The future, according to “Black Mirror”

The future is now.
The future is now.
Image: Channel 4
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Launched in the UK in 2011, Black Mirror—which some have dubbed “The Twilight Zone for the Digital Age“—reached global prominence when it appeared on Netflix in December. That’s lofty praise, given that The Twilight Zone might just be the most important television series of all time. While no show may ever achieve the same mythic status that The Twilight Zone earned, Black Mirror honors its intellectual precursor well—it is at once a biting satire of the modern era and a hugely entertaining and suspenseful anthology.

But the best, and perhaps most spine-chilling, aspect of Black Mirror is how its version of the future doesn’t seem that far off. Every new gadget, every technological norm in the series’ bleak future is merely an exaggeration or a continuation of existing technology. The strange world it creates feels both distant and familiar; separated by some unknown space in time but still linked to us through its depiction of how humans are helped and hindered by the glass screens that consume our lives.

This is the future of Black Mirror, and it very well be the future of reality. (What follows includes many plot spoilers, naturally.)

Terrorists completely exploit the reach and impact of Western media.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Most recently, the Islamic State has recorded several beheadings (in addition to countless other atrocities) knowing they’d be broadcast, at least in part, by media in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. But Black Mirror takes it a step further in its premiere episode “The National Anthem,” creating a situation in which Western media actually does the terrorist’s bidding, live on television.

When a popular princess is kidnapped, the assailant demands that the prime minister perform a rather depraved act on a pig and show it on TV. Black Mirror isn’t just making a statement about what terrorism is today; it’s lampooning the fact that there would be an actual market for such an act, and that ordinary citizens would likely watch in droves. There’s a twist at the end of the episode, which I won’t describe, but it makes the satire doubly effective.

Interactive monitors are omnipresent—every action we take is made via a glass screen.

The series’ second episode, ”Fifteen Million Merits,” examines a dystopian society in which people live in small underground chambers, enveloped by screens that control their daily lives, and must cycle on virtual exercise machines in order to generate “merits” with which to purchase things. Commercials cannot be skipped unless one has enough merits to spare for it: It’s either skip lunch, or be subject to the millionth iteration for a pornography ad. The “real” world exists inside the screens, while the physical world consists of its inhabitants merely floating through a meaningless existence.

The parallels to today are obvious but still powerful. We live in a world of glass screens connected to the internet, a fact that Black Mirror takes and warps into a terrifying alternate reality. No matter how innovative or helpful the next advancement seems, one can’t help but shake the feeling that it is not real, that it deprives us of what we’re meant to accomplish, that it’s just one more struggle against the unquenchable human yearning to be with other people and not just things.

Toby Kebbell in “The Entire History of You.”
Toby Kebbell in “The Entire History of You.”
Image: Channel 4

All memories are recorded and played back on command.

In “The Entire History of You,” Black Mirror‘s third episode, people are implanted with a chip behind their ears that records everything they see or do. These recordings can then be played back on any screen, at any time. This future, particularly, is presented in a way that feels totally ordinary, almost inevitable. The internet is increasingly preserving every thought we have or move we make. Often, that’s on purpose, but it also happens when we wish it wouldn’t. Ghosts of deceased loved ones suddenly appear on Facebook; employers dig up embarrassing photos. We live in a time when much of our private lives are made very, very public.

“The Entire History of You” portrays a young professional who peruses his memory chip for evidence of his girlfriend’s suspected infidelity with an old flame. The results of his search are trivial compared to what we’re left to ponder. Memory is an incredibly powerful tool, and attempting to harness it in ways the mind did not intend may have devastating consequences. As the internet becomes a larger and larger memory bank for all mankind, Black Mirror posits that, maybe, our memories are better off left as just that—memories—despite how much we wish we could remember what that one person said or did to you a time long ago.

Dead people can be artificially recreated.

My favorite episode of the series is “Be Right Back,” about a grieving woman (superbly realized by Hayley Atwell) who decides to sign up for a service that reimagines her late significant other using his social media accounts. When that’s not enough to fill the hole in her heart, she signs up for an experimental phase of the service—a synthetic automaton version of her dead partner (Domhnall Gleeson).

To say nothing of its harrowing depiction of a woman’s grief, the episode is a clever examination of what makes us us, and whether or notthe avatar you create for yourself online can truly represent the stuff that lies in the far reaches of your soul. It’s a quietly haunting episode, equal parts classic ghost story and futuristic techno thriller. The ending is jarring in the best way possible, forcing you to ask yourself the questions it raises but knowing, like a woman searching for a remedy to her grief, that you may never really find the answers.

Black Mirror‘s other episodes—”White Bear,” “The Waldo Moment,” and, most recently, “White Christmas” starring Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm—all touch on various aspects of these themes, but the four above seem most connected to our world today. All viewers of Black Mirror must confront the reality that its future is in many ways our present. Not since The Twilight Zone has a TV show so expertly conveyed the marvels and menaces of our real world by taking us to a fake one.