Black Mirror, Black Mirror, On The Wall, Who’s The Most Prophetic Of Them All?
Is anyone else utterly hooked on Black Mirror? You are? Oh good, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my addiction.
I’m not often impressed by what I find on TV these days, but there’s no denying Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ bizarrely prescient sci-fi series is a work of genius, one already comfortably established in the canon of global television. The only downside to their creation? There simply isn’t enough of it!
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing Black Mirror — where have you been? — then get on the case post-haste. First, let me describe its premise:
Set either in the near future or an alternative present, each standalone instalment explores the rotten fruits of some warped, high-tech concept or other. Its tone usually more menacing, dark and cynical than it is offbeat, light-hearted and optimistic, the series puts contemporary society and its relationship with machines under the microscope, looking at the intersection between innovation and human desire, and demonstrating the unforeseen ethical implications of tech.
So, what about this anthology series makes it so darned compelling? Well, across 5 seasons and 22 episodes — including one interactive film, Bandersnatch — Brooker and Jones have wildly subverted our expectations and blown our assumptions of technology’s capabilities right out of the water. How fantastic is it that we live at a time when this creative team can do this, when they can and will push the envelope as far as possible? In times gone, censorship was such that a show like Black Mirror would have been completely out of the question.
But what really impresses me is how scarily within reach Brooker and Jones’ ideas are. Since infiltrating our lives with their tour de force in 2011, they have served up multiple realities, many of which might seem contrived at first glance. However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear they fall neatly within the confines of possibility — either now or in the not-too-distant future. And many of them are eerily predictive too, imagining tech that has managed to move further from fantasy and closer to reality within the show’s short lifetime thus far.
To avoid spoilers, ignore the following few sections, but if you don’t mind me revealing a twist or two, here are some examples of Black Mirror’s uncanny foreshadowing at its finest:
Metalhead (Season 4)
In a bleak post-apocalyptic world, evidently inhabited by few survivors, a woman desperately tries to escape the unrelenting murderous robotic dog pursuing her. The team modelled the Terminator-esque dog on Boston Dynamics’ machines like BigDog, a military robot created in 2005 to accompany soldiers in terrain inaccessible to vehicles. Ultimately, the firm shelved the project because the machine was considered too loud for use in the field, but it’s mere existence — as well as its twisted reimagining in Metalhead — goes to show the creation of a killer robot is totally feasible right now. Forget Netflix and Chill, it’s Netflix and Kill.
Nosedive (Season 3)
In a world where people use social media to rate their interactions with each other — immediately impacting their socioeconomic status — a young woman is bent on improving her score and moving into a swankier home. She’s thrilled to receive an invitation to a society wedding, but a series of unfortunate events cause her ratings to plummet rather than surge as hoped. We already use similar scoring systems — on ride-sharing apps for instance. In fact, Uber may soon ban passengers with ratings “significantly below average” after several warnings. And China has already implemented a social credit system, in which behaviour like playing music too loud on trains can result in punishments like a restriction on booking train tickets.
Hang the DJ (Season 4)
In a walled-off society where autonomy doesn’t exist, a dating app uses data collected to match couples and gives their relationships a mandatory expiry date. After falling in love, Frank and Amy decide to take matters into their own hands, scaling the wall of the “compound” and escaping. On doing so, the pair discover they were in a simulation, the key component of a real-world dating app that assigns couples a match score based on the number of pairs who decided to escape. While we have free will and consciousness on our side, given the dating algorithms already in existence, the increasing collection of personal data across the board, and the BCI (mind-reading) tech already in development, there’s no reason to believe dating apps won’t be able to run comparable simulations one day soon.
Hated in the Nation (Season 3)
In near-future London, the police investigate a series of inexplicable deaths, which transpire to be at the hands of hacked drone bees whose targets are selected by Twitter users via the hashtag #Deathto. Robotics are getting smaller and smaller by the year, and the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory have now developed RoboBeeX-Wing, the first insect-sized aerial vehicle to achieve sustained untethered flight. Just think how easy it would be to outfit this little fella with some deadly feature, like a poisoned sting, putting Professor Keenbean’s Robo-Bee (of Richie Rich fame) to shame.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture by now. If you happen to watch these episodes or any others, you’ll notice that Black Mirror doesn’t claim to know how to solve the ethical puzzles it raises. And that’s because, while Brooker and Jones may be gifted with the power of prediction, they have no intention to change how we respond to technology. In an interview with Balance in June, Brooker said:
“Our job isn’t to tell people what to do. We’re presenting a story with a hopefully interesting dilemma that’s exciting…I wouldn’t profess to know the solution.”
On one hand, I applaud Brooker and Jones for using their craft to highlight the unseen consequences of tech without imposing their views on how to tackle them. On the other, I can’t help but wonder if, given their prophetic abilities, does this duo have a responsibility to share their thoughts — and they must have some — on how we can mitigate some of the unintended ramifications of tech, both now and in the future?
I obviously adore the show, so a little bias leaves me somewhat on the fence here. What do you think? Are Brooker and Jones right to invite us into their dark dystopias without showing us how we might survive them if — or when — they become reality? Or should they continue to steer clear?