'Black Mirror' Has a Bleak View of Technology, Humanity, and Its Audience

Netflix's new season of 'Black Mirror' falters when it forgoes the subtleties and forgets to trust its audience.

Oct 25 2016, 5:40pm

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Charlie Brooker has always had a cynical eye on the future. His Black Mirror takes place 20 minutes from now, in a world ten degrees more cynical than our own. And this new season has room to explore this darkness—it's direct to Netflix, with episodes at least an hour long. The season is preoccupied in particular with the parts of our identities we submerge and put in danger in the course of just getting by, and how hard it is to break free of our everyday tech; it's Black Mirror: Terms and Conditions.

But a second thematic thread emerges, particularly through Brooker's darkest visions, and gets to the heart of what this future is, and who it's for. Black Mirror is already certain technology is dangerous—that second question is: Are you?

Every horror story is both a cautionary tale and an empathy experiment—but an empathy experiment works by forcing you to understand something you hadn't previously considered. The most revealing part of Black Mirror might be what the show thinks its audience needs to hear, and what it assumes will be news to them.

At its best, Black Mirror uses technology to frame compelling characters and weighty questions. This season's standout episode, "San Junipero," uses the singularity as a backdrop for two women who fall in love, then have to decide whether their afterlives will be analog or digital. The ending is optimistic, but the episode's success is how the drama integrates the technology. Their virtual reality eternity is a tool, not a dictator, for their issues of identity and faith. The ways technology-as-object operates within the story (rationed out in nursing homes, final registration as a fiddly part of hospice paperwork) suggests a cautious oddness without undercutting the human drama.

"San Junipero" is the only episode this season where technology has any upsides. The show's entire run has been concerned about the ways we lose ourselves in seemingly necessary (or at least convenient) technology, and fall prey to its hidden rules. Because it's Black Mirror, those rules are almost inevitably sadistic. It's the season's weakest, but "Shut Up and Dance" is very clear about our everyday technology being used to control us against our own best interests. "Playtest" brings Fredric Wertham vigor to immersive VR, with a darkly comic stinger that suggests you drop the controller and call your mom. It's fascinating to watch the specifics of each of these brave new worlds, and what their empathy experiments suggest about the intended audience.

The overarching concern is the ways we lose ourselves in necessary technology, and fall prey to its hidden rules

"Men Against Fire," which tackles the military-industrial complex, centers on neural implant technology for soldiers (as reflexive to them as the translators on their armor). In the aftermath of a "roach hunt" to eliminate scavengers, we learn the military's blocked anything that interferes with efficiency: Soldiers don't smell battlefield carnage, and "roaches" appear vampiric so conscience can't interfere. When a soldier objects to his modifications, he gets a stark reminder the government quite literally controls what he sees: They casually turn off his optics, then force him to relive his own kills. This is, they remind him, the case for the rest of his life, so he might as well play along; it's literalized, institutionalized PTSD. It's a clear enough empathy test for those who expect military stories to glorify war—but who among Black Mirror's target audience is so unaware of the military's problems? Does the Black Mirror audience believe dehumanization of the enemy first happens on the battlefield? (And "roaches" are the "inferior-DNA" standbys of a freshman-year eugenics lesson. Was the empathy test—heaven forbid—also here, for those kicked into contemplation by the reveal that the sick are people too? If so, it's fascinating; Brooker is condemning his audience by proxy.)

This creeping lack of faith—in people, in the future—also sucks subtlety out of the satire. "Nosedive" (co-written by Brooker, Mike Schur, and Rashida Jones) is a pastel dystopia ruled by a social network with instant ratings for social interactions, from posting a photo to ordering coffee. People are assiduously polite and vaguely alienated, suppressing their feelings to snag the five-star ratings that determine job security, financial benefits, and social access.

"Nosedive" makes clear that being graded without recourse is bad news and that forced politeness grates, but the episode seems fundamentally unaware of things women and people of color already face daily on social media. This world as posited, in which women aren't subjected to debilitating ratings from catcallers or sexist bosses, and people of color aren't downvoted for, say, blocking traffic with a protest against police violence, seems actually like an improvement on the current status quo. Sure, parables simplify, but Black Mirror's empathy test asks such basic questions (Is social media making us disingenuous? Is it dangerous to be yourself?) that its intended commentary bounces off its own premise—unless you're so new to these ideas that it's the first time you've been asked to think them over.

Perhaps that's the real lesson of Black Mirror. For much of this season, the empathy experiment in each installment is a switch waiting to be flipped; the degree to which you question the missing pieces reflects both your own cynicism and Brooker's. But if you're horrified by Black Mirror, you haven't been paying attention.

The sense that a show doesn't trust its audience can make for tricky viewing. "Hated in the Nation," a Scandinavian-detective homage and 90-minute bee pun, neatly distills the season: It's not as hopeless as its darkest episodes, not as direct as its simpler parables, and it carries several thematic threads. It explores the Twitter hive mind (get it?) with bandwagon hashtags, activists, and trolls, against a setting that's much more interesting than any of that sounds. Black Mirror watchers presumably recognize the precepts being used—certainly the episode expects us to be familiar with social media. But the activist/troll divide the episode hopes to play with still ends up with an impossible task: Introduce Twitter within the show universe as if it's a foreign object, and then parse those internet dynamics with enough nuance to spark empathy from the audience. Sure, the episode suggests, the serial killer passing judgment is terrible, but isn't everyone on social media also terrible?

But the core of "Hated in the Nation" exists outside that social media muddle, in the degree to which nature now relies on technology and the ways the government happily exploits apolitical tech. Unlike the episode's Twitter crusade, this ethical tangle asks what can be done without answering it; it paints a picture that only slowly begins to look like our world, though once it does, it's hard to shake. For the audience, the real horror behind this tech isn't a flame war, or even a troll taken to the darkest endpoint—it's the audience realizing their own powerlessness in a government system that routinely uses third-party tech to betray their privacy. It's Black Mirror's most successful empathy test, and perhaps this vague distrust of its audience's awareness is its real point all along; it's not about knowing what the problem is, but about how little we can trust others to believe us.

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