If Technology Is a Drug in ‘Black Mirror’ What are the Side-Effects?

Black Mirror‘s reach beyond the television result in a triptych of Ballardian fables for modern life, and in particular, our digital lives.

Finally, we’re living in the future. What on Earth is it doing to us?

At their recent sold-out shows at the Tate Modern in London, Kraftwerk revisited its eight studio albums in neat, chronological order. At first glance, it’s rather jarring to think of such forward-looking sounds having earned a retrospective. But then they were never really about the future, anyway. With songs like Autobahn, Pocket Calculator and Trans-Europe Express, it’s clear that Kraftwerk was actually interested in the technology that already surrounded them.

It was a salutary reminder that some of the most fascinating tropes of sci-fi are those that are closest to home. Sure, it’s a nice conceit to imagine that by 2019 we’d be sending synthetic humans to see burning attack ships off the shoulder of Orion, but the reality is likely to be rather more down to earth, literally and figuratively.

Black Mirror, which has just finished its second season in the UK takes this approach to technology as its focus. A collection of stand-alone stories in the manner of the Twilight Zone, the show addresses our relationship with technology, and does so by extrapolating from the gadgets and tools with which we interact every day, from cellphones to Youtube, and from the developing cultures attendant upon them.

Shorn of jetpacks and protein pills, the show’s fictional technological advances appear incremental and plausible. Cellphones have a rather more swish GUI, PC screens are larger and more visually interactive but they are still cellphones and PCs. That they are items we recognise is quite deliberate. The technology is ultimately incidental and Black Mirror is interested more in people than their toys.

The recognition factor was a crucial element in the show’s genesis. Speaking to the UK edition of Wired, the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, explained that part of his inspiration is the accelerated pace of change, or more precisely, the more accelerated pace at which we convince ourselves that we’re cool with the change. Comparing an iPhone with a Nokia 3210 might be startling, but the biggest change has been in our attitudes.

He draws a particular comparison between our fears of the Millennium Bug, for which we had years to prepare, and the alacrity with which we adapt to ideas such as ‘the cloud’, which would be difficult even to explain to someone only a few years ago. The very concept would have ‘felt like absolute science fiction’, but now we’re all early adopters, relatively speaking.

Brooker is a self-described ‘underwhelmist’, whose chief shtick, aside from an undoubtel skill with a turn of phrase, is a jaded worldview that has chimed with the mood of the day. He made his name penning some of the most viciously acerbic TV reviews in the British press before expanding into wider topics. He’s particularly known for his violent and scatological imagery, which has been appreciatively lapped up by the type of audience that enjoys sitting through a bad movie and worse TV simply for the joy of sniping at it.

With a column in The Guardian, a new run of his satirical snarkathon Weekly Wipe on the BBC and now this second season of Black Mirror for Channel 4, Brooker may well be said to be in his Imperial Phase. The evidence for this is in the extension of his remit. Weekly Wipe was originally a show called Screenwipe about TV. Brooker then brought out different editions for news (Newswipe) and for games (oh, just guess). Now it’s simply Weekly Wipe and covers anything from the preceding seven days.

This same pattern can be detected in Black Mirror. Its obvious predecessor, Dead Set, was a one-off that followed events in the Big Brother house following a zombie uprising. It was a sharp-tongued and very funny satire of the state of reality TV and the medium in general.

Black Mirror, by contrast, does not limit itself to TV. Of course, the tube remains a key part of it; the title refers to the obsidian panels that we face in our living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, only it’s not just TV now. Cellphones, laptops, tablets –these things are everywhere, and they’re no longer content to simply throw content at us. We now have to interact with them too. It’s a two-way relationship, a step change that has to have an impact on our behavior.

The result is a triptych of Ballardian fables for modern life, and in particular, our digital lives. They’re uncanny and unsettling but not inhumane. Brooker, like many satirists, has a mile-wide streak of humanity running through his work. A play like Be Right Back, in which a young woman is offered the chance to recreate her dead boyfriend from the accumulation of his old status updates, wouldn’t have any point without an overriding concern for her well-being. Even White Bear, the bleakest of the series so far, is suffused with a passionate concern for its characters.

White Bear wears its influences prominently. Twentysomething Victoria wakes up confused in a world that looks familiar, but has utterly and violently changed, with very little explanation why. It recalls the opening chapter of The Day of the Triffids, which, like the rest of John Wyndham’s work, was dismissed by Brian Aldiss as a ‘cosy catastrophe’. It misses the point. Placing terrifying events at a distance in space and time partly neutralizes their impact. It’s far worse when the world you fear looks similar to the one you’d left behind. It’s why H.G. Wells set The War of the Worlds in comfy suburbia, and why Black Mirror is, at best, just ten minutes into the future.

Confirming the immediacy of the shows’ setting is The Waldo Moment, a gossamer-light satire on modern politics that was made remarkable by its transmission date. Centring on a special election called following the disgrace of a sitting Member of Parliament, (as happened in the UK during the show’s week of broadcast) the drama focuses on the disruption caused when a TV comedian hijacks the election and upsets the status quo, mirroring those events in Italy which also happened while the show was on air.

These confluences could not have been predicted, but all the same, anyone coming to Black Mirror in search of originality may leave disappointed. That many of the conceits of each show have been done before in some way is beside the point. The everyday presence of powerful technology makes them a fraction more plausible, and as such, just that little bit more frightening.

Having crossed the imaginative boundary of the year 2000, we’re living in a version of the future that had always been promised to us. Who would care to admit that their 12-year-old self wouldn’t have been stoked to learn that by 2013 they’d have their own computerised assistant, called an Android no less, who could help you communicate instantly with thousands, even millions of people around the world? We have no teleportation pods and hoverboards are a very long way from market, but we’re here. The future, as Ralf and Florian noted, is already around us and that means facing up to its horrors as much as its delights.