Black Mirror isn’t about tech, it’s about tech’s social implications

Science fiction and horror have been close bedfellows for centuries. Going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus published on the first day of January in 1818, we find that fictional – yet scientifically feasible – stories of technology gone awry have fueled various versions of horror in novels, short stories, comics, films, and TV. One of today’s most ingenious representations of this is the Netflix-via-BBC TV production of the anthology Black Mirror.

While most of the series is set in a near-future world that seems extremely relatable to our own, often times the tech on display is far more advanced that what we experience everyday. This allows us to feel connected to the worlds created, yet ultimately safe from the horror on display. Over the course of the past 6 years, the series has created 19 different worlds in which the technology-mediated lives of near-future humans is shown to be full of both incredible potential and horrific pitfalls.

One of the most interesting things about Black Mirror is its prescience regarding social science.

When most people think of the ‘science’ in science fiction, they think first of amazing futuristic technology (see this video from the Mythbusters crew for more on that); however, one of the most interesting things about the series is its prescience regarding social science. Much of science fiction is written to hold a mirror up to our current-day social world and highlight shortcomings (think Planet of the Apes[1968] or 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]). However, some of the show’s episodes have now proven that Black Mirror’s true source of ‘future-telling’ is in the developments of social uses of technology, not in the tech itself.

One example of the Black Mirror’s unsettling prescience is on display in the first show of the series, ‘The National Anthem’ (4 December, 2011). In this episode, a person or entity using basic, contemporary technology holds a British princess hostage, and the Prime Minister is forced to copulate with a pig on live TV as a ransom. (Simple-tech blackmail is also picked up as a theme in Season 3’s third episode, ‘Shut Up and Dance’.)

In this fictional world, the technology is not the shocking part; only its end-use is surprising. And watching it now makes even that a bit banal, as 2017 saw a world of crypto currencies and ransomware used to hold government-run health institutions hostage. Indeed, it is as if the creators knew that the increase in ransomware would make it necessary for an over-the-top corporeal ending to be written just so that the show would have some chance of holding up over time.


Another example of Black Mirror’s seeming ability to foretell the future is on display in the third episode of Season 2, ‘The Waldo Moment’ (25 February, 2013). In this episode, a foul-mouthed cartoon named Waldo, voiced by a behind-the-scenes comedian, becomes a joke candidate for Parliament after embarrassing a sitting member on late-night TV. In a foreshadowing of the 2016 United States election of Donald Trump, in which politicians, pundits, and the much of the populace considered him a joke candidate, Waldo wins the election and is coopted into being the friendly face of an authoritarian regime.

The much-awaited fourth season somehow seemed to be a prophecy fulfilled the moment it aired.

The much-awaited fourth season somehow seemed to be a prophecy fulfilled the moment it aired with the first episode, ‘USS Callister’ (29 December, 2017). In this episode, a genius programmer builds a virtual reality (VR) game that goes a bit beyond today’s technological abilities; his private beta build is able to scan the DNA of people he knows and use a sentient digital clone to populate his VR world. There, he punishes those who have spurned him in real life while sentencing them to an infinite mental prison with no escape (he can create scenarios in which physical pain is never-ending and the VR corporeal body never dies). By basing the episode on futuristic versions of VR, gene sequencing, and cloning, the writers of ‘USS Callister’ stick to a familiar toolkit for the series by giving us a vision of tech we have now, but that has been improved, and placed in a world that is familiar to us. But the futuristic nature of these technologies is undercut by the ultra-contemporary world in which the episode is set.

USS Callister’ is so striking in its ability to ‘see the future’ not because of the technology on display, but that it builds a social world that  was all too real when it aired at the end of 2017. With the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the social conversation about sexual harassment, discrimination, and coercive manipulation in the workplace continues to be everywhere. This is paired with the long simmering and unresolved issues surrounding #GamerGate and other tech industry issues like those that have been revealed at Uber, GitHub, SquareSpace, and others.

USS Callister’ demonstrates a tech culture in which men harass women and bully other men. In this instance, the bullied becomes the real monster, which both shows the effects of toxic masculinity on other men, and (sadly) allows for the bully and harasser to be given a sympathetic story that forgives his transgressions. (Perhaps this forgiveness of the bully and harasser is unintended given the nature of the rest of the episode, but it may also be a perfect and subtle commentary on how often those with the most power are not punished, a recurring theme in the revelations surrounding Weinstein and others.)

Black Mirror is a cautionary tale about tech and how it can be abused.

With Black Mirror’s ability to predict social trends based on human nature and current trends in tech usage, I am hoping that I never wake up in situation like Season 1’s world of high-tech isolation, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (11 December, 2011) or Season 4’s post-apocalyptic ‘Metalhead’ (29 December, 2017). But we are already living in a world where social credit exists (see Season 3’s opening episode, ‘Nosedive’ [21 October, 2016]), and so the likelihood of more dystopian storylines from shows like Black Mirror becoming a reality is certainly plausible, if not guaranteed. Our ability as a society to intervene in the possible horrors of technological progress will become one of the more pressing matters of global cooperation.

In the end Black Mirror is a cautionary tale about tech and how it can be abused, but what really keeps us watching is how often these scenarios end up mirroring our own political and social climate. If you haven’t seen Black Mirror on Netflix, we highly recommend you do so! 


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