Undercurrents: Black Mirror’s technological dystopia

Voicing fears about the direction in which technology might be taking society can seem regressive. It might even earn someone the label ‘Luddite’. That term alludes to a protest group who sabotaged textile-making machines at the turn of the nineteenth century in frustration at the far-reaching changes that those machines were set to usher in. But while it remains somewhat unfashionable to be overtly critical of the direction in which emerging technologies may be taking us, science fiction has often been the medium of choice for those wanting to explore humanity’s complicated relationship to our increasingly powerful creations.

Widely acclaimed by critics, the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror is the brainchild of the British comedian Charlie Brooker. The show opens up a number of fascinating windows on the human condition and our relationship with technology. Its name is intriguing: it alludes to the way that the screen of an electronic device is like a black mirror, perhaps hinting that the technology we are building reflects our own hopes, fears, and desires, including the darker ones.

Black Mirror’s episodes are often dystopian, occasionally comical, and at times mind-bendingly disturbing, but consistent throughout is their fiendishly clever plot twists. Each episode stands alone and is unconnected to any other episode save for some occasional and rather subtle cross-references (so-called ‘Easter eggs’), meaning that there’s no need to watch them in any particular order. Many episodes are set in the future, though usually it’s a future that isn’t too far off and isn’t too difficult to imagine being reality.

Here’s a flavour of what the series has to offer (spoiler alert!). Series 6 Episode 1 Joan is Awful features an ordinary woman, Joan, who has a bad day at work and flops down in front of the TV with her boyfriend to unwind, only to find that the new show they decide to watch is about the life of a character who looks uncannily like Joan and has a day eerily similar to hers, even down to her secret rendezvous with a previous boyfriend. The show turns Joan’s life upside down and drives her to find a way to bring down the streaming company that she learns has been using an advanced AI (the ‘Quamputer’) to generate the show based on the data Joan has been unwittingly handing over via the ever-watching cameras and microphones on her electronic devices. S2 E3 The Waldo Moment is especially prescient given that it was made in 2012 and depicts a digital character named Waldo who ends up being elected in real life as the nation’s leader after running a campaign characterised by crude, inflammatory rhetoric and obscenities directed at his opponents. S4 E2 Arkangel depicts the tragedy that eventually unfolds after a well-meaning mother decides to install a system that tracks her daughter’s every move and prevents her from ever seeing or hearing anything distressing. One of the most chilling episodes, S3 E5 Men Against Fire, introduces us to a young soldier whose unit is tasked with tracking down and executing ‘roaches’, apparently a type of monster that poses a grave threat to humanity. We learn with horror, however, that ‘roaches’ are in fact human beings who have been deemed genetically undesirable by the powers that be, and that their appearance as monsters is a digital illusion overlaid onto the unwitting soldiers’ visual fields.

In a world in which technology is increasingly heralded as holding out the promise of solving all humanity’s problems – the popular science writer and futurist Yuval Noah-Harari even claims that death is a mere technical glitch to be solved in the coming decades [i]Black Mirror offers a refreshingly candid take on the human condition and our complicated relationship with technology. The show’s creator Charlie Brooker has been clear that the point of the show is not to bash technology per se, but rather, to take a long hard look at the people using the tech. ‘Humans are weak is the story, rather than technology is evil, because I love tech’, he explained in a recent interview.[ii] Three recurring themes in the series’ commentary on human nature particularly stand out.

Perhaps the most poignant, and one that deeply resonates with a Biblical picture of the human condition, is the thought that enhancing our capabilities – be it through gaining the ability to rewind our memories like a literal video (S1 E3 The Entire History of You), having an android duplicate body so that we can be in two places at once (S6 E3 Beyond the Sea), or even uploading our minds into the cloud (S4 E6 Black Museum) – won’t necessarily make us any more virtuous as people. In fact, if anything, giving more power to flawed beings serves only to amplify our flaws and makes us more liable to damage one another and the world around us. Or in other words, the problem of the human condition is not principally one of limited capabilities but rather of misdirected desires.

Another theme that permeates the series is a sense of estrangement and alienation. Black Mirror gives voice to a feeling that many of the technologies that are supposed to be making the world ever more interconnected are actually leaving us lonely and empty. One of the saddest moments in the show occurs during S5 E2 Smithereens in which a rideshare driver kidnaps at gunpoint an intern working at the headquarters of a social media giant, and eventually reveals that his desperation is the result of losing his fiancée in a car accident he inadvertently caused while scrolling his social media feed. Black Mirror gives voice to our profound longing for connection and the way in which our relationships with one another have been marred and distorted.

A third theme is that of powerlessness in the face of seemingly unstoppable forces that we have unleashed. Many of the episodes revolve around the unforeseen consequences of technological innovations that were supposed to make life easier, but end up being twisted towards darker ends. There is even a sense that technology is gaining an agency of its own, and that its aims might not line up with our wellbeing. As the robotic killer dogs in S4 E5 Metalhead roam the post-apocalyptic landscape in search of any last remaining humans, the ominous thought lurks: at our peril do we trust in technology for salvation.

Technology per se isn’t malevolent; it is a tool and outworking of our hopes, fears, and dreams. Insofar as it is a reflection of its maker, however, we can’t expect technology to save us from ourselves. But might there be a surer foundation for hope? A source of salvation from outside the system? That, at any rate, is what Christianity claims. Our endless fascination with the human condition and the future that shows such as Black Mirror give voice suggests that it might at least be worth a look at what Christianity has to say about these themes.[iii]

[i] https://openthemagazine.com/essay/the-last-days-of-death/

[ii] https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a44197628/charlie-brooker-black-mirror-interview/

[iii] See, for example, Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Faber & Faber, 2012)