The outer wall of the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Maryland is a black mirror, a pixelated one. I assume that the building is supposed to look impenetrable by reflecting the outside back – as if by becoming the reflector of the outside it could become only about the outside, only a mirror for the wrongdoings of that of which it is not a part. At the same time it itself strives to become invisible, or at least mysterious, and of course enormously powerful. This is an attempt to look like a truth machine.
And in a way it succeeds. In an already almost iconic image, the black mirror of the NSA chiefly reflects the cars of the employees inside – the human labour inside this mirror-machine: observing, researching, analysing, engineering, collecting, listening, reading, cleaning, cooking, programming, and, sometimes, leaking.
13. Inert (human) life
Donna Haraway states in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’: ‘Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’.17
I lie on a bed, balancing my computer on my legs. I open one tab after another. I type: slash fiction, feminist sex blog, how to grow long hair, doom metal drumming for beginners. I find out that someone found my paper about clothes on academia.edu by searching the phrase ‘Sweater of University of Turku’ on Google. I love the Internet.
Suddenly, because for a while I have only been reading and not doing anything else, the screen goes to sleep. And then I see myself on the black screen, wide eyes staring at the screen: as if I were exposed; as if I had got caught being under the illusion of pure virtuality.
This can’t be seen only as an example of inert life. The new black mirror is a medium of receiving and the medium of producing – the medium of performing the self, the medium of the soul at work as Franco Berardi might say,18 the medium of networking – which Haraway in 1991 described as both a feminist practice and a multinational corporate strategy.19 This is not only inert but also productive. In fact the machine wants me to do something, all the time. We – some of us, that is – are not only frighteningly inert but also frighteningly (or empoweringly) self-performing and self-producing, the proper subjects of neo-liberalism. Since 1991 our machines and our selves have changed.
14. A truth machine
Even if we haven’t read the news about the Foxconn factories in China – for instance, the famous stories of anti-suicide netting being fitted beneath the windows of workers’ dormitories,20 or the disgusting Apple legend of Steve Jobs changing the screen of the first iPhone from plastic to glass one month before the release day and the factory workers being woken up in the middle of the night to start their weeks of overtime work with minimum pay21 – even if we haven’t heard this in detail, we know it. We know how our machines are made.
And sometimes when we watch that glass, the touch screen, the screen, the phone, the computer, the black mirror, whatever, we see not only the images and words, the virtual, the digital, the weightless, or the stain we leave, or ourselves entangled in the machine, changing with the machine, or ourselves as users and consumers, or performing ourselves, or the enjoyment and the potential, or ourselves being observed – we also see the manufacture of the machine. In the words of Sara Ahmed, we see ‘the labor that is behind its arrival’.22 We see the matter of the machine and the human bodies that made it (and some of us were the ones that made it). The materiality of the machine shows that it came from something and somewhere and someone made it. Its becoming and being is in its matter. And this is how the black mirror shows the truth: the black mirror shows itself.
There is no secret.
Ahmed, Sara, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)
Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968; repr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984)
Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009)
Blodget, Henry, ‘Steve Jobs Freaked Out A Month Before First iPhone Was Released And Demanded A New Screen’, Business Insider (22 January 2012) <http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-new-iphone-screen-2012-1> [accessed 12 October 2013]
Bogost, Ian, Alien Phenomenology; or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012)
Chamberlain, Gethin, ‘Apple’s Chinese Workers Treated “Inhumanely, Like Machines”’, The Guardian (30 April 2011) <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/apr/30/apple-chinese-workers-treated-inhumanely> [accessed 12 October 2013]
Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin, ‘Interview with Karen Barad’, in New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012), pp. 48–70
Haraway, Donna J., ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81
Jurgenson, Nathan, ‘Picture Pluperfect’, The New Inquiry (12 April 2012) <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/picture-pluperfect/> [accessed 14 September 2013]
Maillet, Arnaud, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art, trans. by Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2004)
Occult Corpus forum, topic ‘Creating a Black Mirror’, post by Caliban (23 June 2010) <http://occultcorpus.com/forums/index.php?/topic/20290-creating-a-black-mirror/> [accessed 10 October 2013]
Steyerl, Hito, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012)
Wopschall, Cody, Cody Wopschall, ‘Apple Inc.: Severe Employee Abuse (2011)’, Business Ethics Case Analyses (11 April 2013) <http://businessethicscases.blogspot.fi/2013/04/apple-inc-severe-employee-abuse-2011.html> [accessed 12 October 2013]
As an inspirational source for this work I also wish to mention the two seasons of the television series Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker (Channel Four, UK, 2011–13).