A friend recently told me that his favorite thing about the show Black Mirror is that he finally has a term for a certain type of technological anxiety. It’s a type of anxiety that seemed everywhere this year. The Sony hack could have been an episode of Black Mirror, as could Gamergate. In the same way that we refer to Blade Runner as shorthand for gritty dystopian cityscapes, Gattaca for worries about corporate use of genetic information, and Terminator for ominously powerful AI, Black Mirror has become shorthand for a certain type of contemporary internet-age creepiness.
If you haven’t seen the show, go watch it and come back: it's streaming on Netflix, and what follows contains many, many spoilers. If you don't care about that and need a primer, Black Mirror is a British sci-fi miniseries created by the satirist Charlie Brooker. Each of its seven episodes stands alone and usually features a character caught in the gears of a technologically infused society just a little farther along than where we are now. Instead of Google Glass there are optical implants; neat at first, but their recordings become fodder for obsession and jealousy. In another episode, a woman buys a simulacrum of her dead husband, its personality constructed out of his leftover digital presence; it's comforting until it's uncanny, and then the emotional bond she’s formed is too strong to break.
It's shorthand for a certain type of contemporary internet-age creepiness
The premises are absurd exaggerations of current trends, but the episodes abide by a fairly realistic internal logic. That may seem like a strange thing to say about a show which at one point features a cartoon bear running for political office, but consider what isn’t in a Black Mirror story. There are no villains — no evil corporations, nefarious security states, or malevolent AIs. Nor are there any clear-eyed outsider heroes, the usual protagonists in dystopian sci-fi. Instead there are jealous husbands, egotistical politicians, callous TV hosts, and vengeful audiences. In a Black Mirror story, technology only provides a more effective way for people torture each other and themselves in all the usual ways, magnifying ordinary passions and insecurities to an absurd scale. Suddenly someone is demanding the erasure of a rival's memory implant, or the prime minister is soberly consulting polling on whether he should have sex with a pig on live television.
The bewildering escalation of events is a key part of Black Mirror, and it's a phenomenon this year was rich in — that how did we get here? Is this real life? feeling that so many of 2014's events had. Did some kids upset about critiques of their games really just threaten women from their homes and turn the internet into a hellscape? Did a dumb bro-comedy really become a matter of national security? Did the president just commend Seth Rogen?
Technology gets used for a lot of horrible things in Black Mirror, but the lesson is never simply that technology is bad. In fact, part of what makes the show eerie is that the tech on display is appealing but unremarkable, as ordinary and inescapable as phones and social networks are today. If Brooker were a luddite, railing against the evils of technology, Black Mirror would be easy to dismiss, but I’d wager he’s an avid user; he certainly has a nuanced understanding of the particular ways tech can mess you up and remain seductive.
Did the president really just commend Seth Rogen?
Take the ocular implants in "The Entire History of You" and the recent Christmas special, "White Christmas." The implants end up causing everyone a great deal of emotional pain, but it’s obvious why you’d want them. You have total recall of every experience, sure, but it’s also where you send and receive messages, use facial recognition to identify new people, and navigate the world. (Sound familiar?) Without them, one would not be able to fully function in society. Even after Jon Hamm’s wife blocks him in the Christmas special, reducing both of them to staticky silhouettes, the most critical thing he can say is that he supposes that’s just "the price of progress." This is what makes the show truly dark, because it leads most of the characters to participate in their own destruction.
The bleakest episodes end with a half-rebellion. The protagonist realizes he or she is trapped, tries to escape, and only ends up more tangled. One of the darkest episodes, "Fifteen Million Merits," almost has an outsider character in the sullen Daniel Kaluuya. When the girl he loves is taken from him, he rebels — and his rebellion instantly gets commodified. The episode ends with him performing his protest for entertainment in exchange for a slightly larger cage. Almost every episode ends with a similar twisting of the knife. It’s reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes (You think the aliens want to serve you? LOL, "To Serve Man" is a cookbook.), except in Black Mirror it’s less a moralistic reversal than a clarifying of the situation.
This year has been rich in Black Mirror moments
This is the paranoia at the heart of Black Mirror: we’re building systems the full repercussions of which we don’t yet understand, and the idea of opting out of them is a myth. It’s the suspicion that even as technology is making life better and better — and I believe it is — it’s exposing us to dangers we won’t understand until it’s too late to do anything about them.
At times this year has felt like a Black Mirror clarifying moment, which is to say, it felt like the future, but in an ominous way. Everything is connected now, which turns out to mean that pretty much everything is getting hacked. Anyone can talk to anyone now, which means everyone risks getting harassed by trolls. Our news is increasingly curated by algorithms whose biases and blind spots we’re just beginning to understand. Oh, and also those algorithms can inadvertently inflict pain, and they’re kept relatively clean by an army of foreign laborers traumatized daily by the worst humanity has to offer. Of course, I’m still saving everything to the cloud, still on every social network and signing up for new ones, still not really sure where my data is going.
A couple years ago I would have had to say that these events feel like something out of dystopian science fiction. Now I can be more concise. When I read a story like this one, about companies giving employees fitness trackers and awarding insurance discounts if they exercise, I think, imagining my wristband beeping my premium increase after I eat a burger — right, this is a Black Mirror story.