As tech companies continue to aggregate more and more power, we’ve seen a healthy dose of criticism arise to help steady the scales. Much of that criticism, however, focuses on young founders acting like spoiled brats, obscene funding rounds for ludicrous startups, and elfin weddings.
What about deeper critiques of how emergent technologies have altered our brains, our relationships, and our society? Who are the Aldous Huxleys of our era? The Ray Bradburys? Surely there’s some discourse on the dangers of social media and inescapable smartphones that goes beyond the snark of Valleywag, right?
Yes, and it’s not happening on any of your favorite tech sites, it’s happening on British television. Behold “Black Mirror,” a two-season, six episode exploration into how our notions of identity and community have been warped by our
reliance fixation addiction to technology. Each episode has a different setting and cast, naturally bringing to mind comparisons to the Twilight Zone.
If you haven’t heard of it yet, that might be because despite the show’s keen understanding of all things digital, “Black Mirror” is impossible to watch online (legally). It’s not on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Instant Streaming, however you can order the DVD of the first season on Amazon, which you should maybe do right now.
The show’s premiere, titled “The National Anthem,” opens with a Prime Minister’s phone vibrating in the middle of the night, shaking itself off the bedstand and plummeting to the floor — an apt metaphor for the self-inflicting damage caused by technology. The call is to say that the royal princess has been kidnapped, and the only way to save her is for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig on live television and webcast.
If this sounds like an odd premise for a show about technology, just keep watching. The kidnapper’s ransom demands aren’t delivered to Scotland Yard in a manila envelope. They are posted as a YouTube video, whetting the appetites of millions of people who, though appalled by the morality and mechanics of pig-fucking, cannot help but be fascinated. The desire to watch and to be a part of a viral sensation outweighs any ethical misgivings or respect for humanity.
Meanwhile, the press doesn’t have a clue what to do. The major networks agree to what’s known as a “D-Notice” in the UK, a government request that bars the publication of any information “threatening national security.” As the journalists sit on their hands, the kidnapping is all anyone can talk about on Twitter and Facebook. Proper news outlets are wary to confirm the reports, not out of journalistic prudence or human decency, but because they’re too scared to lose access to the politicians who requested the media blackout. When one journalist finally uncovers something the rest of the world doesn’t know, it’s because she texted a naked selfie to a Downing Street source in exchange for information. In just a few scenes, “Black Mirror” says more about the upheaval of traditional journalism than “The Newsroom” could in two seasons.
Oh, and then there are the trolls. The show doesn’t flinch in depicting the utter ugliness facilitated by anonymity. Some of the YouTube comments about the Prime Minister and his wife are so disgraceful and punishing that the commenters deserve almost as much scorn as the kidnapper.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it puts forth a strong thesis about the vast gulf between our public personas, so carefully crafted on social media, and our private lives, while exposing the real-world consequences of these disparities.
The second and third episodes are more futuristic, imagining a world that doesn’t exist yet but very well could in a year or five years. “Five Million Credits” takes place in a future where the “job” of an average person is to pedal stationary bikes that power the planet. The more you bike, the more credits you earn. The workers’ non-work lives are dominated by apps and entertainment which are paid for with the credits. Said “entertainment” pretty much consists of either “American Idol”-style talent shows or porn. Meanwhile, full-screen advertisements assault workers at all hours of the day and can only be turned off by spending more credits. It’s the “freemium” model extended to an entire population.
This episode’s anti-consumerist message perhaps isn’t as jarring or terrifying as the social media nightmare depicted in “The National Anthem.” But “Five Million Credits” is about something bigger than mere materialism: It predicts a frightening end game for the continued “appification” of our lives. It warns against an empty existence where all of our experiences are filtered through apps or other non-human interfaces, brought to you by big corporate advertising.
The final episode of Season 1 is called “The Entire History of You” and it centers around an invention called the “Grain” which lets you recall and replay any memory you’ve ever had. It’s a double-edged sword of course: On one hand you can relive a beautiful day at the beach with a loved one any time you want. On the other hand, it’s also used by authorities to spy on citizens. At airport security, an agent demands to see a sped-up recap of a flyer’s past week before stepping on a plane.
The metaphor here is pretty clear: The Grain memory bank is an extension of our digital history, both the one we create ourselves when we post what we ate for breakfast on Facebook, and the one our devices track when we use tools like geolocation.
Unlike the first two episodes, which are concerned with how technology has changed us, “The Entire History of You” is more about the ways we remain human, and the tensions that exist between natural impulses and ubiquitous technology. Humans can’t help reliving and repeating painful experiences, and with the help of technology, they take this impulse to terribly unhealthy lows. One character rewatches an awkward meeting with a boss, obsessively searching for an indication that he’s about to be fired. At another point he tortures himself by rewatching a conversation between his wife and one of her ex-lovers. It’s like Mark Zuckerberg clicking “Refresh” at the end of “Social Network,” waiting for his ex- to confirm his friend request, but even worse.
At times, “Black Mirror” may seem overly cynical about human nature and technology. But that doesn’t mean it’s without hope. As writer/creator Charlie Brooker wrote at the Guardian, the show is about the way we live now, but also about “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
How can we not be so clumsy? Don’t be a hateful troll. Be careful not to base your value system on what goes “viral.” Stop obsessively monitoring your ex’s Facebook page. And don’t forget to enjoy experiences that don’t involve technology. You don’t have to be a technophobe, just be sure to keep some things away from the connected world. Because if you let Google and Apple and Facebook in on every experience you have, then you risk giving them the power to take those experiences away from you.