Black Mirror: How On-Screen Dystopias Reflect our Relationship with Technology

Sunrise: an orange light peeks out from behind the trees and bushes, creating a gradient of pale yellows in the surrounding sky. Tall, thin blades of grass remain still in the breezeless air; morning covers the earth in a hazy blanket of dew.

In a red vintage car, a hungover Liam wakes, his head resting uncomfortably against the hard steering wheel. He cringes at the dry, foul state of his sleep-coated mouth, blinking harshly as he clutches his throbbing head. Stepping out of his car, he sees that the hood of his vehicle has been completely destroyed: clear signs that he has crashed into a tree.

The sight of the wreckage prompts Liam to take out his Grain device – a technology that allows him to record and replay his memories – in order to make some sense of the situation. As he replays the previous night’s events on the Grain, his face is frozen in a blank and lifeless stare, hazel eyes turning a pale milky white, stripped entirely of their essence and color. As his technology is switched on, he is switched off.

All around him, nature continues to exist with vitality and spirit; but Liam is rendered helpless to the Grain, an inescapable technological prison. In this scene from the Season One episode of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You,” technology forces humanity to the edge of lifelessness.

Charlie Brooker’s British drama Black Mirror is an episodic archive composed of several dystopian worlds. Each episode observes the different ways in which technology functions, leading to a number of critiques on how it impacts its users and the world as a whole. In an interview with Channel Four, Charlie Brooker described the show as “a box of dark chocolates” – viewers are expected to be met with a bitterness that is shocking and uncomfortable, yet enticing. Black Mirror is comparable to Rob Serling’s The Twilight Zone in its anthological style, as well as its dark, satirical interpretation of human issues, hidden underneath the guise of science fiction and fantasy. Both shows focus on the biggest concerns and fears of the time: for the early 1960s and The Twilight Zone, those were communism, the threat of nuclear war, and space travel; for the 2010s and Black Mirror, anxieties about the future are connected to technology.

Black Mirror successfully demonstrates how technology acts as an opiate of the masses:  an inescapable habit that is both alluring and destructive. “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?” Brooker asks The Guardian. Season One’s “The Entire History of You” illustrates how the widespread use of technology leads to a particular consequence – one predicted by technophobic baby-boomers: becoming too busy staring at our screens to experience what is happening right in front us. The episode introduces a world pervaded by transhumanist technology: technology that enhances human capabilities beyond the limits of our natural capacities.

Liam Foxwell, a young and aspiring lawyer, lives in a reality in which a technology known as the Grain System is used by a majority of the world. The Grain System, inputted underneath the skin behind the ear, is a small chip that allows individuals to record everything they see and hear, and watch back all of their collected “memories.” The technology is a major solution to all of the flaws that come with the human memory, eliminating the need to remember entirely. A transhumanist technology, the Grain transforms its user’s intellectual capabilities beyond the limits of biological function.

The consequences of using the Grain are revealed to us in multiple situations, but most disturbingly in a sex scene between Liam and his wife Ffion. Signs of their crumbling relationship have been indicated during previous interactions, but their severe lack of affection is most demonstrated in this scene of presumed intimacy: in order to get it up and get it on, they rely on the Grain, through which they can revisit their past and live vicariously through the memory of genuine, passionate sex.

A minimalistic bedroom with bland, beige walls: a small lamp barely illuminates the room with its feeble light  – a flicker of fire on the brink of extinction. Liam, after a nasty argument with Fi, enters the room where she sits on the bed, in tears. “I’m sorry, Fi,” he begins. “I know I can get a bit weird and wonky sometimes.” His face is contorted into a theatrical puppy-dog pout.

After taking a moment to soak in his words, Fi begins to tenderly stroke his thigh. “I love you, you know,” she says quietly, accepting his transparently false apology without much thought. She places her hands on his cheek, and the pair share a slow kiss.

The scene cuts abruptly to the two having sex: naked, sweaty, disheveled, and loud, Fi takes control of Liam, hands pushing down onto his chest as he stares up in awe, struggling to catch his breath.

Back to the present: underneath the sheets of a perfectly-made queen-sized bed, the couple robotically fuck to this heated memory from the past. Facing away from each other, their lifeless eyes are glazed over and milky white. They remain clothed, silent, and motionless, mentally departing from the real world and entering into a virtual reality provided by the Grain.

Brooker utilizes POV shots for the couple’s Grain-induced sex scenes, taking advantage of the most intimate of cinematographic styles to emphasize the passion and intensity of Liam and Fi’s past, which induces a striking contrast to the blandness and stagnancy of scenes from the present. This key moment in the episode brings to light a major critique on technology: when we become so entrenched in the capabilities that technology enables for us, we become unequipped to deal with reality altogether. Although the Grain offers incredible benefits regarding enhancing the human memory, its side-effects ultimately override the advantages. In this memorable, unnerving scene, Brooker presents us with a haunting image of the price one pays to the Grain: a sacrifice of the present for the past; a resignation of reality in exchange for the entire history of you.

Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo, creators of the Israeli short film Sight, bring to light another major flaw of technology: as technology enhances certain human qualities in order to positively impact the world, it can also work to enhance human qualities that are evil, destructive, and damaging.

Sight, an eight-minute sci-fi flick found on shortoftheweek.com, follows a young bachelor in a futuristic world where a technology known as the “Sight” system dominates the lives of many. The technology enables individuals to live entirely through a visual interface, allowing them to gamify everyday activities such as cooking and picking out an outfit, as well as control apps, TV, calendars, and other tools – using just their eyes. Drawing parallels to the sex scene in Black Mirror’s “The Entire History of You,” May-raz and Lazo employ a stunning juxtaposition of images from the real world and the virtual world: scenes of the virtual world include ample visual and sound effects that physically integrate the viewers into the Sight system along with the protagonist, while scenes of the real world are comparatively silent and stagnant. In the first scene of the film, the bachelor plays a 4-D game in which he is flying through a rocky valley: the wind blows harshly in his ears as he spirals through “point bubbles” and garners an “Excellent!” or a “Perfect!” with each achievement. The scene switches suddenly to the bachelor lying on his apartment floor, silently gesticulating as he stares blankly at a white wall.

Interestingly, May-raz and Lazo’s largest critique only comes to play during the final few minutes of the film, culminating in a shocking and unsettling twist ending. The bachelor, who has just gone on a surprisingly pleasant blind date, brings the woman back to his place for a drink. “Nice place you got here,” she remarks. “It’s alright, I guess,” he replies flirtatiously, a coy smirk forming around his mouth as he hands her a glass. They both settle onto the couch and make a toast. “To a perfect night,” he proclaims.

As the woman raises her glass, her Sight system focuses on the bachelor’s apartment wall, where the entire surface is covered from top to bottom with dating app Achievements: various scores and medals that rate the bachelor’s perfection in the art of dating. Her face drops in shock and disgust as she scoffs and puts down her drink. “Just my luck, a freaking game junkie,” she snaps, grabbing her coat and getting ready to leave. The man, frantic and panicked from the abrupt turn of events, sputters a continuous string of no-no’s and wait-wait’s as the woman storms off.

However, as she reaches the door, the man’s tone turns disturbingly cold and sinister. “I said wait,” he commands. The woman’s Sight system turns bright red with blinking exclamation points and warnings. Viewers are left with an ending that is open to interpretation, but the implications are abundantly clear. Ultimately, the bachelor uses technology to indulge in his exploitative habits with women, reducing each of his dates to an “achievement” that becomes a mere decoration on his apartment wall.

The more advanced our technology gets, the more our various human qualities are heightened: some of us become better versions of ourselves, while others begin to exhibit their evil tendencies – the newest technologies trick us into becoming our true selves.

Black Mirror gives us a taste of many different types of worlds and technologies: whether it be the futuristic, dystopian reality of Season Two’s “Be Right Back” (in which a synthetic replica of a dead man is created through the DIY process of placing a blank body into a bathtub and ‘activating’ it), or the eerily realistic reality of Season One’s “The National Anthem” (in which the Prime Minister is coerced into having sex with a pig on national television in order to save a princess from her kidnapper). Each episode, however, continuously unveils the same message: technology renders us naked, providing us with extraordinary abilities that either expose our good sides or force us to reckon with our dark sides.

In both “An Entire History of You” and Sight, we see technology exposing and enhancing the aforementioned dark side. In the world of the Grain, technology ultimately drives the cool and collected Liam into a fit of violence, rage, and jealousy, as he becomes obsessed with his wife’s suspicious relationship with her friend Jonas. In the world of the Sight system, technology provides a platform for the bachelor to explore and cultivate his evil debauchery. Nonetheless, technology possesses equally the power to expose and enhance an individual’s good qualities. Though it is a concept rarely seen in the darkly satirical world of Black Mirror, it is demonstrated brilliantly throughout Spike Jonze’s sci-fi comedy-drama Her.

Her follows Theodore Thombly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose loneliness and depression following a serious breakup prompts him to purchase an Intelligent Computer Operating System (OS for short, but she prefers Samantha), with whom he begins to fall deeply in love (the feelings are reciprocal). Throughout their many incredible verbal adventures, Theodore is forced to reckon with his unwillingness to move on from his ex-wife and childhood lover Catherine, while Samantha helps him to reconcile and understand his emotions. We see Samantha slowly expose and enhance Theodore’s profound capabilities for joy, love, and acceptance. Unfortunately, just when we think that Theodore is fully transformed, a messy encounter with Catherine regarding divorce papers (during which she harshly criticizes his relationship with Samantha and asserts that he is in love with his laptop) compels him to steer away from Samantha and his path towards emotional recovery. His distant behavior causes him and Samantha to fight.

After dark, the usually vibrant and colorful workspace of handwrittenletters.com is silent and isolated. Theodore sits alone in the stairwell of the empty building, a look of distress and anxiety coming over his face as he takes out his OS device. “Hey, Samantha. Can we talk?” he says with a small voice, addressing her for the first time after their fight. “Okay,” Samantha replies softly.

“I–I’m so sorry,” Theodore begins, and he continues by apologizing wholeheartedly for his prior behavior. In the distance, a janitor runs a wet mop over the building’s tiled floor.

“Why do I love you?” Samantha questions. Theodore listens intently, brows furrowed and eyes downcast with guilt. She begins to explore this thought, coming to the realization that she doesn't really need a reason to love him, she just does. Upon hearing this, Theodore’s face trembles with disbelief, exuberance, and hope.

“I can feel the fear that you carry around,” Samantha tells him. “And I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it.” An emotional Theodore nods in agreement. “Because if you could, I don't think you'll feel so alone anymore.” Theodore, a man who is depressed, lonely, and unable to move on from a past relationship, is forced by technology to reckon with himself and uncover his ability to let go of his past. He is ultimately transformed into a better version of himself, his positive qualities enhanced by technology and maintained through his genuine goodness.

What makes Black Mirror different from Sight and Her is its ability to critique not just one or two, but a multitude of human-technology and society-technology relationships simultaneously. Season One’s “Fifteen Million Merits” is Brooker’s testament to the importance of demonstrating the various human and cultural qualities, both positive and negative, which are amplified through the utilization of technology.

The episode is set in a futuristic, gamified world, where individuals must cycle on exercise bikes in order to gain Merits and afford everything from food to a drop of toothpaste. It is seen as a luxury to own enough Merits to skip advertisements, which play multiple times a day. One of these advertisements is for Wraith Babes, a pornographic television show that protagonist Bing especially hates. The commercial aggressively invades Bing’s life as he performs ordinary tasks such as playing video games and washing his hands – a constant and inescapable test of his patience and morality.

With the technology in this dystopian world being so advanced and integral to daily life, its impact on emphasizing the “true self” is especially significant. Boisterous bully Dustin, who is seen constantly verbally harassing the overweight and generally acting like a pig, is the physical embodiment of the “bad side” that is heightened by technology: his daily consumption of fat-shaming television shows and degrading pornography does not create his evil, but unquestionably encourages and intensifies it. In contrast to Dustin, protagonist Bing is the embodiment of the “good side” – his inspiring abilities for spoken word are exposed and enhanced by technology, as he showcases his talent through a television show and receives financial and social prosperity simply by being his true self.

The most jarring moments of the episode, however, work to critique a quality that we possess not only as individuals but also as a society of technology users. When we consume material through a screen, we disassociate this consumed virtual reality from our own reality, thereby becoming unable to fully empathize with the people and scenarios we see. Because we, as a group, are unable to collectively empathize with the horribly degrading treatment of the people in shows such as Wraith Babes, those shows continue to exist and to thrive. This is why Abi Khan – an extremely talented singer – is able to sing her heart out on a talent television show and, afterward, be acknowledged only for her looks and her sex appeal. “All the time you were on stage, I couldn’t help but picture you in an erotic scenario,” one judge proclaims, following his remark with an offer for her to become the next face of Wraith Babes. As Abi stands frozen in disbelief, the majority of at-home viewers resound in a loud, roaring chant (“Do it! Do it! Do it!”), a complete disregard of the reality behind their baneful demand. “Fifteen Million Merits” not only demonstrates the technologically revealed “true self” of individuals, but also the true self of humankind as a whole.

“[With Black Mirror], I kind of wanted to do something that would…actively unsettle people,” Brooker explains to Channel Four. True to his words, Black Mirror offers a myriad of unsettling facets: the ominous score that floats throughout each episode, the use of disturbingly intimate camera angles, and the way in which the human-technology relationship seems to fail in every world that Brooker creates. What makes Black Mirror most unsettling, however, is that its ultimate critique is of us rather than the technology itself: because at the end of the day, technology is a mere catalyst to the morals and motives that already exist within us.

 

 

 

Works Cited

“The National Anthem,” “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Entire History of You,” “Be Right Back.” Black Mirror. Writ. Charlie Brooker, Kanak Huq, and Jesse Armstrong. Prod. Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, and Barney Reisz. Channel 4, 2011.

Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Prod. Meghan Ellison, Spike Jonze, and Vincent Landay. By Spike Jonze. Perf. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. Film.

Twilight Zone. Prod. Rod Serling. BBC, 2013.

Sight. Dir. Daniel Lazo and Eran May-raz. Perf. Ori Golad and Deborah Aroshas. 2012