Everyone's favourite dystopian tech-anxiety anthology series Black Mirror has returned with six new episodes. VICE is exploring some of the ideas raised in these episodes with the help of key figures in the show, as well the wider world of science and technology. Read the first one, about the "USS Callister" episode, here.
"Arkangel" – the second episode of season four of Black Mirror – is a story about a tracker parents can implant in their children. It allows them to keep tabs on where their kids are, see through their eyes and even block dangerous content from their view. What starts as a story of overprotective parenting gets, in true Black Mirror fashion, much darker.
This interview with Charlie Brooker about the episode contains a couple of light spoilers.
VICE: So how did you come to writing "Arkangel"? It felt like an episode only a parent could write.
Charlie Brooker: Yeah, it did come from that. It feels cliche to say, but I did sort of feel reprogrammed the moment my kids were born – suddenly I’ve got a new mission, which is to protect them. At the same time, they’re born into a world where there's technology around them, and they're immediately tested by it.
Children are also so often at the frontline of technological advancement. They adapt to new technology quicker than anyone.
Totally. My five-year-old just completed Super Mario on the the weekend, which I’m inordinately proud of. But yeah, it felt like the topic we hadn’t done yet. Often in our episodes we present something that's sort of got a technological gismo which gives people great power, and you can understand why they use it. The Arkangel system [the character] uses is a very attractive thing to use; it would be very hard for many parents to not agree to use that. And at that point, are you just overstepping the mark? Hopefully people who are parents will go, 'Oh, that's me,' and people who've got overprotective parents will look at it and see some aspects of their life in there.
So, on the one hand, there's the tracking element, knowing what your kids are seeing and doing. And then there's this added functionality about blocking out distressing things.
Yeah, it’s also about censorship. But sometimes I struggle to answer these questions because I don’t think about the themes too much, in a way, when I’m writing them. I sort of think about the characters, or I’m thinking, 'Oh, that would be interesting if that happened, then this would happen' – a bit like a computer programmer. Then this, then that.
I suppose that's a balance you must always have to strike on Black Mirror, because the newsy coverage of the show focuses on the technology and what it's saying about the future. But as a writer, it's only interesting to have those futuristic concepts if you care about what happens to the characters.
Hopefully. I mean, the stories start out as weird little "what if" ideas, which I use to horrify the other people on the show. But then the next step is "Okay, let's imagine it is an actual scenario." Who's caught up in that? You're then also constantly trying to make the viewer care about it. I think the show is often quite visceral generally, because it goes to more extremes than you're expecting often – probably in an attempt to go, "Pay bloody attention to this, we’ve only got an hour."
It’s not that often that you have young kids on the show – did that present unique challenges?
Well, obviously it was Jodie Foster who directed that, so who better to deal with child actors, literally. I think she was performing from the age of three, which is crazy. I didn't get to go to the set because they shot it in Canada – I was staying home. But she was very good with the cast and everything.
How did it come about that she directed the episode?
Well, she had a relationship with Netflix. She'd done House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, so they put her in touch with us. We sent her the script and she liked it, and she came back with lots of feedback. And she's really, really normal. Really, for someone who’s had all that experience in her life, very, very grounded. I mean, I don’t know how you pull that off. She was a pleasure to talk to and to work with. And she flew over here for the editing. We edited it in Twickenham.
This episode made me think a bit. I have my friends and my girlfriend on the Find My Friends app on my iPhone. I can look and see where they are right now.
Do they know that you do this?
Yeah, they have to agree – we all follow each other. One time a mate went back to their ex-boyfriend's house when they said they were done with them, and we all saw the next morning. We were straight on the group thread like, "We can see you're in Holloway!"
Is that bad?
That's quite bad! Isn't it? At least you're not looking through their eyes and seeing what they're doing, so it isn't that bad. Blimey!
I feel quite bad now. But that’s a preloaded Apple app, so lots of people must do it.
They give their permission for you to see their whereabouts? Has anybody ever signed out?
Yes, when people – for example – start a new relationship, they might want a few months off.
What, away from the peering eye in the sky that you apparently are?
Oh god, it's really bad, isn't it?
Yeah, that is a bit bloody weird.
But I also identify with the sense of comfort which the mum in "Arkangel" gets, just seeing people moving about, knowing they're alive and well. I could see, as a parent or a carer, it's such an obvious tool to want.
I imagine, as you can get GPS kits for kids' shoes. So it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that that stuff exists. I haven't had cause to use it at the moment because my kids are so young, but certainly I’ve talked to people whose parents use Find My Friends in a similar way, to keep a check on their teenage kids and stuff like that. I can understand the impulse and the want to do that, but you're basically a spy. You're spying on a person, invading their privacy. And an obvious way to do that within the story was to lean into the intimate moments of their life, then pry into it. It's quite a dilemma.