The abyss into which we are staring has never been so big

A debate about whether the new technologies make our lives better or worse is increasingly intense. The British dystopian TV series Black Mirror adds yet another voice to this discussion, and it does so in captivating style.

Have you ever thought about having the whole memory of your life stored on a chip? Riding an exercise bike to gain virtual points being your only job? Being able to talk with your beloved ones who passed away? It might be the case that you have. And it might be the case that you thought it would be great to have such possibilities at hand. Well, if you did indeed, you were mistaken.

At least this is how Black Mirror depicts the world which will embrace all new technologies. Each of the seven episodes of this British TV series takes place in a different place and time, in a more or less distant future. However, there is a common denominator for them – all of the one-hour episodes expose the dark side of state-of-the-art developments which will affect not only the individual, but also society at large. As the series’ author, Charlie Brooker, says “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they are all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we are clumsy.”

The author’s interest in the way technologies take their toll on our lives is no surprise. From the mid-90’s he published game reviews in PC Zone, wrote credits for various programmes such as Brass Eye, The 11 O’Clock Show, Nathan Barley, and presented television shows such as Newswipe, Screenwipe, Gameswipe and Weekly Wipe, in all of which he gave witty commentaries on various media content. However, Brooker has gained the most publicity for his columns for The Guardian, where, often in controversial and crude manner, he comments on a range of topics revolving around media and society. As he admits himself, there is nothing positive in all of the columns, all are just pessimistic satire. So is Black Mirror.

Critically important is the setting of the series. Apart from the second episode, the world depicted in Black Mirror is only slightly different from the world of today. People are normal, they face the same problems and communicate in a similar way. It’s only evolution (not revolution!) in technologies that is different. In many cases the series shows devices that are either already in use (at least to some extent), or we can easily imagine having them invented in the near future. That is why the series’ message is so emotional and thought-provoking – the reality is not a distant, futuristic world like in other science-fiction films and series. It is close, and it hurts, because we are no different from the protagonists of the series.

Photograph: Ed Miller

This familiarity can be noticed in the first episode already. The National Anthem, starring Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan, seems to be taking place in the London of our times. It’s four in the morning, the Prime Minister is woken up by the video clip in which Susannah, the beloved British princess, cries for help after she is kidnapped. Nevertheless, there is hope for her – the kidnapper demands that she will survive if the Prime Minister has sex with a pig live on TV.

Even though the episode begins as a black comedy, it turns into a political thriller and even a family drama of some sort, as the PM’s wife is also involved. What is more important, the episode does not lose its satirical aspect throughout. Astonished as the PM, we watch how the media circus ensues. He wants to have the clip removed, but it is already published on YouTube, so there is no coming back. Twitter and Facebook become full of comments, people are on one hand furious at the kidnapper, but also amazed with what happens next. We can clearly see that the way in which we are gasping at the pervasiveness of the new media is strikingly similar to the people depicted in the episode. Also, don’t we have the propensity for looking at sensational news? Aren’t we shocked but also interested in drastic beheading videos or accident footage?

The episode exposes the diminishing role of the elites in society. The big old media outlets are reluctant even to mention the ransom request, just like they often fail to provide us with the most up-to-date information in the real world. It is only shortly before the deadline that they broadcast the crisis live. The PM and his spin doctors try to adjust their actions to satisfy public opinion, but the polls swing with every piece of new information. Isn’t it similar to contemporary politicians, who in majority are slaves to polls and the unnamed masses? And it does not matter if it is the time of campaigning or ruling the country. The episode, with its seemingly ridiculous yet brilliant plot, exposes human nature in the era of ubiquitous media coverage, the coverage which cannot be stopped since something has gone viral. Superinjunctions will not help.

The third episode, The Entire History of You, starring Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker, is a quieter one, showing what our relationships may look like in the future. In the episode, the majority of people use Grain – a chip which allows the recording of everything a person sees. Then, the recordings are stored and can be rewound, zoomed and deleted. The episode is obviously focused more on the individual than on society as a whole. Nevertheless, its familiarity is striking. The ubiquity of cameras in smartphones enables us to document our whole lives, while social media sites are reservoirs of people’s memories, which may be accessed by virtually everyone. As we disclose more and more information about ourselves on the social media, we can trace our friends’ and lovers’ past. We want to gather as much information on another person as possible, but is it always a healthy situation? The episode proves otherwise, offering a refreshing view on an invention which many people would consider amazing.

The episode uncovers the truth about an item such as Grain – it would loosen the bonds between people. This assumption is exemplified by the story of a possessive and insecure man who is getting more and more jealous of his girlfriend, and to prove that he is right he overanalyses the memories from the party at which he, his girlfriend and her supposed lover meet. Their relationship is on the verge of breaking up, as Grain fuels insecurities about her. It is also her past that is questioned by the possessive man, and the only way in which his partner can answer is by showing her memories. We see that because of this technology there would be no one to trust, simply because of the erroneous nature of people.

The series is unique in its inclination towards providing the viewers with food for thought. Each episode leaves us with feelings of  unease and even guilt. They stem from the naked truth that attacks us from the screen – developments have their price, and this price can be high for people who immerse themselves in new technologies without reflection. As Charlie Brooker puts it, “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 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”. That is precisely what the series tell us – human nature will cause the misappropriation of the technologies, however positive some of the effects might be.

Series two promo

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that ”when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you”. If this black mirror of our gadgets is the abyss, then it takes its toll on us in a remarkable way. For this reason Black Mirror is a must for all people of today, as it pinpoints what is wrong with our approach to new technologies. It makes us wonder if a talking telephone or an intelligent kitchen are all flawless and innocent. Nevertheless, it is up to us if we start to reflect on these inventions, or keep the abyss growing.

Piotr N.

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