This article contains spoilers about Black Mirror, season four
Do we have free will, or are we controlled by a higher power? The capacity to act and determine one’s own actions in an increasingly technologised world is the most prominent theme in the latest season of Netflix’s Black Mirror. And the question writer Charlie Brooker addresses in his bleak sketches is as old as human consciousness itself.
Before the Industrial Revolution and the first sci-fi narrative (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 200 years old this year) warning us of the dangers of replacing an inscrutable ancient god with a scientific one, people tried to determine two opposing but closely related things: how much agency they had, and whether they could rely on miraculous help from above in a time of difficulty. For free will is both a burden and a blessing. While we are imperfect, our vision limited by our perception, surely God is omniscient, omnipotent and wise? When we’re in trouble, he can save us and redeem our mistakes.
Isn’t technology a better god than the previous god? In the past, people asked deities about weather patterns, love, luck, and everything else. Their predictions worked, at best, 50% per cent of the time. Now we have weather forecasts delivered to our mobiles, predictive dating apps and GPS trackers. Don’t we all want to live in a world in which our fallible agency is replaced by technological perfection?
Brooker’s answer to this question is a resounding “no”. Technology is certainly a more efficient god since it has turned magic into reality, but the human issue of free will is still a big part of our relationship with it. Seeing how clever, precise, omniscient and infallible this new god is, we have decided to entrust it with a range of mundane tasks we previously used to perform ourselves: counting, translating, finding our way, even expressing emotions and, of course, shopping.
A mirror to reality?
Read More: The Conversation