Charlie Brooker thinks you’re a rat.
Not one of those scrofulous brown ones that lives in a drain and goes through your food waste box at night, spreading disease and microwave meal trays all over the pavement. The man’s not a maniac. He’s got in you a smart, reasonably sized cage, there’s access to food and water, and you have entrancing, brushed aluminium toys to keep you busy.
Still. Tart it up however you want. The man thinks you’re a rat.
It’s all that social media. To Brooker’s admittedly unsympathetic eye, we spend so much of our time offering binary, frequently inflammatory, opinions on subjects and people few of us are familiar with in real life, we resemble those lab rats who, when given the option of drug laced water or ordinary water in an experiment during the seventies, would choose to drink from the drug water almost every time. Because a short, empty high is better than nothing.
Until they die of a massive overdose, obviously.
To be fair to Brooker, he makes no secret of his view. In fact, he’s just told us again via the third series of Black Mirror, a dystopian vision of a near future that has been captivating us since Series 1, Episode 1 when a Prime Minister was manipulated into a scenario where having sexual intercourse with a pig is the best possible outcome. Despite the hysteria, revulsion and disgust depicted in the show when the televised event comes to pass, we the people apparently enjoyed the idea so much we leapt upon a rumour of an anecdote of political porcine related ‘merriment’ four years later like tramps on chips.
Apart from a few articles questioning how groundbreaking it actually is to strip human behaviour back to the bone then dress it up in spangly costumes and sell it back to us as entertainment, the three series of Black Mirror have been universally applauded. Viewing figures are decent – averaging between 1 & 1.5m per episode in the first two series – for a show wearing its satirical, bloodless heart on its sleeve, and it’s generally agreed that Brooker is a bit of a clev.
Which is odd. Do we like being portrayed as bovine button clickers, who, like the rats in the lab, crave a high? Is it because we don’t see ourselves that way, that it’s other people who foment hatred by retweeting 140 characters’ worth of invective, or respond to it and get caught up in pointless slanging matches that achieve less than zero? ‘Hated In The Nation’, the final episode of Series 3 implied as much; when a teacher was questioned after she retweeted a death threat to a Katie Hopkins cipher, she was utterly baffled as to why anyone would think it was wrong. It was, after all, just a hashtag.
What does that say about us though? That we’re so entranced by the images of ourselves our screens reflect back at us that we’re blind to the reality of what we’re doing? That in order to create a social media presence we’re happy to put out, we’re contorting ourselves into ever more complicated shapes that bear little resemblance to our real selves?
Say it is. Does it matter? After all, Black Mirror is just entertainment and no one is going to be killed by a swarm of bee drones controlled by a hacker with an agenda because a bunch of people retweeted their name and the hashtag #DeathTo. It’s just a bit of fun. Not like the rats at all.
What’s interesting about the analogy between the Twitter hive mind and the rats though, is the part most people leave out. When professor of psychology Bruce Alexander reviewed the experiment and learned nine out of ten animals were banging the drug button until they overdosed and died, he questioned the parameters, specifically the placement of the rats in self-contained cages with no socialisation.
Having stated that rats are known to be “highly social, sexual, and industrious creatures” and their solitary confinement would probably distort the results of the experiment, he and some colleagues built ‘Rat Park’; a lab recreation of a more ‘normal’ environment for the rats, including spaces for socialising, playing, resting and facilitating natural interactions.
Turns out that well socialised, happy, relaxed rats hardly bang the drug button at all, preferring instead to get on with their lives. When they are free to engage in behaviours likely to be more satisfactory in the long term, they don’t have any use for cheap thrills
You know. Like social media.