A function that is very related to the plot of the episode is the ability to block someone. To do this, the user looks at them, sees a face-detection square appear (confirming the person to be blocked), selects BLOCK from the Zed-Eyes menu, and clicks.
In one scene Matt and his wife Claire get into a spat. When Claire has enough, she decides to block Matt. Now Matt gets blurred and muted for Claire, but also the other way around: Claire is blurred and muted for Matt.
The blur is of the live image of the person within their own silhouette. (The silhouettes sometimes display a lovely warm-to-the-left and cool-to-the-right fringe effects, like subpixel antialiasing or chromatic aberration from optical lenses, I note, but it appears inconsistently.) The colors in the blur are completely desaturated to tones of gray. The human behind it is barely recognizable. His or her voice is also muffled, so only the vaguest sense of the volume and emotional tone of what they are saying is audible. Joe explains in the episode that once blocked, the blocked person can’t message or call the blocker, but the blocker can message the blocked person, and undo the block.
Late in the episode, we see that people can be excommunicated from society for crimes. When this happens, everyone in the criminal’s sight is blocked.
In turn, the criminal is not only blocked for other members of society, but also tinted red, like a scarlet letter silhouette.
The block affects more than just the direct observation of the person. When Beth blocks Joe we see that the blocking includes reflections in mirrors and even, retroactively, photos from the past.
Joe subsequently stalks Beth at her Dad’s home for several years just before Christmas day, where he learns that the block extends to offspring as well, as he cannot see the child. (This has fundamental plot implications, btw.)
Later when Joe is watching the news he learns that Beth has died in a rail crash, and the legal block is instantly lifted for both her and the child.
There’s not much to say about the interface. It’s pretty clean, with clear affordances and feedback. Most of the critique belongs to that of the platform. So instead, let’s talk about the interaction.
On the surface, the ability to block seems to positively give the user control of their lives. Block out a toxic person who is a negative influence your life, and have more happiness. After all, similar features are available on most social media today, c.f. Facebook and Twitter. (Full disclosure: I’ve used them more than once.) But social media are virtual spaces. The White Christmas block primarily plays out in meat space. This has some harsh consequences.
Beth blocks Joe partly out of her guilt for cheating on him (it’s complicated: also because she no longer loves him, he’s ham-handed in his interactions at times and arguably abusive). But when he tries to earnestly apologize and make up to her after their fight, she simply can’t hear it. She’s blocked him.
He thinks to talk to some of her coworkers to pass a message to her, but she has left her job and no one knows where she is. He sees her one day and can tell by silhouette that she’s pregnant. He believes the child is his. It’s not, but because he cannot contact her to learn any differently (and she doesn’t bother to tell him)—and the same block prevents him from observing the child—he spends literally years pining for the child as if she was his own.
So to block someone online means they might just disappear from your consciousness. But to block someone in meat space means that they’re still there, you’re still aware of each other. It’s a constant reminder of the broken relationship, and only stops immediate layers of communication. It does not stop indirect communications, like writing, or speaking through friends, or even sign language. And as we see in the episode (and the screen cap above) since it’s so different than anything else in the visual field, it instantly draws attention to the blocked person. So it’s ultimately ineffective for the blocker’s intent (the person can still communicate with them, attention is drawn to them) and adds this weird layer of technological talk-to-the-hand dismissal. It’s a childish way to address disagreement.
Also is there no request for override, in case, you know, a blocked person needs to convey life-or-death information?
And then there’s Matt’s case.
After Matt gets excommunicated, he becomes nothing but a red object in people’s sight. No way for him to reassure people around him, to put them at ease. He is just a red shape subject to people’s worst prejudices about red shape people, and he has no way to practice reintegration into society, no easy rehabilitation. He just has to walk around in the world aware of people, but not able to participate, and subject to their worst fears about him. It’s pure punishment. It’s cruel and unusual.
And lastly, the rush of emotions that Joe feels when Beth and his daughter are suddenly unblocked upon her death work for the story, but are also just cruel for the blocked. They have to deal with both the flood of emotions from seeing the blocker and their death simultaneously. Better would be to separate out those issues. Share a somber message that a blocker has passed, and give the blocked the option to release the block. The blocked can enact the lift immediately or sit on the message until their grief permits.
Black Mirror is an investigation and critique of the impact of technology on our lives. Let’s remember that. A tech that was a net positive might not even make it to this series. Still, the design for the block doesn’t really achieve what might seem to be a presumed set of goals for the blocker. This draws critical attention back to the core idea in the first place: Would meatspace blocking be a positive?
I think the answer is clearly no. Better would be for Zed-Eyes to summon a private assistant to help you de-escalate and deal with a conflict in healthy ways, or maybe invoke a shared AI mediator, like a just-in-time therapist. If the assistant or mediatior fails, then blocking might become available, but with a shared understanding and agreement of why, and what, if anything, could be done to earn back trust.
And then, if a block is actually needed, then the two should have overlays that change their appearance to look like other people, not draw attention through the gray blur. This, it should be noted, would not be cinemagenic. It would not work to tell this excellent story.
And if it needs to be said, any criminal sentence that merely punishes, and does not foster rehabilitation is counter-productive and inhumane.