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Black Mirror’s episode Shut Up and Dance is hacking torture-porn

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The third season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on October 21st. It’s the first season of the show produced by Netflix, after two three-episode series and a special produced by Britain’s Channel 4. In this series, six writers will look at each of the third season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears. Episode 1 and 2 are here. **Warning: spoilers ahead.**

It’s a safe assumption that someday you’ll get hacked. Maybe your credit card data will be part of a major leak, or account information will get posted somewhere, or if you’re really unlucky you’ll be explicitly targeted and the hack will be truly invasive: private conversations posted, nude photos distributed, purchase histories pored over. You can take some basic precautions, but day to day you have to put this vulnerability out of mind, because so many requirements of social and professional life have the unfortunate side effect of building your own digital dossier.

The Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance” is hacking torture-porn, and it doesn’t need to be set in the future for the story to work. Hacked webcams, GPS tracking, catfishing — all the tools are here already. The most sci-fi element in the episode is the competence and discipline of the trolls, who hack the webcam of 19-year-old Kenny (Alex Lawther), film him masturbating, and blackmail him and various other characters into committing increasingly ill-advised acts.

The strongest parts of the episode are the moments when characters realize they’ve been totally owned. Kenny slams his door shut, locks it, and hyperventilate-screams. He gets the text “We are watching,” and dashes around the room, peeking out of the window blinds. It’s one of the few moments approaching comedy in what’s otherwise a clammy hour of sustained anxiety: someone on the street wouldn’t have anything close to the invasive ability his hackers have. The best surveillance tool imaginable is the one on his desk, locked in the room with him.

The existence of overt villains is a bit of a departure for Black Mirror, which at its best makes characters complicit in their own bad fates, as jealousy or grief or some other human frailty collides with technology that appears to cater to it. Here, most of the plot consists of Kenny, and later Hector (Jerome Flynn), a catfished john he joins up with, submitting to the orders of offscreen trolls.

Other than the trolls’ industriousness, the main difference between the world of “Shut up and Dance” and the real one seems to be the stakes of being hacked. The episode does a fine job driving home hacking’s humiliating invasiveness. There’s a nice moment where Kenny opens Hector’s wallet at a gas station, and condoms drop out. Embarrassing, sure, but nothing compared to having his video broadcast to a potential audience of millions. Analog embarrassment has natural limits.

But attitudes toward digital privacy invasions are changing. The 2014 iCloud hack felt like a turning point. After a brief period of titillation, it was widely condemned and the communities passing around photos were scorned. When Sony got hacked, publications had to decide where the line lay between newsworthiness and personal invasion. Most deemed racist exchanges and information about the company fair game, but when Jezebel wrote about Amy Pascal’s Amazon purchases, many felt the piece stepped over the line. (Pascal still lost her job, though she’s started a Sony-affiliated production company; one of its projects is a movie about Gamergate, another troll collective with a penchant for doxing.) These debates are happening right now. When WikiLeaks released emails of Neera Tanden talking about her dislike of Lawrence Lessig, Lessig responded by saying everyone deserves privacy, and that the hack isn’t in the public interest. On the other hand, when meme casualty Ken Bone accidentally de-anonymized his Reddit account, his comments and porn habits made their way into The New York Times. (Incidentally, some of those comments were about Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked photos; he apologized for his statements.)

When is formerly private information worth delving into and when should it be ignored? When will curiosity let you ignore it? There will probably never be consistent rules about these questions, but in a world where everyone has reams of personal information just a hack away from mass broadcast, norms do seem to be fitfully changing in the direction of greater discretion and sympathy. While the hack would be absolutely mortifying for Kenny, until new information is revealed in the final scene, I’d have guessed that people would mostly see him as the victim of a highly invasive crime.

Which is why the twist ending landed wrong for me. I won’t go into too much detail, but this is still a spoiler. Kenny turns out not to be the innocent victim we’ve been led to believe he is; in fact, the revealed information makes previously endearing scenes read as deeply creepy. The twist makes sense as a plot mechanism — no one’s going to blackmail someone into bank robbery by threatening to reveal their risotto recipe — but the revelation, coupled with a dated trollface meme, turns the episode extremely bleak, even for Black Mirror. And it reveals that the episode is more interested in turning gadgets into weapons of maximum humiliation than in saying anything more interesting about how digital humiliation works.

That said, it’s true enough that we carry around incredible surveillance tools and have at our fingertips amazing new ways of embarrassing ourselves on an unprecedented scale. Point taken. It wouldn’t be totally paranoid to tape over your webcam. Even Mark Zuckerberg does it.

“Shut Up and Dance” ratings

Relevance: Moderate. Yes, the devices we rely on are also scary surveillance machines, and it would be deeply invasive if they were hacked. But the twist ending turns Kenny’s blackmailing into an extreme case, and sidesteps the fact that in a world of constant hacking, people are getting better about viewing victims as victims.

Aesthetics: Chilly and claustrophobic. The episode takes place in a series of cramped spaces shot with a cool tint, places you wouldn’t want to spend another minute in even if you weren’t being blackmailed and in questionable company. Lawther sells adolescent desperation, and the way Flynn switches between gruffness and utilitarian friendliness is unsettling.

Squirm factor: This episode’s reason for being. “Shut Up and Dance” ratchets up a squirm-inducing premise over the course of an hour, as characters are forced to do increasingly horrible things. Though the ending is a letdown, the queasiness up to then is well orchestrated.