoots the two humans, then knocks Stripe out. He wakes up in a cell and in walks a man named Arquette, who is either the leader of the unit or a psychologist (or both). He explains that in military history, men have been reluctant to kill other humans. First it was inability to pull the trigger most of the time. Then military training did a good job desensitizing soldiers to violence in training and increased shot and kill rates, but the side effect was that the soldiers were left with heavy emotional scars. The implant, known as MASS, took care of the scars. It turned the enemy into something that didn’t look human and made it easier for the soldier to be unemotional about the cost of killing. Arquette explains that the group being targeted are “lesser” humans with all sorts of genetic, health, and behavioral problems. The society in this episode is trying to cleanse itself of what it defines as deviants. Stripe is given a choice: live in a cell the rest of his life with no illusions, or have a new MASS installed that restores the illusion and wipes his memory of the knowledge that these people are being exterminated. He initially chooses no new MASS until Arquette puts his kills on a loop, except this time he doesn’t see monsters but rather the real human faces who are his victims. Unable to cope, he has a new MASS installed. The episode ends with him rolling up to the home of his lover, and while looking through his eyes we see the idealized country home with warm glowing lights and a beautiful woman waiting for him. As the camera pans out from a third-person point-of-view, we see the reality: no waiting lover, a run-down home that is tagged with spraypaint and rather dystopian looking. His entire world is airbrushed by MASS.

Themes

  1. A holocaust by any other name – The Nazi Germany parallels, particularly with eugenics overtones, are thick in this episode. Substitute all of the terrible things Arquette says at the end about these folks (their supposed genetic weaknesses) with how the Nazis talked about the Jews and you’ve got a more updated, technology-centered articulation of justified holocaust. We’ve talked about the roles sci-fi plays in social discourse, and one of those is to take current issues and add a technology twist so that it’s easy for us to let our guard down and see critiques about our current problems. The idea of dehumanizing a targeted group of people as a precursor to exterminating them is not a new idea. In fact, the use of the term “roaches” harkens back to the Rwanda genocide; the targeted Tutsis were called “cockroaches” in the lead up to the violent ethnic cleansing that took place there. What’s new here is that the dehumanization is a technological artifice that literally recasts how the targeted group looks as opposed to the use of words, phrases, and demagoguery.
  2. Image-based othering – The technological constraint on the mind that makes these soldiers kill without regret, MASS, is a gadget implant that reframes reality at a cognitive level. While that technology is perhaps too futuristic, there are parallels between that and how we consume media. Our media diet is limited by definition and we never get a full picture of any person or issue. Those constraints mean that what we choose, what frames are chosen to present what we consume, have a big impact on how we see people or issues in media. Think about the divide in the U.S. on the recent refuge issue, for example. Most of us have only experienced this issue via media; it’s easy for us to otherize others because of it. Even if you’re for a more liberal refugee policy, perhaps then it’s easy to otherize those with whom we disagree if they aren’t in our immediate social circle.
  3. Escapism through denial – One of the more interesting questions to emerge from this episode is Stripe’s choice at the end. He is awake for the first time since he initially agreed to have MASS installed. Initially he chose to refuse having the device replace, appalled by what this society is doing to this group of targeted human beings. But then Arquette shows him the cost of the choice. It’s not that he lives with the knowledge of what he’s done, but rather that he has to re-live that experience on loop. There is a “red pill / blue pill” (a la The Matrix) choice here, wherein now that he is awake for the first time he has to decide if the illusion is better. In some ways the same forces of control that shaped how he viewed these “Roaches” also has him over a barrel now; they can use the things he’s done as a way to control him instead. And even though he chooses ignorance at the end, the pan-out at the episode’s close shows that the illusion extends far beyond the dehumanizing view of these targeted people. The home where his lover resides is glowing and happy as he rolls up, but we get a further shot from behind Stripe that offers the unvarnished view, a house that is dilapidated and has graffiti. Very little in this society is as it seems to those who have MASS.

JOUR 325 says . . .

Questions

  1. Why would Stripe agree to take MASS in the first place? Is there anything in the episode that points to why someone would consider getting the implant to be a good choice? How culpable is he for his actions?
  2. How do we dehumanize people with our own media today? I’m not just talking about news; think about the media we are involved in creating too.
  3. How are these soldiers controlled? MASS affects visuals of the targeted “Roaches” of course, but it’s much more comprehensive than that.
  4. The military uses first-person shooter video games to train soldiers in much the same way Arquette describes, to desensitize them to the act of killing. What emerging technologies could take this to a level more similar to what we see in this episode?
  5. Did Stripe really have a choice at the end? Re-living his own role in genocide could charitably be called a living hell. Would it break him of his own humanity to choose anything but a MASS installation?

S1E2: Fifteen Million Merits

Recap

The episode is set in a somewhat-distant future. Society is in a self-contained building with many levels, and the entire structure – civilization itself – is powered by people riding exercise bikes paralleled by a gaming-type environment. Riders earn “Merits” for their work. The main protagonist, Bing, inherits 15 million credits from his deceased brother and that gives him some privileges in the system, but he gives away those Merits to a woman named Abi after hearing her sing and deciding her voice was the most real thing he’s known in a world that is virtual and fake. Abi is able to use the credits to buy a ticket to compete on Hot Shot, a reality TV show akin to X-Factor that is a ticket out of this dystopian cage if the contestant shows talent. Abi is judged not good enough but is offered a spot in the society’s porn industry, which she accepts after drug inducement. Enraged, Bing works hard to save 15 million credits so he can go on the show himself, and once there he threatens to kill himself by holding a glass shard to his neck while ranting about the evils of the heartless system they live in, one where people see each other as objects and not for their humanity. Instead of being chastened, the Hot Shot judges offer him his own show to rant as he pleases, as if his outrage was a type of entertainment, and Bing takes the deal. The episode ends with him in a much different environment than the cramped, tv-for-walls cell he once was confined to, as the camera zooms out as he sips fresh orange juice and looking at lush green fields for (presumably) the first time in his life.

Themes

  1. Reality TV as life: Orwell wrote in 1984 about how the masses are controlled by distraction, by outrage, by spectacle. In this environment, Hot Shot is one example of how the masses are kept from thinking about their plight because there is always someone to make fun of and judge, someone who “has it worse” than you. The point of Hot Shot is to offer some small chance of hoping to escape while offering those who cannot compete or who fail some means of catharsis in the system. Think of the audience, attending as avatar, goading Abi into her life of porn. Think of this world like a deluge of Likes on Facebook or Hearts on Instagram, how we create moments of meaning that serve as distractions from larger problems.
  2. Slavery to digital environments: The society depicted here is blinking, flashing, always on and utterly depressing. Bing can’t get away from the constant stream of content coming at him. Even off-bike, his room is made up of walls of TV screens. This is particularly harrowing after Abi takes the deal on Hot Shot and, out of credits, he is unable to ignore videos of her doing porn. What makes it interesting is that Bing sells out at the end of the episode and escaped that world. He becomes slave to a different type of system, one that makes him pretend to be outraged, but it is an open question as to whether it was worth it. Did he upgrade his life by escaping that world?
  3. Gameified living as distraction: One interesting take on this world they live in is that everything is attached to a game to encourage participants onward. When citizens cycle, they see virtual selves on screen and can change the settings. They can spend (oh, let’s say “waste”) Merits on things like avatar or clothing upgrades for their character. They can spend Merits to avoid ads as well. This has a lot of parallels to how social media has been gameified to keep you engrossed – think about apps that reward you for coming back or spending small sums to upgrade characters. They are there to distract you from the time passing, but they also in part make you give back some of what you earn.

JOUR 325 says ….

Questions

  1. Did anyone “win” by the end of the episode?
  2. Why would a society en masse accept the terms of this arrangement, that they are forced to serve in this way when it appears that the outside world is perfectly lush and healthy?
  3. Explain Bing’s choice. He could have stayed true to himself but did not. What do you think his calculation was? Was it a cynical choice or truly in his own best interests?
  4. What real-world parallels can you draw between the society Bing and Abi navigated and our own built-in forms of self-slavery, if any? What present technologies could this episode be commenting on?
  5. By the end, Bing became a different type of slave. Who was he beholden to after his choice compared to before?
  6. Discuss the parallels to modern society in which outrage is a form of amusement and entertainment. Does it serve a purpose for the oppressor, in this case?