Black Mirror and Control Society

After reading Panopticon by Foucault I was reminded of a particular episode of Black Mirror. The BBC show is available on Netflix and I urge anyone reading to take the time and watch the whole series or at the very least this episode in particular. Black Mirror is a satirical exploration of modern society, especially that which deals with recent technological innovations. “The Entire History of You” is quite possibly one of the most powerful episodes in the series and raises some very interesting questions in the role of modern technology and privacy. An implant called a “grain” can be obtained that allows you to record your memories (everything you see, hear, or do) which then allows you to “re-do” that memory through your eyes or on a screen for other people to see. This episode has some far reaching consequences that Foucault and Deleuze would have loved to explore.

Foucault explores Bentham’s idea for an architectural prison called a panopticon and then expands that idea to be a metaphor for a method of controlling societies. Bentham’s architecture allows for the prisoners to be viewed by a central tower yet the prisoners themselves could not view the officer(s) in the tower. Each side of the prisoners’ cells would house a window allowing the prisoner to be illuminated and visible at all times. The central tower would house the administrator(s) and due to the nature of its design may not even require anyone to staff it at all.


The power of this structure resides in the “Power of Surveillance”. The capability of being observed at all times allows for the populace to not know when they are being watched but most people will resort to the understanding that it is watching at all times. With the advent of CCTV and other related technologies, the “Power of Surveillance” can be applied to any architectural model or society and not just Bentham’s Panoptic prison.

The technology introduced in “The Entire History of You” is a huge extension of CCTV as well as Facebook and other social media services. The ability to record all of an individual’s experiences and then for that recording to be replayed in front of themselves or an audience has far reaching consequences. One of the main benefits is that no external recording device is needed. Most of the populace may have this technology and as a result you have no idea who or what is watching what you do. The “Power of Surveillance” is now distributed among the populace itself and not just one central authority.


Foucault predicted that governments or those in power would be very interested in surveillance technology as it would provide them with the “Power of Surveillance.” Even today, the NSA reads emails and texts of a variety of individuals, but if this grain technology is exposed in any way, agencies would be able to sift people’s very own memories and motives. In fact, one scene in the episode had the protagonist go through a TSA section of the train station and he was required to play back the last week of his memories to the agent at the desk. This particular use of the grain technology would violate the panopticon’s method of “unknown surveillance” yet that ever present ability of agencies to view your memories would encourage the populace to avoid any sort of law breaking activity. The panopticon’s power is further distributed to among the population itself.

Control would not only be exercised by government agencies but exercised by society itself. One of the popular things to do when you have a grain is to “re-do” your memories and have people give comments or feedback on what you did and how you can do it better. A dinner party in the episode had the protagonist resist showing his slightly awkward job interview. Yet it is not necessarily a method of showing your shortcomings as it could also be a vehicle for showing your friends and family highlights of your recent escapades. That last snowboarding trip you went on can now be shown in front of all of your friends.

Power would evolve into this subtle force that causes people to be guided into actions that are more socially acceptable. Humans are shaped by their social encounters and the invention of the grain would facilitate this social shaping of an individual. Imagine having a “re-do” of your first job interview in front of your parents or having to provide the company you want to work for the last month of your memories for a review. How does that impact your behavior in society?

Grain technology would begin to influence not just the interactions you have in your public life but would manifest itself at a personal level in how you interact in private relationships. The discussion on previous romantic encounters is now a fact and not just something you could easily lie about. Trust begins to play an even larger role in your private relationships. Do you believe what your partner is saying or will you have them play back certain memories?

This episode makes broad social comments on how society would react on both a public and private level. The increasing dissolution of power throughout the masses is merely an evolution of Foucault’s ideas in “Panopticism.”


I originally wrote this immediately after reading Panopticon and once I read Galloway’s Protocol, everything was put into perspective. The grain technology is merely one more node in a distributed network. I made the claim earlier that a decentralized government would be able to utilize this tech, but in reality it is a better representation of the distributed society that Galloway describes in Protocol.

The protocol is no longer some technological interaction, but begins to emerge at the social level as well. Especially when people judge others based on whether you have the grain technology embedded or not. People can cease communication with you due to that simple technological trait.

Outside of this particular episode, another Black Mirror episode (“White Christmas”) dealt with an even more extreme form of protocol. Blocking, like being able to block someone’s internet presence online, is now able to be applied in the physical world. You are able to block people you don’t agree with or people that have been universally agreed to be blocked. Sex offenders are only visible to other people as red silhouettes. Protocol exercises control by severing the communication between various people. What’s to stop the protocol to be extended not from sex offenders but to other people as well?

This entry was posted in General Interest, Information Technology, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Black Mirror and Control Society

  1. danwillisdan says:

    Now that we’ve talked about the idea of a distributed network, it might be nice to revisit this theory. The idea of panopticism isn’t the only mechanism of control that employs surveillance. Perhaps this idea of the ‘grain’ is how surveillance functions in a distributed network. Perhaps the subtle, unspoken expectations that arise from interpersonal communication are a protocol that is enforced through surveillance.


    • raddishspirit says:

      Once I have the time, I plan on doing a major edit to this post. I wrote it probably the day before we read protocol and the whole surveillance idea was fresh in my mind and I was dying to make a connection. After reading protocol though, I feel like this further strengthens the idea of a decentralized network as there is this interaction between people, “nodes”, that I feel is stronger than what a centralized hierarchy or distributed control system could manage.


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