The Waldo Moment: How Black Mirror Inadvertently Predicted Political and Consumer Culture

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.

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Depressed comedian Jamie (played by Daniel Rigby) flanked by Waldo

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.

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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?

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What will Facebook do now with all their data?

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?

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror

https://www.denofgeek.com/us/tv/black-mirror/261620/black-mirror-the-unexpected-foresight-of-the-waldo-moment

https://www.vulture.com/2016/10/black-mirror-charlie-brooker-c-v-r.html

13 thoughts on “The Waldo Moment: How Black Mirror Inadvertently Predicted Political and Consumer Culture

  1. Nice post. It seems like there are endless connections to Black Mirror that can be made with the way our society is going today. I also found your discussion of our conscious choice to be exploited by businesses interesting. I think that in the case of companies like Facebook and Amazon, many consumers have made a thought-out decision that allowing their data to be used is worth it to be able to use the services the company provides. They have simply decided that the pros of using the service outweigh the cons of potential privacy concerns. And it seems to me like that is not something that would have happened 10 or 20 years ago. The conversation about the political figures like Waldo, however, seems to go even deeper. Good conversation on an interesting topic!

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    • Great point, but in that conscious decision of weighing pros and cons, is it right to have companies hold that much power in our society? Where consumers know their privacy is being violated but submit anyways?

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  2. Been loving your connections to BM throughout the semester. This was actually the first episode of BM I ever saw and had no knowledge or context about the show as I just joined my friends in watching it. From episodes like The Waldo Moment to Nosedive that you mentioned in class (which to be fair was a concept the show Community did first with its meowmeowbeenz episode), comparisons can endlessly be made to the real world. Our reliance on certain technologies is a love hate relationship that we just can’t seem to leave. Shows like Black Mirror do a great job of highlighting the essence of the ethical dilemmas that will always be there with advancing technology.

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    • Ricky, the fact that someone else knows what meowmeowbeenz are makes my week! Examples like these make me re-question whether art imitates life or the other way around?

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  3. Yes. Not just a reference but an entire blog dedicated to Black Mirror. I found this post incredibly interesting, not simple because I am a Black Mirror viewer myself, but because it so relevant to companies, culture, and politics today. It’s so true that social media strategy is a strong influence of success, or lack thereof, in virtually any field. Over ten years ago, former President Barack Obama was really the first to effectively use social media throughout his campaign. His platform and strategy connected with users (and non-users) alike. This has now become a staple political and professional tool, and one that is here to stay I think. Haven’t seen this episode, but definitely will now!

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  4. Interesting post. Your mentions of Black Mirror have been very compelling that I feel I must finish watching the series, immediately. We are now living in an age that seemly crazy scenes from movies are coming to life. With the help of AR, we could probably see “cartoon character makes the jump from late-night television to a local political race

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    • (Sorry, I incidentally hit post comment. ) Interesting post. Your mentions of Black Mirror have been very compelling that I feel I must finish watching the series, immediately. We are now living in an age that seemly crazy scenes from movies are coming to life. With the help of AR, we could probably see a “cartoon character jumping from late-night television to a local political race” within a decade. For companies like Facebook, they are still holding the philosophy that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. Even when we have spent an entire class on Facebook’s privacy issue, no one went home deleting accounts. In some sense, instead of waiting for Facebook to change, our social culture should change, demanding attention with stronger actions, so Facebook learns the lesson.

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  5. This is a great post! I haven’t yet watched this black mirror episode, but now I am eager to watch! Going off of your point about businesses targeting and exploiting consumers, the book that I read for Tech Trek, Hooked by Nir Eyal, is basically an instruction manual on how to do this. Eyal teaches readers about the psychological tendencies that humans have and the ways in which businesses can exploit these to create hooks between their product and the consumer. Once the hook is deep enough, it would take a significant problem to cause the consumer to switch products. For example, even though Facebook is blatantly violating our security, none of us have stopped using the platform because the pain of removing those hooks is more severe than the pain of our security being violated.

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  6. Very insightful post. And I really like your discussion on “it’s us, the people, actually give those tech giant and market tycoon the ability to influence us and manipulate our emotion.” I followed a tech podcast recently and the host in the show more than once showed her concern about the dominant position of many tech giant right now. One guest on the show did an experiment to see if she could live completely without Google, Facebook, and couple of others. As it turned out, it’s impossible to live in a world without Google’s influence since clearly they are everywhere. More than that, another thing that we might consider, as big companies keep acquiring small firms to ensure their competitive advantage, will it eventually disrupt innovations and creativity.

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    • That is a great question, although they seemingly dominate their markets, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have largely avoided anti-trust allegations (as well as taxes). I believe this largely falls on the nature of political lobbying, where it is too dangerous to go against big business for a lack of funding.

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  7. When a started reading this post, I actually immediately thought of Group A’s video so I am glad you made the connection. Although I found Galloways talk to be a bit superfluous and honestly a little confusing at times, mainly because he maintained such a fast pace, I agree that this episode can really be used to highlight what we are seeing today. We are allowing companies to take advantage of us at their own economic benefit whether they have intentions to or not, yet, admittedly, I have no urge to let go of any social media platforms etc. I feel as though there’s no need when it effectively allows me to absorb all the information I ‘need’ and others around me are doing the same. Eager to discuss the ethics of this in class to figure out how much of a problem this really is

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  8. I still haven’t watched Black Mirror, but I definitely need to. Reading this, it occurs to me there’s a compelling case for the founders of our tech behemoths as parallels to Jamie in the Waldo Moment. I think in many cases, they started off intending to create something for good, and ended up with a product that was being used in ways that were never intended. I don’t know if there’s an effective way entrepreneurs can prevent this, but it’s food for thought, anyway.

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