Black Mirror is a show about the darker aspects of the human soul, and how technology can feed into our worst tendencies. But to look in the mirror is not just to see oneself. We use mirrors to assess our appearance, and to help us make adjustments to it. Equally, then, it seems appropriate to suggest that the purpose of this black mirror should involve critically assessing what it shows to us. Further, it is worth noting that we may not all see the same things, or come to the same conclusions. But this is part of the point.
Those who have children likely relate to “Arkangel” differently from those of us who do not. Rather than merely giving us one character for whom we might feel empathy, the episode gives us two: Marie, and her daughter Sara. Neither acts blamelessly throughout, by any means, but one’s interpretation of the narrative will be colored by which one feels the most inclined to identify with, or defend.
The episode begins from the perspective of Marie, as she gives birth to Sara via C-section, and momentarily worries as the child does not seem to be breathing at first. We cut from there to an incident where Sara, at the age of three, wanders away from the park in pursuit of a cat and goes missing for an indeterminate length of time that seems to span a few hours at least.
This leads Marie to enlist in a trial program of hardware being offered by the Arkangel company. Sara has an implant placed in her head, and Marie gets a tablet that allows her to do things such as track Sara’s location, check her vitals, and see through her eyes. Perhaps most disturbingly, it also includes a parental control option that blurs distressing sights and sounds, on the basis of cortisol levels. At first Marie demurs at the notion of using this function, but ultimately she does in relation to a scary dog on their block, and it would seem to have been a slippery slope from there.
Of course, there is something a bit dumb about this idea. It would seem to be important that a child be able to recognize when they are actually being threatened. It is one thing to block them from objectionable images in media, but quite another when it comes to real life. However, since the tablet Marie uses also alerts her when Sara is under a sufficient amount of stress, perhaps the plan is not as implausible as it might seem. It is her job to protect her child, rather than Sara’s job to protect herself; worries about being able to get there in time to the side.
It is easy enough to see why a parent might want technology along these lines. Location tracking is already available on the basis of cellphones, and may be a helpful tool for parents. Access to the camera and microphone of the device would be taking it a step further, but one could see the argument in favor of doing so. It’s about making sure your child is safe, and so on. If Marie’s use of Arkangel strikes you as implausible, bear in mind that we live in a world where things like this happen. Our culture seems to be tending in the direction of expecting parents to go in the direction of Marie, as opposed to the converse. Marie’s father, Russ, mentions his age as he talks about letting his kids go out and wander alone. I must admit that I, too, feel old when I read about parents being investigated for child neglect for reasons like this and recall my own childhood.
So, I was basically on the side of thinking that Arkangel was a gross injustice from the moment it was injected into Sara’s head, but I understand that the parental impulse behind this move is not something I can fully appreciate, because I don’t have kids. The same impulse with reference an adult, such as a romantic partner, would clearly be tied up with the problematic nature of jealousy. The relationship between a parent and child is, however, distinctive; endemic to it is the desire of the parent to kept their child safe, and the expectation that they will do their best to do so. But it also involves, ultimately, raising one’s child such that they can function in the world on their own as an adult. “Arkangel” plays with the difficulties involved in the drawing that sort of line.
On its face, the Arkangel program seems to be a violation of both Sara’s privacy and her autonomy. Immanuel Kant, for example, insisted that morality requires respecting a person’s right to self-determination. Failing to respect a person’s autonomy is tantamount to treating that person like a thing, which is immoral. Marie’s implementing of parental controls clearly keeps Sara from doing what she wants to do, as we see when the nine year old Sara wants to explore what is being kept from her, but cannot.
Privacy is an interesting thing to think about. That we tend to care about it is clear; why we do is less obvious. The reaction to the lack of privacy in George Orwell’s 1984, for example, tends to be visceral. A world where Big Brother is always watching is clearly no good. And yet, when the revelations stemming from Edward Snowden emerged a few years back, it is not clear how much many people cared.
Kant suggests that an action is only morally acceptable if one could will it to be a universal law of human behavior. In other words, the moral question is not about consequences, but rather about whether one could accept everyone doing the thing that one is doing. He infamously argued on this basis that lying is always wrong; not because no one likes to be deceived, but because if everyone always lied, lying would not work. When I lie to you, I want you to believe I am telling you the truth. But, if everyone always lied, no one would ever tell the truth. As such, if everyone always lied, it wouldn’t be possible to lie.
One can craft an argument about the invasion of privacy along precisely the same lines. If everyone always did it, then there would be no such thing as privacy. But, again, why do we care about this exactly? It would seem to not be about consequences, since a thoroughgoing surveillance state could arguably keep us safer than we are now. Rather, it seems to be precisely about autonomy. If one has to constantly worry about who is watching, and what they may think, that will undermine one’s capacity to make free decisions for oneself.
1) What is the different between adults and children, morally speaking, when it comes to respecting privacy and autonomy?
Philosophers traditionally don’t like to talk about children. Certainly there are those who do, like Martha Nussbaum and others, but this is a more contemporary trend, as we examine the blindspots of the philosophical tradition. Someone like Kant would certainly recognize that constraints on the autonomy of children are justifiable – it would be disastrous to let them do whatever they please – but does not truly engage with the problem in a thorough manner. Everyone is going to agree that you can tell kids what to do, but where is the line? The problem seems all the stickier when it comes to privacy: is it acceptable to monitor your kid’s online activity? To go through their sock drawer?
We have to recognize that there is a difference between the rights of children, and those of adults, which means that the Kantian arguments I put forward above do not completely go through when it comes to thinking about Marie and Sara. And this is not a small problem, but potentially a big one, as the ability for parents to monitor their children becomes increasingly enabled by technology.
2) To what extent are parental controls justifiable? Does it make sense to try to shelter, or protect, one’s child from the nastier aspects of the world, or should the goal be to teach one’s kid to be an adult as quickly as possible?
The main action of “Arkangel” occurs once Sara is a teenager. After she stabbed herself with a pencil repeatedly when she was nine, Marie decided to stop using the device. She didn’t get rid of it, however, but merely hid it away (again, I guess that this is understandable). Knowing that she had done this, the young Sara quickly sought out her schoolmate Trick, who proceeded to show her porn and various violence. Now fifteen, we see Sara and Trick (who is three years older) strike up a romantic relationship.
Sara lies to her mother about planning to watch a movie at her friend Reilly’s house so that she and Meryl can meet up with Trick and his friends to party at the lake. Marie, meanwhile, goes on a date with one of her patients who at least used to be in a committed relationship with someone else, and has sex with him. As she heads home, she tries to call Sara, but gets no response. So, she begins to call the other girls’ mothers, and basically discovers Sara’s lie.
Worried about her daughter, Marie digs up the old Arkangel tablet after she gets home. She tracks Sara’s location, which puts her at the lake. Of course, sometimes people dump dead bodies in lakes, so her next move is, again, perhaps understandable. She clicks to see through Sara’s eyes, and what she sees is Trick. What she hears is Sara saying, “Fuck me harder.” That must be a pretty traumatic experience for the mother of a fifteen year old girl.
Marie doesn’t mention any of this to Sara when she gets home, which one could question in terms of plausibility. However, the fact that she knows that her daughter was having sex instead of watching The Breakfast Club makes this more tenable. To call Sara out for lying and ask where she really was would be what one would expect if Marie didn’t know the answer, but given that she does, and also wants to hide the fact that she used the technology again from Sara, her response makes sense. As does Sara thinking that she somehow got away with this, since her mom didn’t say anything.
Of course, this does not mean that they should have acted in this way. It would have been healthier if Marie had called Sara out, and maybe even fessed up about using Arkangel in those circumstances, when she was worried about where her daughter was. And then they could have maybe had an honest conversation about sex and so on. But that is not what happens here, nor what often happens in real life situations that resemble what happens here.
Marie starts using the tablet again. She gets an alert when Sara pressures Trick to let her try some of the cocaine he is selling, and she freaks out. She runs his face through a search, and tracks him down, telling him to stay away from Sara, and threatening to send the footage she has to the cops if he doesn’t. So, he does, and it is a bit gut-wrenching.
Trick may not be the kind of guy you want to bring home to your mom, but he also does not seem to be a truly bad guy. He and Sara share some sweet moments. After they have sex, he tells her she doesn’t need to talk dirty for him, if she is just emulating porn or whatever. When she asks about doing coke, he tries to discourage her. He let’s her try it, sure, but this is not a story about an eighteen year old pressuring a fifteen year old into sex and drugs; there seems to be genuine affection between the two. And when Trick ghosts her, Sara is distraught. She doesn’t want to eat dinner, and so on. Trick won’t even respond to her text messages, which is a terrible experience. A lack of communication can be the worst thing of all. But, he’s being blackmailed. When she finally confronts him in person, he cannot even then tell her the truth, because he knows her mom is watching. So, he tells her he doesn’t want her. And she’s heartbroken, and pissed off.
Perhaps the most controversial element of the episode occurs when Marie gets an alert on her tablet and proceeds to go to the pharmacy and crush some pills into Sara’s smoothie so that she avoids pregnancy. Many called this series of events out for misrepresenting how the morning after pill works, which is fair. But, it is not clear what registered the alert for Marie. There is an issue here, to be sure, but it is also a sci-fi show we are dealing with. If this misleads anyone, that is truly unfortunate, but this concern skates over the bigger question about Marie doing this to Sara against her will. This may not be how Plan B works, but one can definitely have a medically-induced abortion. Maybe this is a world where RU-486 is available over the counter, or where emergency contraception of another sort exists that is effective even after fertilization.
Whatever one’s views when it comes to abortion, the question posed in “Arkangel” is not about the morality of the practice in general, or even about whether it was the right decision for Sara in particular; it is that she was deprived of any role in making that decision. Her mother made the decision for her, without even talking to her about it. It is easy enough to understand why – she didn’t want to reveal that she had begun using Arkangel again – and her position that her fifteen year old daughter shouldn’t be having a baby is also well-grounded. But the point isn’t whether Sara would have agreed that this was the right decision; the point is that her right to make such a decision for herself was undermined.
In the real world, this often occurs in the opposite direction, enabled by laws that require a teen seeking an abortion to have parental consent. The moral objection should be just as strong in the one case as in the other. What Marie does in slipping Sara abortion pills is wrong not because she is wrong about what the plan should be, but because she has violated Sara’s autonomy.
This event leads Sara to learn that her mother has started using Arkangel again. She finds the tablet, and rewinds to the footage of herself with Trick that Marie has seen. She immediately starts packing bags.
Marie arrives home in the midst of this, to find garbage strewn across the floor from Sara’s search for the emergency contraceptive package. She calls for her daughter, but gets no response, until she finds the tablet, hacks into Sara’s eyes, and pulls up an image of the back of her own head.
Ultimately, Sara attacks her mother with the tablet. While struggling to turn the device off prior to this, she enabled the parental controls, such that Marie’s face is blurred and her protestations muffled as Sara violently pummels her with the tablet. But this ends up causing the controls to turn off somehow, and Sara sees her mother’s bloodied face. She turns and leaves. When Marie grabs the tablet moments later, she finds it utterly broken, and Sara is gone. In the last scene of the episode, we see her flagging a ride from a trucker.
This is all harrowing enough: Marie’s relationship with her daughter appears to be ruined, who knows what will happen to Sara, etc. But let’s take a moment to think about how much worse it could have been. Sara enabled the parental controls as she moved to attack Marie; an attack which resulted in the permanent damaging of the tablet, but during which said controls were also unintentionally disabled. What if they had not been? Sara could have potentially been condemned to live her whole life with those blurred out faces and muffled voices. The Arkangel program never went nationwide, and has been banned in Europe by the time Sara was 9. Her implant also, apparently, cannot be removed.
So, for once, Black Mirror does not choose the darkest timeline, but it ends in a place that is fairly bleak. Marie’s desire to protect her child has resulted in their estrangement. Sara’s teenage desire for independence has led her to beat her mother senseless. The question is not who of the two is more in the right. Both have done wrong. The question is which does more to raise a mirror to your darker impulses? Do you identify more with the mother whose desire to protect her child went too far, or the daughter who was so outraged at her overreaches to end up beating her bloody? Or can you, by chance, empathize with both?