I started watching Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror last night, and if you haven’t done so yet, I would thoroughly recommend it. Whilst the first episode oozes shock factor, and was arguably the more entertaining of the two I’ve watched so far, it was the second episode that had the most profound effect on me.
The episode begins with a glimpse into the daily routine of Bing, a man residing in a sterile compound from a dystopian future. As he wakes up, we discover that he lives in a tiny cell, comprising of only a bed and a bathroom, with each wall being used as a full-bleed, high-resolution screen. We notice Bing’s digital avatar and his 15,000,000 “Merit Points”, and observe his morning routine being regularly interrupted by adverts of an obtrusive, often pornographic nature. Bing’s only living space – Man’s final bastion of privacy – has been completely commandeered by marketers, and if he is to skip the adverts, he must sacrifice some of his earnings.
His waking day involves little more than cycling on a machine to generate credits for himself and electricity for the compound, and he does so in a room with a dozen others in plain, grey clothes, surrounded by screens displaying mindless TV shows and games. If any of them become too fat, they are publicly humiliated on television, and forced to work as cleaners.
While I don’t want to completely ruin the plot of the episode, I believe you’ll get more out of my writing if you watch the episode first. You can do so here.
Through a combination of sweat, blood, and ingenuity, Bing manages to gain a highly visible platform upon which to vocalise his innermost thoughts and beliefs, and Daniel Kaluuya’s performance at this point in the episode is utterly mesmerising. When I say I was on the edge of my seat, I genuinely mean that I was hunched forward, hanging on to his every word, and the angst and frustration which Daniel injects into the monologue is red raw.
“What, I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new app for our Dopple, it doesn’t exist! It’s not even there! We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful. You couldn’t. Yeah? It’ll break us. We’re too numb for it. I might as well choke. There’s only so much wonder we can bear. That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions.
And only then until it’s augmented, and packaged, and plumped through 10,000 pre-assigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day in day out, going where? Powering what? All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and fuck you!”
I couldn’t help but feel moved by his words, and it got me thinking about the way we use the internet today. I have read many, many articles criticising social networks and the internet as a whole for its adverse effects on society, and nine times out of ten, I choose to ignore them; partly because of their sensationalist tone, and partly because it makes me uncomfortable to admit to myself that I use the internet too much. I think nearly all of us do.
How much time have you spent mindlessly scrolling down your Facebook feed? How many of the YouTube videos you’ve watched have you actually learned or gained anything from, other than a few laughs and a profound envy of funny cat-owners everywhere? If someone presented me with a figure for the amount of time I had wasted online, I’d feel sick.
Imagine that, for every second you had wasted online, you’d gone running or cycling outside instead? Imagine that, for every status or photo you’d liked on Facebook, you’d sent a brief text to a friend inviting them to catch up over a coffee? Or, for every twenty YouTube clips you’d watched, you’d instead sat down with some friends and watched a full-length feature film?
Before I go any further, I’d like to make it very clear that I do not deem the entire internet to be a waste of time. Far from it. I think the internet can be, and will always have the potential to be, a powerful force for good. It can be used to connect us with old friends, to educate us on nearly everything contained within the collective human knowledge, to bring news from around the world directly to our fingertips, and for many other beneficial purposes.
However, the amount of pointless content on the internet seems to far outweigh the meaningful, and it’s all too easy to spend hours going through it.
I’ll admit that whenever I’m home with my family, I don’t spend enough time in their company. We’re all victims to our screens, be they computers, games consoles, or our phones. Even when we’re watching TV together, I’ll likely be texting a friend every half hour or so. It upsets me to think that families all over the world are falling into this trap, and as a society, we’re beginning to miss out on the very real, human experiences that make life so meaningful.
After watching Black Mirror, I looked out the window and noticed the sun setting in the distance. With haste, I changed into my cycling kit, threw my helmet on, and sped off towards the countryside in an effort to chase it down. With the wind rushing past me and the sun quickly falling towards the horizon, I felt truly alive. I wasn’t sitting down at my desk, reading a vaguely humourous status about someone’s day. Nor was I watching a short YouTube video that would make me smile and exhale air through my nostrils as a modest expression of my amusement. I was pushing my body to its limit, surrounded by beautiful, English countryside, and it felt incredible.
The internet is a wonderful thing. I love it, and if my career goes the way I would like it to go, my very livelihood may ultimately depend on it. However, it’s no substitute for reality. We need to walk places without glancing at our phone every few minutes. We need to be curious and seek out content that interests us, rather than passively absorbing the minutiae of our friends’ lives. Most importantly, we need to hold on to our creativity. Take some photos (though not of your food, please). Make some music. Invent.
I’m extremely guilty of everything I’ve mentioned above, and it’s something I’m making a concerted effort to change. I hope that you, too, might join me outside.