Why you should watch Black Mirror


Black Mirror is a unique and ever timely experience. The vignettes are spot on and while each explores a different aspect of our interaction with technology, the internet, and social media, there is an underlying dystopian view of the world that unifies the whole series. Watch it.

And here I was, after The Wire, Battlestar Galatica, and a host of other long-form series thinking that short, episodic television was a waste and could no longer grapple with complex subjects with an appropriate level of understanding and depth. Black Mirror is a great argument against that mindset and is one of the best science fiction shows I've seen in a while. While on the surface it has a rather benign atmosphere, it is without a doubt a dystopian series. The vignettes (episodes) are spot on and while each explores a different aspect of our interaction with technology, the internet, and social media, there is an underlying current of pessimism and sadness at the role of technology in our lives that unifies the whole series. I wanted to briefly review and reflect on each episode and the series (seasons one and two) as a whole.

Spoiler alert! I'll discuss aspects of the series. However, the series is so experiential, the little details and scenes end up being more important than any twist. This article will be updated as new thoughts on the episodes come to mind.

The National Anthem

If a kidnapper's random if they had grown up browsing 4chan.

Brilliant first episode and the twist is a nice touch that ends up being crucial to setting up what this series is about. In short, someone kidnaps an Important, Innocent Person. Perfect scenario for a harrowing spec-ops rescue (America!...oh wait, Britain!) or paying the ransom to set them free. However, the ransom ends up being something more appropriate to a reddit or 4chan post than a kidnapper's demands: the Prime Minister needs to have sexual intercourse with a pig for the Important Person to be freed.

While absurd and unrealistic seeming at first as a plot device and an actual scenario, this is an appropriate consideration of how public image has now become one of the most important aspects of a person, perhaps more than their wealth. People's companies can go under, they can lose everything, but as long as people perceive that they are in control, a winner, or aren't a liability, they will have the opportunity to claw their way back to the top. On the other hand, the second you have an event occur that permanently damages people's respect and public image of you, then you've lost power (think most politicians with serious sex or other scandals). And what better way to punish a person in power than to strip them of it? For money can be printed and easily created in today's world of national banks and digital currency, public image and power cannot. And this is evidenced by the lengths the Prime Minister goes to try and fake the actual act itself.

Beyond the analysis of public image, there is a spot on portrayal of people's fascination with the abnormal and (seemingly) grotesque. Having the kidnapper make such ridiculous demands is appropriate give the increasing tendency of the Internet to allow people to indulge in their otherwise suppressed passions, in this case the kidnapper wanting to see a head of state participate in a demoralizing act. It also speaks to the fact that to satiate our ever growing demand for content, we are having to turn to more and more absurd forms of art as we become desensitized to the last 'edgy' pieces of content. That the whole country seems both fascinated and appalled by the pigsex (this is English, we can all agree that's a valid word) agrees with how people slow down near an accident or have an odd fascination watching car chases, video feeds from the front line, or other 'morally questionable' actions live on television.

And that in the end the hostage was released before the act takes place just adds (a very chilling) icing on the cake. For it is a profound demonstration of how easily one could potentially destroy a public figure with very little effort. Food for thought.

Fifteen Million Merits

The two protagonists waiting for their Golden Ticket moment.

This is a depressing look at what happens when you combine American Idol, X-Factor, Big Brother, and other related reality television into a single experience: people live in a facility where they exercise and perform other routines to earn credits that they can then spend to purchase entertainment, food, to stop adverts in their rooms (this is a scary thought, until you realize many apps and services today may you pay to not get advertised to), and buy a Golden Ticket that will allow them to become a star and escape their sorry existence. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this episode is that it introduces what I believe is an undercurrent that develops in the show that was not present in the first episode (partially because of its focus on high-powered individuals). That is the awkwardness. The small talk that goes nowhere. The protagonist who's not charming, nor an anti-hero, or any particular archetype. In this episode he's just an awkward guy participating in a crazy reality show. And same goes for his eventual love interest. This sense of awkwardness continues throughout the show; though, it is handled in slightly different ways throughout. It potentially speaks to how with instant gratification and always-on connectivity technology gives us, we will slowly lose the art of the conversation. In some sense, I would be interested to see how this type of show would play out if created in Nigeria, India, China, or another fast-growing non-Western country. For there is a question of whether such moments (e.g. the awkwardness) are a universal phenomenon or one limited to the Anglo-Saxon experience.

However, on reflection, this episode is likely less a critique of reality television as a look at how people with a 9-to-5 go through life. A majority of American's are unhappy with their jobs, this has come up time and again. On one hand, this might suggest that people just go to work to make money rather than going to work as a means of fulfillment or accomplishing great things, as many in Silicon Valley view their work. In Fifteen Million Merits people go through the rounds to hopefully earn a ticket to prime time or get enough points/merits to watch a show, get food, etc. But this might be better understood as people working a 9-to-5 job only to get home to watch a movie or to save up for that big vacation way in the future that may or may not actually be taken. In that way, this episode isn't completely dependent on the technology aspect, but it highlights how technology can heighten that sense of detachment between the rather meaningless work (running on a treadmill to power the place you live in) and what you hope to gain in the future from it.

The Entire History of You

People spend more time reliving past experiences (in this case their initial passionate sex) than the current ones.

Was with a group of friends when the poignant message of this episode hit home: several were reminiscing for awhile about a trip they'd taken a couple years back when another interjected, "Can we stop talking about past adventures and do something new!?". If you pay attention to a lot of conversations between groups of friends, you will quickly notice that many are just re-telling past adventures together and become a series of one-upmanship about who has the better story or the better perspective on the same story. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, in fact it can normally lead to interesting and rather funny side discussions. But most of the harmlessness of these types of retellings, some of which become mini debates about what actually happened that night after everyone left the bar, comes from the fact that human memory is decidingly not perfect. The Entire History of You imagines a world where many people have a device that makes it so we do have perfect memories of all past events and can recall them at will.

Next time you are at a restaurant with friends, take a look at how many times people try to settle a debate by searching for the answer on their phone. It ruins much of the fun and people have slowly become obsessed with being 'right', with having all the facts. Regardless of whether the facts jive with the conversation at hand or lead to greater knowledge about the subject. While this is mostly harmless now, partially because of the annoyance of getting the phone out to search and the relative triviality of the topic, imagine what it would be like if someone could do the same search on something you said one, two, fifteen years ago. That would destroy relationships and lead to sense of paranoia the likes of which we probably haven't seen before.

The Entire History of You is an amplification of these two trends (reliving past events and using technology to back up our side of the argument), for the device allows one to relive past memories perfectly. This means that any argument between friends or spouses about who-said-what can be definitively answered; people can spend hours replaying the exact experience to others, as if your life is a reality television show; and there is a real potential for the entire society to be changed as you can't know when what you are saying or doing is being recorded. While the episode doesn't explore this much, there would likely be an amplification of the Image Crafting (see 7 Ways To Be Insufferable On Facebook) trend that has started to infest Facebook and other social media. People would record for posterity only the 10 minutes of actual fun they had at the club, delete the rest, and replay this 'awesome night' at each subsequent party. The idea of replaying memory instantly would also likely destroy the art of storytelling, of weaving a vivid account of past trials and adding your own interpretations to the experience.

Google Glass and similar technologies are edging us closer to a world as seen in this episode. The rather harsh reaction to Glass might indicate we are not ready yet, or just that we want our ability to record everything to be more subtle before we accept it as a fact of life. While the ending to the episode is rather depressing (the protagonist removes his device), it seems like an appropriate reaction as you see similar rejections of social and other media by people who have recently been burned by it (e.g. closing their Facebook accounts). I would like to see another take on this idea exploring the security concerns, the change in politicians'/other behind-the-table persons' manner of dealing with people, and a myriad of other problems that would emerge if we could record everything.

Be Right Back

Interacting with the AIM bot of the 22nd century.

The theme of awkwardness and loneliness continues in this episode. The basic premise is that there is a couple, Martha and Ash, who have recently moved to the countryside. Ash dies while returning the van they used while moving in. Martha obtains, via a friend, a robotic AI that tries to replicate Ash's personality using his social media postings. The episode appears to have aspects of Truly, Madly, Deeply, except Martha never quite confuses her real husband with the AI she starts interacting with. The idea that you can re-create someone's personality based on their social media stream is interesting, but it is perhaps a testament to Ash that the robot doesn't come across as a type A, win-at-life, know-it-all that seems to pervade the Image Crafting social media landscape.

The episode gets at two aspects of modern life: the need to feel affirmed through whatever means and the desire to use technology to blunt the highs/lows of life. Technology is a way to distract us when we are depressed, just turn on Netflix, Youtube, or browse a number of time filling websites whose content is tailor made to be consumed and quickly forgotten. But this can have long term consequences and not actually fix the underlying, very human, problem(s).

The ending, though, is downright creepy (and a little depressing). The AI robot ends up living in Martha's attic as she continues on with her life. That the robot lives in her attic and that her daughter knows about it seems odd. That they periodically visit it has some odd undertones, for this is a living, sentient being, so in essence they are enslaving it to a degree. It's a small thing, but a potent reminder of humanity's potential view on other beings that aren't 'us'. In reality, the entire episode has a tension that never quite gets relieved. That is, we are constantly wondering if we are watching something much more sinister come into existence or just a benign toy for lonely people. For most of the episode I was convinced the robot would turn on her and either kill, abuse, or otherwise cause her harm. Perhaps that is what the episode writers were going for, as it is a better way for the viewer to realize their hidden prejudices, in this case that robots always have some ulterior motive for helping a human. Maybe when viewed a decade or two down the line, when nurse and other helper robots are more ubiquitous, then we'll view encounters like the one in this episode between humans and AI differently, with the benefit of more real-world interactions with AI that go well.

White Bear

People documents the horror around them instead of doing something about it.

This is perhaps the most disturbing of all the episodes. At its core, it reminders me of a Crowd of Bystanders by Zhou Xiaohu. Both have themes about how the current way we consume media affects our view of rather violent events. In White Bear we are treated to a rather drawn out and disturbing torture (not physically, but emotionally by having her deal with a series of harrowing events set in a bleak town and its surrounding countryside) of a woman who committed a crime. The most unsettling part isn't the actual act, but the fact that the public are willingly participating in the (mental) violence to be perpetrated on this woman and that it has been turned into what amounts to an amusement ride for one to enjoy.

This episode also gets at another question. Each new round of punishment is preceded by wiping her memory clean so that she doesn't know what is going on or who she is. And yet, if that is the case, who is being punished? If she no longer remembers, then all you are doing is punishing the physical body that committed the crime, not the mind that did so. In that case, it is no longer punishment per-say and is more like people using this woman's crime as an excuse to vent their rage and live out their repressed fantasy of seeing someone they don't like get harmed. It hearkens back to The National Anthem and this idea that technology has allowed us to live out repressed urges while hidden behind a protective layer, in this case the amusement ride and the fact that the person being abused in this case won't remember you, be able to fight back, or that she was at some point a criminal. It is all rather chilling and worth thinking about in light of the enjoyment people seem to get from online bullying and other forms of social punishment while hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet.

The Waldo Moment

The animated character debates real politicians

On first viewing (or at the time of viewing) this episode was the least effective/impactful of the bunch. There is no real necessity of technology in the picture, the premise is taken to an absurd logical extreme near the end, and it is not clear why Waldo himself would gain such traction and enough to eventually take over society itself. It is a rather unoriginal and rather cynical look at our current political process.

But perhaps with the recent rise of Donald Trump, this episode seems much more on point. People viewing his presidential campaign run as a final indication that the system is so broken that all someone needs to do is say all the right anti-status quo rhetoric and they will eventually gain enough support to start winning. In a way, Waldo represents a similar style of candidate, as he is constantly calling out (and making fun of) all the other politicians while being a cartoonish character that can't be directly attacked. That the episode ends with him effectively being a less than benign ruler was perhaps the shows way of televising how our deep seeded resentment of the political status quo without a solid foundation of why and what we want changed can lead us turning to something, anything that is different. And not knowing what this other thing is, we put it in a position of power and a little while later we are not in a place we want to be. Basically how many of the worst political movements of the 20th century came into being.

It is a good sign when a shows weakest episode can still provoke re-evaluation of its message and substance long after one has watched it.

Why we need another Black Mirror

The show is brilliant and it only begins to touch the surface of the many changes happening in the world during the dawn of the digital era. There are a myriad of changes going on in the world today that can be further explored:

  • Social media; 
  • Emergence of new technologies that allow us to store more and more of our lives in digital form; 
  • The creeping invasion of privacy and the emergence of the all-knowing, information consuming nation-state;
  • The isolation as people continue to move into ever larger cities;
  • The rise of drones and other technology that can potentially change privacy and how we interact with one another;

And many more are possible. The vignette style of each episode is a great strength, it allows the show to get to the point quickly and explore many concepts in a way that will leave the viewer thinking. In that sense, Black Mirror is like the best science fiction short story anthologies. The authors have a limited amount of space, so the focus is put on a single, well thought-out theme and this is explored using an alternate universe as a way to reduce the barriers inherent to our world—be they physical, psychological, cultural, or otherwise—that prevent the exploration of said ideas. The reason why Black Mirror is so effective though, and is one of the better dystopian shows around, is that nearly everything that occurs could happen today or in the near future. And that is infinitely more frightening and reflection-inducing than the far off, abstract dread of Skynet taking over the world.

bahanonu [at] alum.mit.edu

©2006-2018 | biafra ahanonu | updated 31 january 2018
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