Black Mirror S4E4: Hang the DJ
Dating is a curious thing; two people agree to meet at a specific place and point in time to find out if they’re not only compatible as friends, but compatible in a romantic or even sexual manner. While it has gone through many evolutions, dating as we know it is still the same quest as it was back in your parents’ day. But in our modern times, our technology has played a significant role in determining who we choose to date. As users plug in specific details about themselves, complex algorithms match up the user with others that share similar details. Personally, I cannot comment on any experiences I have had with popular dating apps or algorithms, as they didn’t exist when I was barely treading water in the “dating scene,” doing all of the work myself instead of a computer doing the matching for me. But I do know individuals who have used them and have heard many stories of their experiences with these technologies. Most of them end up in failures of certain degrees or utter confusion, but some stories do end with the technology leading the user to the person they eventually married. How does this happen? What exactly is at work, here?
In Black Mirror’s episode Hang the DJ, Brooker and Co. explore this territory by telling a story about Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), two individuals who have let an app called “Coach” take the wheel on their respective dating scenes in what appears to be a secluded community. Frank has a familiar awkwardness about him, as it’s clear he’s new to this scene. Amy is as well, attempting to mask her uneasiness behind an instantly-likeable demeanor. While their emotions aren’t aligned at first, we quickly see them on the same page when they access a feature of Coach that gives them an expiration date to their relationship. The rules of being in this community while accessing Coach require that whatever expiration date Coach gives the user, the user has to heed it and end the relationship, waiting until Coach arranges the next date with another individual. When Frank and Amy ask Coach how long they have, Coach displays “12 Hours,” which understandably sets the couple into a nervous panic as they try to figure out what exactly to do in those twelve hours. As it turns out, they don’t do much of anything that would be called by most as “noteworthy” – they form a friendship. The time they have together is based around actual conversation and emotional attachment instead of focusing solely on the physical aspects of a romantic relationship.
That changes, however, when their relationship ends and they’re both given a different partner almost immediately. This time, Amy is assigned a relationship with a man named Lenny and Frank gets a one-year sentence with Nicola. Within the first 24 hours of their relationships, they’ve not only consented to testing out the sexual aspects of their pairing, but they’re already finding faults with each other as well. After Amy’s time with Lenny ends, Coach puts Amy through a merciless 36-hour rotation of relationships. But when Frank’s time ends with Nicola – much to their mutual relief – Amy is finally placed back with Frank for the second time.
Before their relationship restarts, Amy requests that they not look at the expiration date that Coach provides. When Frank asks her why, she gives a surprising condemnation of hookup culture, given the medium:
“The System’s just bounced me from bloke to bloke, short fling after short fling. I know they’re short flings, they’re just meaningless, and I get really detached. It’s like I’m not really there. So the other week, I was with this guy, God knows who, basically just a haircut. And I literally had this out-of-body experience.”
Amy doesn’t even remember their names – the people Coach matched her with became objects of tedious short-term pleasure for her, and on top of that, she admits she didn’t even feel like she was in her own body. The imagery that Amy concocts is striking – two soulless entities performing emotionless rites – not exactly the “one flesh” mentioned in Gen. 2:24. With Amy’s admission, we are reminded that sex is an empty act without regard for its original intent. This is also expressed artistically in one of the few times I have ever seen sex scenes actually serve a purpose in a film. Every sex scene the audience sees is not only tailored to not show any private areas of the human body, but they also never glorify the act itself. Each clip is more awkward than the last, making sexual acts themselves look less and less appealing. This sells the relationship we have with Amy and Frank even more, as we never actually see them having sex, keeping the most intimate act between them actually private and not for our own viewing.
The story doesn’t end with Frank and Amy reuniting, however. Over time, Frank becomes anxious and breaks the vow he made with Amy to not look at the expiration date for their relationship. When he does, the System recalculates and gives them less than a day left instead of the five years it originally had scheduled. When Frank confesses to Amy that he peeked at the date, their relationship instantaneously fractures, leaving both of them thoroughly depressed and hopeless, as they know they want each other but now cannot have.
After another string of meaningless relationships, Coach tells both Frank and Amy that their ultimate match has been found, and it tells them that they have a chance to say farewell to one person of their choosing before they’re paired and return to the world outside the walls. They choose to see each other and proceed to rebel against the System, running away from the guards and from everyone else in the community. As they scale the walls, the final twist is given – Frank and Amy are not actually Frank and Amy; they’re simulations of Frank and Amy that are taking place inside of a dating app. And the 99.8 percent success rate that the System promised was based off of how many times the couple rebelled against the System. In Frank and Amy’s case, they had rebelled 998 times. The last image we see is the real-life Amy looking at her phone and seeing Frank’s name and face show up on the screen with a “99.8%” match to her own profile.
After a thousand attempts, Frank and Amy are almost always put together. The end of the episode seems to put a happier spin on a usually dark anthology – Frank and Amy, our two loveable leads, are finally, actually together. After the initial happiness for our leads, however, our curiosity still begs to know why there were two instances where it didn’t work out. Much like Frank’s dilemma with knowing when the expiration date would be for their relationship, I can’t help but wonder if we could keep ourselves from finding out what happened in two out of a thousand of the simulations that went wrong with our “ultimate match.” Even just knowing that two of the simulations went wrong would paralyze some folks from ever pursuing a relationship. As Hang the DJ shows us, our hesitation or outright refusal to take risks results in the kind of System that is shown in this simulation world. Amy and Frank share similar thoughts earlier in the episode, calling the time before the System “mental,” sharing relief that they don’t have to go through “option paralysis.” But free will still reigns, as Amy and Frank actually do make the call to rebel against the world that the System’s algorithm provides for them. Creation is an act of sheer will, and if one wants to create a world with their “ultimate match,” they have to will it to happen.
But how often does that happen in our own world with the help of our various dating apps? Do our dating apps even make a difference in our relational quests? New studies have been shedding a light on many aspects of our modern dating scene, and it’s possible this information may surprise some as it did for me – a person who knew next to nothing about dating apps before watching Hang the DJ. For starters, a study of 5000 18-30 year-olds found that millennials spend an average of ten hours a week on dating apps, with men spending 85 minutes a day on average while women spend 79 minutes per day. Aside from the fact that ten hours inside a dating app is ten hours you’ve lost making real contact with people outside of your phone, a study backed by the American Psychological Association found that those who were active on Tinder were reported as having lower levels of satisfaction with their physical appearance and having self-esteem issues than those who didn’t use Tinder. And as for the apps themselves, the hours in which users log into them may not develop into the 99.8 percent matches that the System in Hang the DJ promised, or even what the apps themselves promise. A study conducted by the Journal of Psychological Science used an advanced algorithm to predict the matches of people who filled out a 100 question survey before being subjected to a series of four-minute speed dates. The predictions were widely off the mark, enough that those conducting the study couldn’t identify a single pattern within the answers their subjects gave in their questionnaires that determined whether or not two people would connect. Finally, a study conducted by design students at Indiana University found that those who use dating apps find themselves not only unsuccessful in finding a good pairing but also use dating apps primarily to “waste time,” rather than making an honest attempt at meeting someone.
Maybe this is what we should expect from faulty algorithms paired with the fallen human condition. Maybe this is what we should expect if people, like Amy and Frank, are so afraid of making connections that they need the shaky crutch of a computer algorithm to help them navigate the maze. Like any episode of Black Mirror, fear plays an integral role in the development of Hang the DJ’s main technology – the System. In this case, we fear the unknown variables of what could cause a relationship to crumble, and instead of asking ourselves what we need to do to ensure a relationship doesn’t end prematurely, we develop a computer that does the heavy lifting for us to ensure that we don’t have to deal with the nightmare of ending a relationship. There may not be any literal antagonistic character in Hang the DJ, but the antagonist is surely there – Loneliness. Our culture, sick of hook-ups and one-night stands, desires stability, desires “the one” made just for us. We fear the idea that we may not find that fabled “one” we’ll stay with forever, so we’re too afraid to search for them by our lonesome because we fear failure, pain, opening ourselves up to someone just to have them shut us down. So why not use a machine to get what we want? A machine that uses humans like a vending machine, dispensing relational snacks until we find a flavor we truly enjoy.
But true love and real freedom to express that love come with a choice – one we have to make daily if we want our relationships to work out. The most perfect match the System can calculate is a 99.8 percent, so there is always that .2 percent lurking about, threatening to disrupt the relationship forever. It’s terrifying to think about, but the book of Psalms gives us a different kind of promise. Instead of the guarantee of a machine dependent upon human interaction, Psalms 37:4 tells us to delight ourselves in the Lord, and He will give us the desires of our heart. A heart that truly delights in the Lord is a pure heart, and from that pure heart can only deliver the purest love. While the concept of a “soul mate” isn’t necessarily biblical, submitting to God first and foremost can certainly increase our chances in finding a person with whom we share compatibility while ensuring a long-lasting relationship, whether we’re a part of the System or not.