One of the more frightening series that I have seen on TV is the Netflix series called ‘Black Mirror’. This is a somewhat modern ‘Twilight Zone’. Having seen all four seasons, I don’t feel I could completely recommend it because each episode is independent and of different levels of originality and quality. But like all pictures of the future, it is bleak and a kind of warning regarding where we are headed. In fact, in all futuristic imaginative visions, they are all of the Mad Max-Clockwork Orange variety. Artists of whatever religious or philosophical persuasion are in agreement that the future involves catastrophe and horrors that we have not even dreamed of in our nightmares.
The “black mirror” in the title of this series on Netflix is the screen we all look at, perhaps too much. Think of it: The TV screen, the computer screen, and the smartphone screen. Emails, web sites, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter!
I was recently going downstairs at a Subway station in the city. As I walked down toward the platform, there were about 30 people waiting in that small section. Every single one of them was staring at their smartphones totally engrossed in their screen content. Some of them had earphones on, thereby cutting off another of their senses. It looked so strange! All those people, diverse as they could be, were totally lost in their own realities and cut -off from those around them. Like little monads, they existed in complete isolation. The only community they experienced was the virtual one that they had plugged into.
It struck me so powerfully that we were in a completely different earthly reality than has ever been. We are masters of our tiny world and cut off from each other. This new world does not really exist. It is a virtual world.
That group of subway riders, each enveloped in their own world, misses the reality of the present moment. They were alive, but not really living. Immersed in their dream world (which certainly has consequences and is real ‘from afar’), they are like zombies walking through the present world. One wonders that, if a danger approached them, would they even notice it?
The Christian understanding of mindfulness is the Sacrament of the Present Moment. God reveals himself in all that happens to us right now. While, of course, God can work through what one finds on the Internet and the smartphone, He most powerfully is actually present in our real non-virtual lives. To miss the actual reality around us limits the God-enriched moments that He is seeking to nourish us with. It is a profound denial of reality and, as such, a profound refusal of God’s actual grace.
But this immersion in a fake world is not an entirely passive process either. The content of reality can be external, as, for instance, when we look at a beautiful landscape. But it can also surface internally as thoughts and images, suggested to us by our memory, such as the recollection of a hurt done in the past. These internal and external stimuli need not run us ragged by their presence. While we must be open to God’s revelation at all times coming to us both from internal and external stimuli, we have a duty to exercise prudential judgment on what we choose to admit into our consciousness. We are not purely passive recipients of the data of life. We must exercise a moral prudence and rational control over what we admit into the arena of consciousness and what we allow into the internal dialogue which gives meaning to the acts of our will. This rational supervision of thoughts is weakened by the passive stance encouraged by our ‘Black Mirror’ way of life. For in this manner of proceeding, we expose ourselves constantly to realities that make impressions on us that we do not allow ourselves to control. We become amoral recipients of data that can cause havoc to our internal, ultimately spiritual, self.
So we must make choices as to what enters the conscious and moral center of our beings. This is an astounding power that most people have no idea that they possess. It has always been there, but never before has the contrary negative power of passivity been so manifest as during this era of the “black mirror”—the screen that we face and that portrays images of constant and unrelenting power. We have surrendered to this passivity first through the TV black-mirror with its constant stream of stories and invitations to buy and enjoy. But with the computer and its powerful progeny, the ubiquitous smartphone (a portable mini-computer), the black-mirror achieves all the height of its enslaving power and takes from us the freedom of creativity and the reality of being in control of the choices of our destiny.
Nowhere is this more tragic than in the spiritual sphere, which will be the subject of my next essay.