Smithereens: Reflections in a Black Mirror.
**Major Black Mirror spoilers ahead!**
Last week, in the course of a single afternoon, two different people swerved and then bumped into me because their eyes were glued to their cell phones.
Annoyed, but always trying to find some humor in things, I thought to myself, “should I just yell out ‘Smithereens!’ whenever this happens?”
Boston is a busy, crowded city. But I have noticed that even in these quieter, seemingly less hectic moments, people find it difficult to stay on their side of the sidewalk (or worse yet, the road).
Certainly cell phones and people’s obsession with social media aren’t the only reasons for this, but it’s part of the explanation.
And this preoccupation with technology sometimes has tragic, life-ending consequences, such as when people end up falling over the edge of the Grand Canyon while trying to take a selfie, or get into a serious accident due to driving-while-texting.
The latter scenario is central to the plot of “Smithereens,” an episode from the fifth season of Netflix’s Black Mirror.
The central character in this story is Chris Gillhaney (played by Andrew Scott), who has some sort of weird obsession with a major social media platform named “Smithereens.” (From what I can gather, this platform is a lot like Twitter.)
We see him posing as a taxi driver outside their offices, picking up a member of their staff, and taking this person hostage in his car. He then demands to speak on the phone with Billy Bauer (played by Topher Grace), the CEO of the company, in return for the safe release of the hostage. Why?
The reason, we learn, is that Chris lost his fiancé in a late-night car accident after taking his eyes off the road to check the Smithereens feed on his phone. Because the other driver (who also lost his life) was drunk, Chris never has had to face up to his actions or admit that the accident was his fault.
The ensuing confrontation involves the police, the kidnap victim, and Chris (who evidently wishes to end his own life).
Chris is so wracked with guilt, and so angry at himself for having his eyes on his phone rather than the road, and desperately wants to speak to the CEO before he dies
They do eventually talk on the phone, and Billy Bauer, the CEO of Smithereens, seems to share some of Chris’s concerns about social media. At one point in their conversation, Chris says he has heard they make the platform addictive for users, and Billy calls it a “crackpipe.”
Throughout the episode, we see bystanders react to the drama by grabbing their cell phones, checking their newsfeeds, and posting on social media.
It’s sometimes difficult to gauge what is most tragic about all this. I don’t know whether to feel frustrated, angry, or sad. Perhaps it makes sense to feel all of these things. And I do not mean to imply that these criticisms don’t apply to me. I am trying to do better, and the first step to solving a problem is admitting that we have one.
A naïve reaction to the plot line of “Smithereens,” and to the stories we hear of people literally dying due to cell phone use, would be to suppose that we all simply need to be more careful.
We shouldn’t be checking our phones while we’re driving, biking, or even walking down the street, because it simply isn’t safe for people not to be watching where they’re going. That’s just obvious, though.
The real tragedy goes much deeper than this and is much more pervasive. It has to do with a breakdown in social relations, a preoccupation with image and instant gratification, and a constant need to be entertained. What we’re doing with our phones has real human costs, even if these costs don’t literally end our lives.
You can see it wherever there are couples, families, or friends out at a meal together, and everyone is looking at a cell phone,
You can see it when university students stand outside a classroom, waiting for their class to start, and check their Instagram feed rather than talking to a classmate.
You can see it whenever people walk around town looking at their phone rather than appreciating the beauty of their surroundings.
In general, you can see it whenever we are unable to be “present” to the people and things around us because our attention is focused on social media.
Meanwhile, the benefits of “mindfulness” are widely touted.
We all know that it’s good to focus our attention on the present moment, to get into touch with the people and things around us, and to pay attention to what our feelings and bodies are telling us.
There is evidence that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs reduce anxiety, increase people’s capacity for emotion regulation, and increase people’s sense of happiness and well-being. This puts them in a better position to maintain healthy relationships, both with themselves and others.
I hypothesize that constant cell phone use in general, and the use of social media in particular, are inimical to mindfulness. To the extent that they distract us from what is going on in the present moment and direct our attention to people and places that are not immediately present, they alienate us from others and generate anxiety.
Chris was looking at his Smithereens account when he should have been looking at the road. This had devastating consequences.
But isn’t it just as devastating, in its own way, when people seem more capable of engaging with social media than they are of having a face-to-face conversation?
OK. Now for a closely-related critical analysis, an argument, and some follow-up questions.
Here’s a recent critical analysis of internet-based social media by Benjamin Y. Fong in the American democratic socialist journal, Jacobin.
For the Left, … social media presents an imminent threat: it attracts people who are natural fodder for socialist politics and then absorbs them in the unthinking narcissism of pseudo-political statement pronouncement, where they enter the negative feedback loop that distances them from the reality of everyday human engagement. Twitter is thus not just a medium of expression for the “psychic pathologies” of what Mark Fisher described so well as the “Vampire Castle.”[i] It is the Vampire Castle, doing capitalism’s work by further atomizing and distancing people from the kinds of conversations required for real political engagement. The sooner we realize this about social media, the sooner we can get to the work of dismantling it.[ii]
Here, in turn, is a four-step rational reconstruction of Fong’s argument:
1. Socialism—whether democratic socialism or social anarchism (aka anarcho-socialism, libertarian socialism, etc.)—is fundamentally concerned with respect for universal human dignity; with human freedom of thought, expression, choice, and action; with individual and collective creativity and flourishing; and with the universal satisfaction of true human needs.
2. Internet-based social media may appear to be highly promising and legitimate vehicles for the realization of socialist aims.
3. But in fact, social media are an essential part of the “military-industrial-university-digital complex” that not only produces widespread mind-control and mental slavery, but has also enabled a worldwide mental health crisis of social media addiction.[iii]
4. Therefore, anyone who recognizes the value of the fundamental concerns of socialism should
(i) engage in a serious critical analysis of social media,
(ii) “log the fuck off” on a regular basis, or even detach from social media altogether, in order to resist their largely malign influence, and also
(iii) wholeheartedly individually and collectively commit to subverting and dismantling the entire system of social media.
And here are my questions.
Is this argument sound?
If so, then why so?
Or if not, then why not?
Please support your answers with reasons.
[i] See M. Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” Open Democracy UK (24 November 2013), available online at URL = <https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/mark-fisher/exiting-vampire-castle>.
[ii] B.Y. Fong, “Log Off,” Jacobin (29 November 2018), available online at URL = <https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/log-off-facebook-twitter-social-media-addiction>.
[iii] See, e.g., M.D. Griffiths, “Addicted to Social Media?,” Psychology Today (7 May 2018), available online at URL = <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-excess/201805/addicted-social-media>; C.T. Nguyen, “Escape the Echo Chamber: Why It’s As Hard to Escape an Echo Chamber As It Is To Flee A Cult,” Aeon (9 April 2018), available online at URL = <https://aeon.co/essays/why-its-as-hard-to-escape-an-echo-chamber-as-it-is-to-flee-a-cult>; and M. Schulson, “User Behavior: If The Internet Is Additive, Why Don’t We Regulate It?,” Aeon (24 November 2015), available online at URL = <https://aeon.co/essays/if-the-internet-is-addictive-why-don-t-we-regulate-it>.