"More than machinery, we need humanity."

The Show that Cries Wolf – On Black Mirror’s Fourth Season

If you had read the papers as carefully as I do
You would have buried your hopes
That things may yet get better.

– Bertolt Brecht[1]

Note: What follows is a discussion of the fourth season of Black Mirror, a discussion of the third season, as well as a discussion the first two seasons, are also available. While the following commentary does not provide a moment by moment recap of the episodes, it should be noted: spoilers ahead.


The Show That Cries Wolf

“What if all its actually doing is gradually wearing us down?” – Amy, “Hang the DJ”

Those who issue foreboding warnings generally find themselves lumped in with one of two storied individuals. The first is Cassandra: gifted with the ability to see the future but cursed so that none will believe her prophecies, even though they are accurate. The second is Jonah: who at first flees from the responsibility of delivering a doom laden warning, is eventually compelled to deliver it, and who then takes to the hillside to grumble when the people mend their ways in time to avoid the doom he foretold.

Cassandra is a tragic figure, Jonah is not. And it is easy to understand why. Cassandra goes unheeded so her catastrophic prophecy is fulfilled, but Jonah is heeded and thus the disaster he prophesizes never comes. After Troy is sacked, some may lament that they ignored Cassandra’s words, but as the destruction of which Jonah spoke never actually arrived, later generations in Ninevah may have recalled his warnings as the ridiculous ravings of a madman. After all, the people of Ninevah will never know for certain whether it was changing their ways that saved them, or if Jonah had simply been spinning them a bleak yarn and that things would have been fine had they continued in their wicked ways. When those who would (or do) issue grim prognostications are chided for their warnings they are cast as Jonahs: grumps and grumblers desperately demanding that others change their ways all to avert a calamity that may never actually come. But, another name for an ignored Jonah is simply Cassandra.

Granted, Jonah and Cassandra are not the only figures who fit into these roles. Beyond stories about prophecies, many of us are raised with a tale that inculcates in us the belief that we should be hesitant to issue warnings. After all, many are familiar with the “boy who cried wolf” from Aesopy’s fables. Alas, the way in which “crying wolf” has become an epithet suggests that one of the central themes of that fable has been forgotten. After all, that “boy” turns out to be one of Cassandra’s descendants; in the end the wolf does come.[2]

Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror is a show that cries wolf. But, lest there be any doubt, the wolf is here.

With its short first and second seasons (2011, 2013), Black Mirror was a fresh and unnerving show. In its early years the show gained extra clout due to its limited distribution – the first two seasons appeared on British Television’s Channel 4, and the show was not added to Netflix’s catalog until 2014, at which point many were saying “you’ve go to see this!” The six episodes that made up those first two seasons were the initial cry of “Wolf! Wolf!” Of course, as anyone familiar with the show can attest, here the term “wolf” really represents a saying more in line with “there is going to be a price to pay for our unthinking embrace of every new gadget and online platform!” It’s hard to argue that those first two seasons led people to change their ways, but the townsfolk (the audience) still came running to see what all the shouting was about. The cry of “wolf!” from the third season – the first to be released after the show had been purchased by Netflix – found audiences jogging to hear the shepherd’s shout a little bit more slowly and skeptically, with many rolling their eyes with a self-satisfied air. And as the fourth season arrived, in the final days of 2017, the show’s cry of “wolf!” was now met with an odd mix of outright disdain, ironic detachment, and even some eagerness for the wolf.

One hardly needs to speak of Black Mirror in terms of tales like that of the wolf crying boy, for the show itself has become a cultural shorthand for the same thing. It’s become easy to say “this is like something out of Black Mirror” or “that was literally in an episode of Black Mirror” or “[rolls eyes] you sound like an episode of Black Mirror” or to point to some new gadget or device and jokingly comment “the next season of Black Mirror looks terrible.” Black Mirror is no longer the child out in the distant field whose alarmed warnings draw a running crowd, rather it sits in the middle of a critically acclaimed café  where it can periodically say “wolf” in clever tones to appreciative nods. And perhaps the clearest sign of Black Mirror’s move from panic inducer to mass culture is that the show has now spawned a thinly veiled mimic in the form of Amazon’s Electric Dreams.

Nevertheless, to return to the earlier point, the wolf has come. Or, if you truly must mince words, it’s become undeniable that the wolf is not just a bogeyman out there in the woods but a real presence that keeps mauling sheep and biting us. And on closer reflection the shepherd was in this case too late in sounding the alarm, by the time he cried “wolf” the wolf had already made itself at home, marking us and our homes as its territory. When Black Mirror premiered in 2011 it might have been a bit easier to greet its warnings with aghast skepticism and a worried stammer of “that could never happen” (though critics of technology have been making these warnings for decades). Yet, by the time the fourth season aired, anyone who still approaches the show as purely speculative is demonstrating that either they have not read the news or that they are an indefatigable optimist proudly noting that the glass if half full – even when what it’s filled with is poison.

Here are a few of the wolves (they are pack animals after all) who’ve come. The threat of nuclear annihilation has returned. A massive online retail giant is becoming bigger and more powerful by the day. A petulant world leader has embraced new media as a bludgeon. Homes are being filled, hastily at that, with little “smart speakers” that turn homes into extensions of corporate surveillance apparatuses. The growing sophistication of “smart” assistants (Siri, Alexa) have made people increasingly accustomed to speaking to their devices. Reality itself has become contested terrain amidst a deluge of “Fake News.” Our online social interactions have become permeated with uncertainty as we come to realize how sophisticated the legions of “bots” can be. Massive hacks of data (think Equifax) have become a regular feature of daily life. Barely understood cryptocurrencies are booming. The role that social media giants play in influencing political opinions has been made undeniable. Automation threatens ever more jobs, with self-driving trucks starting to appear on the horizon. The ecological balance of the planet is collapsing and a few superstorms have quickly demonstrated how ill prepared even supposedly “advanced nations” are for handling these crises. People are coming more and more to think, at least subconsciously, that the future looks like a wasteland. And the list could go on.

That’s a lot of wolves. And that list was hardly exhaustive.

So what then to make of Black Mirror?


What Black Mirror is Not

“Daly’s smart, but he’s not a god. He’s a coder. He is fallible.” – Nanette, “USS Callister”

By the time the fourth season of Black Mirror aired, audiences had become fairly inured to the program. Part of this is certainly related to the way in which episodes of Black Mirror seem to stick to a formula: a normal person is depicted living in a world rather like our own except for a particular new technology, while most in the world seem relatively well adjusted to living alongside this new technology, some event or character defect makes the person chafe against this technology, and the results are predictably bad for that person. Or, to put it more clearly, within the first five minutes of most episodes of Black Mirror the viewer can be fairly certain that something terrible is going to happen, and it is probably going to involve technology. Indeed, this is part of the reason why some of the show’s finest moments have been when it ditches this formula (as in season three’s “San Junipero” and season four’s “Hang the DJ”).

And yet, as Black Mirror has become a convenient cultural shorthand it has become freighted with certain generalizations about the show which aren’t quite accurate. Quick disavowal strategies that protect and prevent us from engaging with the show’s disquieting worldview. And thus, it is worth considering some of the things the show is not. In this section it will be argued (albeit rather briefly) that the show is not dystopian, that it does not present a Hobbesian view of humanity, and that it is not simply a case of “like the Internet, but more so.” These will be taken in turn.

There is no shortage of dystopias in mass culture. Books like 1984 and Brave New World remain major cultural touchpoints, the heyday of the YA dystopia boom (The Hunger Games, Divergent) remains fresh in our memories, The Handmaid’s Tale proves itself to be as relevant as ever, and a movie like Blade Runner can still get a sequel decades after the original film was released. Dystopias are the opposite of utopias, they aren’t just our world with a few minor tweaks, they are altogether different worlds that are generally conceived as an authoritarian/post-calamity future in which things have gone very wrong. These are futures where society and the state still function, but wherein the utopian dream of freedom and plenty has been replaced by the iron fist of control and scarcity (though scarcity sometimes is portrayed as decadent consumerism [at least for some]). This is why post-apocalyptic works are not dystopias (The Road, Mad Max, The Walking Dead), they tell not of a state gone totalitarian, but of a world that has completely collapsed. Obviously, there are degrees of dystopian, but casting Black Mirror as dystopian does a disservice to the term – even as it acts as a cudgel with which people can uncritically smash the show.

To be fair, there have been three episodes of Black Mirror that depict genuine dystopias: the constant peddling and consuming future of season one’s “Fifteen Million Merits,” the genocidal soldiers of season three’s “Men Against Fire,” and the last minutes of season two’s “The Waldo Moment” arguably portrays a world in which democracy has been vanquished by cartoon totalitarianism. Season four’s “Metalhead,” a bracing and tense tale reminiscent of the Terminator franchise, is not dystopian but post-apocalyptic. As for the rest of the episodes? There is no doubt that bad things happen in those episodes, but it is a stretch to call them dystopian. The highly disturbing video game imprisonment in “USS Callister” is striking, but outside the game society seems to function pretty much as it does today. The mother in “Arkangel” can’t stop herself from accessing her (still alive) teenage daughter’s memories – leading to a violent confrontation – but outside the familial tension the world is carrying on just fine. Several disturbing stories are told in “Black Museum,” but the reason each of these technological artifacts has wound up in the museum is precisely because the still normally functioning society outside has rejected these things. A technology that allows insurance agents to access people’s memories leads a woman down a murderous path in “Crocodile,” but the world itself? Well, you get the picture. And this is true of most episodes of Black Mirror, across its seasons. That the worlds aren’t wonderful doesn’t change the fact that the worlds are pretty close to our own.

In fairness, one of the challenges that dystopias often pose is that such works tend to be fairly vague about what exactly happened to give rise to such a society. Usually there’s a vague reference made to a war, a disease, or some sort of coup – and he lack of explanation is often attributed to the fact that the character’s themselves were not alive when everything went wrong. So, is Black Mirror the prelude to a dystopia? That’s hard to say. One can certainly imagine how an all-powerful state might use memory reading technologies or ever more powerful algorithms, but if you consider works like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale it’s pretty clear that there is little, technologically speaking, in those grim futures that is not already available today. Certainly, one can imagine a systemic collapse in the world of “Arkangel” giving rise to an authoritarian state, but it’s not that difficult to imagine the same happening in our world today. This is not to suggest that Black Mirror tells happy stories, it usually doesn’t, but these aren’t dystopias – goodness knows it would probably be more easy to dismiss the show if they were.

Another critique that is sometimes directed at Black Mirror is that it presents a dark view of humanity: a Hobbesian view that shows humans in a war of all against all. Given the number of episodes of Black Mirror that involve, or culminate in, some act of violence it is understandable why some would endorse this view of the show. Yet, what such a view does is take the extreme case characters at episode’s centers and tries to suggest that these individuals are stand ins for their entire worlds – but there is little to suggest that’s the case. Instead what one often finds in episodes of Black Mirror are instances of people trying to help one another, often selflessly.

It’s easy to see the murderer at the center of “Crocodile,” the cruel businessman who runs the “Black Museum,” and the imprisoner at the center of “USS Callister” as monstrous figures who prey on other people (though in the case of “Crocodile” one could also argue things just spin out of control); and yet what makes all of these characters stand out is precisely that their actions are not the norm. In the background their remains a fairly normally functioning society – the moments where it fails are not altogether different from the moments where our society fails. This season of Black Mirror may be at its most Hobbesian in the third tale told in “Black Museum” – which involves people willingly torturing an innocent man being held in a perpetual state of digital imprisonment – but in “USS Callister” people band together to defeat their imprisoner, in “Hang the DJ” love unites people in the face of an oppressive algorithm, and early in “Arkangel” a community comes together to search for a missing child. It is undeniable that Black Mirror spins bleak tales, but to dismiss of the show as irremediably Hobbesian is to willfully overlook most of what occurs.

The criticism that Black Mirror can be boiled down to “like the Internet, but more so” is simultaneously hard and easy to refute. On the one hand, it is true that many of the technologies in Black Mirror seem like exaggerations of current Internet related technologies: dating apps, and immersive online video games for instance. But the Internet is not the spectral bogeyman haunting every episode of Black Mirror. Over the course of four seasons Black Mirror has demonstrated that the technologies it’s most interested in are ones that have to do with memory and having digital access to memories (“Arkangel,” “Crocodile,” “Be Right Back,” “The Complete History of You,” “White Bear”) – technologies that do not exist and do not have a real connection to the Internet beyond (one imagines) much of this material being backed up to the cloud. Saying “this is like the Internet, but more so” is meaningless as an analysis or a critique of the vast majority of episodes of Black Mirror. Granted, some of Black Mirror’s most unnerving episodes have dealt specifically with the Internet (“The National Anthem,” “Shut Up and Dance”) and those stories could be derided as “like the Internet, but more so” – but they could just as well be framed as just “like the Internet” – there is nothing, technologically speaking, in either of those episodes that does not already exist.

At base the critique “like the Internet, but more so” is just the previous argument, that Black Mirror is ultimately Hobbesian, but phrased more amusingly. Its core premise is the idea that people on the Internet are terrible to each other and that therefore Black Mirror is showing how more technology will just let people be more terrible to each other – which, to reiterate, flies in the face of the fact that Black Mirror is filled precisely with worlds in which most people are not terrible to each other (not more than we normally are, anyways). There is an extent to which Black Mirror takes present technologies and forecasts a future that is similar but “more so” – but this is something which is true of pretty much all science fiction. Critically considering the present and imagining what the future might look like if these trends continue into the future, helped along by some technological advances, is the core of science fiction. Sure, you can dismiss of Black Mirror for that, but that isn’t an issue with Black Mirror – that’s an issue with a whole genre. Saying that Black Mirror is “like the Internet, but more so” is thus either misrepresenting what actually happens in most episodes of the show, or it is criticizing Black Mirror for being a work of science fiction – a charge against which it can offer no defense.

Admittedly, the above counter-arguments have been made briefly and do not consist of a rigorous episode by episode analysis seeking to precisely quantify the horrors of each episode. Rather, the point is to poke holes in some of the common, and comforting, ways in which people seek to defang Black Mirror. Which brings us to the next point.


What Black Mirror is

“We all have them now.” – Shazia, “Crocodile”

To say that Black Mirror is an anthology science fiction program that tends to tell grim stories is not to actually say anything particularly interesting about the program. Not that such a description is untrue, but that it is true in the most banal way. And, frankly, saying that Black Mirror is a buffet of bleakness, or a deluge of dystopias, is to say similarly little. A more worthwhile position is to suggest that Black Mirror is a catalyst for conversation: it opens up a space in which people can discuss their anxieties about technology and the future without being derided as “anti-technology” for voicing such concerns. Yet with the fourth season now concluded, and the initial hubbub around the season having died down, it is becoming clear that Black Mirror has become such a cliché that its ability to spark conversations may be diminished. While the first two seasons of Black Mirror were jarring to audiences, seasons three and four (as was mentioned above) were largely met with reactions along the lines of: “ugh, we get it.”

But what do we get?

“We were promised flying cars, but instead we got…” this is a popular turn of phrase that one encounters relatively often in popular discussions of science, technology, and the future. It is a turn of phrase that references the future depicted in the film Back to the Future 2 wherein time travel transports the characters to 2015 where they see, amongst other things, flying cars. For some, that film has become a convenient measuring stick for where we should have been by 2015, and thus the key element of the formulation is not “flying cars” but “we were promised.” We were promised flying cars, but instead we got Facebook; we were promised flying cars, but instead we barely have self-driving cars; we were promised flying cars, but instead we got the ability to animoji ourselves; the litany of disappointments goes on.

Black Mirror takes this formulation seriously, but strips it of its luster to demonstrate its depressing core. For Black Mirror says, “sure they had flying cars in Back to the Future 2…but the people in that movie are still bullied, alienated, and unhappy.” Or to put it another way: a flying car is not a solution to any of the real problems that confront people. A flying car – like most of the other fantastic doodads in Back to the Future 2 (like the hoverboards) – is just another thing to bought and used, it’s just another consumer product. When people discuss how they were “promised a flying car” their comments tend to take on a tone as if they are talking about “the promised land.” But when all is said and done Back to the Future 2 wasn’t promising a real utopia, it wasn’t imagining a more just or equitable future, its idea of the future simply consisted of there being more high-tech gizmos to purchase.

What Black Mirror says in episode after episode is that the high-tech gizmos you are promised are not going to solve any of the serious problems in your life. It shows people living in the “promised” future of some remarkable high-tech device and then turns to the camera and says: “these people are still unhappy.” It is a show that recognizes that people keep inventing new devices to address the human condition, but at the end of the day we still remain all too human: parents still worry about their children, people still search in confusion for love, desperate people still fall victim to snake oil salesmen, people still bully, people still dream of getting even, and people still struggle with discomforting memories of things from their past.

Black Mirror tells its viewers that they can’t escape their problems. Even if they have flying cars.

Characters in Black Mirror are not barbarians participating in a “nasty, brutish, and short” struggle of all against all; rather, they’re just consumers. The characters live in a world filled with apps, devices, platforms, and technological systems that are familiar insofar as people interact with them by buying them. The mother in “Arkangel” buys the implant that lets her surveil her daughter, the world of “USS Callister” is based around people playing a popular video game, for all of its metaphysical strangeness “Hang the DJ” is about people signing up for a dating app, “Black Museum” is largely about attempts to market new consumer products and experiences, and “Crocodile” is about a device sold to insurance companies to better help them direct responsibility in insurance claims (which seems to suggest that people are still “buying” insurance). And if you dive into the past seasons of Black Mirror you’ll find a similar pattern: people buying, people signing up, people participating, people consuming. What we see in these stories is the logic of consumption which Zygmunt Bauman described, wherein consumers “confused by the whirlwind of products, mind-boggling variety of offers, and vertiginous pace of change, can no longer rely on their own ability to learn and memorize—and so they must (and do, gratefully) accept the market’s reassurances that the product currently on offer is “the thing,” the “hot thing,” the “must-have,” and the “must-be-seen (-in or –with) thing.””[3] Black Mirror portrays a world not in which people’s primary way of interacting with the world is through technology, but a world in which people’s primary way of interacting with the world is through consuming (and being consumed by) technology.

Black Mirror has the gall to tell its viewers not that the future is going to be great, and not that the future is going to be terrible – either of those things we can handle – but that the future is going to be pretty much like the present. And for many people that’s a horrible thing to hear, especially when many people feel like the trend lines of the present are pointing in the direction of things steadily getting worse. Black Mirror shouts “Wolf! Wolf!” not to warn of something that is coming, but to make people realize what has already occurred.

It may well be that this goes a long way to explain the negative responses to the fourth season of Black Mirror. In fairness, it was a rather uneven season (something which can be said of every season of Black Mirror) – and it once again demonstrated that the show does strange love stories (“Hang the DJ”) better than heavy-handed morality plays (“Arkangel”); but the problem people have with Black Mirror is not that the show is bad. If the show was terrible, people simply wouldn’t watch it or bother discussing it. Black Mirror bothers people, but most of the time critics and commentators seem hesitant to diagnose exactly why it provokes such a response.

But here’s a hypothesis: people have a problem with Black Mirror because they no longer believe in a brighter future and so they resent the show for rubbing it in.  

Throughout its four seasons Black Mirror has repeatedly returned to a theme that could best be summed up as: technological progress does not equal social progress. This is a heretical sentiment for societies that stake much of their hope in a belief that the two types of progress are inextricably interwoven. But faith in progress, of any kind, is becoming increasingly shaky. On the political front, reactionary forces are gaining ground and demonstrating how fragile progress is in reality. While on the technological front what appears is a deluge of consumer gadgets that increasingly feel less like keys to freedom and more like shackles – and of course those aforementioned reactionary political forces have demonstrated that they are adept at using technological progress to help them push for social regress. To say it again: looking at the news, it’s easy to lose faith in the future – and Black Mirror comes along to say that you’re right to have lost faith. In a utopian future we imagine ourselves as blissed out citizens with no concerns, in dystopian futures we imagine ourselves not as the dead or imprisoned but as the attractive resistance leaders who ultimately win – but Black Mirror says that in the future we’ll just be who we are now, but our phones will be a bit thinner.

Writing in 1934, Lewis Mumford observed that: “most of the current fantasies of the future, which have been suggested by the triumph of the machine, are based upon the notion that our mechanical environment will become more pervasive and oppressive.”[4] The only thing scarier than being told that things will get “more pervasive and oppressive,” is realizing that thigns have already gotten that way whilst we were distracted. Especially when you’re already feeling alienated, disempowered, and anxious. When we’re reminded that we already live amidst pervasive technology and that the world is still a mess we cast our eyes downward. And though we may roll our eyes and groan “thanks grandpa” when we hear some technologies framed as “oppressive,” many of us feel increasingly dissatisfied and put upon by the digital world.

And this opens up a space from which one can seriously criticize Black Mirror, not because of its Hobbseian view, but because it ultimately tells depoliticized stories in which one does not see resistance. Granted, some characters may resist on a personal level, but the larger system is not challenged. The characters of “Hang the DJ” rebel but they do not rally others to their cause; the imprisoned characters in “USS Callister” rebel against the man trapping them, but the larger social structure that produced that man remains intact. Black Mirror takes an old mantra from Star Trek: The Next Generation and holds it up to a mirror. Whereas the Borg in Star Trek say “resistance is futile” and the Federation continually proves them wrong by successfully resisting; Black Mirror says “resistance is futile” and shows a world full of people who have more or less accepted that premise. Certainly, in the face of political occurrences many individuals may see themselves as part of the “#resistance” – but when it comes to Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon the general tenor has become one wherein we’ve accepted that “resistance is futile.”

In thinking about the disaster laden imagery of science fiction, Susan Sontag commented that the “imagery of disaster in science fiction is above all the emblem of an inadequate response” these works demonstrate “a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s responses to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.”[5] Those words, were written in 1965 with Sontag worrying about how the threat of nuclear war meant that “collective incineration and extinction could come at any time, virtually without warning.”[6] Not that many years ago it might have been easy to dismiss such atomic anxiety as a relic of a bygone age, but the nuclear reaper has made a return – and with it those concerns. But our technologically exacerbated concerns today are replete with other disasters (big and small) and Black Mirror shows repeatedly how “inadequate” our responses are. Black Mirror doesn’t tell us exactly what we should do, but it suggests that, to quote Erich Fromm, “if people are not aware of the direction in which they are going, they will awaken when it is too late and when their fate has been irrevocably sealed.”[7]

Or, perhaps the problem is precisely that Black Mirror shows us that we do know where we’re going, and it then reminds us that we aren’t doing enough to try to change course. 

And we hate it for reminding us.



Living amongst wolves

“You can’t remove the implant, but you can get rid of the parental unit. The screen. Just throw it away. Problem solved.” – the psychiatrist, “Arkangel”

Generally, the boy who cries wolf is portrayed as a fool and a pain, he screams about the wolf, gets the villagers worked up for nothing, and when he’s ultimately carried off in the wolf’s jaws there’s a sense that he got what he deserved. But perhaps it is worth treating the lad with more sympathy. Having spent enough time with his flock maybe he knows what kind of stirring in the trees and what manner of sounds from the woods mean that a wolf really is nearby. The commonly accepted moral of this fable is “don’t cry wolf,” to this David Fleming argued that we need to add the moral “in the end the wolf comes,”[8] and maybe there is a third moral that needs to be added. A third moral that serves as an epilogue for after the wolf has come and made a home amongst us. That third moral being: figure out how you are going to live with the wolf.

Black Mirror is not a show about hunting wolves. It is not about people rejecting new technologies, it is not about people turning technological systems off, and it is not about people rebelling against capitalism, xenophobia, misogyny, or any of the other social forces that are continually reified in new technological systems. What Black Mirror does is that it has the audacity to say that the wolves are wolves. It sees a memory implant and yells “wolf!” it sees a lethal robot and yells “wolf!” it sees a dating app and yells “wolf!” and if it looked up in the sky and saw a flying car zooming overhead it would probably yell “wolf!” Most importantly, it sees people dreaming about the panacea like technologies they think they’ve been “promised” and points out that this ideology is the most dangerous wolf of them all.

To be fair, Black Mirror isn’t particularly interested in telling stories of “how to live with wolves” – most of the tales it weaves are cautionary stories of how not to do so. Yet, from these failures there are lessons to be learned. There is always a danger in such works of fiction that, as Sontag commented, they “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”[9] But this is why it is necessary to “cry wolf” instead of politely saying “wolf” – the cry can startle us out of our inured complacency. That which makes resistance futile is the belief that it is so. We can close doors to keep the wolf from sleeping in our bedrooms. We can make careful decisions to regulate what, where, and when we’re feeding the wolf. We can admit that we have several wolves living with us and decide that we don’t need to invite in even more. We can decide not to trust the wolf to babysit. And we can recognize that we don’t have to let the wolf dictate the terms by which we live together.

In crying “wolf,” Black Mirror doesn’t tell us that the wolf is coming, and it doesn’t remind us that the wolf will come – it tells us that the wolf is already here. It shows that we’ve become so accustomed to feeding the wolves and cohabitating with them that we’ve forgotten what they are, and what’s more it shows that our fealty has allowed the wolves to become fat, greedy, and over confident. Thus we react with frustration when someone suggests that maybe it isn’t a wise idea to invite yet another wolf into our homes (the pack must grow!), we wail with shock and despair when the wolf snaps at us or sinks its teeth into our flesh, and we fume when a show like Black Mirror tells us that despite how people prattle on about “domestication” these wolves are not dogs.

Ultimately, Black Mirror does not tell its viewers to drive the wolves away; it doesn’t even tell its viewers to stop feeding the wolves. But it reminds its viewers that if you forget that you’re living amongst wolves, you might get devoured.


Related Content

Review of Black Mirror – Seasons 1 and 2

Review of Black Mirror – Season 3

Review of the movie Her

When Life Emulates Dystopia…it’s not a good thing

The Apocalyptic Turn



[1] Brecht, Bertolt. Sixth poem from “A Reader for Those Who Live in Cities” in Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913-1956. London: Metheun, 1979. pg. 144.

[2] Fleming, David. Surviving the Future. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016. The above ruminations on this fable are inspired by the introduction to Fleming’s book.

[3] Bauman, Zygmunt. Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. 218-219

[4] Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934. Pg. 423.

[5] Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 1966. Pg. 224.

[6] Sontag, 224.

[7] Fromm, Erich. The Revolution of Hope. New York: Haprer and Row, 1968. Pg. 27

[8] Fleming, 8-10.

[9] Sontag, 225


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “The Show that Cries Wolf – On Black Mirror’s Fourth Season

  1. suburbanlife
    February 3, 2018

    Thank you for this intelligent essay. You need to be on a lecture/discussion circuit of philosophical discussion groups!

  2. Pingback: "figure out how you are going to live with the wolf" #blackmirror

  3. Pingback: “Striving to minimize technical and reputational risks” – Ethical OS and Silicon Valley’s guilty conscience | LibrarianShipwreck

  4. Pingback: Choose Very Carefully: a Review of Black Mirror – Bandersnatch | LibrarianShipwreck

  5. Pingback: Who needs Black Mirror when you have reality? – on Black Mirror’s Fifth Season | LibrarianShipwreck

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