Think of a future where science textbooks, or the futuristic electronic equivalents of a science textbook, describe human beings by the following: a profile picture, a banner image, history of existence, and reactions to worldly events. Absurd as it may seem, it still is easy to imagine a world such as that, described in completely arbitrary terms, each forcing their significance upon us.
As Jaron Lanier puts it, the central mistake of the recent digital culture is that it chopped up a network of individuals so finely that we have ended up with a mush. That is when you start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who networked, even though the network itself is meaningless and only the people were ever meaningful.
At a fundamental level, this type of design is nonsense. And as humans, we often briefly acknowledge this by struggling to recover from a state of shock when we are bombarded with pieces of information that we had no necessity for in the first place. Did you really need to know if that friend of yours read your text message and deliberately ignored it? Did you really need to know the top 3 artists whose music you listened to the most in the last week?
Besides a few exceptions from the likes of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and the (in)famous 1984 by George Orwell, science fiction has more often than not stemmed out of optimism, painting an ideal world where humans and machines sustain in a symbiotic relationship. Stories such as I, Robot collection and The Matrix Trilogy have presented at length the consequences of friction between humans and machines. In all of these, however, the human nature is still presented as central to the purpose of the story, the saving grace; the glitch in a world ruled by machines. In Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker presents a surreal world full of thought experiments going wrong, almost exclusively because of the humans adapting to it. Black Mirror is a TV show functioning more like an anthology that treads carefully on the fine line between science fiction and societal horror.
Having tasted at Brooker’s acerbic satire in the past, it is not surprising that the show is at its best when dissecting the ways in which people interact with the media – a constant character in most episodes. Its presence is felt the most in “The National Anthem” (season one), where we are presented with a grim image of non-existent ethics in journalism instrumental in what is referred to as ‘the greatest piece of art in the twenty first century’. This episode, the first in the series, instantly gathers our empathy with its Internet-filled world that places an enormous amount of weight on the events happening online. It moves further to give us three takes on how social media continues to degrade us in new ways as the future unfolds - moving from cleverly twisted opinions on televised media, the resultant collective Internet outrage, to our deep-rooted voyeuristic tendencies lurking behind the veil of perceived anonymity.
The storytelling in Black Mirror does not merely stop with the unfolding of a tragedy. Instead, it presents a new philosophy; that the computer is evolving into a life form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves. Since the advent of cloud based storage and functional services, communication has turned into a super-human phenomenon that towers above all individuals. A new generation has come of age with reduced expectations of what a person can be, and of who a person might become.
Guarded by the physical sense of anonymity that the Internet offers, coupled with the reduction in the emphasis on individual humans in the society thanks to statistics constantly gauging users, people are no longer treated as people. Black Mirror utilizes this hostile and unconstructive world to base its details in. “White Bear” (season two) explores how human empathy breaks down when individuals are reduced to an image on a screen, leading them down a skewed path of justice. The episode also moves on to question if cruelty is still cruelty regardless of it being directed at the innocent or the guilty.
This kind of exploration on unprecedented power at human disposal is not something new. In Plato’s Ring of Gyges, Glaucon asserts that morality is but a social construct that one may not hesitate to violate given power to hide one’s identity. The shepherd in the tale, with the power to turn invisible, goes on to seduce the queen and murder the king, taking over the throne. A very similar idea has been further explored in H.G.Wells’ The Invisible Man as well. What is unsettling, in case of Black Mirror, is that this broken world it shows is not hypothetical, but very much real.
This is seen when we are treated to a long look at the hideously believable entertainment in the future. In “Fifteen Million Merits” (season one), entertainment industry is reduced to nothing but reality shows, first person shooters, comedy gags and porn. It also believes in the virtualization of everything non-vital to human survival, from recreational activities to basic currency for all kinds of transactions. The protagonist in this episode, Bing, lives in a tiny cube where every wall is a screen, and pays from an account of ‘merits’ for everything – toothpaste, food, dressing up his virtual avatar and to skip annoying advertisements. This is both disturbing and surprisingly acceptable considering we live tiny instances of this life everyday, as we struggle to get higher scores on Candy Crush, or sometimes impatiently wait for five seconds on YouTube just to skip an ad.
Not only does Black Mirror make cynical commentary on the rampant encroachment of advertisements and corporate marketing in every space available for artistic expression, but it also cleverly explains major plot elements in the form of commercials. In “The Entire History of You” (season one), the ‘grain’ featured in the episode is introduced to the audience via a well-scripted ad inside a futuristic British cab. It is then put to test in the most household of situations, where we see what would happen if you could actually prove to your spouse that something they said long ago contradicts what they are saying in the middle of your fight that instant. Add this to the fact that the ‘grain’ is not a fictitious novelty but something that can grow out of an Oculus, or Google Glass tomorrow.
The newest installment, “White Christmas,”—released as a special episode on Christmas eve in 2014—offers a look into bigger issues packed inside the human head – the desperate wish for a guardian angel, so much so that one might resort to enslaving a clone of their brain inside an empty chip. In some ways, this is an extension of “Be Right Back” (season two), where a person’s activities on the internet – photographs, opinions and other updates on life events on the social media is used to generate an immortalized, functioning copy of them. However, what is even more frightening about “White Christmas” is how this leads to people with abysmally low tolerance levels, resulting in quick ‘blocking’ of other people from their lives – quite literally, because once you block somebody, all you would see of them is a silhouette covered in video static and hear white noise when they speak. At the surface, it is mildly concerning to see the breaking of people into inhuman entities from whom all forms of contact can be withdrawn, but more frightening is the slow confinement of people within their own world view.
But in spite of all the mishap in his stories, like Annalee Newitz has written, Brooker’s sympathies truly lie with his audience, lured into watching other people’s degradation. More importantly, as we sit down to witness this arc of degradation, we forget that of our own, of which the show is merely a reflection. Black Mirror truly affects the viewer when it shatters the wall of detachment at crucial points in its story, reminding us that we live in the world it projects – one where humans are still in charge of technology.