Black Mirror

March 18, 2013

Does technology amplify the ugliest aspects of humanity, or merely reveal them?

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a mind-opener, though it does so only to pour in a bucket of ice water. The miniseries, now in its second season on the BBC’s Channel 4, is like The Twilight Zone for the Twitter era. Each episode tells a self-contained story with its own characters, all set in the present-to-near future. What ties them together is a caustic criticism of our relationship to technology and to each other, and how the latter often suffers for the sake of the former.

The series’ title is perfect: a reference to the profusion of screens large and small that have quietly come to outnumber us on this planet. But the series itself is a black mirror, showing us a reflection of ourselves that is uncomfortably darker, more sinister, and yet undeniably recognizable. The stories’ worlds could be ours, the characters any of us, so what do we make of the revulsion that Black Mirror unsparingly inspires?

1. The National Anthem

The show’s first and most infamous episode begins like many political thrillers: with a midnight phone call summoning the Prime Minister from his bed. But in short order one’s expectations from the genre are shattered. Someone has kidnapped the beloved princess and is demanding for her safe return that the Prime Minster engage in an act of bestiality on live television. Oh, and the ransom video? It’s trending on YouTube. The PM gets the disturbing video–of a woman pleading desperately for her life–taken down, but not before the public have viewed and Tweeted and uploaded it all across the internet. Because, presumably, we have a right to know, a right to witness and share the private suffering and humiliation of our public figures. Right?

The rest of the episode plays out tensely and unexpectedly, but the central argument–that we the gawkers can be made complicit, that sharing or even choosing to witness a heinous wrong is not in itself harmless–is proven throughout. It was after this episode that I knew I needed to watch the whole series, and that it would not be a pleasant experience.

2. 15 Million Merits

The second episode skips forward a few decades perhaps, and shifts the genre to dystopian sci-fi. There’s a lot left unexplained, but it seems to take place in a massive underground complex in which daily life (what we see of it, at least) is a brilliant satire of our own. Most people spend their days riding stationary bicycles to generate electricity for society, as it’s the only way to earn “merits,” the universal currency used to purchase food, toiletries, and silence. Yes, on their cycles, in restrooms, and in their isolated, dormitory-like quarters people are surrounded at all times by screens showing inane programming and advertisements, and it costs merits to mute or deactivate them. Frequently these advertisements are pornographic, reaching into the male protagonist’s merit account through his brain’s pleasure center. One of the episode’s few chuckles happens when he’s chatting up a girl he likes and a commercial for the porn channel comes on, addressing him directly with “Hey, regular user!”

Everyone wears an identical uniform (except for the obese, who for unexamined reasons occupy a subclass of janitorial workers), but each has an avatar to represent them in the digital world. One common way to spend merits is purchasing digital adornments for one’s “doppel”. If life sounds incredibly dull here, it is–and the episode’s initial lethargic pacing makes sure the viewer feels it. Exploiting this monotony is a popular television program–in the model of American Idol and its clones–called “Hot Shots.” For 15 million merits (about six months’ savings), a person can buy a golden ticket for a chance to try out for the show and chase their dreams. Predictably, this turns out to be little more than a carrot on a stick for the exploited; however, the episode’s final twist reveals a system so corrupting that even genuine rebellion, by engaging it, becomes tainted, co-opted, and absorbed.

3. The Entire History of You

What if all of our experience could be recorded and played back on demand for ourselves and others? How this would change the nature of everything from airport security to romantic relationships is the subject of Black Mirror’s third episode. It’s a relevant question given Google’s recent unveiling of something rather like this.

The question driving this episode (and perhaps all of them) is whether technology amplifies the ugliest aspects of humanity, or merely reveals them. When we’re given the ability to record and replay every moment of our lives, will we use it to show friends our child’s first steps, or to replay fights with our spouses, sweeping their arguments for inconsistencies?

(For another take on the effects of this, see Tom Scott’s thought-provoking lightning talk, Is This You?)

4. Be Right Back

The opening episode of Black Mirror’s second season asks to what extent the vast ocean of data about each of us–our emails, photos, browsing and buying histories–can be us. In a scenario deep within the uncanny valley, a woman’s husband dies and she enables an online service which takes in his emails, voicemails, and snarky Facebook comments, the whole connected web of data, in order to recreate his personality so that she can speak to–shall I say “him”?

Again, it’s an idea with roots firmly planted in our present. Consider Cleverbot, the most plausibly human AI I’ve encountered. This is, of course, because it cheats. Cleverbot keeps track of other humans’ responses to what it says so that when a person says something similar, it can respond as a real person once did. It’s not artificial intelligence so much as human intelligence displaced in time and space. When you talk to Cleverbot, you’re talking to a different person with each line you type. Still, today such a computer could easily be fed our entire history of electronic communications and respond to many things as we would (because we already have). My generation is the first to have the majority of our social lives (thanks in my case to the likes of AIM, Xanga, and then Facebook) recorded on disk, potentially forever. Frightfully, none of us own our data, but even if we did, would it be amusing or creepy to bequeath it to our great-grandkids so they might have conversations with “us” long after we’re dead?

5. White Bear

An enigmatic signal appears on every phone, TV, and computer screen which turns 9 out of every 10 of people into “onlookers,” zombies capable of wordlessly taking pictures and video with their smartphones. Of the ten percent who aren’t affected, some take advantage of the breakdown of societal order to indulge sociopathic tendencies:

They call them hunters. You might have noticed that’s what they do. They seemed normal to begin with, and then they realized they could do what they wanted. They started taking stuff, taking cars because they could, doing what they like–and not just with things, but with people. It got worse and worse, and now they’ve got an audience.

Our amnesiac protagonist asks if it’s the signal making them like this, but the person explaining the situation shakes her head: “I guess they were always like that underneath. Just needed the rules to change, for no one to intervene.”

The theme of this episode, like “The National Anthem,” is that the passive many are complicit in the crimes of the few. That all our gawking and tweeting and chuckling at Jon Stewart’s jokes about the bad behavior of the powerful not only doesn’t stop them, but enables them by dissipating our anger before it can bubble over into outrage.

6. The Waldo Moment

In its final episode, Black Mirror atones for its cynicism by laying waste to cynicism itself, arguing admirably that revealing everything as fake isn’t the same as offering up something real. It features Jamie, a second-rate comedian who voices and animates the cartoon character Waldo, a boorish blue bear with a comic interview show. Fed up with the glib double-talk of politicians, Jamie and his crew decide to have Waldo run for local office. But even as his mockery of politics resonates, Jamie begins to realize that, with nothing more to offer his audience, he’s exploiting them just as much as the politicians he abhors, only in a different way.