Black Mirror, season four was launched this week and like other seasons of the show, it doesn’t disappoint. (I have written about it before in Crossing The Line From Presence to Self Promotion: Reflecting on Social Media and Narcissism). The series examines the connection between technology and it’s impact on absolutely everything in our lives. Though some technologies might seem far-fetched, on closer examination (and if you listen to Manoush Zomorodi’s podcast, Note to Self) you will find that many of these technologies already exist in the world.
The final episode of season four, entitled, Black Museum, tells stories through artifacts in a remote museum off of a dusty highway, somewhere in the US. The curator of the museum has a background in neurological technology. He tells the story of the hospital he worked in which was situated in New York City whose primary cliental were the “great unwashed” as he puts it, explaining that “it was the perfect mix of business and health care”. The hospital‘s patients had no coverage and would “sign up for free health care in exchange for consenting to occasional experimental treatments.”
The episode tells three stories where medical technology takes advantage of vulnerable people — a doctor whose performance was failing, a husband who lost his wife to a coma after being hit by a truck, and a man on death row. Although the technology in each story seems far fetched and impossible in our world, the premise behind the medical community taking advantage of patients who are vulnerable, unknowing and desperate is not.
As I watched this episode I couldn’t help but think about a book I read a number of years ago, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. This woman’s cancerous cells were taken from her, without her or her family’s knowledge and continue to be used today all over the world in medical research. Her family lived in poverty while the medical establishment capitalized (and continues to) on her stolen cells as well as the rest of the world based on treatments and cures for many diseases including AIDS and polio. You can read a summary of the book here and the New York Times book review here. Harpo Productions also made it into a movie staring Oprah as her only daughter, Deborah.
This practice, where the medical establishment believes they own the bodies of racialized and marginalized people has a long history: Indigenous children in residential schools in Canada, Black people in the United States, Jews in Nazi Germany. A search of medical research and racism reveals a slew of articles outlining how each of these practices continue to benefit the medical community — drawings of human anatomy from the Nazi concentration camp victims, fertility experiments on young Indigenous children, syphilis experiments on Black men in exchange for food, physicals and burial insurance. The list of these experiments is endless and vile.
As someone who has done research involving students, I intimately understand the importance of not only consent but assent — the parental rights to provide consent on behalf of their children. Tied to this is the need to be clear about what the study is about. This unethical history of colonizing marginalized bodies is not limited to medicine — education has the same tainted history.
I think about even the small ways that we make decisions for the children and their families in our care. Do we make our intentions clear to parents and families? Do we give them a clear picture of the path their child is on based on decisions we influence? Do we allow them to question our decisions, bias, actions in an open and responsive way or do we see each situation as we are and never even entertain the possibility that they know what is best for their children? And when they do not provide consent, does that change how we feel about the children? What language do we use to describe those parents and that child? In what ways do we disempower them further by our actions and words?
The parallels I draw between our day to day decisions in education are far from equal in magnitude to what the medical community has historically done. It also doesn’t address the power that has existed in education to subjugate children, families and communities — the Canadian residential schools is a profound example of this. It is essential to recognize the the small but yet powerful ways we can choose to empower, give voice, and/or question our authority within a school environment.
We must always be acutely aware of our power over others, in any situation and ask ourselves how we have empowered them, explained the intended actions, and hold ourselves accountable based on the truth of the disenfranchised — not by our own belief in what is ethical because clearly, that has not worked in the past.
This is what Black Mirror does — it holds the mirror up to the viewer and begs us to ask these questions of ourselves — what are we willing to participate in? Who does it benefit? What choices do we actually have? How much do we really know? And if we hold the mirror to ourselves, what do we participate in knowing that someone else is victimized by our actions?
This blog is also posted on Medium.