Given the topic theme of our last class, who could expect me NOT to bring up Black Mirror. A wise duo once said: “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.”
For those who still don’t know what Black Mirror is all about, creator and writer Charlie Booker started the show to explore the dark sides of our addiction to technology. In a 2011 article, Booker had the epiphany when he realized that he was having unironic conversations with Siri because he, quite simply, “wanted it to help me.” Although seeming harmless, this was cause for concern to Booker, who only saw it as the beginning towards a dangerous dependency on technology and the companies that are propelling it forward. What began as hilarious musings would become one of the most prophetic, and disturbing, forms of art of the decade. (Change my mind.)
Released in 2013 as the finale of Black Mirror Season 2, The Waldo Moment explores what happens when an outlandish cartoon character makes the jump from late-night television to a local political race. One of my personal favorites because this episode introduces no original technology; nothing wild and fantastical that the viewer must take as possible in this alternate reality. Waldo is blue cartoon bear that acts as a sidekick to a late-night talk show host, voiced by a local comedian named Jamie. His vulgar and candid commentary wins public adoration and is commissioned for his own show. In promotion of the pilot, Jamie begrudgingly agrees to enter Waldo into the local political election; with politicians being easy perpetual targets for comedians. Waldo’s popularity is garnered by his mocking of the career politicians; Jamie grows Waldo’s character out of his own frustration with the absurdity of the political system until he can no longer control the hysteria.
What does this add?
The genius of this episode lies in Waldo’s simple attack on the politicians themselves, but really the greater public at its core: that those running for office can be just as fictitious as he is. Waldo’s targets are Conservative candidate Liam Monroe and Labour Party candidate Gwendolyn Harris. Jamie, via Waldo, brutally attacks Harris after ends their romantic relationship at the advisement of her campaign for how it would be perceived by the voters. As Waldo, Jamie cuts through to the public’s distrust in career politicians, even though they are the ones who create the system of valuing that behavior. Even when he begged voters not to support him and draws attention to the fact that he is just a fictional bear, voters adore him even more. He became a part of the machine and there was no stopping it.
Charlie Booker himself said in interview with Vulture, the character of Waldo was loosely based on British politician Boris Johnson, “who’s kind of a quasi-Trump.” He highlighted the general feeling that the landscape of politicians had become stiff and was full of nice suits who pretty much all said the same thing. Waldo is the embodiment of an “entertainer coming along and taking advantage of that and becoming a lightning rod.” An outlandish tv personality comes along and takes the spotlight… again, I must reiterate this episode aired in 2013. As far-fetched as it seemed at the time, and how prophetic is seems now, I believe this should have been more predictable than we would like to admit. Sensationalized media is simply what we have come to respond to. And politicians, being in the business of eliciting responses, it was only a matter of time. We have been blindly treading down a path of style over substance, entertainment over intellect. However, this is not news, we are aware of this dynamic on social media. We know about the dangers of virality; but as Waldo points it out to us: we are failing to act upon these dangers.
With politics aside, I would like to shift the focus towards one specific video from this week’s material: Group A’s video “How Amazon, Apple, and Google Manipulate Our Emotions” (So spoilers for that I suppose.)
NYU professor Scott Galloway provides a wonderful rant on the power and motives of tech giants Amazon, Apple, and Google. However, the true blame should not fall on them according to Galloway; but those who have invested the power in them: we the people. This subtle point was also portrayed in The Waldo Moment. Frustrated by the success of what was supposed to be a comedic stunt, Jamie attempts to point out the satire in what he’s doing, pleading “Don’t vote for me, I’m an insult. Seriously… I’m worse than a wasted vote.” But Waldo’s fans are too loving and fail to see a fault, and vote for him anyways. Similarly, we claim to be too integrated to live without our beloved websites.
This is the crux of Galloway’s TED Talk, businesses are becoming so good at targeting instinctive impulses that even when we are consciously aware of being exploited, we still give in to them. As much as we may want to criticize these companies for what we deem unethical practices, we are not changing the way in which we consume their products. In this class alone, we literally spent an entire day discussing how Facebook violated our private security and did any of us delete Facebook when we got home? At the end of it we must ask ourselves: how did we get here? And where are we going?
Luckily, we have read many news stories of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s plan to change. Outrage over their unethical practices have forced the social media giants to rethink their strategies. Hopefully kick-starting an era of effective, conscious platform building. Even though they may not be the direct cause, shifting the platforms of these companies is infinitely easier than changing social culture… or is it?