Reflections on the ‘Black Mirror’

The TV series our tech-saturated times demand you watch

I know you’re behind on Game of Thrones and you still want to binge-watch Orange Is the New Black, but if you fancy yourself an adept, or even curious, user of modern technology, I have to insist that you elevate a British show—that you can’t easily get!—to the top of your queue. You have to watch Black Mirror.

According to the U.K.’s Channel 4, the show is "a contemporary British reworking of the Twilight Zone." The description does not do it justice. Black Mirror, created by British humorist Charlie Brooker, wrestles with our collective unease about our embrace of technology in the modern world. "Black mirror" refers to what all the screens in our lives look like. Western civilization might be bipolar when it comes to technological progress. We demand ever more connectivity and powerful devices . . . yet we lash out in shocked horror at the NSA for taking logical advantage of those same tools we embrace. From Minority Report to the Terminator franchise, we’re good at painting scary images of a techno-powered future. But unlike those dystopias, Black Mirror uses dark humor, not sci-fi polemics, to challenge us while entertaining us.

There is no consistent set of characters, no epic battle between warring families, no antihero, no singular lovable/hateable protagonist around which to rally. Even without dragons, Black Mirror is compelling in its exploration of the implications of our tech embrace.

The series deals with gamification, new forms of criminal punishment, a reimagination of digital terrorism, and more. However, the first episode of season 2 might be my favorite. It focuses on a woman who’s just lost her husband in an automobile accident. After the funeral, her friend tells her she can still talk to her dead husband. It’s not because of a Ouija board or some other paranormal gateway. It’s a software service that ingests all of her husband’s public content and develops an interactive, artificial-intelligence bot that communicates through text messages as her husband would. Ghost texting.

Later, she’s offered an opportunity to upgrade her virtual husband by handing over his personal emails and videos, etc., which will allow her to speak with him on the phone.

Creepy, right?

What are the ethics of such a service? Does it help her heal or prevent her from moving on? Is this where Facebook is headed?

And that’s just one episode. The magic of the show is that scenarios like this one aren’t insanely far-fetched. One of you reading this might be working on an Afterlife Bot right now. Stop! Watch Black Mirror first.

Black Mirror is the perfect show for our times. We’ve created a self-fulfilling technologyadoption engine where things are faster, more connected, more immersive—and, presumably, relentlessly better. Watch Black Mirror and be reminded that we apply the word progress to undergird what is more objectively change.

Alas, there is no legitimate way to access its six episodes outside of the U.K. I think of this as Brooker’s perversely delightful challenge: You’re a resourceful person. I trust you to figure it out. We all need you to figure it out.

[Illustration by Álvaro Domínguez]

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