Santa came early for some this year as Netflix made six episodes of Black Mirror available on its streaming platform. The British show has enjoyed a cult following ever since its first episode in 2011, but Netflix’s all-at-once approach has been a bonus for fans who previously had to make do with weekly installments of a measly three episodes on UK’s Channel 4. With the third season, Charlie Brooker, the writer and producer behind the show, cements his position as the Edgar Allan Poe of the digital age.
The anthology series never positions itself in a set future, which makes it seem like this future is always around the corner (“It’s all about the way we live now and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy”: Brooker). Unlike a lot of science fiction that warns of the perils of artificial intelligence, Black Mirror makes us question our increasing dependence on technology. It’s not so much the technophobia of I, Robot as it is the claustrophobia of being stuck in the elevator and at the mercy of automation.
In the world of Black Mirror, the technology that is supposed to help us often malfunctions and holds us hostage. As Brooker explained in The Guardian, “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
Nosedive, the pilot episode of the new season, introduces a world in which everyone is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. Everyone is desperate for a higher rating and all social interaction is based on this grading. This brings out the worst in people as they shun those with lower rankings and present a fake persona to climb the social ladder. If this premise seems far-fetched, it bears reminding that we already live in an era where Instagramming is a career, Uber drivers with low scores are fired, and restaurants with low ratings on Zomato are often not visited.
Other episodes this season are just as captivating. Playtest shows the perils of immersive gaming, San Junipero presents a case for how augmented reality can come to our aid when the physical world fails us. Men against Fire is an uncomfortable parallel to the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe. Shut up and dance and Hated in the Nation deal with cyberbullying.
While Shut up and dance is, perhaps, a nod to the Ashley Madison data breach (in which subscribers for a website facilitating extramarital affairs saw their information being leaked), the latter is a tech noir in which a hacker dishes out comeuppance through a public vote.
Few TV series have managed to blend social satire, political commentary and moral turpitude so subtly and so effectively. Joining the Netflix stable has definitely given more gallop to the show. The production quality has definitely improved, although it’s still minimal and mostly focuses on showcasing possible gadgets and technologies of the future. The cast, which previously comprised British debutants, now includes Hollywood regulars, including Bryce Dallas Howard and Kelly Macdonald. Even the soundtrack, which was previously inconspicuous, now features the likes of Radiohead, Pixies and The Smiths. The use of Radiohead’s Exit Music (for a film) at the end of Shut up and dance was haunting especially as the track is by a band whose central theme is the disconnect between man and machine.
If JG Ballard and Philip K Dick had a love child, it would be a spitting image of Black Mirror. This virtual reality nightmare of the future, presented on the show in deceptive pastel shades, doesn’t seem all that distant when one accounts for the breakneck speed at which technology is evolving. In fact, the show was much discussed in 2015 when former British prime minister David Cameron found himself in a compromising scandal dubbed Piggate. Black Mirror’s first episode had an absurd storyline in which the British premier was forced to make love to a pig. Brooker was hailed as a clairvoyant.
It seems that the show has been prescient again, because no sooner had this season been released than it emerged that China’s Communist Party is planning on implementing a grading system and denying basic privileges to those who fall short of the score.
We constantly come across surveys and reports that warn of how social media is destroying the fabric of human interaction when it’s supposed to accelerate it. There are news stories every day about how our appetite for gadgets is destroying the environment and having an adverse effect on local economies.
We are bombarded by targetted marketing that increasingly pries into our private data to commodify our habits. According to Brooker, “They shouldn’t do that – it feels creepy. It’s like when you mentioned to your grandmother ten years ago that you quite liked riding your bike so she keeps getting you Tour De France books. It’s not self-aware yet, it doesn’t know it’s becoming annoying”.
While we usually disregard these forewarnings, it takes something as poignant as Black Mirror to hold up a mirror to our modern narcissism and digital lives. It gives pause to our wild abandon and presents a technological horror that extends further than just exploding smartphones.