The Netflix hit ‘Black Mirror’ provides a dark and dystopian view of an alternative World dominated by our dependence on the array of smart screens we use. What does this say about us and our relationship with our gadgets and, most importantly, what can we learn to prevent the same nightmares from occurring?
I guess if you’ve got past the first paragraph you probably already know what ‘Black Mirror’ is all about. But for those who have bravely ventured as far as the second paragraph without being aware of what all the fuss is about, here is a little bit of background on the series. It is the brain child of writer and creator Charlie Brooker and can best be described as a slightly more twisted modern day version of ‘The Twilight Zone’ with a soupçon of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. In Brooker’s own words:
“Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy”
Although every episode of the three series explores a unique storyline, one piece of technology is a component part of every individual vignette – the ‘Black Mirror’ referenced in the title. Basically it refers to the screens that we use every single day of our lives whether they be the PC, tablet or smartphone. And why a Black Mirror? Firstly, the obvious answer – because that’s what the screens resemble when they are powered down. Secondly, and far more sinister, is the way it reflects back a very dark alternate reality.
Now let’s delve a little deeper into this disconcerting proxy society and the 5 key themes that run through the series:
We are all Technology Slaves – rating various goods and services on almost a daily basis using the likes of Amazon and TripAdvisor has become commonplace. After our experiences we leave a score, usually on a 1 to 5 scale. Now extrapolate that notion a little further. Imagine if you could rate an individual based upon every interaction you have with them? Rate the surly taxi driver, a simpering work associate or even your sulky partner in real time by a simple swipe on your smartphone. Sounds like fun doesn’t it?! However, there is a downside. Those very same people also get to rate you too. Hmm, maybe now it doesn’t seem quite so fun does it?
And this (rather brilliant) conundrum is dissected in an episode called ‘Nosedive’. It also takes the theory one stage further by positing what it would be like if the average rating you attained was then linked to your ability to earn a living, get a promotion or even buy the house of your dreams. Basically, an artificial class system based on your likability. We witness the heroine of the story desperately trying to boost her overall rating by being excessively nice to other people. She effectively becomes a slave to her technology in pursuit of an improved rating whilst we witness her rapid descent into the rather less utopian World of those whose rating drops below a 2.
Social Media Vigilantes – Can a hashtag kill someone? You’ve probably seen plenty of examples of hatred being spouted on Twitter and other social platforms. I know I have, some of it even directed at me for items I’ve written. Anyway, each day we witness copious amounts of bile and vitriol being hurled at various individuals whether it be a political figure, someone who commits a heinous crime or basically someone who does something stupid that we all dislike (such as urinating on a War Memorial, as depicted in the Black Mirror episode ‘Hated in the Nation’).
The premise of this social media nightmare is a mysterious trending hashtag #DeathTo which is then linked to someone you detest. Then, at the end of each day, the person who has the most #DeathTo tags associated with their name is summarily executed. How? By sending a drone bee (manufactured to pollenate flowers, given that humans have made real bees extinct) to burrow into the brain of the pilloried person. But are these targets the real victims? Well, as it turns out, they are nothing more than clickbait. In case you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to give way the ending but suffice to say that those who troll finally get their comeuppance (about time too if you ask me).
The implication is powerful. Those who hide behind their loathsome language online will ultimately pay the price for their odious tirades.
A Digital Afterlife – When you finally shuffle off your mortal coil you will, no doubt, be hoping that you find your religion (whatever that may be). In the ‘Black Mirror’ version, heaven is not a place on earth or indeed beyond the clouds. It is in the cloud. When you die, you get the option to live in an artificial reality which is essentially your dream world. In the episode ‘San Junipero’ we observe our young heroines bouncing around in what appears to be a 1980’s Duran Duran video. The ‘actual’ reality is that these starstruck lovers are ailing octogenarians who are hooked-up to life support systems using a computer generated program to relive their youth. And when they ‘pass over’ they can continue that fictional life in perpetuity. Or can they?
Along the same lines we have ‘Be Right Back’. A young wife loses her husband in a tragic car accident. To add to the tragedy, she is pregnant to her deceased beau. Broken hearted she seeks solace in the form of a computer program which essentially takes all the data from her husbands life (through his social media footprint… emails, tweets, FB posts etc.) and then recreates him as a chatbot to talk to his wife using his unique mannerisms. The result is that it really sounds like it’s him. But of course it isn’t, it’s just a clever algorithm mimicking him. Creepy right? Well you might think that’s weird but it’s nothing compared to what transpires when a beta version of the service becomes available which regenerates a clone version of her deceased husband. In the bathtub.
The resulting doppelgänger is a perfect anatomical replication of her husband. He looks the same. He sounds the same. He acts the same (although he has seemingly become a better lover by downloading some new moves from the dark web). However, it simply isn’t her husband and ultimately the missing elements of his humanity become a burden which is too heavy to bear for her. The allegory is clear, robots are synthetic representations of reality based upon big data. But the fact is, they are not real. No matter how realistic we make them they can’t convey genuine feelings and emotions, just fake versions of them and as such they are no substitute for the real thing.
The Immersive Generation – At CES last month we witnessed how gaming was moving on from being simply interactive to being fully immersive. In ‘Playtest’ we see this notion extrapolated out to the extreme. Gaming so real it can literally scare you to death. The first part of the procedure is an embeddable chip which is located in the back of your neck. Next up, that very same microchip ‘harvests’ your worst conceivable nightmares and projects them into your gameplay. The final piece of the digital jigsaw? Put the gamer into a haunted house environment and let the algorithms do their damnedest. Big spiders? Check. The school bully? Check. Even worse? A mixture of the two? Double check. Then throw in a murderous girlfriend and the nightmare is complete. Game over. Literally.
This take on virtual / augmented reality, demonstrates the potential of gaming technology in the next few years and yet it makes you wonder whether we should consider taking it to the next level (see what I did there?).
We are all Big Brother – One of the more disturbing trends in social media is the way in which people use their camera phones to capture events of astonishing cruelty rather than stepping in to help. I’m pretty sure that we have all seen these voyeuristic videos and inwardly screamed “why the hell are you videoing this rather than helping the poor victim”.
‘White Bear’ delves into this subject more deeply (and darkly). The initial scene is set when a woman awakes in a house surrounded by pictures of a man and a little girl but with no recollection of whom they are, or indeed who she is herself. Upon leaving the building she sees several other people who are filming her on their smartphones yet, other than that, wont interact with her. And that’s when the masked man with a shotgun turns up and starts firing at her…
Whilst trying to escape she meets another woman who explains to her that that since a strange signal started appearing on TV’s, laptops and mobile phones, the majority of the population had become passive voyeurs who do nothing but record everything that happens around them. The rest? They are split into the ‘hunters’ and the ‘hunted’. But, as with many of the episodes, all is not as it seems and the denouement is truly shocking (again I wont ruin it for you if you haven’t seen it).
When discussing the complex themes of White Bear, Brooker talked about how the viewers themselves were implicated in the storyline:
“we’re the ones with the smartphones, passively absorbing abuses to human rights and decency, and yet revelling in the image from the safety of the screen”
Basically those who idly stand by whilst atrocities are committed are no better than the animals who commit the crimes in the first place. A sad indictment on society in the age of social media.
The perspective provided by ‘Black Mirror’ is not as futuristic as the way Hollywood often portrays it (think Terminator or Elysium). But what it does more cleverly (and surreptitiously) is to dial up the potential ramifications of our slavish dependence upon screen-based tech by presenting the ideas in desperately ordinary situations. And that in itself makes it more real, makes us think more deeply about our own habits and makes it feel far more tangible to us.
So have you seen ‘Black Mirror’ and if so do you recognise these themes? Are technology and social media really that dangerous or does ‘Black Mirror’ overplay the perils? Are there any more commonalties you would like to share? And if you haven’t seen any episodes, does the format appeal to you or not? As ever, I’m intrigued to hear what you think.