Black Mirror no longer has the shock factor.
There was nothing particularly “new” about the types of technology or themes explored in the latest offering of Netflix’s dystopian anthology series. In a way, each episode’s “twist” has become pretty predictable. Like a magician revealing how the prestige is done, we all now know what to expect as the series progresses. Chekov’s Gun is pretty obvious in each storyline if you’ve ever watched Black Mirror before. We’ve seen memory recall devices, AI sentience, and reality-blurring virtual experiences, across most episodes—each adding fuel to the fire about how letting technology run amok can lead to a future devoid of human rights.
However, far from the predictability of each episode twist—or it killing off all entertainment value or potential conversations you’d have around the dinner table—the fourth season feels like the end of the crescendo of episodic horror in Charlie Brooker’s magnum opus. And in the spotlight has emerged a philosophical hypothesis that ties together all themes, tropes, and tech seen over previous years—simulation hypothesis.
This theory purports that what we perceive as reality here on earth or across the universe is all part of an artificial simulation—in the most likely scenario, a computer game of some sort. And when debating what is the actual purpose of being part of a simulation, it all comes down to it being a means to an end—a test that yields results for a higher purpose or reason.
Tech visionary and billionaire Elon Musk gave the idea more prominence (accompanied by snark from the media) when he said we’re all part of some advanced civilization’s computer game. His argument is that we only have to look at how quickly even our own civilization has advanced in a short space of time. For example, over just 40 years, the world’s capabilities for gaming tech has radically evolved from two rectangles and a dot in the arcade game Pong, to the elaborate virtual and augmented reality offerings we have today.
“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now,” Musk says. “Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.”
It’s easy to chalk up the theory as a crazy thought coming from an eccentric billionaire that does not lend any credence to academic reason. However, it’s a hypothesis that physicists as well as philosophers have been discussing for years.
In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom discussed in a paper “Are You in a Computer Simulation?” about how the scope and speed of technological advances is making a series of propositions come true. One of those being “we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.”
Last year, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that he believes the likelihood of our existence being part of an artificial simulation “may be very high” and pegged the odds at 50-50, according to coverage by Scientific American. As part of a debate moderated by deGrasse Tyson, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) pointed out that the more society learns about the universe, the more we discover it appears to be based on mathematical laws. This therefore leads to a feasible assumption that “rigid and mathematical” rules of the universe can be reflective of how computer code is written.
Black Mirror expertly covers each of these notions across all seasons. However, season 4 strings it all altogether—pushing viewers to question not just the distinct and easy possibility of a dystopian future but our own reality as we currently know it. It basically leads us all down the path of an existential crisis which we have no hope of fully realizing— “You’re not going to get proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any evidence that we get could be simulated,” said David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University.