Monday, February 12, 2018

Diverging Paths in Education: Someone Else's School (Part 2)

I recently wrote about the converging trends in education that make it seem increasingly likely that we're on the edge of a major shift in educational philosophy. I want to jump off from that point to look at how all those trends converging together to make a change seem to be leading to two divergent paths becoming visible.

As many public schools seem to be doubling down on standardization (especially using technology tools to get lots of standardized data on students), those who have access to elite private education seem to be moving in not just a different direction, but one that is diametrically opposed to these trends.

Consider some of these trends:

  • Reading Levels- Many public school kids are being told that they can't read anything outside of "their level." Schools use standardized tests to determine a child's "Lexile level" and then force children to read only within that narrow band. This is despite the fact that "Lexile levels" aren't particularly good at gauging the appropriateness of content and that evidence shows reading both below and above reading levels is important for developing solid reading habits.
  • iPads Replace Teaching- Many public schools are also turning to online, standardized curriculum like Moby Max to provide "individual" instruction. This Louisiana school boasts about its lower costs and higher standardized test scores as a result of switching to a Moby Max curriculum. Moby Max itself brags that the site is in use in 73% of public K-8 schools. Anecdotally, I can tell you that my daughter was enrolled in a "hands-on, project-based" public charter school that handed her an iPad (often with Moby Max on the other side) multiple times a day, even during "sensory breaks," which she got to combat her ADHD symptoms. Yes, they handed my hyperactive daughter a screen during the time she was supposed to be getting rid of excess energy so she could focus on learning. Even at the college level, automation is becoming a common trend with companies like Pearson offering instructor-less general education classes.  
  • Class Size- Public schools are under pressure to do more with less money, and that means larger classes. For elementary schools, the US average is 21 students per teacher, with some states getting over 30. We get report after report about how sitting still isn't conducive to learning, but what is a teacher who is responsible for 30 elementary-aged kids supposed to do? 

Meanwhile, let's take a closer look at how the other half* (*way less than half) lives:
  • Class Size- Private school class sizes are significantly smaller than public school. The US average is 18 students per teacher, with some individual types of private education averaging as few as 14. 
  • Technology Limits- While public school kids are getting an iPad shoved in their faces even during their "sensory breaks," many among the elite are opting for tech-free or tech-limited educations for their own children. A Business Insider article recently headlined the fact that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both raised their own children with strict technology limits. Many of the parents working in Silicon Valley have chosen a Waldorf school for their own children, a philosophy that avoids technology use in the classroom. Elon Musk said that schools were teaching "to the tools" rather than teaching how to solve problems, so he started his own school for his kids.
  • Freedom for Some- Other experiments with educational freedom are popping up. The Sudbury model is a democratic experiment where there are no teachers or grades and students get to participate in creating the rules through democratic vote. Then there are a growing number of people like me, people who are homeschooling for non-religious reasons. Most of us are doing so because we couldn't find affordable educational settings that met our children's needs. Still, homeschooling is a position of privilege, and it's one that many people cannot afford (literally) to undertake. 
The trend is clear. While public schools get more and more standardized, churning out cookie cutter educational outcomes that allow students to score well on multiple choice tests while struggling to think outside the box, private schools are focusing on curricular choices that privilege creative thinking and creation, problem solving and freedom. 

I cannot help but think that the timing of this divergence is telling. Most experts think that automation will take up to 800 million jobs in the next 10-15 years. Among the most vulnerable jobs are those that are the most standardized. The safest jobs are those that require the very skills that the elite are seeking out for their children's educations: creativity, human interaction, and problem solving. 

There have always been deep inequities in private and public schools, and these have at times been codified in our educational practices. However, since the 1960's or so, we have at least paid lip service to the idea that education should be equal and fair, that everyone deserved the best education available. While we have never been able to deliver on that promise, I fear we aren't even going to try to deliver on it in the future. The trends don't look good. 

Photos: Jens LelieJehyun Sung 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Adventures of a Planner (Why I Can't Get My Life Together)

Perhaps it is a side effect of my anxiety and the tendency to project multiple possible intersecting outcomes into the future, but I am a really organized person, and nothing brings me calm like looking at my multi-colored electronic Google calendar.

It makes sense, then, that when I was plunged into insurmountable uncertainty by abruptly losing a job I thought I would have the rest of my life the first thing I wanted was a really complicated planner to fill up with goals that could be methodically crossed off. There's a very thin line between the illusion of having control over your life and actually having control over your life, and I planned to walk right down the center of it. 

After reading some reviews, I headed over to Plum Planner (this isn't a review or an affiliate post. As you'll see in a moment, I haven't even used the thing, so I can in no way speak to its quality or impact on my life). I spent some time clicking through the plethora of options to customize it to my exact specifications. 

Even that customization was a little traumatizing. What categories do I want? Who knows? I have no idea what my life will look like. Will I be working at one place with some kind of stable schedule, or am I going to be hopping from freelance gig to freelance gig with no sense of what day it is? 

Eventually, I picked some key categories I knew I would need to address each day and left a couple of them vague. I hit "Submit" and was told that I would have my shiny new planner by the second week of January, perfectly timed to start with going back to teach for my final semester. Filling out all those neat little boxes would be a welcome distraction from the pain, anger, and frustration that a semester spent as a "dead woman walking" would bring me. 

I got the shipment confirmation and clicked to track delivery. All was looking good. It made it to St. Louis (where I live). It should be there any moment. Then the tracking started doing something weird. It was being bounced around from post office to post office in the city. I couldn't figure out what was happening until I looked closer. I had, in my bleary-eyed-haven't-slept-might-be-having-a-breakdown-cause-I-just-got-fired state typed in the correct street number but my old street name in the shipping information. 

I tried everything. I called all the post offices where it had been. I emailed the seller. I placed a hold on the package. I secretly hoped it would show up at my old address even though the number was wrong. I waited and waited and waited. 

About two weeks after it was supposed to have arrived, the shipment activity said it had been returned to the sender, so I contacted them, paid for shipping again, and waited some more. 

My planner vanished. Talk about a metaphor for your plans not going the way you thought they would. Somewhere between leaving St. Louis and arriving back at Plum Planner, the package fell off the face of the earth. I emailed them again, and they, obviously seeing the desperation behind my words, took pity on me and reprinted the entire thing and shipped it again. 

Well, ladies and gents, after several mis-deliveries, wrong turns, and lost ways, it's here.

Will this be the turning point? Will this be the moment when my attempts to juggle homeschooling, teaching, and launching a burgeoning freelance career come together in one beautiful tangle of ink, hopes, and best laid plans?

I don't really believe that a planner is the answer to all my problems, but I do think that the patience I was forced into finding as it was delayed over and over again was a nice little reminder that I don't necessarily have to get my whole life back together in a single day. 

It will come . . . eventually, and maybe to the wrong place a few times. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Converging Trends in Education: Is It All Coming Together Now?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the history and the future of education. I feel like I’m sitting at a particularly strong vantage point as a parent who has chosen homeschooling because of the limitations I faced in the traditional education options set before me and as a community college faculty member whose full-time position as a professor just got eliminated in what is clearly a move to change the fundamental nature of the school’s purpose. Add to this the fact that my expertise is in studying the historical trajectory of education through the lens of rhetoric, and I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how this particular stew of factors starts to come together. 

This is going to be a two-part post. In Part 1, I will examine some trends that I see converging together at this historical point in American education. Part 2 will discuss the way that education is likely to diverge into separate paths as a result of this convergence. 

Here are the different trends that I see coming together at this particular moment: 
  • On-the-job training: Many companies have decided to supplement or (in growing numbers) circumvent traditional certification and degree requirements by bringing their training in-house. Employees like these options because it takes the guesswork out of trying to get the skills necessary for a future, hypothetical job, and employers like the option because it allows them to make sure their workers have the exact skills necessary to meet their needs. 
  • Online education demand increases: Traditional education is being displaced by online options. Even in traditional classrooms, online work is often being used as a supplement (or sometimes substitute) for face-to-face instruction. In the name of individualization, producing easily analyzed standard results, and increasing the number of students who can be reached, everything from elementary school classrooms to alternative online high schools to graduate courses has seen an increased demand for online options. 
  • A distrust in higher education: Some of this is political. There’s a growing sense of distrust for expertise in general as the Age of Information has brought us the ability to find answers to complex questions in seconds instead of decades. Some of it is economic. As the cost of college increases and the number of jobs available for the degrees sought declines, people just don’t see college as worth the investment. Together, these influences have resulted in a general skepticism about the value of higher education. 

The point that brings all of these converging trends together into a holistic pattern is technology, especially automation. Existing automation and advancing technology has made on-the-job training possible, increased the development of and access to online courses, and been responsible for the rise of a gig economy that further deepens the distrust of education as a wise investment. 

With the promise/threat of automation looming in something between the immediate and quasi-near future, education has been placed in a precarious position. 

Education is necessarily future-focused. Education (from pre-school to graduate school) makes promises about preparing students for what the future holds. While no one has ever been 100% sure about what exactly the future would look like, we are facing an unprecedented sense of uncertainty. All the way back in 2011, Business Insider was considering the ways that a college degree was outdated in the face of an uncertain future workplace. Now, seven years later, those warnings feel even more relevant. Training for a specific technical career over the span of four or five years feels futile. Who knows if the career is even going to exist? And if it does, what guarantees are there that what you learned four years ago will still be relevant? 

It’s a tough time to be in charge of organizing, planning, and marketing education. I can understand why administrators are in a panic, and I don’t envy their position. However, too many of them are responding in exactly the wrong way. Many have decided to focus on the juiciest career options through specialization and hyper-focused “pathways” to specific careers. Just like the dog chasing the tantalizing mechanical rabbit, they’re never going to catch up. Those specific career needs will always remain just out of reach, and in the meantime, companies are finding their own way to meet their actual needs, making education look less and less relevant for those fields every day. 

Pearson recently announced a partnership with Brinker International (the owner of restaurants like Chili’s and Maggiano’s) to offer no-cost education options for employees who work at least 24 hours a week. On-the-job training is being heralded as a savior for the manufacturing industry, which has struggled to match skills with need. While manufacturing already has a very low education demand (with 80% of production workers holding neither an Associate’s nor Bachelor’s degree), we can expect this trend to make traditional education even less necessary. 

I don’t think these initiatives are necessarily a bad thing. They offer people the opportunity to get to work faster and receive the training they need to potentially move up the ranks of their place of employment and receive higher pay and a better standard of living. Not everyone needs to go to college, and I do think that some of these trends are helping to balance out the over-reliance on Bachelor’s degrees as the key to middle class access. 

The problem comes from the reaction to these realities. Instead of recognizing that technical training might be done somewhere else, too many schools (especially those serving low-income and minority students) feel the need to directly compete with these new methods instead of differentiating themselves and offering a different kind of education for different kinds of careers or (and this is the part that's been lost completely in too many discussions) for the sake of learning and being an informed citizen capable of critical thinking. Trump's State of the Union calls for community colleges to be converted into vocational training points directly at this kind of short-sighted, damaging thinking. 

Let’s go back to Pearson. Their partnership directly with corporations should come as no surprise, and they’re happy to take a large slice of as many pies as they can. They’re also working to automate higher education course delivery with self-paced (and mostly instructor-free) general education options. The economic benefits of online options have long been touted, and some see them as a way to make sure that everyone has access to a quality education. Utopia usually isn’t as simple as it first appears, though, and we’ve also known for quite some time that access alone isn’t enough and online options don’t successfully reach everyone. Predictably, it is the most vulnerable student populations (the ones our utopian dreams promised to save) that are being harmed the most. As the New York Times reported earlier this year: 
“But in high schools and colleges, there is mounting evidence that the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.”
Pressure to standardize online courses to make them infinitely replicable further eliminates the elements of teaching that reach students who are hard to reach. The result of online education can be meaningfully-crafted online courses that reach extremely motivated students who wouldn’t have access to education otherwise, but that doesn’t negate the fact that putting all of the emphasis on online education cuts off the only viable pathways that many at-risk and just-average students have to meaningful education, and many of them don't see the pay-off as worth the risk in the first place.

So where does that leave education? What will come out on the other side of the space where all of these converging trends come together? I have some theories, and I’ll explore them in Part 2. 

Photos: Photo by Mark Duffel on UnsplashJason Leung on Unsplash 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Well, What Was She Doing There Anyway? (On Buying Cars and Owing Sex)

By now, you've probably read all about "Grace" and her unpleasant encounter with Aziz Ansari. You've likely also read, or at least heard snippets of, the responses, many of which revolve around tried and tired tropes like "Well, why did she go to his apartment if she didn't want sex?" "What kind of mixed signals was she sending?" "Why did she give him a blow job if she didn't want sex?" "Why didn't she just leave?" (Even though she did, um, leave guys. That's literally what she did.) 

Writer Ann Glaviano had a reaction to these reactions that she published on Facebook. The whole post is worth a read, but I want to specifically focus on one part that really resonated with me. Glaviano wrote this:
it sounds to me like she was expecting some sexual encounter to take place, but at a pace that perhaps included her own arousal (!), and with some amount of skill (!). when he made it clear that he wasn't about those things, she perhaps had second thoughts about continuing to have what sounds like objectively terrible sex. (not terrible because of his moves - terrible because of his complete refusal or inability to notice his partner and how she was responding.)
So many of the conversations about whether or not Aziz's behavior was acceptable (it wasn't) or indicative of a larger problem (it was) ignore this crucial point: Grace didn't owe him sex even if she initially wanted to have sex. Grace could have gone into his apartment with every intention of having sex all night long, and that doesn't make what happened once she got there any less disturbing. All those "Well what was she doing there anyway?" questions are really saying, "Come on! She wanted sex!" as if that somehow makes it all okay.

I have been vocal in the past about the problems with analogies that turn bodies into physical property. I stand by those assertions. That said, I'm going to give an analogy here that veers into that territory just because it seems like the kind of thing that might make this understandable.

Let's say I see an ad on the internet for a used car. The car looks awesome. The pictures are taken from just the right angle. It lists the amenities like a sunroof and a Bluetooth-enabled audio system. I decide to go check it out in person and show up at the dealership.

Now, I want to buy a car. I have every intention of buying some car. I might want to buy this car, but I haven't decided yet. I have certainly walked into the dealership in a way that communicates the possibility of buying a car.

The car dealer comes out. He's rude. He's pushy and aggressive and not very friendly. He rolls his eyes when I tell him which car I would like to see and huffs as he goes and gets the keys for me to test drive it. When I get to the car, I see that it is not as advertised. There's a huge dent that those pictures conveniently hid. The sunroof isn't operational. The engine doesn't turn over right away when I try to start it, and the whole thing reeks of cigarette smoke.

At this point, I'm going to leave the dealership. If the dealer cornered me, pressured me, tried to force me to sign a check, he'd be wrong. I am not going to buy that car.

"But why did you even go in the dealership if you didn't want the car?!" "Why did you ask to test drive it if you weren't going to buy it?!"

Do you see how silly these questions are?

Maybe if I really, really want a car and the dealer changes his attitude and starts showing me better cars, I'll stick around and consider a different purchase, but at some point, I'm likely to realize that this isn't the place for me. They don't have the car I want. This whole dealership is full of shitty cars, and I am under no obligation to buy a shitty car.

We are under no obligation to have shitty sex. Even if we have made plenty of indications that we were considering having some sex, we are under no obligation to have this particular sex. We are probably likely to reject this particular sex if the signs start to demonstrate it is likely to be particularly shitty sex.

I'm not going to presume to know what "Grace" intended to do when she went to Aziz's house, but there are plenty of Graces in the world, and there are lots and lots of Azizes. That's the problem. This is a very common story, and our collective reaction to Grace is a very common problem.

We are still operating under some Puritanical ideal that women's virtue is the foundational reason that rape, sexual assault, and rape culture are a problem. If we can demonstrate that a woman was not quite as virtuous as we thought, then we can excuse whatever else happens to her.

Rape culture isn't bad because it sullies virtue. Rape culture is bad because it promotes rape. Rape culture is bad because it violates another person's autonomy and boundaries about what happens to his/her body.

Wanting to have sex is not an obligation to actually have sex, and indicating that you might want to have sex does not excuse anything else that happens after that if it become non-consensual. When we can fully wrap our minds around that apparently very difficult concept, I think a culture of consent might start to emerge. Until then, we'll be hearing a lot more people saying "me, too."

Photo: Michel Curi

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Signs Pointing Toward the Future of Education

Laura McKenna has an excellent article at Edutopia about the shift away from letter grades. Here are some key takeaways from the article, but if you have a minute, you should go read the whole thing:

  • Assessment policies don't match modern workplace demands. "Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration."
  • The changing of the guard will result in major changes to education as a whole. "The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike."
  • The new methods could cause even deeper educational inequities for marginalized student groups.
    "Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities."
Watching what is happening in higher education right now (from the very front row, in fact, you could even say I'm watching it from the stage, and my character is about to get killed off), I have a personal stake in this game. Of course, you can never really tell when you're at a watershed moment until time has passed and you can look back with the clarity of hindsight to connect all the dots, but I have both the sinking suspicion and the cautious hope that this is one for education (and maybe also our economy and our cultural values since those things are pretty tightly braided together). 

Assessment is important because the evaluation of the final product shapes the process by which the product is created. This is what we mean when we complain that standardized testing forces well-meaning teachers to "teach to the test." It results in a school environment where "covering" the material is more valued than "mastering" it. Most importantly, standardized testing leads to standardized thinking. 

If the answer can be boiled down to a multiple choice question on a test that everyone takes, then the information isn't novel or creative or probably very interesting. Most of being successful on standardized tests (and I say this both as someone who is very good at standardized tests and who has spent many years helping other people do well on them) is a combination of short-term memorization and being able to break down language patterns and use process of elimination to figure out likely right answers. 

The type of reading you do when you are preparing for a standardized test is superficial. You spend a lot of time skimming for key words and definitions, thinking like a test writer rather than a researcher. In fact, if you read the text in a way that no one else has, you will fail the test because that means no questions will arrive at your answers. 

The bottom line is that standardized testing makes for standardized thinking and standardized performance. And here's the thing, if the way that you think and perform can be standardized, it can be automated, and if it can be automated, in the next five to ten years, it will be automated. 

We don't need to produce human cogs for the machine anymore because we now have robot cogs for the machine, and they don't need vacation time, sick days, or overtime pay. They don't get distracted from the task because they are in a fight with their sister. They don't get tired because they were up all night with a sick baby. They do routine tasks better than we do with more consistency while costing less. We cannot compete. 

Some schools (*cough* I'm looking at you STLCC), see the change coming and are reacting by doubling down on standardization. They're turning higher education into course-in-a-box cookie cutter classes that can be easily automated. Eventually, they'll likely replace (or at least greatly reduce the need for) flesh-and-blood teachers and turn to automated grading software and self-paced courses that require very little teacher interaction. I can't tell if this motivation is made in earnest and they really think this is the wave of the future or if they are just short-term thinkers who are trying to make as much money as possible while the making is good. Either way, it's a bad plan for all the reasons pointed out in the Edutopia article. We're going to shift away from standardization and automation in education, not toward it. 

I'm going to make a prediction. If schools don't operate with some foresight and reject standardization and automation as the models for their underlying philosophies, we will soon see a complete de-coupling of credentialing from institutions. 

Think about it. The students coming out of these course-in-a-box programs will not have the skills necessary for the only jobs available, jobs that require creative thinking, flexibility, and independence. When those doing the hiring recognize (as many already have) that a college degree doesn't mean much in terms of matching the skills they're seeking, they'll turn to in-house training and accepting more and more non-traditional methods of demonstrating "education." 

The rise of unschooling homeschoolers, online class platforms like Udemy, Outschool, and Coursera, and a host of other fledgling trial runs demonstrate a likely future. People will be able to get educated in whatever way they see fit: online classes, one-on-one instruction, apprenticeship models, etc. All they'll need to do is demonstrate that they have the skillset necessary for the job, and when the transcript full of A's doesn't do that anymore, the employers will stop asking for it. 

I think it is very likely that we're entering a period where educators will all become independent contractors. The adjunct crisis is already a sort of model for this, albeit one that was arrived at through cruel exploitation rather than innovation. Adjunct instructors, who now make up the bulk of the higher education workforce, have very few formal ties to an institution and instead are free to take their skills anywhere (or to several anywheres simultaneously). If the decoupling of credentialing and institutions continues, we will soon return to an education model much like the Ancient Greeks. We'll all be Plato or Quintillian standing outside the gymnasium trying to convince people to train with us. Except now we'll have Facebook and YouTube to help us.

Photos by Vita Marija Murenaite and Steve Halama 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Postpartum Depression: The Recovery

A friend of mine shared one of my old posts today, and when the page views made it pop up in my blog stats, I re-read it and thought back on the experience that led to writing it.

It was this post about suffering from postpartum anxiety and depression after the birth of my son a year and a half ago. It made me think about what my life has looked like since writing that post, and the truth is that it took a long time to stop feeling the way that I felt the day I described there: 
Even as it's happening--the panic, the shaking, the breaths that catch in my throat--there's a part of me that's outside of it all, watching it. There's a part of me screaming, "This isn't a big deal! Get it together!" But I can't hear her. In that moment, I feel like I am in fight or flight, but the threat is me. How do you run from yourself? 
With a quick glance or in the right light, I still seem like myself. I still make wry jokes and plan to meet with friends. I still smile. I still love and enjoy both of my children. 
But like a copy of a copy of a copy, if you look closer, the picture isn't quite right. I'm not quite me. The edges break down and the lines start to blur.
In the first weeks following my son's birth, I felt like this all of the time. Every single thing in my world overwhelmed me. I was particularly frustrated with myself because my son was such an easy baby (especially compared to my high needs daughter who, for the first four years of her life, never slept more than an hour or two at a time).  This newborn was sleeping for three hours, waking up to nurse, and going right back to sleep for another four hours. He was the infant that they use to write those parenting books that make all the rest of us feel like we're failing at everything. Even when he was awake, he was just as happy to coo quietly in a bassinet as he was to be held in my arms or swaddled up in a carrier. He just went with the flow.

And I still couldn't handle anything.

The microwave would beep and I'd fall into hysterics because the thought of dealing with finishing lunch would be too much. I'd have to call to pay a bill over the phone, and it would feel like someone was asking me to climb a mountain barefoot while juggling fishbowls that I couldn't spill. Everything was just too much.

At the worst moments, I would fall into a heap on the floor and sob until I had nothing left to sob. At most moments, I walked through my day with my muscles tense, as if I were permanently braced for a blow that never came.

It got better . . . slowly. It was like a pendulum swinging wider and wider with each arc. My normal was on one end, and the terror of being completely consumed by daily living was on the other.

At first, the pendulum would swing from one to the other every couple hours. Eventually it would swing back and forth only a few times a day. Then a few times a week. Then a few times a month. Then once a month. All told, I have only felt like the swinging stopped (fully rooted in my normal world) within the last few months. Part of me wonders if it is really done or if it is just on a particularly long arc.

As time went on, I learned to treat the anxiety like a monster that would sometimes escape a cage but that I knew couldn't actually hurt me. I just had to let it wear itself out until it was too tired to resist being led back into the cage. It was always there, waiting and growling from the darkness, but as long as I could keep it contained, it couldn't ruin my day.

Looking back now, I think the thing that hurts the most is that it feels like time lost. My memories of my earliest weeks with my wonderful son are of terror punctuated with tiny moments of love and joy. I am so glad that I have pictures and videos from his earliest days now that I can look back on them with a clearer mind, without a monster snarling in my face.

Postpartum anxiety and depression is very common. The chances are high that someone you know and love has suffered through this roller coaster of emotions . . . even if you don't know about it. The fear we have about being open and honest about our mental health holds us back from getting the help and support we need.

Monsters are strongest in the dark. Once we turn on the lights, they never look quite as terrifying. Let's make sure we shine them brightly.

Photo: Shannon Kokoska 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Every Episode of Black Mirror Season 4, Ranked

I thoroughly enjoy Black Mirror both as a general concept and in the execution of its individual episodes. While there are a few duds and the series is a bit ham-fisted with its moralizing much of the time, it ticks a lot of boxes for the criteria I use to judge a television series. It's entertaining, balances out optimism and pessimism, examines the crucial intersection of humanity and technology, and provides talking points for very real ethical dilemmas.

I just finished Season 4, and here is my ranking for all six episodes. (Spoilers, obviously.)

6. Crocodile- 

My least favorite of the season was overwhelmingly "Crocodile." In fact, this is the only one that didn't make it into the positive category on my "is this good?" initial test.

I'm not alone in my distaste for the episode. David Sims writes: "I don’t know if I’ve ever been as frustrated by an episode of Black Mirror as I was by “Crocodile,” a miserable hour that left me both emotionally and intellectually unfulfilled. . . . It is, undoubtedly, relentlessly depressing. And yet it also didn’t seem to have much of a deeper point."

That pretty much sums it up for me, too. Crocodile opens with a couple drunk driving through open countryside when their car slams into a cyclist, killing him instantly. The male driver of the car convinces his female passenger to help him dispose of the body in a nearby lake despite her insistence that this is a terrible plan. Flash forward 15 years later, and the woman (Mia) has made an incredibly successful life for herself as an architect as well as a nice family with a husband and son. When the driver from the past accident shows up in her hotel room to tell her he's going to anonymously write to the widow of the man he killed, she freaks out about the possibility of getting tangled up in the murder investigation that would likely follow. To avoid the possibility of being discovered as the accomplice to vehicular manslaughter nearly two decades in the past, she murders her friend with a display of brash (and completely unrealistic) violence.

The technology part of the show doesn't make an appearance until it's well on its way, and then it takes a long time to fully reveal itself. We see an insurance investigator who is trying to find out the details of a crash involving an automatic pizza delivery car. To do this, she uses a standard-issue device that reads people's memories, subjective data that she uses to piece together a more complete picture of the accident in order to help her company with lawsuits and assigning blame. Mia had witnessed the accident right after she killed her friend, and the insurance investigator eventually finds her, hooks her up to the machine, and sees the memories of her murder.

Mia, completely terrified that she will now get caught for that murder, ties the investigator up in her shed, tortures her with the fact that she will also hunt down her husband and kill him, and then bludgeons the investigator to death with a log. She vomits, which I guess is supposed to show she doesn't like beating people until their brains are exposed, but she drives 50 miles and breaks into the investigator's house to quietly sneak up on her husband and beat him to death with a hammer. Then she notices their infant child and murders her, too (off screen, thankfully, but probably with the same hammer).

The twist is that she forgot to kill the guinea pig, and we see police hooking it up to a memory machine just before the episode ends.

I don't have a problem with gore or nihilism, but this episode fell flat in so many ways. Mia's motivations made absolutely no sense. There was no development of her character before or after she snapped that would give us a lesson from her actions. On top of that, I'm pretty sure that murdering four people with your bare hands in the span of two days is the kind of thing we can already investigate and prosecute pretty well, and that's without the help of memory machines that makes every passer-by who might have driven past your car as you made this 100-mile round-trip murderous trek into photographic evidence.

The plot feels lazy, and the end reveals that the child was blind, a line that felt like it was supposed to be packed with meaning that they forgot to write (or maybe got cut out in editing). Finally, the guinea pig felt like a glib joke in the middle of what was otherwise played as a pretty straight, serious piece of writing. It just didn't work. Any of it.

Entertainment value: 1/5
Ethical exploration: 1/5 

5. Arkangel- 

I already wrote a post analyzing Arkangel as a piece of commentary about modern day parenting and the constantly renegotiated boundaries of privacy. I won't re-hash the plot summary and analysis from there.

It was a little surprising to me that this episode ended up so low in my rankings because I really did enjoy it. It was meaningful and interesting, and I felt invested in the characters and their stories.

The message was often a little too shoehorned into the plot, but overall it was relevant, if not particularly groundbreaking.

In the end, this was just an okay episode, and there are much better episodes, so "okay" lands it in fifth place.

Entertainment value: 3/5
Ethical exploration: 2/5

4. Metalhead

This episode was the most thematically striking of the bunch. Shot in black and white, the entire feel of it was darker and less playful than all of the episodes (expect perhaps Crocodile, but I'd rather just pretend that it didn't happen, so I'm going to ignore it in comparisons).

In Metalhead, we're introduced to three characters who are on a mission to get some very important but unknown object from a warehouse. They're in a post-apocalyptic, barren landscape where cars and buildings are abandoned and falling apart, a clear sign that whatever terrible thing happened was widespread and pretty thorough. Our protagonists are discussing other people to whom they hope to bring comfort, so it's clear that there are survivors, but it seems like more of a hanging-on-by-our-teeth kind of survival than a rebuilding-society kind of survival.

When they get to the warehouse, they toss a rock at a van to make some noise as a test but leave the keys in their ignition, so we know right away that whatever villain exists in this dystopia isn't human. When they find the box they're looking for (contents still unknown to us), they accidentally trigger a "dog," a robot that has been designed to serve a surveillance and protection role. And by "serve a surveillance and protection role," I mean kill anyone it encounters. It is really, really good at this. It is nearly indestructible, able to open any door lock with a its universal passcode abilities, and able to hunt down people both by shooting tracking devices into them and by using clues like blood, sound, radio waves, and heat. In other words, once you've triggered a "dog," you are very likely going to die.

To underscore this fact, two of our three protagonists are killed pretty much immediately, leaving most of the episode as a tense, well-paced suspense where one woman tries to escape one robot. They both take a lot of damage. It loses a leg; she digs the tracker out of her thigh, leaving a gaping wound. She runs its batteries out; it recharges and keeps hunting. It loses its shooting capacity, so it finds a knife instead. It's like the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons but with a lot more emotional investment in one side.

The thing I liked about this episode is how much I was rooting for the woman and rooting against this machine, to which I most certainly ascribed agency and intention. This was an evil robot. I hated it. The sight of it making a comeback made me angry.

I was treating it like a villain. A human villain. A sentient villain. But it wasn't.

It was just doing what it was programmed (and left behind--forever?) to do.

In the end, the woman finally destroys the dog, but not before it fills her face and, most importantly, throat full of trackers. There is no way she can remove them without slitting her own throat, and so that's exactly what she does, killing herself rather than face the doom that's on its way to her. As the camera pans away from the house she's in, we see several dogs quickly but also somewhat mundanely and routinely marching across the barren landscape. The final scene takes us back to the warehouse where the box they wanted so desperately, the one that contained an item that would bring some measure of comfort to a never-seen but obviously-hurt companion, was stored. Its contents had spilled. It was full of teddy bears.

The implications of this episode are on protectionism and the way that capitalism has taught us to value possessions and profits over human lives and compassion. Those dogs were programmed by someone to protect the contents of the warehouse, and though the humans who care about such things are long gone, the dogs remain, wreaking havoc on every tiny bit of humanity that remains with them.

It's a solid episode that didn't really teach me any new lessons but made me reflect on ones I already knew in a more powerful way. The tension was palpable throughout, and the tone (though bleak) was even and consistent.

Entertainment value: 3/5
Ethical exploration: 3/5 

3. USS Callister

This one seems to be coming out as the fan favorite of the season. It's getting high praise from people like David Sims, Darren Franich and Charles Bramesco.

This is the one I have seen discussed most often, so I'll keep my recap brief. It opens with a terribly corny Star Trek spoof where the crew of a spaceship fall all over themselves to fawn over their captain, Cole (a man who looks like he would come in fourth place at a local Matt Damon lookalike contest). It was a jarring way to start the new season because the throwback film quality and the obviously tongue-in-cheek acting as well as the overall jovial but completely nonsensical plot (they're hunting a bad guy with a jewel or something) didn't feel like a Black Mirror episode at all.

Because it wasn't.

That was a glimpse inside a video game where the "real" Cole is co-founder of a gaming smash hit but garners no respect from his employees or partner. Instead of standing up for himself in the real world, he secretly collects the DNA of the people surrounding him and replicates their consciousness into the game so that he can torture them at his leisure. His character is played perfectly with equal parts pitiable stooge and sadistic dictator, a dangerous combination when he's handed God-like power.

Like many episodes of seasons past and present, it explores the ramifications of consciousness being separated from the bodies that we assume hold it. The "real" versions of these characters continue on in the "real" world with no knowledge that a version of themselves is being tortured day after day. This episode adds a particularly interesting twist when an uploaded character manages to communicate with her real-life self, further throwing into question what identity and consciousness really mean.

The imprisoned crew hatch a plan with the help of their newest member that allows them to escape the clutches of Cole by plunging themselves into a black hole update patch. They think this act will merely "kill" the code and eliminate their existence, but it instead strips away the modified version of the game and gives them an eternity to act of their own free will within the online version of the game, interacting with actual players from the outside world.

Perhaps the most interesting to me from a moral standpoint is that I (as I suspect is true for most viewers) felt that Cole got exactly what he deserved when he ends up trapped inside the game as his modification deletes itself, his real-life body left limp and unresponsive. What does this mean about my own moral code? The crew didn't know this would happen to him, so it wasn't a premeditated killing, but even if they had, they would have acted out of completely justified self defense. Still, the "people" he tortured were just lines of code. Does everyone who has removed the door from a burning house on The Sims in order to watch them die deserve such a grisly demise? What turns a line of code into a being deserving of justice or revenge?

The episode is at times overwhelmingly silly and at other times horrifyingly sad. It's an impressive roller coaster of emotions to pack in. In places, the pacing feels a little off, and some of the acting left a bit to be desired, but overall, it was a very fun and thought-provoking episode. I can see why it's shaping up to be the favorite, but there were two other episodes that outshined it for me.

Entertainment value: 4/5
Ethical exploration: 3/5 

2. Black Museum

I had a hard time arranging my first- and second-place picks. One packed a harder punch when it came to ethical exploration, and the other packed more entertainment value. They are both superb episodes.

I went into Black Museum cautious because I had seen rumblings online that said it was a very disappointing finale for the season. Caroline Framke says the end "isn't quite good enough to hold the episode together." Charles Bramesco gives it only 2 out of 5 stars. Zack Handlen calls it a "dud."

Most of these critics fault it on technical lines. The set up was too complex (it has two dense mini stories leading back up to our frame story). The plot connections were overly contrived. The required level of suspension of disbelief was too much.

I can't disagree with them on any of these statements. I will agree that it is not the best episode in terms of technical execution. The seams tying the stories together are much more like the oversized stitches holding together the body parts of Frankenstein's monster than the streamlined precision of, say, Metalhead.

But I don't care. I'm giving it second place anyway.

This episode opens with a young woman (Nish) pulling into a deserted charging station. The scene mixes a 60s feel with modern technology as she pulls out a solar panel charger for her vintage-looking car. She's stuck there for a few hours while it fills up. Looking bored, she wanders to an abandoned-looking building titles "Black Museum."

This is (apparently, though I didn't know it at the time of watching) a reference to a real museum. Scotland Yard's Black Museum is full of real-life artifacts from famous crimes. My first thought (especially since Nish is black and the setting has a 60s feel) was that it referred to race. I had assumed it was a reference to George C. Wolf's The Colored Museum. After I watched the show (still not knowing about the Scotland Yard museum), I assumed that the "Black" in the museum's name referred to Black Mirror itself. This is because the museum, like the real-life one, is a collection of criminal artifacts, but they are all crimes from the Black Mirror universe. Several of them are recognizable as objects from previous episodes. The implication that all of these terrifying technologies have strung together in the same reality (and that somehow that reality is still more-or-less functional) is sobering.

The museum is owned and operated by Rolo Haynes, a superbly acted conman type who puts on a magnificent performance that mixes slimy salesman with cold-hearted capitalist and unattached scientist.

As Rolo takes Nish around his museum, she stops at two particular artifacts, the catalysts for the aforementioned mini stories. The first is a mesh net that fits on someone's head, a device that allows a doctor with an implant to feel whatever the wearer is feeling. At first, this gives him the remarkable and altruistic ability to diagnosis very difficult medical cases, and we are sympathetic to his willingness to put himself in excruciating pain to help his patients. All goes awry, though, when he wears it through a death, turning him into a pain-seeking sadist who first slices himself to ribbons trying to seek his next high. That doesn't give him the mix of pain and genuine terror he craves, though, so he turns to drilling through the head of a homeless man to get his fix. This leaves him in a vegetative (but ostensibly eternally blissful) state.

The second object is a stuffed monkey. It turns out that the monkey still contains the uploaded consciousness of a woman who was hit by a car just as she was starting a happy new family with her partner. Her partner visits her weekly while she's in a coma. She is able to answer yes or no questions with a light up device attached to her brain, but she is otherwise unable to see or interact with her partner or son. Rolo (who worked at the hospital and was responsible for finding "volunteers" for devices like this one and the pain connector above) offered her partner the chance to download the woman's consciousness into his own mind. She could hear, see, and feel everything he could, but only he would be able to hear her. As you might imagine, this turns out to be a miserable experience for both of them. He can't get any privacy and has a constant nag in his mind. She has no agency and has to watch her whole life from the background. She starts referring to his body as "theirs," and he is clearly not on board. He eventually upgrades to a way to pause her, allowing her to only be "on" on weekends so she can see their son. When he meets a new woman, though, it becomes too much, and she is finally uploaded into the stuffed monkey, a monkey that can only respond as happy ("Monkey loves you!") or sad ("Monkey needs a hug!") Her son tires of this toy almost immediately, so she spends her life (which appears to last an eternity) as a discarded and disembodied being with no way to physically interact with the world.

The most chilling part of this whole episode to me is the throwaway commentary Rolo gives for why the woman still inhabits the monkey and what makes it count as a "crime" artifact. He says that it is now illegal to upload consciousness into anything that doesn't have at least five emotional responses, and it is also illegal to delete her from the monkey. That means that the technology itself is still alive, well, and legally regulated. It also means that uploaded consciousness is akin to immortality, at least from a legal standpoint.

In the end, these two pieces of technology come together as we find out Nish is not who she seems to be. Rather than a random tourist who needs to charge her car, she is a hunter on a mission of revenge. Her father (or, rather, his hologram consciousness) has been trapped in the museum and tortured until he is a slobbering vegetable. A man wrongly accused of murder, his actual body was put to death by electric chair. Rolo convinced him to give up his consciousness in exchange for financial security for his family after his death (something I assume was a lie). Visitors got to throw the switch on the man themselves, keeping a permanent copy of his consciousness in the moment of the most pain as a keychain with his hologrammed, agonized face screaming for all eternity. Nish poisons Rolo, uploads his consciousness into her father's hologram, mercy kills them both, and keeps a keychain of Rolo's final moments as her own keepsake. Then she rides off into the sunset with the monkey by her side. At this point, we learn that she actually has her mother's consciousness uploaded into her own brain, so her acts of revenge were a team effort.

My love for this episode is not in its technical execution. The critics are right that it is a bit sloppy and overwrought. However, what it lacks in that arena it more than makes up for in ambition and purpose.

Zack Handlen writes, "Squint enough, and you could mark Haynes as a satiric version of Charlie Brooker himself; or at least, a version of the writer the show’s most vehement critics often conjure up."

Scott Beggs takes the same observation one step further and suggests that this episode is Brooker calling for help:
In short, why do we watch this show? 
That’s for each of us to decide, but if Nish represents us, Rolo represents Brooker, and the Black Museum represents Black Mirror, it says a cursing mouthful that Nish poisons Rolo and lets the museum burn.
Are we complicit in the same kind of torture that the museum visitors inflicted upon Nish's father when we watch the show? Or does it at least point to this same sadistic impulse within us that would make us those kinds of monsters given the right technology?

The racial overtones (including a set up that feels a lot like the way slave artifacts are displayed for voyeuristic consumption across real America) and the fact that they bring back an electric chair (as the way Nish's father is actually executed in the real world, not just a prop in the museum) point to the true depravity of human beings. We're terrible to one another in the flesh. We hurt, we kill, and we justify it through notions of utility and vengeance. The question isn't what could we become. The question is what are we already. What have we always been?

Entertainment value: 4/5
Ethical exploration: 5/5

1. Hang the DJ

I'm ending on the fun one. This was by far the most enjoyable episode to watch, but that's not the only reason that it gets to be my top-place pick. It packs a meaningful punch as well.

In Hang the DJ, we're introduced to a futuristic dating landscape where people are coached by a device as they are matched up with a partner for a predetermined amount of time until the machine's algorithms gather enough response data to find a "true match," something the creators claim to do with 99.8% accuracy.

I spent a good chunk of this episode frustrated and incredulous. We're introduced right away to two people (Frank and Amy) on a date. They find out that their "expiry date" is only 12 hours away, so (despite their obvious chemistry and attraction for one another) they part ways and begin meeting their other potential mates. Some they end up paired with for only a few hours. Others they stay with for months and months. Frank, in particular, is tied to a terrible match for a full year. While matched, a couple must live together and, at least as far as we can tell from the show, spend all of their time together. One of the things that bothered me is that these people seem to have no other purpose. They don't have jobs. They aren't shown with friends. We don't even see them talk on the phone. They are sometimes reading while lying next to one another and sometimes jogging alone while waiting for their next match, but otherwise their entire purpose seems to be to date, knowing full well that their relationships will end, and mostly being miserable in the meantime.

It becomes clear that this world has some kind of dystopian authority hanging over everyone's heads. The "matched" characters in the background seem cult-like and wooden. There are guards with tazers to keep people in line, and people aren't allowed to be together once their time is up. When Frank and Amy finally decide to run off together because they know they're truly in love and will find no one better by waiting for their "true match," they climb a literal wall in a scene that is every bit as silly as the climax of The Truman Show.

Then comes the twist. Frank and Amy weren't real people. They were the uploaded consciousness of real people sent to play out a simulation to test their compatibility. We see that the versions we watched were actually the 1000th iteration of such a simulation, and 998 of the versions had rebelled to be together. This triggers the real-life Frank and Amy to both get notifications on their phones that they are near a 99.8% match, and they look up and smile at one another.

There's so much that we don't know in this episode. Were all 1000 simulations the same scenario, or were virtual Frank and Amy put through the test in multiple venues and circumstances? Are there an infinite number of these virtual selves paired with literally every other participant in the program, or is there some kind of initial screening that only puts likely matches through this rigorous test? Are the virtual selves deleted after the simulation, or are they left holding hands at the finish line for all eternity?

What makes this episode work so well for me is that Frank and Amy have such genuine on-screen chemistry that I was truly rooting for them. The unfairness of being ripped apart in the name of some algorithmic decision-making was visceral for me. Machines don't know more about love than people do! Of course, when they run off together, I felt vindicated in that belief, but then they turned it all around to tell me that maybe I was wrong and machines do know more about love than people do; they just had to use the very human system of narrative and storytelling to get the information.

That's what ultimately makes this episode my top pick. In a (usually very bleak) reality where technology shows us the very worst of human nature, this (like San Junipero before it) gives a more optimistic outlook on the merger of humanity with technology. In both cases, though, that successful (and not horrifying) merger is dependent upon the humanities: storytelling, the mess of human emotion. Algorithms can work to make our lives better, but first they must be rooted in the stories and meaning of what it is to be human.

Entertainment value: 5/5
Ethical exploration: 4/5

It's no coincidence that my top three picks all deal with the same basic theme: what happens when human beings are exported out of their bodies and given consciousness beyond themselves? This idea absolutely terrifies me. The thought of not having control over my body is my biggest fear, and the scariest future I could ever imagine is being trapped without the ability to respond to the world around me. The cookies in White Christmas or the monkey in Black Museum point to the absolute horrors of these possibilities, but even the feel-good versions in San Junipero and Hang the DJ chill me to my core even as they offer a more optimistic outlook.

If we enter a world where people's consciousnesses can be turned into transferable code, what's the difference between spending an eternity living your best life like in San Junipero or spending an eternity suffocating by your own mouthless face like in USS Callister? Why, the difference is simply what human coder has control, and history doesn't bode well for how that will eventually turn out.