Saturday, December 30, 2017

Black Mirror's Arkangel: Privacy is Relative

This post contains spoilers for "Arkangel," Season 4, Episode 2 of Black Mirror.

I just finished watching "Arkangel," and I had some thoughts about it.

First, the show does an excellent job of making the mundane and ordinary moments of terror in daily life come through in a pitch perfect way. The episode opens up with a shot of a mother giving birth, but all we can see is her head and torso as the rest of her body is blocked from view (from us and from her) by a sheet. On the other side are men apparently poking and prodding as a female nurse peers over the curtain. They're testing her numbness to make sure they can proceed with a c-section. She turns to the nurse and apologizes, shamefully, for not being able to push anymore.

The episode is not at all subtle in the territory it treads. This is a look at modern parenting that shows us from this opening moment that the guilt, sense of competition, and desire to do it "right" are setting us up for failure. By playing on the idea that women will feel guilty if they don't give birth in the "right" way, the show establishes from the opening shot that this woman (and by extension, all of us trying to navigate the barrage of expectations of modern parenting) are doomed to fail, if for no other reason than one person's right is another person's wrong.

There are a few terrifying moments where the baby appears not to be breathing, and the shots of the mother's face capture that true terror very well. The baby starts to cry, and all is well. The doctor's hand her over, and the pure love of a mother cradling her newborn fills the screen.

This opening scene turns out to be a precursor to the episode's premise. The mother's terror was rooted in what she could not see. The curtain blocked her view of the c-section that brought her baby into the world, and then--while she was immobile on the operating table--the bodies of the doctors blocked her view of her daughter's first few moments of life. Shrouded in the unknown, the terror of the worst possibilities fill the scene.

The little girl (Sara) gets older, and when she is three, she follows a cat away from the playground while her mother is preoccupied chatting with another mom. The screams of Sara's name from the whole neighborhood joining in a search once again pull the very real terror of a very common occurrence to the forefront. Yes, this is a regular thing (that usually turns out just fine), but it is also a terrifying one (that could turn out in the worst way imaginable). The what-ifs, the unknowns, the imagined horrors of the world are the ones that haunt us all, but they haunt parents in ways that can be paralyzing.

Obviously impacted by this scare, the mother elects to have her daughter implanted with a chip called Arkangel that tracks her location, gives her mother access to her daughter's field of vision and audio, and grants parental controls that block out scary images and sounds based on the child's biological responses to fear. As a result, little Sara grows up under constant surveillance from her caring and loving mother but also unable to interact with her peers the way she would like.

The show skips ahead to her pre-teen years, and we see her trying to fit in with a crowd that is obviously a little more rough-and-tumble than her bubble-wrapped existence has allowed her to become. In particular, she is enamored with a boy named Trick.

Our introduction to Trick shows him watching incredibly violent videos online of people beating one another. Of course, Sara can't see these images because of the filters. Her friend is grossed out by the images and tells Trick she wishes she couldn't see them either, but Sara doesn't have that luxury of arriving at her own ethical boundaries. They've been put in place for her, and they are therefore artificial with little meaning. Trick agrees to describe the images to her, and she becomes fascinated with the idea of blood, which she's never seen. When she draws an image of a beaten body with blood spewing and then subsequently cuts her own finger to see it bleed, her mother becomes concerned and takes her to a psychologist who tells her that the Arkangel system has been banned in Europe and was never approved for full-scale use in the U.S. He says there is no way to remove the chip, but the mother can simply throw out her monitoring platform. Sara can still have a normal life with appropriate peer interactions if her mother is willing to give up her window into her mind.

Sophie Gilbert has a post up about this episode, and she points to the interesting potential exploration of the mediated material kids in the show's world (and, by extension, our own) can access:
Acting out is a normal part of human behavior, it preaches, and parents who deny their children the freedom to experiment will end up losing them. Far more interesting to me was the episode’s subtext about what kids already have access to. When young Sara’s chip is turned off, a kid in her class shows her hardcore porn and execution videos on his iPad with disturbing nonchalance. Later, in her first sexual encounter, Sara mimics the women she’s seen in pornography, horrifying her mother, who’s turned on the long-dormant Arkangel device to find out where her daughter is. The impact of this kind of instant access to adult imagery is as novel as the implant is, and as unclear. But the episode seems more concerned with lining up a tidy parable about helicopter parenting than peeking into the prospects of the nearer-present.
Gilbert's desire for a more nuanced exploration of how mediated reality can impact developing minds is a valid one, and the show definitely seems to have a ham-fisted goal of taking on parenting choices, but I still think that it packs a little more subtly into the conversation than this criticism gives it credit for.

The mother does indeed turn off the filters and hide away her monitoring device in the attic (a clear sign that it will be making a comeback later), and for several years Sara develops just fine, even with exposure to hardcore porn and violence on her friend Trick's screens.

Later, we see Sara and Trick enter a sexual relationship, and Sara (a virgin) uses the pornographic language she saw in his videos. He tells her she doesn't have to talk like that for him. With this, the show dances into the territory of questioning what impact this access to mediated realities has on children, but it also seems to close it up pretty neatly. It might give them a warped sense of the world, but they'll figure it out pretty quickly, the show suggests.

What happens next, though, is a very clear critique of overprotective parenting. When the mother realizes that Sara has been lying about her whereabouts to be with Trick, she dusts the device off and starts secretly monitoring her, witnessing her having sex and snorting a line of cocaine. She then confronts not Sara, but Trick, threatening to turn him into the police if he doesn't cut off all contact with Sara. She also makes it clear that she'll be watching Sara's every move, so he can't even tell Sara why he's ignoring her.

When Sara, as teenage girls are wont to do, breaks down because of his rejection, her reaction tips her mother off that she is actually pregnant--something Sara doesn't even know herself. Her mother slips an abortion drug into her smoothie, and when the side effects send Sara to the doctor, she finds out what has happened and that her mother has been watching her. Understandably upset about finding out not only that she's being constantly monitored but also that she was pregnant and has unwittingly had an abortion, the confrontation with her mother turns violent. Sara beats her mother with the monitoring device until the filter that keeps her from seeing the harm she's doing shuts off. At that point, she flees, leaving her mother bloody and the device non-functional. We see her hitchhiking away when a truck stops for her on the highway. Her mother wakes up, realizes she has lost her daughter and cannot use the device to track her, and breaks down sobbing. The end.

The obvious lesson of this show is that children need privacy and the freedom to make mistakes and learn their own boundaries. While she isn't in many scenes, we have Sara's friend to act as a counterbalance for a child who has boundaries without technological enforcement of them. The friend sneaks off to make out with boys at the lake, too, but she gets caught the old fashioned way (by not being where she said she'd be when she said she'd be there) and has to face her parents and the consequences. Sara has no such experience, and I can't imagine a very happy ending for her hitchhiking adventure, especially since she has very little worldly experience and spent most of her life literally blocked from seeing the worst the world had to offer.

A more interesting lesson to me, though, is about the relativity of privacy. Sara has a hard time fitting in not because her mother sees her every move alone, but because her implant makes her an anomaly. Her mother sees her every move, but the other kids' don't have such a burden. Privacy is a relative term, and you tend to notice how much you have or don't have in relation to the people around you.

This is something we see in the real world with the rise in social media. The sharing of pictures, thoughts, and life events that seems commonplace among my generation (and even more so those younger than me) feels like an affront to privacy for many people older than me. The concept of privacy didn't change, and I think that younger people still value privacy. What changed was the boundaries around what constituted privacy in the face of shared experiences.

In some ways, the breaking down of privacy can be a good thing. When we remove the barriers to sharing about common experiences of being human (say, having anxiety or depression or the gross but totally normal bodily responses to childbirth) we empower people to open up about their own experiences, seek medical attention where they might otherwise have been ashamed, and otherwise feel more comfortable in their own skin.

That only works if the majority are on board, though. A breaking down of privacy for a select few while everyone else gets to keep their boundaries firmly in place creates an imbalance that makes privacy social capital.

This isn't to say that I think the Arkangel episode would have been a happy tale if everyone had microchipped their children and spent their days staring at a mediated version of their minds instead of actually parenting them. It's a creepy concept that would have damaging effects on everything from ethics to parenting itself. Can you imagine how much mom guilt and the mommy wars would grow if you could literally demonstrate to other parents what your child was thinking? Your responsibilities to be a "good" parent would be beyond overwhelming! No, I definitely think that the message against the Arkangel is a good one.

But it's not just a good one for us to think about individually. The lesson is not simply to make sure that we give our own children freedom to explore their world and make their own mistakes. It's also a lesson to carefully monitor and push back against attempts to change the overall definitions of privacy and acceptable breaches of it. It's not just our own participation at stake; it's the overall norming of privacy itself that has to be protected.

Photo by Siarhei Horbach on Unsplash

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