‘Black Mirror’ Study Guide: Men Against Fire
This episode: technology makes dehumanization easier because it can act as an intermediary, controlling what we see, how we see it, and also: us.
‘Black Mirror’ is a satirical anthology series that examines the dark aspects of modern society, particularly as it relates to our relationship with technology. Each standalone episode presents a picture of a world that’s futuristic, yet believable; cool, yet horrifying. Each of these study guides will touch on some of the themes the episode explores.
Empathy and the Shield of Technology
As humans, one of our defining traits is empathy. Whereas sympathy is “thoughts and prayers”, empathy is “I’m sorry for your loss, I lost x person for y reason, too.” Some of us have more of it, some less, and the converse to empathy is dehumanization. Dehumanization is often how injustices are glossed over. We’re more likely to feel empathy with somebody we can identify with than we are somebody who is different, and one of the quickest ways to make somebody different is to make them less human.
Unfortunately, this is something that happens, most often as a way to justify an action (or inaction). On top of that, because modern technology often presents people to us as an avatar on a screen, dehumanization becomes far too easy. In “Men Against Fire”, we follow a soldier, Stripe, as he discovers the true nature of the war he’s fighting and the enemy he’s tasked with killing. The enemy, he’s told, is the “roaches”, sub-human beings endangering civilization. Stripe eventually discovers that these “roaches” are as human as he is and that they’ve been marked for death because of Eugenics.
We See What Technology Allows Us To See
After Stripe’s sudden disillusionment, we learn that he saw the “roaches” because of the MASS implant soldiers have. That implant allows visual information to be communicated in real-time, among other things, and also presents “enemies” as mutant-like beasts and converts their cries for mercy into vicious shrieks, making it easier for soldiers to kill them in cold blood and feel no remorse. The implant — and therefore the people who control the implants — controls what soldiers see and how they see it.
Likewise, much of the information our daily lives depend on is communicated to us via a medium that’s in turn dependent on technology and the entity that controls said technology. I’m talking about Google, and Facebook, and Twitter, but also your smartphone, your laptop, and your television, and don’t forget about telemetry devices, stock exchange tickers, and the internet.
All the information these technologies provide are vital in one way or another, and they’re all dependent on technology and the people who control that technology. That’s how you get things like the Hawaii false missile alert and the spreading of misinformation. Few of these instances are intentional, but the mere dependence on technology means the message has to pass through a man-made — and imperfect — intermediary.
Technology As A Control Mechanism
What this means, then, is that we’re at the mercy of technology. It controls us. The overarching message of Black Mirror is that technology itself is not to blame; we are. We just can’t resist a shiny new gadget, even if it does a bunch of things we don’t like. We don’t like being spied on, but we welcome digital assistants into our lives with open arms. We say we don’t like giving up control, yet we allow algorithms to dictate most of our online experiences. We know “control is an illusion”, but what happens when the illusion is so enchanting and mesmerizing that we don’t realize it’s there? Or maybe we do and we just don’t care. Now that’s a dystopia.
Bonus: Two Small Details I Loved
- The concluding dream vs. reality scene that reminded me of the bathroom mirror scene in “The Entire History of You.”
- The “good night’s sleep” reward system. It’s such a Black Mirror detail.