White Christmas: Black Mirror, Did it Age Well?

Before we discuss White Christmas, let’s take a trip back to the past, all the way to when this episode was first released: December 16, 2014. 

In 2014, with over 70% of all internet using Facebook, it was the most popular social media platform. However, it was also reaching its peak as other platforms such as Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and even Pinterest saw significant growth in the past few years.  

On May 15, 2014, Google Glass and its $1,500 price tag were introduced to the world. With cost and privacy regulations in question, the consumer market simply wasn’t ready for such a “cool” piece of technology. 

On November 6, 2014, the first generation of the Amazon Echo was released. This voice-activated device was anticipated to change how we interact with our homes and all the technology in them, and not merely be a glorified speaker system. 

2014 was the year Kanye West and Kim Kardashian married. The wedding cost $12 million, which included a Bespoke Calacatta Vaticano marble table worth $478,000 for the reception

In October, comedian Hannibal Burress called out Bill Cosby on stage for not only being smug but also being a rapist. That act opened the door for a slew of victims to accuse Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them. 

8 months earlier, 15-year-old, Breck Bednar was murdered by 18-year-old, Lewis Daynes, a boy he met playing online video games. Breck’s family claimed he was a victim of grooming — how his personality changed over the last few months — before he traveled to Daynes’ flat. There he was stabbed in the neck, and the photos of his death were shared in a gaming group on social media. 

In 2014, abortion was a key issue in American politics. Republicans began to shift their focus from implementing outright bans to attacking the resources. These initiatives include limiting health coverage for abortions and driving clinics out of business. 

Now that we recall the state of the world during Christmas 2014, we can start our discussion on Black Mirror, episode 4 of season 2: White Christmas. 

How did this episode age? Are the themes still relevant? Have any of the predictions come true? And if they haven’t, are they still plausible?

Let’s find out. 

Bad Conversations 

White Christmas is an anthology within an anthology: three separate tales loosely tied together with one central storyline. In the first, we hear Matt’s story about his former role as an online consultant, who used a live streaming technology called Z-Eyes that allowed him to see and hear everything his client was experiencing. 

On this night, he followed the POV of an insecure man named Harry as he searched for a date at a work party. Matt’s advice to Harry reminded me of The Game by Neil Strauss (Amazon) and the techniques that pick-up artists would use to seduce women. One approach was to pay attention to the less attractive individual or the person you’re not as interested in. In doing so, you appear more appealing to your “target,” thus making it easier for you to seduce them later. Published in 2005, The Game is still regarded as a reliable resource for 17-year-old bros and the desperately hopeful. 

Only in 2019, did the rise of the term “toxic masculinity” reach the mainstream, and cis-gendered straight men had to relearn proper etiquette, including the need to stop negging and gaslighting women. Rather than manipulation and dominance, this new education was focused on respect.

In 2017, Alyssa Milano shared a tweet encouraging all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to post “Me Too” as their status on social media, in an effort to end the stigma and silence. This act led to The Me Too Movement, which raised awareness of sexual assault and brought down powerful offenders: Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Kevin Spacey, and many others. 

However, while the waves were crashing around all the rapists and our beloved idols were getting canceled, a few incidents made us question the severity of each individual accusation. Every case is unique, and therefore, the level of outrage and condemnation must be determined after we hear both sides of the story and carefully assess the evidence. The allegation around Aziz Ansari is a good example.

In a blog post titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life”, posted on Babe.net, a woman with the alias “Grace” allegedly went on a date with the actor from Parks and Rec. During the course of the night, she felt forced into having sex. According to Ansari, it was all consensual, and there wasn’t much to prove otherwise. 

This incident fueled debate: while many women could relate to what Grace had gone through — interacting with a man who was only in tune with his own desires — many also wondered if attempting to destroy someone publically was the proper way to respond to an uncomfortable date.  

With the change in the technological landscape, dating was evolving as well. In a way, it was becoming dangerous: more automated, addicting, and riskier. In the summer of 2018, Danueal Drayton used Tinder to lure Samantha Stewart on a date to the race track and eventually to her apartment, where he sexually assaulted and then strangled her to death. After his arrest, the authorities linked Drayton to at least 6 other murders, where he also used the dating platform to prey on women expecting to find love. 

One core theme of this episode is the challenge we have with communication. While it’s not easy speaking from our hearts — or with our minds — we are called to raise our voices more than ever these days. Whether trying to seduce, convince, or condemn, we must speak up. But how will these new methods of communication change the things we say and the way we say it?

A Copy of You for You

The second act in this episode follows Matt as he describes his former role as a technician that instructs digital clones called “cookies”. Like having presets for every household technology, these digital copies are designed to help the original humans live more convenient lives by understanding them without any instructions. Gone are the days of machine learning; your clone already knows. 

However, this episode brings up some old philosophical questions: what is consciousness, and what does it means to be alive? When our minds are replicated and transferred into strings of code, does that constitute creating life? Do the “cookies” have a say in how they should live? 

The Internet of Things is a concept that describes physical objects with the ability to connect and exchange data via sensors, enabling them to gather information from a network and provide a wide range of services. The Internet of Things has already revolutionized the commercial, healthcare, and transportation industries. 

For wealthy consumers, one area that has benefited from the Internet of Things is recurring tasks like grocery shopping. Samsung recently released the Family Hub refrigerators that recognize when you’re running low on an item and order it for you before you are out. Imagine all the arguments you’ve had in the past about dinner; wouldn’t it be great if all your appliances knew what you were craving and ordered it for you?

Currently, all the data collected are stored in a network and require the devices to pull it out when necessary. But what if the network is just a clone of you? 

There are two major steps to the process known as mind transfer, where we reproduce the contents of our brains onto computers. That’s turning 86 billion neurons interconnected by 100 trillion synapses into code. 

The first challenge is building an artificial brain that can simulate neurons, and the second is to scan the brain, measure all the neurons and how they are connected, and then copy the patterns to the aforementioned artificial brain. 

The first step is achievable today. We have built artificial neurons connected through synapses before; tools like Siri and self-driving cars already operate on this system, but Siri does not have 86 billion neurons. In fact, Siri only has an IQ of 23.9, which is well below a human toddler. 

The second step in mind transfer is still decades, if not centuries away. The ability to extract the contents of someone’s brain without possibly killing them is not currently available. Unlike software like Siri, our brains have amazing plasticity. 

Consider the cocktail party effect where you enter a noisy party: everything sounds chaotic, and then after a moment, your brain rewires to focus on individual voices and sounds. This plasticity is where voice-activated technology still has trouble. How many times has Siri registered the wrong sounds? How many times has Siri not understood the context of our request? 

I found this segment of the episode fascinating and relevant today. How do you punish someone with infinite time? How do you motivate someone who has a slave to operate everything? What kind of heaven will we create with convenience? What kind of inescapable hell are we constructing? Much like how religion can motivate us to be kind, can this alternate reality motivate us to be better humans? Or would it lead us to corruption, cruelty, and hunger to control what we can? Us.

Blocking and Confessing

A major conflict in the episode is Joe’s argument with his fiancee, Beth, regarding her pregnancy. While at first Joe was excited to be a father, Beth insisted that she wanted an abortion. 

The two go back and forth, and eventually, Beth blocks him, turning him into a grey, static distortion, unable for him to see or hear her. Estranged, Joe discovered that Beth had gone ahead with her pregnancy and ended up giving birth to a baby girl. But because he was still blocked, he couldn’t see Beth or the baby. 

After spying on the family for a few years, Joe learned that Beth had died in a train accident. Her death lifted the block, and Joe attempted to reconnect with his child — only to find out that she was Asian and Beth had an affair. 

Enraged, Joe killed Beth’s father, leading to the little girl dying in the snow. In a twist ending, we learn that Matt had been manipulating Joe so that he would confess to his crime; and that all this time, Joe was a digital clone, a cookie. 

The right to have an abortion is a political fault line in America, splitting Republicans and Democrats. While it may seem like society was moving towards respect and understanding, the unwavering force of the religious rallied on and on, preaching morality while overlooking women’s rights. Persistent and relentless, the conservatives knocked a progressive future two steps back on June 2022, when the Supreme Court of America overturned Roe v Wade, a landmark case that had set precedence since 1973. 

This push and shove showed how fragile our rights actually are. As of summer 2022, abortion is now illegal in 11 states, including Texas, Tennessee, and Idaho. These laws mean any person who gets an abortion or helps someone get an abortion could be criminally charged and face jail time. The loss of the right to choose puts the lens on other brittle regulations including same-sex marriages and contraceptives. 

As soon as a child is involved in a couple’s dispute, the complexity increases tenfold, often extending the length of the conflict and leaving one party at the mercy of another, whether by withholding the right to see their child or financial repercussions. 

Take, for example, the ongoing Brangelina saga. In September 2016, Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Brad Pitt after two years of marriage, alleging that Pitt had assaulted her. They have six children together. As of the fall of 2022, the custody battle continues as Jolie demands sole custody, while Pitt is unwilling to give up the fight. 

The rise in social media has also led to an increase in abuse. In a study conducted by Pew Research Center, 41% of US adults have experienced online harassment, and half of those groups have experienced more severe behaviors. 

Since its inception, social media platforms have been figuring out how to effectively ban users that violate their terms. Hate speech, bullying, and threats are as hard to eliminate as cockroaches; when they remove one account, two more take its place. 

Twitter has been a prime example of a platform struggling to balance freedom of speech and the toxicity of a branch of users. From shadow-banning an individual to flat-out blocking the whole account, Twitter experimented with many forms of moderation. But the questions persist: What does it even mean to block someone? Does it block them from seeing your content? You from seeing their content? Can they not send you messages but still see your account? Does limiting amplification mean the same thing as censoring? 

A few high-profile blocks have included Donald Trump, Kanye West, and the misogynistic kickboxer, Andrew Tate. But since Elon Musk took over Twitter in the fall of 2022, those bans have been lifted, and all three returned to the platform in varying degrees. As of December, Kanye West is the only one to be banned again for his anti-Semitic comments.

Should you ever find yourself in a scenario where someone accuses you of doing wrong, you may discover that evidence doesn’t truly matter and that it all comes down to your confession. The world is always looking for a scapegoat. That is why you see police officers forcing people to make false confessions through tactics such as those Matt used on Joe, including isolation and wearing the subject down through lies, intimidation, and trust-building stories. 

While fingerprints and DNA have been reliable evidence in trials, our digital footprint may be more damning. One day when our minds are transferred onto computers, we might not only need to protect our physical beings but also our separate digital entities. 

In 2020, weeks before the US presidential election, the New York Post reported that a laptop allegedly belonging to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter contained emails with evidence of corruption. As of spring 2022, the details of the computer’s content are still unclear. But consider this, what if Hunter Biden’s computer could speak on its behalf? What if Hunter Biden’s computer was actually a clone of Hunter Biden? 

Black Mirror episodes are already loaded with many concepts to discuss, but this one was definitely a stocking full of mind-bending ideas. The twist and turns this episode takes us on is still a fun ride. With references to prior episodes, these easter eggs and callbacks make it feel that all of Black Mirror is taking place in one universe. 

As we approach this holiday season, coming close to the end of a pandemic, and emerging from nearly three years of trauma, White Christmas is as comforting as looking at an old album of friends and families. While we may often recall details through rose-tinted glasses, we also remember the arguments we had back then are very much the same ones we are having now. Like days and years in a cookie, time will pass, the world will change, but the holiday season will still feel the same. Cold. 

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