Not living in the UK, I’m evidently one of the last people on the planet to have discovered the British Channel 4 series Black Mirror. This inventive television show, the brainchild of English satirist Charlie Brooker, caused a sensation when it first appeared in the UK in December 2011, and since then has become popular in many other countries, including China. It has reached American audiences relatively late, only appearing on Netflix a few months ago, which is where it came to my attention.
Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology show very much in the mold of the original Twilight Zone series from the early 1960s. Each episode is a self-contained story with its own characters and premise, which is how almost all science fiction was done on TV before Star Trek. The premise of Black Mirror is that it deals with the social and human implications, most of them unpleasant, of the First World’s increasing use and love of personal technology. Cell phones, social media and corporate media are all fair game. So far I’ve only watched four episodes of the show, but already I’m amazed by its impact. The last episode I watched, “Be Right Back,” sparked a moral and metaphysical debate between my husband and I which lasted nearly 40 minutes. That’s never happened to me before after watching a TV show.
It’s really heartening to me to see a TV series that’s not afraid to explore moral and ethical questions, and also questions specifically about technology. Over the past year or so I’ve paid increasing attention to my own personal consumption of technology and how it affects my interpersonal relations, my creative endeavors and even my religious faith. I work at a university where most of the people around me on a daily basis are under 25. (I am in my early 40s). Their cell phones are extensions of their hands and brains. Mine often is too. I couldn’t imagine life without Twitter, or without this blog. But what is all this technology doing to us, and can we, as humans, cope with it?
Here is the trailer for the first episode of Black Mirror, titled “The National Anthem.”
Black Mirror asks these hard questions, and how. The first episode, “The National Anthem,” is shocking on a number of levels. It takes place in Britain and involves a terrorist who kidnaps a member of the royal family, threatening to kill her unless the Prime Minister of the UK has sex with a pig on international TV. Yes, you read that right. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that social media, especially YouTube and Twitter, are shown inflaming the situation and injecting almost unmanageable variables into the mix. The bizarre premise seems to get at once even more bizarre, and then almost acceptable. Charlie Brooker, who wrote this episode, was in top form when he did so.
The second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” takes place in a more distant future. Among an underclass of slave-like workers who pedal stationary bicycles all day for some undisclosed reason (power generation?), and who are forced to watch corporate-sponsored media every waking moment, a dissenter commits an almost unthinkable act of kindness toward a fellow slave he barely knows. This episode was interesting but not quite as grabbing either as the first one or the third, “The Entire History of You,” which is nothing less than horrifying. In this scenario, people can record all their memories and play them back to themselves and other people, and rehashing old experiences becomes a favored social activity. When a man suspects his wife of having cheated on him, this technology rapidly becomes a weapon that he uses to get back at her. I have heard this episode is going to become a stand-alone motion picture.
The first episode of the second season, “Be Right Back,” raises numerous very difficult moral questions surrounding technology.
The show that sparked our moral debate last night was called “Be Right Back,” and was probably the most painful–and the best–episode of the show I’ve seen so far. In this sad story, a woman who has lost her husband utilizes a new technology that’s supposed to assuage her grief by allowing her to talk to a simulation of her dead husband reconstructed from his social media presence. Unfortunately this technology, as in the previous episode, becomes not only a personal horror for the widow, but a difficult rumination on what it means to be human, and to create–or destroy–a life. I don’t think a TV show since the original Twilight Zone or Star Trek has delved so far into questions of morality and philosophy.
Technology is changing us, and we’re now so good at creating it–and making money from it–that we often don’t think about the ethical implications of the gadgets and gizmos we’re so eager to create. We need to think about these questions. Does social media take away from our human identities? Are we creating more problems than we’re solving in trying to make our lives “easier” with more technological tools? Do we know what we’re doing? Humanity’s record of prudent technological innovation is not very encouraging. Black Mirror needs to be seen by everybody with a cell phone, everybody who’s ever been on Facebook without thinking about what it really means. I highly recommend this series. It will give you a lot to think about.