[SPOILERS!!! In this post I discuss Arkangel, Black Mirror: Episode 2., Season 4. Plot points are revealed herein.]
Being a parent
Parenting is like living in a dystopian casino where you must roll snake eyes to get food.
The hardest lesson I’ve learned from parenting has been this: my anxiety is my own. It is not my child’s (or anyone else’s) responsibility to alleviate my fears. And parenting from a place of fear is the worst way to parent. It will only lead to bad ends.
Some fears are simply habits of thought, not based on previous experience or evidence. Other fears grow from trauma and hang on tight. Still others are based on what media and culture say we should fear. No matter the source, we transfer these fears onto our children. We want our kids to take fewer risks, make sound decisions, and stay safe so we need not worry.
In the Black Mirror episode entitled Arkangel, a need of relief from anxiety consumes a single mother, Marie. Directed by Jodie Foster (yes, THAT Jodie Foster) and written by Charlie Brooker, the episode shows helicopter parenting gone awry. Here’s the Netflix summary of the episode’s plot [characters’ names are my addition]:
“After nearly losing her daughter, a mother [Marie] invests in a new technology that allows her to keep track of her child [Sara].”
Parenting-via-tech seems like the theme of the episode, but the theme is actually loss. Living without someone you love is an incredibly devastating prospect, and we get hints that Marie has already experienced some tough losses in her life. We see evidence of this in Marie’s situation:
- Marie exhibits immediate anxiety over the health of her newborn.
- Sara’s father is not present in their lives, and no partner was present at Sara’s birth.
- Marie has no romantic partner.
- Marie seems particularly attached to Sara (more so than normal).
- Marie’s father is living with her but Marie’s mother seems to have died/abandoned them.
- When Marie is recalling an incident in her own childhood, she doesn’t mention her mother’s involvement. The dialog indicates her father raised Marie alone.
- The house itself is in increasing disrepair.
- When Marie’s aging father falls ill, no friends or family come to help.
- In general, we get the feeling that Marie is on her own and she only partially recovered, if at all, from the losses she’s experienced.
After 3-year-old Sara goes (temporarily) missing one day, Marie seeks the help of a tracking company called Arkangel. The company implants a chip in Sara’s brain. Via the accompanying Arkangel app/tablet, Marie can see what Sara sees, track Sara’s movements and vital signs, and Marie can even filter Sara’s view of real-life violence or upsetting things. (Archangels in the Christian tradition rule over other heavenly creatures and carry messages between God and humans. The fictional company’s name is a hint to what the technology does: It sees all, it knows all. It rules all the child sees, and it relays everything to the parent.)
Child-monitoring-on-steroids is something we have to talk about. The fictional Arkangel app is a long way off (if even possible), but we do have implantable GPS chips, Find my Friends on the iphone, and geo-tracking in social media apps. An Arkangel chip may be an impossibility but we have enough invasive technology now to spur the conversation about parenting, a child’s civil rights, and what kind of society we want.
Anxiety is loosely defined as the state in which a person feels their skillset is not sufficient to meet their perceived challenges. As parents, we fear many things, but underneath it all, the fear is really about, in my opinion, our lacking the ability to survive if we suffer the loss (or debilitating pain) of a child. When that fear rages, we will employ almost any method to help alleviate it.
“Helicopter parenting” is one (poor) attempt at anxiety-relief. It is a catchall term for a vaguely-defined phenomenon of hyper-involved child-rearing practices, and a product of Boomer Generation parenting.
When Sara is a teen, she goes AWOL. By this point, Marie is accustomed to having phone-access to Sara. (Marie agreed to not use the unremovable Arkangel chip once Sara reached middle school). When Sara goes missing, Marie has a desperate moment. She returns to the Arkangel technology, which she promised she’d shut off forever, to locate Sara. Such a broken promise is understandable; When a child drops off the map, a parent wants to locate them quickly.
This “keeping Sara safe” guise goes badly, of course, as we would expect. Sara is not pleased to have been discovered participating in illegal activities. The relationship deteriorates from there. The show ends with Sara physically beating Marie with the Arkangel app/pad (ironic!) and then hitching a ride out of town with a random trucker.
Pervasive tech and societal changes
In real life, “just in case” tech turns into everyday standard machinery. Once a technology’s occasional/emergency status is established, society’s idea of “safety” changes. Assumed-safe practices like walking to school alone and riding a bike to the corner store start to be thought of as risky behaviors. The “emergency” monitoring becomes everyday standard. If a child goes missing today, a mom would be berated for allowing the kid to leave the house without his cell phone. Society has changed so drastically on this “free range kid” norm that some Millennials and GenZ viewers of Stranger Things report disbelief over the 1980s kids’ wanderings. They doubt kids would have been left to their own devices for so many hours. In a span of 30 years, the practice of parenting has changed almost beyond recognition. As far as cultural shifts go, that’s super quick. We are still reeling.
Any parent today would be tempted to use the Arkangel app when in search of an absent kid. Heck, I use “Find Friends” on the iPhone just to avoid the whole “Where are you?/I’m on my way home!” text exchange. I’d use a locating app in a New York second if I felt my kid was truly missing. And if there was a true risk of abduction? Everyone of my family would be chipped.
Children are under the care and legal status of their guardians. The guardian’s rights ~somewhat~ transfer to the child. A kid who refuses to be chipped or carry a cell phone currently has little legal ground on which to stand.
- Do we legislate implantable GPS chips (beyond simple FDA health rules)?
- Do we legislate inalienable rights for minors as we do for adults? What will minor status look like in a society that grants similar rights to minors? Does current law cover any of these issues?
- What psychology or sociology theory of family systems addresses the onset and wide adoption of invasive technology like implantable chips? Will we need a new counseling method to help families process these new lifestyle elements?
- How will adolescence change? How will constant monitoring affect the development of adolescents into adults? What will be the purpose of the stage of adolescence and when is will it be considered “over?” (i.e., when is one considered an adult, not legally but culturally?)
These are only a few questions we are just beginning to ask. Black Mirror is art reflecting life. How will our life reflect its art?
The concept of “Privacy” is changing. Like the Brits before us, we are becoming accustomed to CCTV cameras perched in many public spaces. As a woman, I feel safer with the cameras than I do without them. The cameras may be a deterrent to those who may hurt me. I have no statistical basis for this opinion. However, in the past I have asked police to employ a store’s recorded camera data to identify someone who did hurt me. (The police got the “tapes” and found the guy. It was a minor incident but enough to piss me off.) On the other hand,
We must be conservative in the amount of privacy we sacrifice in the name of safety. People often like to recite “I have nothing to hide” as a way to justify imposing laws and invasive tech. Invasive tech isn’t about criminality; It’s about democracy. The more we are exposed to third parties, like commercial stores, organizational interests, enemies-of-the-state, the weaker of a democracy we may have. Being tracked gives unregulated entities the ability to manipulate us. As humans, our behavior patterns are predictable, That doesn’t mean they are to be “owned” as data by anyone else. That is not the case in the dystopian society in which we now live. Companies and even foreign governments collect and employ our behavior patterns for their own gains.
Safety is a trap. In a sense, democracy and safety are mutually exclusive. Are we children under a parental government? Which freedoms do we fight for? Which are not all that essential? Would we believe a government that said they had the Arkangel app but promised not to use it? Would we encourage them to use it in certain situations? Where would the usage creep end? What would be considered “emergency” and what would be considered “everyday standard usage?”
I don’t know. But I do know this: our communications, data and behavior patterns should not be observed or owned by anyone else but ourselves. Check out the EFF and help the fight to keep your choices your own.