Black Mirror as Pedagogical Tool in the College Classroom

Curator's Note

In Danah Boyd’s “Participating in the Always on Lifestyle,” she states, “I may not be always-on the Internet as we think of it colloquially, but I am always connected to the network. And that’s what it means to be always-on.”

Discussing this pervasive concept to an undergraduate class can sometimes be a daunting task. Students might be competent with Yik Yak, Instagram, and Snapchat, but have never heard of Google Glass, big data, and the Deep Web. Anthropologist Amber Case echoes Boyd’s thoughts with the idea that a mobile device on our person makes us all nodes on a network distributing and consuming information. Case refers to us as cyborgs that have modified ourselves for our current environment.

A show like Black Mirror allows the students to experience a taste of the not-so-distant future for 45 minutes and still have time to discuss their ideas in class. In the episode, “The Entire History of You,” an implanted device called a “grain” captures and indexes the video and audio of everything that is viewed by the recipient.

After watching the Black Mirror episode many of the students are unaware how the memory recording technology depicted is nearly already here. The episode may feel jarring and its ideas inconceivable, but it can be explained to the class that elements are already available with existing technologies such as augmented reality glasses, compact flash memory, retinal implants, and networked home devices.

By incorporating preliminary material such as Boyd’s and Case’s to prime the students before watching the episode it facilitates meaningful discussions through a glimpse of our highly possible future. All of this allows the students to think of their relationship with electronic communication technology, which is often a ubiquitous part of their lives.

What are the learning lessons being depicted in Black Mirror episodes and how can they be reinforced through other material to stimulate discussion and critical thinking in the class room?


Frank, I agree very much that it's important to discuss this material with students. When I teach composition, I usually teach a section on the pervasiveness of tech, the obsession with flattened relationships, &c. I remember an instance in which my students were discussing a picture of a group of teenagers walking while all staring at their phones. The picture was labeled something to the extent of the REAL zombie apocalypse. While teaching this and discussing, my students even made the connection that tech is damning at times -- all while one student was sitting in the corner on his phone. What are your thoughts on students such as this who are confronted with the material directly in front on themselves but remain apathetic? Is this coded in the machine? The self?

It seems to me that it is coded into both, especially since it is a human project to both produce and perfect these machines. We are literally reflected back to ourselves through our tech – Black Mirror pun intended. ;) It’s hard to not feel offended when you’re teaching and you see student(s) who are consumed with their tech and not paying attention to the class. These situations illustrate that our communication isn’t just a question/answer conversation, but that they are a never-ending stream that are quite compelling to stay engaged with. Seeing a room full of students with their mobiles lying on their desks can feel a bit uneasy, but almost every meeting I go to has the same phenomena going on. The Amber Case TED Talk about us all being cyborgs that are nodes on a network is a great prompt for the students. It helps us move the conversation from it being good/bad, to what are they doing while engaged and how can this contributed to their lives.

I like how you are using Black Mirror as a teaching tool. I think each episode (and episodes read intertextually) can provide so many entry-points into conversations extending across disciplines.

In addition to the textual content of Black Mirror, I wonder if it's also useful to consider how the series comments - somewhat self-reflexively - about the nature of its existence. In other words, what about the industrial and/or material structures or processes that have led to Black Mirror becoming a UK/US co-production streaming on a transnational platform like Netflix? Couuld we ask students to draw these concerns into how they think about the intersections of media, technology, political economy, and culture?

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