SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the first two seasons of “Black Mirror.”
Since its debut in 2011, British anthology series “Black Mirror” has merged speculative sci-fi fiction with elements of “The Twilight Zone” and a dash of “Tales from the Crypt.” The series focuses on the unrelenting intrusion of technology and how people interact with devices and innovations on both an individual and societal level, with often horrifying results. Creator Charlie Brooker named “Black Mirror” after the powered down devices in all our lives, staring back with a cold, shiny blank gaze.
What makes “Black Mirror” so terrifying is the way it shines a light on the darker side of technologies we’re already living with right now. There’s no looking into a crystal ball or pontificating on “wouldn’t it be great if…”; no dreams of warp drives, laser swords or teleportation. “Black Mirror” brings us the horror of technology that’s either currently in the hands of the public, or in the R&D departments of companies like Google, Sony or Facebook.
With Netflix recently announcing the third season’s debut this October, CBR looks at the myriad ways “Black Mirror” made us question the computer we use at work, the phone we can’t be without, and every time we wished technology could somehow make our lives better — and how it’s made us hate them.
10. “White Christmas” – Creating a “Cookie” of Yourself
In a show full of what can only be described as horrifying misuses of technology, this one just might take the cake. The premise of the “Cookie” in “White Christmas” is simple enough; a copy of an individual’s personality (including all of their likes, dislikes and memories) is downloaded into a portable electronic device. This digitized copy of a human being is called a “Cookie.”
The newly created Cookie can be left in the portable device or, in the case of “White Christmas,” given a virtual body and placed in a virtual control room. The purpose of the Cookie? To control every aspect of the original’s life, from how someone likes their toast to keeping track of the original’s calendar. Basically, an always on call virtual assistant designed to keep your life running exactly the way you desire. This can be seen as a not-so-distant successor of cookies used to track our Internet browsing history and save preferences, but instead of serving us ads based on past searches, the Cookie in “White Christmas” serves up everything based on its intimate knowledge of us.
9. “Fifteen Million Merits” – The Gamification of Fitness
Taking place in what looks like a very fancy hotel, inhabitants of the reality in “Fifteen Million Merits” are made to cycle continuously on stationary bikes in order to generate currency called Merits. From the moment they wake up, these drones hit the bikes, pedaling until lunch, then getting back on again until the end of the day. After which, they get a short bit of time to themselves, before heading to bed and starting the whole thing all over again (which already sounds scarily familiar).
Yet not everyone is fit and healthy in this brave new world. The folks who are overweight are made to wear yellow jumpsuits and play janitor to the cyclists. Not only are the “unhealthy” marginalized, but they’re made fun of along the way; called “Blubbernaut,” made fun of in game shows and hunted down like zombies in video games. And if any of those drone cyclist can’t cut it on the bikes, they’ll “be in lemon an’ all before long,” too.
Earning Merits the longer and further you cycle… kind of reminds you of all the Fitbits and specialized fitness wearables that are so en vogue these days, right? Get all kinds of kudos and on screen awards for making 10,000 or 15,000 steps a day or burning a certain number of calories. There are even employers now that will pay additional money to employees based on the the amount of steps you take. Just hook up your tracking device, set up your social media account through the app and presto! Start earning
Merits points for every step you take. While we’d never look down on anyone’s attempt to increase their fitness and lead a healthier lifestyle, taking things too far is all too easily and there’s still enough body-shaming in the world to make this episode feel very close to reality.
8. “Fifteen Million Merits” – Commercialism Gone Mad
Pop-up windows are annoying. That’s an indisputable fact. Worse yet, how about those pop-up, auto-playing that keep you from reading an article you actually care about. While there are ways to minimize or block ads, imagine those ads playing from the time you wake up until you fall asleep. Whatever you do, don’t keep your eyes closed too long, either. Because those ads know that you’re not watching and they’ll keep reminding you with an increasingly annoying tone until you open your eyes again and see whatever the advertisers are trying to push on you.
7. “Be Right Back” – Compiling Your Online Personality to Create a Digital You
On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. Take all the bits of an individual’s life as presented on social media and creating a virtual version of said person. Especially, in the context of “Be Right Back,” where a person, grieving over the loss of loved one can still “communicate” with the dearly departed by using a specialized online service. That service then creates an artificial version of the deceased based on all their social media profiles, that will email or IM the person left behind.
Taking another step forward, it might even make a bit of sense being able to upload messages and videos of that departed individual, so that the grieving aren’t just getting emails or IMs from the artificial version of their departed, but voice messages, as well. Better yet, to be able to have an actual conversation with the artificial version, over the phone, in real time. But wait, it gets better: The service is also able, albeit experimentally, to then download all these bits of the artificial person in a “blank” synthetic person, creating for all intents and purposes, a clone of the departed.
6. “The Entire History of You” – The Ability to Record Every Moment of Your Life
The beauty of “Black Mirror” is taking ideas that seem great on the surface, and exposing their dark underbelly. Nowhere is that truer, and perhaps scarier, than in “The Entire History of You.”
In this version of reality, most people have a “grain” implanted in their heads, just behind their ears. The purpose of this “grain”? To record everything. Everything a person sees, hears and does. Everything. And then play it back in front of their eyes. Or, much like your average smart phone can do with the right dongle or smart TV, project the recorded memories onto a screen. No compiling, no wait time. Just re-watch the moment exactly as it happened.
No need for phones, what with their batteries dying on you just when you’re trying to record that special moment. The grain takes care of it all for you. And you can loop that special moment over and over again. Watch it as many times as you like, without fear of forgetting, bad lighting on your recording, etc. If you want, you can even slow the moment down microsecond by microsecond, like individual frames of a movie, to analyze the moment to its core.
5. “The National Anthem” – The Misuse of Ever Present Technology
It’s easy to dismiss this entire episode as a psychological thriller with a bizarre twist, but its implications, especially in today’s world, are truly scary.
The Duchess of Beaumont, Princess Susannah, is kidnapped. And what do the kidnappers want as ransom? That the Prime Minister of England have sexual intercourse with a pig live on national television. To ensure the act isn’t faked in anyway, a list of technical specifications is included with the ransom. The kidnapper does all this by video, released on YouTube. The English government does what it can to remove the video from YouTube, but “for every one that’s taken down, six more pop up.” That’s the proliferation of sensational news, for you.
Given the tight deadline that the act must occur within, the English government uses every technical advantage to find the kidnapper, but to no avail. The media, meanwhile, cover the story with constant, real-time public reaction.
4. “White Bear” – A New Take on Public Punishments
A nameless woman wakes up in a house she doesn’t recognize, dazed and confused. Her memories are scattered like digital static. The woman makes her way out of the house and into a cold and hazy world, its inhabitants peering at her behind curtains, watching her through their cell phones.
Wandering the deserted residential area, a masked man jumps out of a car, rifle in hand and begins firing at her. The woman takes off, trailed by the man and the town’s residents, recording her every move on their phones, like brainless zombies. There’s no attempt to intervene, just to watch and record in silence. The woman goes through harrowing event after harrowing event, being hunted and recorded all the while, until the end of the episode when she learns the truth about what’s happening to her.
The woman’s name is Victoria. Convicted of the crime of not only being accomplice to the kidnapping, torturing and murder of a six year-old school girl, but recording all of it as well. Victoria’s punishment? To relive the horrifying events of her victim every single day. Each day Victoria is hunted and recorded by the “town’s inhabitants,” who in reality are members of the public at large, looking to take part in the “show.” It’s revealed to Victoria, at the end of each day, who and what she is and why she’s trapped in this situation. Her memories are then erased again, and she’s placed back in the same house she woke up at the beginning of the episode. All she has are the same scant clues to live the events all over again — with a new audience and the same outcome each time. It’s like the world’s most perverse amusement park, and its mascot is a woman convicted of a heinous crime.
Welcome to the world of repackaged public punishments. Instead of locking up criminals in stocks, as they did in medieval times all they way through colonial America, now we can use technology to publicly humiliate and shame someone, over and over again, and record it all to re-watch and post on social media. Don’t think it’s possible? Shame and outrage are the name of the game these days, from insensitive tweets to the murder of Cecil the Lion. How would things look if we went from online shame to in your face?
3. “White Christmas” – Voyeurism and Other ways to Ignore Your Life
In the same way the “grain” from “The Entire History of You” recorded every last detail of an individual existence, Z-Eye from “White Christmas” allows people to view a quasi-augmented reality, along with having access to the Internet, through a device implanted in the eye.
Our old friend Matt, who we learned likes to torture digitized versions of people in our first segment from “White Christmas,” is also a dating coach on the side. Matt uses Z-Eye to help shy or socially awkward clients (in this case, Harry) on the dating scene. With the help of some other single guys, all of which can view everything Harry sees, Matt and the crew help Harry navigate an office Christmas party and find a woman to hit on.
What results is a bunch of guys who, instead of living their own lives, have a running commentary about the one guy who’s actually trying to live his life. This gaggle of men has become Harry’s very own “Cyrano de Bergerac,” not only feeding him lines to say to women, but instructing him how to say them, and to whom. Just your average, ordinary back seat driver(s). Except it’s all in his head, thanks to technology.
And what about Harry? He’s no helpless accomplice, either. He’s as much a back seat driver in his own life as the gaggle of dating “coaches” are to their own lives. Z-Eye is taking games like “The Sims” and “Second Life” to another level. Instead of avoiding your life controlling a sim, with Z-Eye you can avoid your life by exerting control over a real human being.
2. “The Waldo Moment” – The Interactive Real-Time Nature of a “Fake” Character
What started out as a bit on a late night comedy/talk show turned into so much more for failed comedian Jamie Salter. Jamie finally gets his big break playing Waldo, a foul-mouthed, blue cartoon bear with a penchant for making political and public figures look like fools.
After one particularly popular bit featuring Waldo facing off against Britain’s Conservative candidate, Liam Monroe, Waldo’s producers get the bold idea of having Waldo run for political office. That’s right. A sexist, trash talking (fictional) cartoon bear running for actual office. Throughout the campaign, Jamie and Waldo’s producers ridicule, harass and expose Monroe (as well as the other candidates running) for what they are: politicians. And while Waldo doesn’t end up winning the election, he does come in second — ahead of another living, breathing opponent.
It’s fairly absurd to think about, right? There’s no way a cartoon character could run for office. But then again… There are already interactive cartoon characters in places like Disney World, with “Turtle Talk with Crush,” in which guests can ask questions to the animated turtle who answers them immediately. There are also musical artists like the Gorillaz. You know, the band featuring four animated members. 2005’s “Feel Good Inc” hit number #2 in the UK and number #14 in the US. Then there’s holographic performances of the late Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur. If the dead can be resurrected to perform, and cartoon turtles can interact with people in real time, is it that much of a stretch for a “not so live” public figure to come along, controlled by a single puppeteer or an entire team, and make waves in our politically charged world?
1. “White Christmas” – Block Out the Most Annoying People in Your Life
To cap things off, we head back to where this list started with “White Christmas.” This is another that seems great at first until you realize how tragic it could actually get: The ability to “block” people in your life. With the help of the previously described Z-Eye, users can, quite literally, “block” people in their lives. Those that are blocked appear as a noiseless, white static blob, and users of the Z-Eye can block individuals for as long as they desire: for a few moments, or as in the case of Matt, for the rest of his life.
People can be blocked out of someone’s life for legal reasons, as well. Take, for example, Joe from “White Christmas.” Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Beth, has a restraining order against him. Part of the restraining order? He is legally blocked from seeing Beth or her kids in any way shape or form. That includes photographs, as well. The blocks are held in place until a specific time, or until the person passes away.
You already know how easy it is to block numbers on your phone. Imagine the social implications of literally blocking someone from your life. Worse yet, imagine you are the one being blocked. You just had another argument with your best friend or your significant other. Things get heated and — bam — they block you. There’s no reasoning with that person while you’re blocked. You literally cannot communicate with them. It’s the “Black Mirror’s” version of the cold shoulder, and we hope it never gets any closer to reality than it is right now.
The first two seasons of “Black Mirror” and the Christmas special are now streaming on Netflix. Season 3 debuts October 21.
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