Bleak would be an apt word to describe the future that Charlie Brooker has envisioned in his dystopian series, Black Mirror. Bleak would be putting it kindly. These are harrowing stories. And they are stories that will keep you awake at night more than a film about ghosts and ghouls, because these stories have an uncomfortable realism to them. The drama may be fictionalised at times but themes and subjects being exploited feel all so real.
Surveillance is one such issue. In a handful of episodes, Brooker poses a scenario where someone’s life isn’t in their control, with technology as the medium. The “Arkangel” system allows a Mother to fuel her over protectiveness by taking away her daughter’s free will, monitoring her every move. “Shut Up and Dance” pits paedophile against paedophile under the control of vigilante hackers.
But perhaps the most authentically modern glance at surveillance is Black Mirror’s pilot: “The National Anthem”. In this episode the Prime Minister is coerced by the public and the media to… have sex with a pig. Pretty grim, yes, and the terrorist who made that demand has a pretty big degree of blame. But the episode focuses on the mob mentality that the public adopt during the crisis.
Outcry leads to personal attacks on the PM, driven by the media’s constant surveillance of his personal life. Not to say that their opinion on the situation is wrong but this level of hounding happens on a daily basis across the world over far less black and white issues.
Another episode that brings this to light is “Fifteen Million Merits” which centres around a fictionalised talent show, Hot Shot. A talent show which shamelessly degrades people, and encourages the public to degrade them too. Sound familiar? As a nation we are all too aware of talent and reality shows breeding insecurities that lead to suicide. You want to sand down the impact that they have – stop letting the Cowells plug persuadable people for financial gain? Firstly, don’t contribute to their ratings.
"It’s hard to describe what that does to your head. Suddenly there’s a million invisible people, all talking about how they despise you." Georgina Rich, Hated in the Nation
“Nosedive” is an unsettling look into a world where we all act like a talent judge. The episode follows a society that rates each other out of five by every little action. Harmless? Well, no. Actually pretty damning, considering your way of life is directly affected by your rating. Likes on social media pages make us feel good, they give us authentication and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Nosedive” depicts a world where that feeling snowballs uncontrollably and individuality evaporates. We feel sorry for Lacie, our protagonist, because she was just trying to fit in with everyone else. Brooker suggests that there is a healthy balance to all of it and his scripts like "Nosedive" are the epitome of imbalance.
"People want to be noticed. They don’t like to be shut out. It makes them feel invisible." Jon Hamm, White Christmas
The truth is that the most ugly realities in Black Mirror don’t centre around these extreme versions of technology, such as a simulator that grants an after-life, or an implant that lets you record everything. The most disturbing truths are based around the power of media and advertising, social media’s impact on the world, and the unbridled connection that people can now use to argue with someone in a different hemisphere. And most importantly, how much power the individuals let them have over their lives.
An exception to this would be the subject of the environment, which is something that Brooker sprinkles in throughout the series. The Guardian, home to many of Brooker’s early columns, is one U.K. publication committed to raising awareness of global warming – so it’s no surprise that Brooker has found ways to scatter warnings into his show.
“Hated in the Nation” sees a future where there is a solution to the diminishing numbers of bees: make robotic ones. The scenario in which these robotic insects could be used to attack people is more satirical than realistic. The problem with this world is that we as a society should not be planning to make the “best out of a bad situation”. Brooker says it best in his column, My Plan To Save Mankind, on the Guardian:
“What we need…to let visions of the future dictate our present, rather than the other way round"
The future in “Hated in the Nation” and the universe where we ride bicycles to power our televisions in “Fifteen Million Merits” are avoidable. If we start soon. Really soon.
Thankfully, we’re not at the point yet where any of this is absolutely coming true. And Back to the Future’s vision of 2015 will tell you that science has a much better chance at predicting the future than any screen-writer ever could. So why does Black Mirror inspire so much anxiety? Well, for one, the highlighted dangers of surveillance, climate change, social media and countless others have been tracked by scientists for years. Yet there is still a collective shrug of “someone else’s problem” from the majority of the world.
And that’s where the blaming finger of Brooker really points. Not to the technology, not even to the corporations that build this technology but to the people that abuse it. His protagonists are flawed victims to greed, pride, sloth and every other sin in the book. In “The Entire History of You” when our lead, Liam, finds his life spiralling out of control, it’s because he used the technology to justify his unhealthy jealousy. And in “Be Right Back”, when a grieving wife orders a robotic clone of her deceased husband, she shouldn’t be too surprised when it doesn’t really work out. We’re not sure what she expected.
These characters are flawed, but they are human. And to be human is to be a little flawed. The message here isn’t to be the perfect person, or even to completely shun technology - it’s to not rely on the technology the way that we, as a society, are starting to. Have a week off Facebook. Turn off the news. Switch off your electricity for a couple hours.
Again, it’s a cautionary tale about balance. Brooker warns that if we don’t try cull this reliance, one day we’ll all be given the tools to play God, and we’ll assume nothing could go wrong.