Aired late last year in the UK, the short anthology series Black Mirror is one of the best works of science fiction I've seen on television in a long time. All three episodes, set in near and distant futures, are about how we integrate new technologies into the most intimate parts of our lives, often with hideous results. What makes this series so powerful is its incredible psychological realism. The future worlds we see in Black Mirror may be fantastical, but the pettiness, self-absorption, and misdirected righteousness of its inhabitants are as familiar as home.
Black Mirror was created by irascible BBC TV critic Charlie Brooker, who previously blew us away with his dark, satirical zombies-vs.-reality TV series Dead Set. Brooker is at his best when dissecting the ways people interact with media, and here he gives us three takes on how social media will continue to degrade us in new ways as the future unfolds.
The series begins with "The National Anthem," a story that could take place literally tomorrow. England is abuzz with tales of the impending nuptials of the "Facebook princess." As every TV monitor helpfully informs us, she's the first royal ever to accept a marriage proposal via Facebook. But now she's been kidnapped by a half-crazy performance artist who swears he'll murder her unless the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live television. What follows is in part a snarky revenge fantasy that we've all had about every annoying politician. But it's also an incredibly savvy, unflinching look at exactly how the PM's media team would try to spin this mind-bogglingly bizarre event. They can't do a media blackout because the artist has released a YouTube video of the battered, weeping princess begging for her life. The whole scenario is, as the PM's gang spins it, a form of media terrorism.
What's remarkable is that Brooker manages to turn this dirty joke into something that feels both realistic and weirdly humane. In one scene, we watch audiences as they watch the live pigfucking feed. As the sarcastic mirth drains from everybody's faces we're suddenly struck by what it means to live in a world where internet trolls are akin to political terrorists. And we also realize, with the audience, that calling the PM a pigfucker is not the same thing as turning him into one for everybody to see. There are things that simply should not be broadcast, and this is one of them.
This idea animates the other entries in the series, too. The second episode, "15 Million Merits," is definitely the highlight of Black Mirror. We're introduced to a far-future world that is in some ways quite Utopian. All energy is green, and all work is "gamified," that is designed to motivate people by making them feel like they're playing a game. Unfortunately, the green energy comes from vast warehouses full of people riding on exercise bikes to generate kilowatts. And the "merits" they earn all go back into their MMO-like social entertainment system, which feeds them diversion all day while they sit on those bikes.
There are a ton of great details here, like the way it costs a handful of merits to dismiss the ubiquitous porn ads that pop up everywhere from the bathroom mirror, to the work screens everybody stares at all day. We're also treated to a long look at the hideously believable entertainment in this future. Our protagonist prefers the most simple interface he can get – he just watches his avatar biking on a road all day long, until one day a new worker captures his attention. She wants to be a singer, and in a fit of romantic hopefulness he gives her all his merits so she can pay to be a contestant on a talent show. What happens next is tragic in a way you won't expect, underscoring one of Brooker's favorite notions, which is that there is nothing worse for people who want be on TV than actually getting to do it.
Like "The National Anthem," this episode pays careful attention to audiences. It's fascinating to see who chooses to watch what, both in the opening segment we've got a clip from above, and in the final moments of the episode. Again, Brooker's sympathies lie with this audience, lured into watching other people's degradation – or, perhaps worse, lulled into forgetting their own degradation for a while by watching "intelligent commentary."
Black Mirror's final episode, "The Entire History of You," could be set in the same world as "15 Million Merits," but among the upper classes who don't have to bike for a living. Everyone's been implanted with a technology called "the grain," a tiny computer behind your ear that stores all your memories. Using iPod-like controllers, everybody can riffle through their own personal history, projecting it onto enormous monitors, zooming in on details they may have missed and amplifying conversations so that they can eavesdrop using their own memories. Basically, the conceit is that Facebook now lives in your head, and everybody spends their time projecting their own memories to their friends, discussing what they saw that day or replaying "the good times."
The genius here is the way we're shown how such a technology would get seamlessly integrated into the oldest kind of conflict, between a jealous husband and his wife. I especially love the scene where we see what would happen if you could actually prove to your spouse that something they said long ago contradicts what they are saying in the middle of your fight that instant. Using his grain, the husband proves to his wife that she told him long ago she'd had a weeklong affair – even though now she says it was a month long. As they squabble, he tells her that sometimes she's a bitch, and she fights back simply by projecting his statement back on the screen, forcing him to watch himself calling her a bitch over and over.
Their fight over the affair escalates into exactly the kind of brutal horribleness that you'd guess, except our characters live in a world where they can share and delete memories. As a result, their psychological conflict becomes disturbingly literal – just imagine how people would torture each other if they could access each other's personal histories on giant TV screens. Here, at last, is the ultimate relationship of degradation between media and audience. When your whole life can be consumed as media, then nothing is ever safe or private again.
If you're looking for intelligent, disturbing science fiction, I highly recommend Black Mirror. It will smack you in the face and leave you smarting for weeks afterward as you ponder what kind of world we're creating for ourselves.