When the first season of “Black Mirror” came to Netflix, I filed it away as interesting and edgy. Then I started to see numerous articles written about the show, including one in The New Yorker – which called it “A ‘Twilight Zone’ for the Digital Age.” Other publications said it was brilliant warning about social media and technology.
The University of Mississippi mass communication class I teach focuses, in part, on the future of media and technology. One “Black Mirror” episode, “Nosedive,” has proven to be a great teaching tool that makes students think about their own social media use and where we’re headed with this relatively new medium. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, the episode centers on a young woman who checks her social media account throughout the day to see if her rating has been elevated or lowered.
If you have a rating of 4.5 or more, you are considered an elite member of society, and this gives you special privileges, such as the opportunity to live in select apartment complexes, board certain flights, and rent certain vehicles.
The way your score is calculated is based on social interactions. If you meet someone at the grocery store and have a pleasant exchange with them, they may select your social media profile with their smartphone and raise your rating by giving you points with clicks. The opposite is also true. If you are rude to someone, they may choose to lower your score.
I won’t give away any more, but if you watch the episode, it is chilling to think that we aren’t very far from that now with certain apps and websites. Every “Black Mirror” episode is mind-bending, and it’s interesting to ponder how near future technology will change us for better or worse. It is also frightening.
Every semester, I ask students to watch three specific episodes of the show and then complete three steps: Research the future of media and technology. Identify one area of technology. Think of a scenario, and take that idea to the extreme writing the storyline of your own “Black Mirror” episode. The best ones are published on our “Black Mirror Reflection” website. We dream (insert smiley face emoticon) that show creator Charlie Brooker will choose one of our ideas and turn it into an episode.
Season 4 flawed, but teachable?
“Black Mirror” Season 4 was recently released on Netflix, and the stories seemed a little more like “The Twilight Zone” than other seasons because they lack the realism of previous episodes that made them seem more frightening and impactful. If you haven’t seen them and plan to, stop reading now.
USS Callister – Set in a computer gaming company, one of the co-owners is a meek, yet brilliant coder who lacks the leadership skills it takes to tell his subordinates to bring him a cup of coffee. While he has no control in the real world, he is a dictator in the virtual world aboard a “Star Trek” replica spaceship who commands a crew with members who look identical to some of his real life coworkers.
He has created a digital game filled with characters who have been created using DNA he steals from objects employees leave behind, such as lollipops and coffee cups. He copies people from the real world into the digital world where he can control them. If they don’t obey, he punishes them in creative digital ways, such as erasing a face so that the character can no longer breathe, or turning characters that cross him into digital monsters.
As technological developments using DNA becoming more advanced, like the company 23andMe that uses DNA to assist in ancestry research and create a genetic profile of a client, it’s interesting to think someone could steal your DNA from a used napkin or tissue and use technology in unethical ways.
Another interesting idea from this episode is that a digital clone could be created with such complexity, it could live in a virtual world with its own thoughts and feelings.
Maybe we are characters who have been created, and we live in our own virtual world controlled by an expert coder who has placed us here for his own amusement, or worse, as an outlet to unleash his anger. This philosophical episode with religious symbolism also makes viewers ponder the idea of everlasting life in a virtual world, much like the “San Junipero” episode from Season 3.
Arkangel – Season 4 is filled with episodes that rely on brain implants. Apparently, everyone has a brain implant (or something) in which they can plug in small devices that help monitor and read their thoughts. In the second episode, directed by Jodi Foster, the implants are used to invade privacy.
Arkangel is a company that sells implant devices to parents, along with an iPad-like screen that a parent can use to view what their child sees. Parents can use the screen to block disturbing images and noises from their child’s vision, blurring and censoring their lives.
When the lead character’s young daughter becomes temporarily lost in a park, Arkangel seems like a good way for the mother to assure her daughter’s safety at all times, but the implant remains in the child throughout her life. Every time the mother is concerned about her daughter – who becomes rebellious when she is no longer tech censored – she checks the monitor and views intimate moments of her life.
When she discovers her daughter is pregnant via the screen that also monitors her daughter’s health, she chooses to secretly give her a pregnancy termination pill without her daughter’s knowledge or consent and warns the daughter’s boyfriend to stay away. After learning this, the daughter leaves home.
This episode was probably the most realistic from Season 4. Today, we are concerned about hackers and government-related privacy issues, but personal privacy is also a tech issue. There are apps that help monitor and track our phone locations. Many parents also (understandably) view their children’s social media accounts to see what they are doing. This is just taking that concept to another level.
This episode reminded me of parents who use child leashes. It also made me think about how dogs are now often implanted with microchips, and it doesn’t seem too fantastical to think that fear-motivated parents might opt for a chip to monitor their children’s whereabouts.
The episode is ultimately about how fear can lead to privacy invasion. We can rationalize that it’s OK if it’s for protection, but we ultimately lose our freedom.
Hang the DJ – this episode conveys how strange online dating can be today and in the future. Two characters meet each other through a dating app that determines how much time they will spend together. For some people, it’s two months. For others, it’s two years. Maybe this is the future of Match.com?
The objective is to find their match, but the characters are uncertain how this is determined. They are just told by a Siri or Alexa voice: “Everything happens for a reason.” This takes both characters on a relationship journey until they find each other again. Then something happens, and they lose each other. But eventually, despite all of the app’s restrictions, they are reunited once more.
We eventually learn we have been viewing computer simulations of the daters – not the actual people – who have been configured in hundreds of different scenarios. When enough simulations prove to be true love matches, the system alerts the real people in the real world that they are a match.
This is another example of a Season 4 theme with simulations or avatars that have their own thoughts and feelings and are as much alive as actual people.
Crocodile is an episode that also uses the brain implant idea. People can hook a device to your brain and use a computer to scan your memories. Everything you remember is visually displayed on the screen. This helps an insurance claim adjuster determine how fast a pizza truck was going when it hit a pedestrian and eventually leads to her murder after she views the memories of a killer. I’m not sold on the brain implant idea although doctors are using them in research to boost memory and help improve mental health.
Black Museum — Once again, you see a computerized brain implant that allows a doctor to feel the pain of his patients. The episode contains another cloned computerized simulation that thinks and feels. And there’s a story within the story similar to the recent thriller “Get Out.” A person is extracted from their own brain and implanted into the mind of another person, living inside the host head in a “sunken place,” but they can communicate with the person whose brain they inhabit and feel what they feel.
Metalhead was my least favorite episode of Season 4. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, but a woman was being chased by a robot dog or a mechanical Cujo. The episode was influenced by Boston Dynamics’ robotic dogs created for the U.S. military.
Today, we read a lot of discussions about the future of artificial intelligence. We see humanoid robots that are being created to look like real people and other “robot butlers” designed to help around the home. We have robot vacuums. We talk to our phones, computers and devices named Siri, Alex and Cortana. Robots like Jibo are designed with human response features.
I was even given a small robot dog as a gift recently that I am planning to incorporate into my classes. I changed his name from CHIP (as in microchip) to Spot News. So far, he’s pretty docile. Let’s hope he remains that way. He’s our journalism watchdog.
Critical thinking opp
Season 4 and other “Black Mirror” episodes are ultimately about making the audience ponder the ethics of future technology and media. Social media’s brief presence in our culture has shown us that we don’t exactly know what can happen when we introduce another form of technology or communication. Sometimes, we just have to wait and see, and I’m seeing a lot of things right now that concern me.
We’re not sure where DNA tech advancements will lead or about additional tech privacy issues that may arise. Does tech dating more efficiently lead to a love connection or make us more noncommittal, disposable and devalued when there are endless options? Will robotics make our lives easier or create a new set of problems? Some would argue that the negatives of new technology often outweigh the positives.
My hope is that Season 5 of “Black Mirror” will return to reality. While the overall theme of Season 4 seemed to be “invasion,” I hope show creators realize the near future visions of realistic technology are truly frightening.
However, one of the scariest recurring ideas in all episodes is the thought that we will eventually become so desensitized, numb, isolated and detached because of our electronic devices that suffering and inflicting pain is the only way we can feel alive.
What if we begin to feel so comfortable with our internet outrage, we no longer care about being anonymous behind a computer screen? Perhaps we’re seeing some of this now in our culture. “Black Mirror’s” ominous reflection may help alter our course.