Reflections on Black Mirror by those for whom science fiction became reality

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For many people, watching Charlie Brookers show feels like deja vu not dystopia. We got writers with intimate experience of gaming, shaming and the darker side of technology to face their fears

  • Warning: this article contains some spoilers.

Hated in the Nation

Hated in the Nation is Black Mirrors excursion into public shame: it takes a series of targets who have brought disapprobation upon themselves. One is a columnist who slates a disabled person; another, an X Factor style judge who scorns a nine-year-old; a protestor who pretends to urinate on a war memorial; a politician so closely modelled on George Osborne that it made me feel nostalgic for a pre-Brexit age, when he was the summit of Tory obnoxiousness. They all find themselves in the eye of a Twitter storm, only this time its for real the anger doesnt crescendo then vanish. Instead, it culminates in violence so agonising that a person would slash her own throat with a broken bottle of Merlot to hasten it.

There is a poignant description at one point of what it feels like to be in the eye of such a storm: It was like having a whole weather system turn against me. If theres a million people talking about how they despise you, its like a mental illness. Its a morality tale. If you want to hate, audibly, you must accept that hatred causes pain. Having done so, you yourself are as despicable as the person you despise. Its a simple and symmetrical world, one which sees the age before social media as prelapsarian, and yearns for us all to realise so we can return to a better time.

When youre actually in a social media storm, you amplify the porousness between the virtual and the real. Ive been in two, once when I failed to properly respect breast milk as liquid gold, another time when I defended protesters who spat at a Conservative party conference (what I actually said was oh never mind). In both cases, people online were printing public appearances I was planning to make, and telling others to throw eggs at me; someone published the name of my childrens school and told people to go spit at them. It was the wrong school, but the point stood: my children had come into play.

If
If theres a million people talking about how they despise you, its like a mental illness Hated in the Nation. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

Whenever I described these events, I always underlined the threats at their most extreme, even though I knew this confected rage would never result in anything. I exaggerated the sabre-rattling, to bring to life how unpleasant the experience was. So we were all colluding they were pretending their violence and I was pretending to believe in it because without the backstop of action, they were just hysterics in their underpants and I was oversensitive.

This is the fascinating space of modern shame: precisely, that it has no consequence, that the intensity of its spleen is a function of its meaninglessness, that the overstatement is partly driven by a suffocating sense of inauthenticity. It is to a baying mob what clicktivism is to activism; you cant persuade anyone youre serious unless you actually turn up. Hated in the Nation went to the least interesting place, where sofa hate transmutes by a deus ex technica into reality. It would have been more telling to explore the intensity generated by its impotence.

Zoe Williams

Men Against Fire

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The soldiers language very obviously evokes the arguments used against refugees in the real world Men Against Fire. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

You cant see them as human, an army officer says of a group of fugitives, shortly before her subordinates kill several. Weve got to take them out if humankind is going to carry on in this world.

If it had been made 10 years ago, Men Against Fire could have been a metaphor for the way western soldiers dehumanised and alienated local communities during the Iraqi and Afghan invasions. But in 2016, it feels more like an examination of contemporary discourse on refugees and migrants, and of how governments and the media alike use propaganda to turn the public against foreigners.

Men Against Fire centres on a squad of American troops tasked with exterminating several hundred outlaws hiding in what seems to be the Dutch countryside. To dehumanise their prey, the soldiers uniformly refer to them as roaches, and describe individual roaches as it, rather than her or him. And to ensure they never develop any fleeting sympathy for the enemy, the soldiers are fitted with special brain implants. On first impression, the setup seems far-fetched. But it ends up feeling uncannily close to home.

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Feels like deja vu Men Against Fire. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Netflix

The soldiers language very obviously evokes the arguments used against refugees in the real world. For every roach you save today, you condemn god-knows-how-many to misery tomorrow, says the officer, in what to me felt like deja vu. In Hungary last month, ahead of a referendum on refugee policy, I listened to politicians telling villagers that if you let in one refugee today, there will be thousands tomorrow. You also hear similar arguments from western politicians about rescue missions in the Mediterranean: if you start saving people, Home Office ministers have argued, youll only attract more of them. Even the word roach mimics the vocabulary used by Katie Hopkins in the Sun.

To some, the idea of hunting migrants might seem too unlikely a metaphor. But we already have vigilantes hunting people on the Bulgarian border. During the Hungarian referendum, one campaigner suggested shooting migrants arriving from Serbia. And once people realise that fences and walls dont stop migration, I am sure there will be more mainstream calls for even more violent responses.

Brain implants certainly sound beyond the realms of current possibility. Then again, perhaps our empathy has already been subliminally suppressed by other means. In Hungary, the governments recent anti-refugee ad campaign was the largest in the countrys history. Xenophobic adverts occupied more than a quarter of outdoor advertising space, and were even broadcast during the intervals of World Cup matches this summer. Who needs robotics when wall-to-wall advertising will do the job?

Patrick Kingsley, the Guardians migration correspondent

Playtest

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Would you sign up for this? Playtest, the video game that hacks your most private fears. Photograph: Netflix

There is perhaps a fatal flaw at the heart of Black Mirrors most explicitly video game-related episode. How many people would really, given the chance, play an interactive horror experience delivered via a cybernetic implant that has to be shot into your neck an implant that will hack your brain, discover your deepest fears and project them in front of you as part of an immersive augmented reality nightmare? That seems like a very niche audience. But then, five years ago, who would have thought 500 million people would download a game that involved chasing imaginary creatures down a high street before trapping them in an imaginary ball? Charlie Brooker has always taken our consumer technology obsessions to the very edges of twisted fantasy and we usually catch up in the end.

In Playtest, then, American dudebro Cooper Redfield sets off to travel the world, a non-stop selfie tour through India, Thailand and Italy, before he crashes down in London, bored and alone. Straight after hooking up with tech journalist Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) on a Tinder-like dating app, he finds his credit cards have been cancelled (coincidence? Hmm) and needs to make money fast when she spots a job ad asking for volunteers to test a new video game. The next thing we know hes being whisked to the development studio in a beautiful manor house. It turns out this is the home of visionary game developer Shou Saito (clearly modelled on Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima), who is famed for his dark horror adventures. Hes got a new project on the go the aforementioned AR nightmare-fest. Desperate for cash, and clearly not too bright, Cooper agrees to be a guinea pig, and Saitos assistant Katie injects the AR device into his spine. She explains that hell begin to see things that arent really there computer generated figures and objects that look real, but cant touch or hurt him. Sure, whatever.

For extra fun, hes taken to a nearby hunting lodge. Naturally, he begins to experience subtle moments of dread: a painting of the mansion on the wall suddenly has a light showing in an upstairs window, then a figure. A spider runs across the floor, and Cooper recoils. The system is probing his fears. From this point, things get more disturbing: as the AI mines his minds darkest recesses, we discover that Coopers dad recently died from early onset Alzheimers and his fathers gradual loss of cognitive functions is what really terrifies our hero.

It is, at times, genuinely creepy, especially as Coopers laddish confidence disintegrates as his computer-rendered terrors slowly crush his resolve. Its also a rich tapestry of video game in-jokes. Resident Evil is ever-present: Coopers surname is Redfield, a reference to the siblings Chris and Claire Redfield from the series. Plus, the fact that the whole thing is a human experiment in a hunting lodge recalls the mansion laboratory setting of the original Resident Evil. The Silent Hill games are here too, in the emphasis on hallucination and psychological collapse, and when Katie yells would you kindly open that door to Cooper, shes alluding to the dark adventure Bioshock. Its a compelling meta-narrative on gaming conventions and experiences.

But the target is unfocused. Is it AR technology that we are to fear? The pseudo-visionaries that peddle invasive technologies as brave new worlds? Or the way social media encourages a narcissistic fixation with our own personalities? Maybe its all of these. But as a cautionary tale, Playtest mostly operates like the torture porn series Hostel: dumb young dudes do stupid stuff for fun and money, which they should have thought through more carefully first.

Keith Stuart, the Guardians Games Editor

Nosedive

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A bubble of bullshit that so closely resembles our own world Nosedive. Photograph: David Dettmann/Netflix

Of all the episodes of this digital dystopia, Nosedive is the most analogous with our own world (David Cameron and pigs aside). Over the course of watching, I was interrupted on my iPhone by a Tinder match. Afterwards, I checked Instagram, and beforehand Id turned on airplane mode to avoid constant Twitter notifications.

Nosedive charts the attempts of Bryce Dallas Howards Lacie to improve her social media ranking in order to live in an exclusive, hip apartment community. Except that social media rankings here become IRL rankings, too: a sort of caste, or class, system. Its not a huge jump to think how social media could assist in the injustices of our existing hierarchies some people here are downrated just because their ratings are already low.

The ranking system most resembles Instagram, with a little help from augmented reality contact lenses. But the real-world impact of ones star rating most closely resembles Uber, for which drivers can have their work terminated if their rating drops below 4.6. The sort of pleading seen here for favourable feedback feels all too common from an Uber driver swivelling around at the end of a trip.

Director Joe Wrights universe is all pastel shades, to ram home the sycophancy and saccharine nature of so much yoga-posing and so many uneaten cupcakes overlaid with so many Amaro filters. And details are perfectly rendered: Lacie snaps a photo of a latte and describes it online as Heaven! x before she even tries it, then grimaces when it touches her lips. The world drawn here is a bubble of bullshit, yet so closely resembles our own.

Its beautifully, dryly observed. A social media reputation consultant remarks to Lacie that: Strangers like you, so thats a plus. (Note: that job exists in our own world). If treating others differently according to their social media prowess seems a stretch, remember the last time you dismissed the opinion of someone on Twitter because they had 13 followers.

Hannah Jane Parkinson

San Junipero

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The power of love Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 80s hedonistic haven San Junipero. Photograph: Netflix

In the 80s The Power of Love was a hit for Huey Lewis and the News (1984), Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984) and Jennifer Rush (1985). They were different songs which happened to share a title, but the sentiment was the same. And although set in 1987, Charlie Brooker uses the episode San Junipero to riff on the same idea: that love can transcend everything.

As the episode opens we meet Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), a geek with glasses and more than a passing resemblance to Molly Ringwald. Getting to know the downtown scene of San Junipero for the first time, she heads to the local nightclub for a retro night out immediately signposted by the DJs playlist: Belinda Carlisle, the Bangles and Robbie Nevil.

In the pink and blue light of the club she meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who sits next to her to dodge an eager ex-boyfriend. Soon the two are pulling Janet Jackson moves on the dancefloor and Kelly is making a pass at Yorkie, which she deflects. The next time they see each other, Kellys dressed as Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and the two hook up. Then Kelly disappears.

The closer you look at this rendering of 1987, something seems a bit off. Everything points to the spectre of another reality rippling through the neon. There are cigarettes which cant be tasted, mirrors that dont crack when theyre punched. The pop culture that surrounds Yorkies 1987 speaks to other worlds and split personalities: the Lost Boys, Max Headroom, Fake by Alexander ONeal. And of course the multi-textual 80s we loved in Stranger Things is also present (I counted references to Pretty in Pink, Weird Science and The Terminator but Im sure there are more). As Yorkie pursues Kelly through different years (1987, 1997, 2002) we realise that time is as illusive as her paramour. Try a different time, Yorkie is advised by one of Kellys exs. Shes worth it.

This is a sci-rom where everyone is anaesthetised against feeling anything, except, incidentally, love. But it isnt the Time Travellers Wife: what Brooker presents is time travel as a tonic for assisted living. In the present day, Yorkie is hooked up to a life support machine and Kelly is a woman in her autumn years. Life after death exists as a void without a god. San Junipero is instead the hedonistic haven, a virtual reality where the dying hook into a Matrix-like motherboard of their Greatest Hits past. Brooker says a lot of things here, about atheism, tolerance, euthanasia and the spirit, but its his ability to capture the purity of new love that stays with you.

Priya Elan

Shut Up and Dance

Terrifyingly
Terrifyingly plausible Shut Up and Dance. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

I have some bad news about Shut Up and Dance: its not really science fiction. It follows Kenny, a young man whose computer is hacked, his webcam gets recorded while hes having a wank, and the trolls start texting him commands under the threat of releasing everything they stole. As he follows their commands, he meets up with others whove been similarly blackmailed, and well. This is Black Mirror, so its not giving much away to say that its unrelentingly bleak.

But where I was expecting a twist on our world, what I got was a terrifyingly plausible version of what already exists. Hackers really do seize control of computers including the webcams for fun and profit, using tools called RATs (remote access tools) with names such as DarkComet or BackOrifice. Most of the time, they simply trade the pictures among themselves, hoping for a slave to reveal something titillating or profitable.

Sometimes they go further, messing with their targets by briefly taking control of the affected computer to do things like play screaming porn at top volume in the middle of the night.

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I have bad news for you: this isnt really sci-fi. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

And sometimes, its not a lone hacker, but a rather larger organisation, as with the Philadelphia school district sued in 2010 for monitoring webcams on laptops provided to schoolchildren. The plaintiffs accused the district of capturing students and family members as they undressed, among other embarrassing situations.

Blackmail is almost as old as secrets are, so it shouldnt be surprising to find it following in the wake of technologically-enabled breach of privacy. Notoriously, the hack of extramarital dating site Ashley Madison led to a rash of blackmail letters targeted at former members, demanding payment or their spouses would be told of their membership.

None, yet, have gone as far as the mass conspiracy Black Mirror shows. At least, none have as far as I know. But how would I tell?

Alex Hern, Guardian technology reporter

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/25/reflections-on-black-mirror-by-those-for-whom-science-fiction-became-reality