Black Mirror Says More About Today Than Tomorrow

WARNING: SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD FOR Seasons 1-3

by Shannon Jay

Technology has always been at the core of science fiction films in the form of otherworldly inventions. Distant and destructive technology, however, has been swapped out in recent years with devices we come into contact with every day. Black Mirror, which just released its fourth season, exploits smartphones, computer, and modern media’s exponential development to create a dystopian future closer than ever before.  

Black Mirror recognizes that with the rise of Internet came a complete change in concepts of communication, and utilizes the new technological frontier to unsettle viewers not with fantasy, but familiarity. The show hyperbolizes an already “always on,” interconnected society shaped by social media, to see how this already ever present connection will integrate into everyday life in the future.

 This episode sneaks in a bit of #BlackLivesMatter commentary, too

This episode sneaks in a bit of #BlackLivesMatter commentary, too

While stories are seemingly disconnected, each Black Mirror storyline uses recurrently technology to stitch together separate instances. Slight differences in similar tech illustrate development over a relatively short period of time, reflecting our current, ever-evolving technical revolution.

A brain implant known as “the Grain” is used in “The Entire History of You” to track and scroll through memories in high def video, allowing users to “re-do” moments of their life. In “San Junipero,” implants are used to mimic these malfunctions successfully, creating an avatar-based world where everything feels as real as it looks, and where heaven might be found after death. In the latest season, writers get hella meta in “Black Museum,” where now outdated or fatally flawed ideas are housed.

How quickly tech becomes obsolete is far too familiar to viewers, also. In “Nosedive,” Lacie Pound is on a nationwide quest to increase her social status score. She rents an outdated electric car -- the only one she can get with her plummeting rating --  after being denied a seat on an airplane due to her low score. Thus, when she goes to charge the car halfway through the nine hour trip, she finds there’s not adapters for her older model, stranding her once more. All who’ve dealt with ever-changing chargers with every few iPhone updates can relate.

Along with allusions to current culture, Black Mirror’s dystopian plot lines factually explores humans’ imprint on the near future with highly informed predictions. Our mistreatment of nature is illustrated in “Hated in the Nation,” where drone bees replace the insect population currently nearing extinction, and “Nosedive,” foreshadowing the overtaking of electric cars in reaction to the increasing threat of global warming and depletion of fossil fuels. “Playtest” and “USS Callister” explores the next level of virtual reality gaming; both episodes ground viewers in the present via identical cell phones, job apps, and beloved classic sci-fi references.  

"Less a critique of technology than of what you could potentially do with technology, or what technology could potentially do to you if you haven’t really thought through the consequences.”

- Charlie Booker, show creator

Societal tolls aren’t necessarily consciously manipulated, but instead tech takes over common sense or empowers inherently evil people. Creator Charles Brooker said the series is about “much less a critique of technology than of what you could potentially do with technology, or what technology could potentially do to you if you haven’t really thought through the consequences.” Furthermore, the era of smartphones created outsiders out of those who don’t own that technology. In “The Entire History of You,” Hallam’s Grain had previously been gouged out, and “happier now” without it, which shocked fellow dinner guests.

Most importantly, and differently than any other classic science fiction, it only slightly hyperbolizes a new and existing dependence on social media and quantitative popularity via likes. the implication of social media into our daily lives enforces deeply ingrained societal norms on a new level. Even on vacation, we’re working to keep up appearances with each Instagram photo posted or Snapchat sent, making even the most exotic location homogeneous to home. In attempts such as this to be “away from familiar places and discovering new ones unencumbered,” Christine Rosen said in her essay "The New Meaning of Mobility," we’re never truly rewarded with an entire “freedom of disconnect.” Features already occurring in social media, such as blocking someone in the grim holiday special "White Christmas," are brought into the real-world. 

Black Mirror uses already demonstrated destruction via dependence on constant social interaction. Within the first few minutes, we see how distracting technology can be when Ash is too bothered watching the news to notice his wife Martha, hands full, is trying to get into the car. The short time he’s in the episode, Ash is on his phone so much, Martha says he “vanishes down there” and refers to his phone as a “thief,” social media stealing the couple’s final night together. When Ash returns the moving van the next day, he dies in an accident. Character foreshadowing concludes he was distracted while driving, which is not at all far fetched considering 69 percent of drivers admit to using their phone while driving, leading to hundreds of thousands of accidents per year in the United States alone.

Furthermore, we realize later he shared so much of his life online, an artificial replica is able to compute his mannerisms and memories solely based on his social media data. Complications with the robot’s personality, however, shows synthetic representations and online personas are no substitute for true human interaction. Martha’s erection of the robot and Ash’s social media addiction illustrate how we’re never alone, and have no way to cope when we are.

While individualized technology can threaten personal relationships, the internet’s anonymity could have grave consequences on Earth as a whole, becoming an even harder to trace form of terrorism that’s easier to implement.Troll culture is tackled in “Shut Up and Dance,” blurring ethical lines via online strangers who spy on morally questionable individuals and punishes them. In the series premiere episode “The National Anthem,” a hostage video of beloved Princess Susannah has been surfaced and demands the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on national television by 4pm that day, or else the Princess dies.

Since the hostage video was uploaded on YouTube, it’s already been exposed to the public and picks up serious traction within hours, with commentary from citizens on Twitter to major media outlets tiptoeing around the details.

This episode in particular explores shows how fast information can be spread, how quickly tides of opinions can change, and how much can happen in only a few hours in our digital age. This episode uses technology at everyone’s disposal today, ensuing more fear than previous dreamlike and distant science fiction of yesteryear.

Check out VICE's roundup of all the clever Easter Eggs Season 4 uses to alude to Black Mirror's past tech.