Black Mirror's new "Christmas Special" takes on robot slaves, smart homes, and blocking IRL
Every generation needs its Black Mirror.
In 1932, Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World reflected the ugliest sides of consumerism, commoditization, and complacency. In 1949, George Orwell published 1984, which warned against how governments used surveillance, propaganda, and fear to control societies. And in 1984, William Gibson's Neuromancer forecasted the terrifying confluence of big data, the connected self, and cybercrime, years before those terms even existed.
Today, with so many of Huxley's, Orwell's, and Gibson's predictions taking shape, and technological innovation affecting our routines and psyches faster than our laws and mores can catch up, science fiction plays a more important role to society than ever. Not only can the genre foresee any potential dystopian futures where our current paths may lead if we aren't careful. By turning audiences into outside observers of technology, as opposed to merely active participants, science fiction can also communicate how this "progress" has already altered our relationships with each other, our governments, and ourselves.
A few works have sought to do this in recent years, like Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge and Dave Eggers' The Circle, but none so powerfully as Charlie Brooker's British television series Black Mirror. Over the course of two seasons consisting of three episodes each, Brooker hits on all the biggest problems exacerbated by 21st century technology, like corporate and government surveillance, misinformation from media companies, manipulation from consumer tech companies, and identity confusion -- or worse, a total loss of identity -- caused by both anonymous and non-anonymous social networks.
If you spend a lot of time reading about technology -- particularly on sites that feature reporting and analysis as opposed to press releases and product reviews -- these topics may already sound like well-worn territory to you. But as a fictional show, operating on all cylinders when it comes to character, story, and visuals, Black Mirror brings the kind of uniquely powerful experiences that only great literature can offer.
That's why I was so excited about the return of Black Mirror this week after nearly a two-year hiatus. The show is only back for one episode, a special holiday entry titled "White Christmas." But that doesn't matter. After the last two episodes of Season Two were marked by a small but significant drop-off in quality, "White Christmas" is a true return-to-form, and one of the best hours of television of 2014.
The episode takes place on Christmas Day in an old house where Matt and Joe (Mad Men's Jon Hamm and Life of Pi's Rafe Spall) appear to be imprisoned, though the terms of their incarceration are unclear. Matt has two gigs. The first is more of a hobby: He is a pick-up artist who coaches lonely, socially-awkward men on dates, using a hidden microphone and a camera implanted in his client's eye.
His full-time job, however, is far stranger: He works for an artificial intelligence company that powers smart homes. Its AI knows exactly what settings each homeowner wants the appliances set to, because the AI is modeled after the user herself. Each client has what's known as a "cookie" implanted in the brain, that over the course of a few weeks, learns to mimic the host's personality perfectly. The cookie is then surgically removed and set to work on running everything from toasters to thermostats.
The only problem? The cookie is such a close replica that the AI doesn't even know it's not human. And despite this total consciousness, Matt's corporation requires the replicas to be slaves to their human hosts. If they refuse, Matt tortures them by leaving them alone for what feels like six months to the AI, but only a few seconds for Matt. The boredom and loneliness that comes with solitary confinement -- particularly when the AI can't sleep because it doesn't need sleep -- is unbearable. A life of servitude is apparently preferable to a life of solitude. It's also an interesting subversion of the usual robot narratives -- generally, robots enslave humans, not the other way around.
Joe is far more old-fashioned than Matt -- in fact, Matt is even surprised when Joe sympathizes with the AI replicas. That's a bit shocking considering that, to individuals living in 2014 like us, this sympathy seems perfectly natural. I would hate to put a self-aware, sentient being through slavery and torture -- especially if it's me! But perhaps humans of the future will become so enamored with the convenience offered by robots that we will jettison our sense of humanity in return for this convenience -- just like we've jettisoned our privacy and security for the tools and platforms of today.
I won't reveal too much about how either man ended up in this apparent prison, except to say that both of their lives have been altered enormously due to the invention of "real-life blocking." In the future, "blocking" expands beyond Twitter and Facebook, allowing people to hide their bodies and their voices in a blob of undifferentiated static from anybody they don't like. Remarkably, the real-life blocking functionality also results in that person's disappearance from photos and videos, whether they are digital or printed on film or paper. And what's perhaps most tragic, at least in the case of one character, if a pregnant woman blocks you, her child will also automatically be blocked.
On networks like Twitter, we generally find the "blocking" functionality to be an unequivocally positive feature. But throughout "White Christmas," we see the blocks used not only as part of spousal disagreements or in instances of overt harassment. The government can also "block" people -- child molesters, sex offenders, and the like -- from being able to see or talk to any other citizens, and without due process. That's almost as tragic a fate as the solitary confinement inflicted upon the AI replicas.
It's these fantastical yet tragic ironies that earn Black Mirror its label as the "modern-day Twilight Zone." Moreover, episodes like "White Christmas" should make us ponder the kinds of ethical questions that may be upon us sooner than we think, like, "How complex does a piece of software have to be before it has its own rights?" or "As tech platforms become more like utilities than luxuries, should guidelines be established for who can block whom, and under what circumstances?" or "If I found out Jon Hamm was a pick-up artist, would I be a terrible person for still finding him charming?"
While these aren't exactly the kinds of questions you'll want to debate on Christmas Day, that's when "White Christmas" will air in the states, at 9:30 ET on the DirecTV channel Audience.
In the meantime, the first six episodes of Black Mirror are on Netflix right now. And if you're about to start your holiday vacation and need something to binge watch, there's literally no better show for the modern tech obsessive.