Black Mirror: Arkangel and Parenting Real Humans

Fiction reflects the world back to us, and lets us see our own reality more clearly in the process. This mirroring is particularly the power of satire, but is also belongs to speculative fiction. Netflix’ Black Mirror season 4 has one episode which hits home to every parent or adult who works with children. The episode is entitled “Arkangel,” and it picks up on our very human desire to protect children.

The story focuses on a single mother (Marie, played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and her daughter (Sara, played by Brenna Harding); in the opening scene,  3 year old Sara wanders away. Marie panics, and summons the neighborhood to search for the missing child; she is found. Nothing horrible occurred – the girl just followed a kitten to the train tracks. The panicked mother (and what parent cannot sympathize?) takes her daughter to enroll in a new trial technology. The Arkangel program is injected into Sara’s temple, and it connects her visual, auditory, and chemical information to a tablet Marie can use to see and hear whatever Sara sees and hears. Marie is quickly informed that she has the ability to filter the world for her child: anytime fear spikes, Mom can censor it. The story unfolds from there about as you might imagine: Marie is over protective, and eventually repressed Sara lashes out and runs away. (I won’t give any more spoilers, but do know that this episode goes beyond a PG-13 warning for content).

As a teacher, I sometimes wish I knew what my students hear when I teach. I wish I could get specific data to know what worked. When I’ve taken groups on field trips, I am terrified that someone will wander off; somehow I will lose a child, and it will be my fault. It is a frightening thing to be responsible for the well-being of another person. The technology “Arkangel” plays with is all too plausible; it seems but one update away for my iPad to offer me a new augmented reality app which scans the brain activity of my students to tell me who is engaged and who is not.

Like good speculative fiction, “Arkangel” shows us what happens when we use technology against the natural order of things. God has so created reality that there is mystery in the world; danger, fear, secrets – these things have a role in forming us into certain people who flourish in the world. As children grow into adults, they have to make choices. Parental ignorance of those choices just might be its own blessing in disguise. Given infinite knowledge, “Arkangel” suggests that parents would stifle their children’s ability to make choices at all, and thus remove from them part of their humanity.

This mystery in the world and our lack of total knowledge is itself a reminder that God alone is omniscient; were we to gain absolute knowledge, we would fail to use it well. In this case, our lack of knowledge is a fingerprint of grace.

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