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Real Distopia and ‘Black Mirror’

The problem with this modern-day ‘Twilight Zone’ is not what it says but what it leaves out

Brett Vetterlein Dec 9

Black Mirror, the popular British science fiction show available on Netflix, presents a series of vignettes cataloging dystopias both near and far. The show tries to tap into our particular fears — about technology, about media, about celebrity — in order to diagnose our anxieties about the ever-expanding digital age and beyond.

Each episode tells a self-contained story. Past seasons have included episodes about a comedic cartoon running for public office, a 1984-esque future where slaves ride stationary bikes to win enough points to enter an American Idol-style reality show and a technology that drives users mad replaying all their most tragic memories.

In the show’s third season, released in October on Netflix, Black Mirror once again offers a bleak glimpse at what the future may offer us. Bleaker still is what that glimpse into the future lacks.  

The season’s inaugural episode, "Nosedive," tells the story of a well-meaning social climber in a world where the main currency is a constant person-to-person rating app. Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a seemingly bright and chipper person, interested in making boring small talk and being polite to service workers.

However, much of this is a façade. Lacie is so eager to dole out five-star ratings to perfect strangers because she hopes to receive them back herself. There is a house she wants to buy, but it’s off limits to anyone below a 4.5 rating. In a heartbreakingly funny series of events, Lacie winds up getting arrested while crashing a distant friend’s wedding, all while her social rating plummets.

This episode, like much of the show, offers a somewhat prescient critique of the digital age by speculating what would happen if its worst aspects — personal branding, groupthink, online mob justice — were socialized. The problem is, it’s not too dissimilar from the critique my grandfather would make: Now that everyone’s lives are plastered on the walls of the internet, our culture has become obsessed with appearances, forcing us to bite our tongues so as not to be offensive — in other words, political correctness run amok.

In another episode during the third season, a young man named Kenny is corralled into a vast conspiracy by a mysterious hacker group who has illegally obtained footage of him masturbating. The hackers force him and a band of other blackmailed victims to do their dirty work, promising freedom once they complete their service.

While the episode offers a scary view of our vulnerability to anonymous people on the internet that would do us harm, mostly I am reminded of my grandmother telling me not to go into AOL chat rooms and me telling her to ignore spam emails from Nigerian princes.

The problem with Black Mirror — an enjoyable show, don’t get me wrong — is not with what it says, but rather what it does not say. Frequently, the ill fates that await its characters are the result of their own vanity, stupidity, or jealousy. Technology exacerbates our worst behaviors and rarely does an episode end where the moral is not about the protagonist's own moral failing. Black Mirror offers little hope. We are doomed because of obsession with technology and how stupid it has made us. It is our own individual fault. No blame is placed on technology moguls who create these apps or the technocrats who designed society in such incomprehensibly cruel ways.

On top of all this, its futures feel incomplete. The show represents the fears of those in a society with little else to fear. We rarely see people starve or suffer or even just try to scrape by. In an episode about a virtual afterlife where you upload your consciousness into a resort island, there is no discussion of the cost or what happens to the dearly departed who cannot afford this procedure. In "Nosedive," there could have been more exploration of the caste system created by this new currency system and what it says about massive inequality today.

The best science fiction looks at the present and past to suppose both utopian and dystopian futures that reflect back on us. What will post-apocalypse societies look like when the poor already live under forced scarcity today? When we are conquered by little green men from Mars, how will it compare to our country’s shameful history of chattel slavery?

When I think of the digital age and its many dangers, I do not have to imagine much: drone strikes killing innocent civilians, constant surveillance, and the NSA collecting metadata are already realities. Black Mirror, instead, builds speculative futures guided by the horror of not being retweeted enough times.

Growing inequality, attacks on the rights of women and minorities, never-ending warfare, mass surveillance, climate change and the election of Donald Trump — one does not need to watch Black Mirror to find real dystopias. When barbarism already is the guiding force of our current era, is our greatest fear really of a technology that will replay our lover’s adultery or trap us in a scary video game?

While possible applications of technology are certainly scary, the already existing applications are scarier than any reflection Black Mirror has been able to hold up so far.

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