If you haven’t watched the brilliant miniseries Black Mirror, a dystopian social commentary that’s available for streaming on Netflix, it’s the best six hours you’ll spend this month. Critics have likened the British show to a modern Twilight Zone: an anthology, sure, but meant to make comment, not just to entertain. Two seasons aired—one in 2011, and one in 2013.
They’ve gone further too: Rumors are spinning that new episodes will be heading to Netflix soon, although there hasn’t been confirmation from Netflix.
It becomes difficult to discuss the impact and predictions of dystopian programs a few years after they’re created. At some point the conversation has to switch from “will they be right” to “are they right.” In many aspects Black Mirror was early in capturing certain aspects of life that have become familiar to us since. Watching it now only reinforces how easily society adapts—and accepts.
Since there were only six hour-long episodes produced (and a special starring Jon Hamm, but it’s not available on Netflix now), let’s break down how many aspects of technology, social media, and the evolving electronic world around us Black Mirror saw before we did.
The show starts with some of the blackest comedy out there. In “The National Anthem,” an undefeatable cyberterrorist kidnaps a member of the royal family. His only demand? The prime minister must make love to a pig on live TV, uncensored.
The entire conversation about whether to meet the demands or not is held in terms of polling figures, by members of the party. At first the PM’s numbers say he’s gained approval and most people expect him not to do it, but as more information is revealed public opinion switches.
No, I’m not going to compare any political event to this. There’s not a direct corollary. But it’s true that public perception in the modern world is based on a mixture of voyeurism, shame, and forgiveness. How many intimate, shameful moments have we shared with semi-public figures? How many careers have been made or broken by sex scandals, dirty photos, and videos?
Black Mirror is an anthology though, and Episode 2 moves to other territory in another reality.
“Fifteen Million Merits” creates a society somewhere between The Hunger Games and 1984. Everyone pedals stationary bikes in a room reminiscent of a satanic Soul Cycle studio, ostensibly providing the energy needs for the millions of interactive screens covering every wall. In turn for your pedaling, you receive a form of currency that you use for microtransactions—everything from an ounce of toothpaste to a fee for avoiding pop-up ads (premium streaming on Hulu, anyone?).
A class system based on how much pedaling you provide (weight-based, as you might expect) puts the obese at the bottom and a beautiful chosen few performing in a Who’s Got Talent reality show.
Since it came out in 2011, “Fifteen Million Merits” doesn’t predate Nintendo Wii and motion controls, but four years later all of the little features have really melded into a reality this show can comfortably claim it saw coming.
The first season’s finale, “The Entire History of You,” imagines a world where your every memory is recorded, perfectly searchable, and something you can put straight onto a screen—not that far from the truth when you remember every room is full of recording devices these days. They make it sound positive: Yes, you can win arguments by showing people what they said to you. But your every mistake is catalogued from dozens of angles too. And those embarrassing things you sometimes recall doing? Imagine being able to watch them in high definition.
Obviously the proliferation of camera phones has made a fairly reliable system for this—luckily we haven’t yet created the technology to transcribe and store memories yet.
Season 2 starts by positing the question of whether software can adequately replace someone who’s passed away. In “Be Right Back,” a grieving girlfriend reluctantly uses a service that uses an algorithm to scour emails, voice messages, texts, and social media to re-create someone’s personality so it can communicate in real time.
Obviously someone getting sucked into an online relationship isn’t a new idea. Except the episode debuted in February 2013, more than a year before an artificial intelligence passed the famous Turing Test.
The next episode twists much more cynical, as an amnesiac woman flees from murderous psychos. “White Bear” beat “The Purge” by a few months, but with a twist: Only a few people are crazed villains. The majority seem to be mindless bystanders, chasing the action and recording video as if they’re watching performance art. We could talk about the bystander problem—people who record for viral videos rather than help those in trouble. We could talk about how mob mentality has become less and less empathetic as technology has crept to the forefront of our lives. But when everyone is either a gawking voyeur or an unsympathetic crazy, you start to feel like you’re just watching cable news.
Maybe it looks like a low-budget version of The Hunger Games. Or maybe you feel like you’re watching those horrifying clips from the shooting murder of two journalists from Roanoke, Virginia—it depends on how you see it, I guess.
Speaking of, the second season really takes a swing at joke candidates and media sensationalism in “The Waldo Moment.” A talk show’s irreverent animated bear, Waldo, takes on a political candidate for the purpose of satire, and is swept up in a joke campaign to have him elected to the job. As the man behind the voice becomes uncomfortable with the role, the studio jumps in to take over, blurring the line between when an individual and corporate entity are in charge.
When the actor wants to jump ship, his producer gives him a terrifying explanation of how a cartoon character from a TV show could hold office.
“We don’t need politicians. We’ve all got iPhones and computers, right? So any decision that has to be made, any policy, we just put it online. Let the people vote. Thumbs up, thumbs down; the majority wins. That’s a democracy. That’s an actual democracy.”
“So is YouTube,” the actor fires back, “and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but the most popular video is a dog farting the theme tune to Happy Days.”
“Well, today it’s Waldo,” the producer counters.
“No, it’s still the dog.”
Maybe this is the episode where the show went too far to see similarities. No one would run for office on a platform of “these people are fake but I’m not.” And they’d never conduct the campaign by saying things that lower the bar on discourse. We’ve never seen politicians go for cheap shots and low blows in an attempt to appeal to the basest instincts of the average voter… have we?