Black Mirror, the dystopian science fiction series first made in Britain and subsequently acquired by Netflix with a bid of $40 million, recently released three new episodes for its fifth season in June 2019.
The series, which premiered in 2011, rapidly rose to TV cult status and has been praised by critics and viewers alike for its thought-provoking narrative, its punchy political statements and its raw, dark humour.
Over the years, as Black Mirror’s once inspired writing adjusted to mainstream fame and to a more international palate, critical acclaim faltered. Nevertheless, the series still enjoys a large degree of popularity and its main draw remains intact: exploring the dark side of modern technology.
To explain the phenomenon, The Washington Post suggests the real genius of Black Mirror “lies in its dissection of humanity–how our emotions, compulsions and fears inform our use of technology.” Similarly, Vulture commented that “the best episodes of Black Mirror suggest that familiar technological ideas — things like social networks, artificial intelligence, or gamification — carry with them some sinister, heartbreaking, or alarming possibility for a dystopian future.”
In this article we discarded all the tech featured in the show that already exists in one form or another in real life, instead highlighting the scary, unthinkable, or very plausible technology that we would never want to see realized.
Virtual dating simulators
S4E4 – “Hang the DJ”
If you think Tinder is a nightmare, you must have never heard about this episode. In the episode a device, the Coach, has been invented to determine how fit a partner is for you and how long you should be dating them.
Frank and Amy are two of several that participate in this system, and are coached to meet other people and date them for a pre-determined amount of time. Frank and Amy are matched, but the expiration date of their relationship is set much shorter than they had hoped for. They both find themselves thinking about each other after their brief encounter and while dating other people that the system has suggested for them. Later on, the two are rematched by the Coach and then again separated.
Finally, the pair decide to rebel against the system and run away together. At the end of the episode, Frank and Amy’s entire arc is revealed to be a simulated scenario run by a computer to determine the compatibility of their real counterparts.
Social rating systems
S3E1 – “Nosedive”
Nosedive represents the ultimate dystopia featuring social media. In the episode, people use eye implants and mobile devices to rate their online and in-person interactions on a scale from one to five stars. The episode’s protagonist, Lacie, is a young woman with a moderately high rating of 4.2 who hopes to further improve her socioeconomic status and reach a 4.5 rating through some high-level interactions with her former schoolmates at a fancy wedding. However, a series of unfortunate accidents and mishaps on her way to the wedding crush her rating just before the celebration – prompting her friend to cancel her invitation to the wedding.
This sends Lacie into a downward spiral. Frustrated and with a thirst for revenge, Lacie goes as far as to crash and destroy her friend’s wedding. While her rating drops to zero and she is arrested, Lacie is seen as feeling liberated. Though the tech described in Nosedive is already accessible (social media, smart phones and ratings are all very present in our everyday life), the social rating system in Nosedive is still far from becoming a reality. (At least in the West; its similarity to China’s social credit system is chilling.)
However just to make sure that we keep sane and grounded, we all should probably go on a social media detox asap!
S3E5 – “Men Against Fire”
This episode is a metaphor for how high-tech, AI-driven weaponry have further dehumanized the battlefield and war in general. In an undefined future and unknown country, soldiers are exterminating mutated humans called “roaches”. To improve their performance on the battlefield, they use a neural implant called MASS, which enhances their senses and provides instant data via augmented reality. During one bloody encounter with the roaches, the soldier Stripe is attacked, and his MASS interface is disrupted. Following MASS’s malfunction, Stripe starts seeing roaches as humans, and soon realizes that the government is brainwashing soldiers to have them attack fellow humans and kill them en masse.
After finding out the truth, Stripe is incarcerated and left with a choice: stay in prison or having his memory erased and MASS reactivated. In a following bit of the episode Stripe is seen enjoying a MASS-induced dream and it is clear that he has chosen obliviousness over justice.
Tortured, sentient clones
S4E1 – “USS Callister”
This episode marks the first American-produced season of Black Mirror. It centers around tech able to create digital clones of people to have them star as main characters in a multiplayer video-game.
Vindictive game developer Daly has created for himself a patch of the Star Trek-inspired Infinity game in which he is the captain of the starship and is worshipped by his crew members. In the game he programmed, the adoring crew members are versions of his real-life co-workers. But the crew members aren’t mere digital creations of Daly’s co-workers — they’re sentient beings cloned from DNA material that Daly obtained from trash they left behind in the office. Tortured day in and day out by Daly, the digital clones will soon realize their condition and try to escape subjection to their master and the game itself.
Controlling your senses
S3E2 – “Playtest”
Playtest centers on a video game testing experience gone horribly wrong. The protagonist of the episode is Cooper, an American backpacker, left penniless and stranded in England after having travelled the world following his father’s death.
Instead of reaching out to his mother in the US for help, Cooper offers to participate in a playtest of an augmented reality video game in exchange for money. An implant is placed at the back of his neck that allows him to experience the video game more immersively. Cooper is then projected into the game experience: he finds himself alone in a mansion with the implant feeding his brain with spooky virtual images. After some jumpscares, the tester starts experiencing severe mental and physical distress and the test is terminated. Even after the test is concluded, Cooper keeps hallucinating and is then revealed that an interference in the testing process has caused him irreversible brain damage.
A precious lesson is learned from this episode: instead of looking for comfort in video games, just call your mom!
Recording your life
S1E3 – “The Entire History of You”
In a not-so-remote future, people have implanted a device called “the grain” behind their ear which allows them to record everything they see and hear. Whenever they need, they can re-watch the recordings of their memories directly into their eye or into a video monitor. The episode’s main character, Liam, is using his grain to try and trace back in time all his memories of his wife with an old male friend of hers. After an alcohol-induced fit of jealousy, Liam keeps growing suspicious of their close relationship, and starts obsessing over the thought that his wife has cheated on him. Eventually, he even goes as far to force his wife to show him her memories with the other man.
Shocking revelations about the two’s relationship will lead Liam to cut off his ear in an attempt to prevent the knowledge that comes with the device from influencing his life ever again. As they say, sometimes ignorance is bliss!
Real parental control
S4E2 – “Arkangel”
Directed by Jodie Foster, Arkangel perfectly portrays the lengths a parent will go to keep their kids safe and under control. After a small incident in which Marie has lost sight of her three-year old daughter Sara, the woman decides to have the child implanted with the Arkangel: a system that will allow Marie to monitor Sara’s position, health and emotional state through a tablet. The system also allows Marie to block her child’s field of vision remotely, and whenever she sees fit.
As Sara grows older, the mother decides to deactivate the tablet and give her daughter some very much needed privacy. However, when Sara’s teenage years take a rebellious turn, her mother decides to reactivate the tablet and keep a close eye on her. Marie’s distrust and disapproval of her daughter’s life choices will inevitably cause Sara’s behaviour to spiral out of control and their relationship to go sour. If only Marie had followed the saying “if you love them set them free” she would have spared her daughter of the pain that her virtual captivity brought into their lives.
Remotely controlled conciousness
S5E2 – “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
In an attempt to pull an art-imitates-life episode, Netflix cast former teen idol and current superstar singer Miley Cyrus to play a troubled former child star that has risen to world level stardom, Ashley O.
In the episode, Ashley is so popular that an AI doll, named “Ashley Too”, has been modelled after her personality and sold to the fans as a toy. However, Ashley’s life behind the spotlight is far from perfect, as the singer is subjected to the influence of her evil manager aunt who cashes in on her career and exploits her talent for her own benefit.
When Ashley decides to rebel against her aunt, she poisons her food and puts her in a coma. Yet, the aunt is still able to exploit Ashley’s still-existing brain activity to produce new Ashley O-branded music. After a series of weird turns and fortunate events it will be the sophisticated piece of tech that is the Ashley Too doll that saves Ashley from her coma and brings the evil aunt to justice.
Bringing back the dead
S2E1 – “Be Right Back”
Sharp like a knife and powerful like a punch in the stomach, Be Right Back hits you right where it hurts. It features a tech that we all would like to see realized – until it becomes clear that it just can’t work. The tech at hand is able to bring back the dead, or at least part of them.
Martha and Ash Starmer are a young couple who have recently moved to the countryside. The day after moving in, Ash dies in a car accident. At the funeral, a friend of Martha suggests her to try a new online service which helped her cope with the loss of a loved one. At first reluctant, Martha is eventually convinced to try the platform when she discovers she is pregnant. The tech allows the woman to upload the personality of Ash – based on his past online communications and social media profiles – into a synthetic body that looks almost exactly identical to Ash.
Needless to say, the Ash android is not nearly as good as the real thing. Eventually, the constant comparison between her deceased boyfriend and the defective machine makes Martha incredibly miserable.
Reality TV takeover
S1E2 – “Fifteen Million Merits”
Even though Fifteen Millions Merits doesn’t feature any bloodshed or a hellish landscape, it still manages to be one of Black Mirror’s most disturbing episodes. The episode, in fact, centers around the role of tech – such as digital currency and social television – in disrupting the society of the future. The episode details a future in which most people are forced to cycle on exercise bikes in order to produce power. Confined in tiny bedrooms, forced to live in almost complete isolation, and constantly bombarded by interactive advertisement, these people live a slave-like existence. The only way for them to skip advertised content on TV and to catch a break from their nightmarish reality is by paying a few “merits” (digital currency) which they earn in exchange for their physical labor.
During one biking session, the episode’s main character, Bing, falls for a neighbour cyclist, Abi. Convinced that talent shows are the only way to escape their dull reality, Bing accumulates enough merits to buy Abi a ticket to audition in a singing contest.
When Abi’s audition doesn’t go as planned (the woman is told that she is better suited for porn than for singing), Bing decides to audition himself. Once on stage, he voices his indignation and threatens to commit suicide in front of the live crowd. Once his protest is concluded, the unbothered judges offers him a weekly show, where he will have the opportunity to rant about the system. Bing accepts their offer.
As social TV become more sophisticated and popular (Netflix had its own interactive episode of Black Mirror in December last year, “Bandersnatch”), let’s hope the day doesn’t come when we’re all enslaved by the laws of entertainment. But if it does, don’t say that Black Mirror didn’t warn you!