Black Mirror as Hell-Is-Other-People Futurism

Over the break, I watched Black Mirrorthe highly acclaimed British futurist show.  I am tempted to call it a tech-dystopian show, but it isn’t quite that. To count as dystopian, you need a corresponding utopian vision that has failed or is stillborn, and the show doesn’t offer or suggest any. People have also been comparing it to The Twilight Zone, but I think the comparison is off.  The what-ifs of the Twilight Zone are about the nature of the world, in the sense of what if the Earth were spiraling into the Sun? The what-ifs of the Black Mirror are about human nature, as in what if all our relationships are based on lies?

The shows differ in their humor content. Black Mirror is humorless right now, but I suspect The Twilight Zone was at least a little funny back when it first aired. More to the point, while The Twilight Zone has acquired significant camp value (in Sontag’s sense of failed seriousness) today, somehow I don’t think Black Mirror will seem campy in a few decades; merely obsolete like old documentaries. This difference in humor content is significant in a way I’ll get to.

So what we have here is a dark but not dystopian show. A show about a steady loss of innocence through increasing knowledge (enabled by technological evolution rather than a fall from Eden), but not about apocalyptic collapses. A show that is not anti-technology per se, but about the idea that technology makes life easier in part by forcing harder, if rarer, choices upon us, as the price of automating simpler, more commonplace decisions. About going from moral mediocristan to moral extremistan.

It’s not quite a must-watch as far as the entertainment value goes. It has the ponderousness of a lecturing professor. But it’s a must-watch in the sense of cultural homework.  People will be using the show as a reference point for talking about the emerging future for at least a few years.  The conclusion most will jump to is that this is a show about tech dystopias, but it is really a show about the theory that hell is other people. The futurism angle is that information technology makes this particular kind of hell more possible.

I don’t have spoilers in this post, and you don’t need to have watched the show to read it, but if you don’t want to hear a theory of the show before actually watching it, come back later.

The show is formulaic, but the formula is sophisticated and the execution almost impeccable. Each of the episodes follows roughly the same pattern:

First, we are dumped into a futuristic society that isn’t necessarily perfect in a simplistic way, but efficiently organized, smoothly functional and usually prosperous in material terms. Nobody seems to want for any basics  like food or shelter, or be driven to hard choices by lack of basics. This is important, because the hard choices in the show are higher up in the Maslow hierarchy, and therefore less defensible via appeals to basic survival motives.

Next, we have a relatively ordinary (i.e., not particularly heroic or villainous) character or two encountering a crisis involving the collision of two or more priceless human values. The crisis is brought about by a new information technology capability. Often, the crisis has a public dimension where those not directly involved have to make their own choices, as spectators, about what to feel for the it-could-have-been-me protagonist.

Finally, the crisis is resolved without any redemption (which means the show will likely not catch on in the United States). The character does not find a clever way out. We learn that the particular crisis pattern is one that the society is actually capable of handling without unraveling. The existential crisis for the protagonist does not represent an existential threat to the world (a common conceit in American storytelling). We simply learn what an Everyman or Everywoman (and in the pilot, an EveryPrimeMinister) might do in an exceptional situation in a hypothetical future society.

There is no overt ideological commentary, but there is a very strong suggestion that the choices the character makes are the base ones rather than the noble ones, and that the noble choices, where they exist and are chosen, are often futile anyway. So on the surface, this is a show about people choosing between futile noble actions and consequential base ones. Lose-lose.

The hard choices in the show are created by other humans, not by technology itself. The role of technology is making it possible for us to create hard choices for each other. Humans, the show seems to suggest, will reliably learn to create hard choices for other humans, using every new technological means, in order to create easier ones for themselves.  And that they will do so even under conditions of material plenty and satisfaction of basic needs.

The rest of society too makes choices that, the show suggests, are the base ones. This is not a show where the protagonist is the only one who sees the situation in a clear-eyed way. Though there are of course stock characters around who are oblivious to the way the society works, it isn’t a case of  a lone band of enlightened souls fomenting a revolution in a world of the oblivious. These are societies whose members mostly understand their worlds.

In other words, if the show is pessimistic, it is in a hell-is-other-people way.

Overall, this is not a show about a technology-versus-humans arms race. It’s a show about a humans-versus-humans arms race catalyzed and accelerated by technology. Points for that. At least the show avoids tediously fallacious race-against-the-machine type scenarios (Terminator) or clueless redemption narratives about humans reclaiming lost utopias from tech dystopias (The Matrix).

The show’s title suggests that this reading is the correct one: technology as a black mirror that shows us our true natures by showing us what choices we make when values collide. Technology does not debase us in the show’s formula. It merely forces us to face prized delusions about ourselves that have never before been challenged, thereby awakening us to our own pre-existing debasement.

The lack of humor reinforces the reading: nowhere does a character laugh off a seemingly serious concern with flippant irony.

The value calculus is fairly transparent in the first six episodes (there are three episodes per season):

  1. In National Anthem, it is human dignity versus human life.
  2. In  Fifteen Million Credits it is the innocence of soulful true love pitted versus the sacredness of the human body*
  3. In The Entire History of You, it is relationship-enabling narratives versus the sanctity of truth
  4. In Be Right Back, it is the pricelessness of memories versus the pricelessness of lived relationships
  5. In White Bear, it is justice versus non-cruelty
  6. In The Waldo Moment, it is truth-telling versus taking responsibility for your actions

(* in the sense of, for instance, putting processed junk food versus organic produce into it, choosing between obesity and fitness or living in apps versus living in nature. It took me a while to get this one).

In each case, the technological driver has to do with information  — either knowing too much or too little about yourself and/or others.  Each technological premise can be boiled down to what if you knew everything about X or what if you could know nothing about X. In the episodes so far, there has been no simple correlation between choosing ignorance or knowledge and getting to good or poor outcomes.  That’s what lends the show a certain amount of moral ambiguity.

White Christmas, the first episode of Season 3 is more complex, wandering into moral luck territory via gaps between intentions and consequences. Gaps deliberately created by consciously chosen ignorance of the block-on-Facebook variety.

This is promising. Hopefully, the show will explore this more, because the straight-up value collisions are not that interesting. They are merely shocking corner-case hypotheticals of the torture-one-terrorist-to-save-humanity variety, in futurist garb. But with moral luck, you have more going on. Where knowledge is the default and ignorance must be consciously chosen, rather than the other way around, the consequences of ignorance becomes less defensible. Especially when you are in a position to choose ignorance for others.

Or at the very least we can hope for explorations of more interesting ways to torture one person to save humanity (fifty shades of hell-is-other-people).

What elevates the show is that it resists the temptation to simply demonize technology or project collapsed human psyches onto devastated post-apocalyptic landscapes. The overall premise is simply that technology increases possibilities, and forces us to make hard choices that we had the luxury of not having to make before.

The irony, as I noted, is that the seemingly hard choice is usually between a futile symbolic gesture driven by noble motives, and a consequential act driven by baser motives. In other words, not really that hard. Futile gestures are for Luddites (thankfully, the show also resists the temptation to explore true Luddite storylines: where characters retreat from new possibilities, it is not to the past but to defeatured versions of the present).

If there is a humans-versus-technology narrative here, it is that technology relentlessly assaults our anthropocentric conceits. A good thing as far as I am concerned, but not to most people I suspect, and likely not to the show’s creators, who seem conflicted about it.

As a result, where Black Mirror goes dark and techno-pessimistic is in the implied editorial comment that no matter what choice we make, the outcome is worse than not having to make the choice at all. That natural ignorance is bliss.

According to the show’s logic, all choices created by technology are by definition degrading ones, and we only get to choose how exactly we will degrade ourselves (or more precisely, which of our existing, but cosmetically cloaked degradations we will stop being in denial about).

This is where, despite a pretty solid concept and excellent production, the show ultimately fails to deliver. Because it is equally possible to view seeming “degradation” of the priceless aspects of being human as increasing ability to give up anthropocentric conceits and grow the hell up.

This is why the choice to do a humorless show is significant, given the theme. Technology motivated humor begins with human “baseness” as a given and humans being worthwhile anyway. The goal of such humor becomes chipping away at anthropocentrism, in the form of our varied pretended dignities (the exception is identity humor, which I dislike).

When you compare Black Mirror to more humorous explorations of the future (the just-concluded tech-heavy season of South Park comes to mind, as do many episodes of Futurama and of course, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), you realize that they aren’t just more entertaining: they are more true.

Technology is not about debasement and degradation. It is about increasing ability to stop pretending to be what we’re not. About taboos falling away and fewer things being unexamined sacred cows. This is how we actually react to new technological possibilities. We make hard choices easy by giving up sacred cows, not by choosing one sacred cow over another. To our credit, when the futility of a grand gesture becomes apparent, we usually give up our vanity rather than stick to quixotic behaviors.

I like Black Mirror, but I would have enjoyed the comedy version (Monty Python and the Black Mirror?) much more. It would also have been much more true.

Happy New Year all. Don’t forget to bring a towel to 2015. I am nursing a bad cold, so apologies for any incoherent bits in this post.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I see the *Black Mirror* formula as: “here’s an accelerated or hyperbolic scenario to help you recognize things that are already happening; remember and beware.” Each episode’s whole world is the point, so I don’t focus as much on the main characters’ arcs as being “the” story.

    I found it notable that only some of the episodes have novel technology or a necessarily future-based setting. The two most political – *National Anthem* (s1e1) and *Waldo Moment* (s2e3) – could be in today’s world. *15 Million Merits* is a contrived allegorical world, possibly a strange future, but with recognizable features and no technologies beyond our own. And *White Bear* has (if memory does not fail me) just one novel tech.

    Regarding humorlessness, the characters certainly joke and laugh at times, and I chuckled at a lot of the uncomfortable situations.. It’s just that none of it is *light* humor, letting anyone off the hook. That seems quite British to me.

  2. I don’t really follow your logic. You said “[Technology] is about increasing ability to stop pretending to be what we’re not. About taboos falling away and fewer things being unexamined sacred cows.” Could you give an example? It seems to me that from the invention of clothing to the invention of social networking sites, technologies have increased our ability to present as other than we are (with a consequential increase of the social necessity to do so).

    I take your point about sacred cows typically dying not to other sacred values – but instead to economic/convenience incentives? Interestingly, my original interpretation of the series as it aired was as parables of what happens when we give up too much by this process. A technology arises, and norms adjust. The first season is about the sacrifice of privacy and independence of action; the second is about the sacrifice of engagement-with-reality in favour of entertainment. White Christmas, viewed that way, is about what happens when we can literally de-humanise.

    The premise is that humans are base, and technology will enable us to debase ourselves further.

    I’m also puzzled by your point about debasements being growing up. One of the main projects of civilization is putting social structures in place to cloak the unpleasantness. It sounds like you’re saying that giving those up as technology forces us to is an increase in honesty (and accurate self-appraisal) and therefore good. Which kinda makes sense while that’s meant “breaking down structural oppression”, but are you saying that one of justice and non-cruelty is an anthropocentric conceit we would be better off without?

    • Taboos falling away etc: consider how interracial relationships and homosexuality went from issues that could cause wars and murder/mayhem to just meh non-issues in liberal parts of the world. You can connect the dots to technology. Lots of other things, including restrictions on what women can/cannot do, dress codes etc.

      Debasements etc: consider how pre-marital sex could ruin women’s lives before. They’d be “fallen” women if exposed. Turning that idea of debasement around was a positive.

      I think many of today’s sacred cows will seem as strange fifty years from now. The show tries to present a future culture in a way that shocks present moral sensibilities. But when we get there, we won’t have today’s moral sensibilities. We’ll work the tradeoffs differently when we actually get there. That’s why for instance, I found the White Bear episode to be fun but silly. Just like The Lottery (Shirley Jackson 1948 short story) is silly and even Orwell’s 1984 is silly. The future does not unfold in that tragic way, but in a very comparable farcical way. For example, instead of 1984, we really got Huxley’s Brave New world instead.

  3. I’d agree with Gordon Mohr that there’s humour (that is, with the British ‘u’) in Black Mirror.

    There is also a more explicitly comic prequel to Black Mirror, and its name is Nathan Barley. That’s an interesting tech-cultural reference point, because it felt after its time when it appeared, just after the first dot-com bubble burst, then increasingly began to feel before its time as social media asserted itself in the years that followed.

  4. Gordon and Nick: While I usually appreciate Brit humor fairly easily, I have to say if there is any here, it escaped me.

    There is certainly dark satire if you will, but there were no haha funny moments for me.

  5. some dumbass kid who emailed you says

    “In each case, the technological driver has to do with information — either knowing too much or too little about yourself and/or others.”

    I saw my copy of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and it reminded me a lot of this on several different levels. On the most obvious level is the theme and content of several of the episodes themselves – that of the media trivializing everything, the necessity of entertainment value over everything else, etc.

    In the book, there are a couple of different technologies discussed, namely print (as in paper) and television. There are some fairly “difficult” individual moral choices affecting everyone else in both of them; the sanctity of reporting accurate “hard-hitting” news vs. selling out and covering stories that bore the writer but sell well (for newspapers and television) and also in what to write – writing “from the heart” vs. writing “for the paycheck”.

    It was even more interesting when I flipped open to a random page. There was another technology – the telegraph. It invited a whole other set of problems. The one that caught my eye was that of “relevance”. Who decides what is “relevant”? Is a shooting 300 miles away “relevant”? Is the fact that a movie star got arrested for a dui relevant? If the person in charge decided it wasn’t “relevant”, what does that say about him/her?

    The moral conundrum between the idea that a person “knows” that there was a shooting 300 miles away and doesn’t find it relevant (doesn’t really care) is basically the point. It reveals not only that the world isn’t as just as s/he thought it was (unless s/he has some excuse for it like karma) but also that s/he isn’t as good of a person as s/he thought s/he was.

    • some dumbass kid who emailed you says

      There’s something about the guy laughing on the bike next to the main character in fifteen million merits that doesn’t seem right. It is basically as direct a reference as one could make to Amusing Ourselves to Death as one could make.

  6. After watching the two seasons on Netflix, and thinking on them for a while, I feel like “art” is much more important to understanding Black Mirror than anything else. It’s rarely explicitly in the scripts, but all of those stories are about art.

    National Anthem was literally an art project. 15 Million Merits is about two artists in a system of nothing but artists and their audience. The Entire History of You is much less explicit, being the best stand-alone story in the bunch. Be Right Back was about how it’s impossible for a performer to actually be totally believable, and how the audience will find that a larger problem over time. White Bear brought it back to literally being a world populated by nothing but performers and an audience. The Waldo Moment stretched the whole thing to the absurd conclusion that you could literally take over the world if you had the right gimmick.

    I know Brooker SAYS his show is about technology (the “black mirror” is literally referring to how a device’s screen is reflective black when it’s powered off) but this show absolutely doesn’t care about technology and arguably doesn’t even like it. There is no new technology, no new ideas, and some of the episodes strain to even include a single piece of novel technology. The only sliver of scifi in White Bear is the mind eraser thing. Black Mirror only seems to care about technology to the extent that it affects artists.

    It reminds me of how the best analysis of Inception (on the surface a scifi movie) is that it’s just a small group trying to make a movie.

    The only perspectives in Black Mirror are those of artists. What if you had to do something repulsive in front of a billion people? What if you truly have something to offer and the only way to get in front of a camera is to sell out? What if someone writes an algorithm to impersonate you indefinitely? What if your genuine terror was being crassly wrung out of you for people who enjoy watching you suffer? What if you create something compelling and then it becomes more powerful than you?

    Nah, Black Mirror is about “the future” or “scifi” or “technology” about as much as The Terminator is about bilingual education. The only episode I’d say managed to escape from the limitation of the artist’s perspective is The Entire History of You because it’s a good standalone story rather than a crude analogy or paper-thin thought experiment.

    I think it is sort of about how “hell is other people” but in the sense that an artist depends on their audience. That’s why the conundrums are higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy; because art is irrelevant if you’re starving. The conflict in the story isn’t a threat to the world (except in Waldo) only because the artist couldn’t care less about extrapolating their idea to the rest of the world. The conflicts seem to be about a clash of priceless values, but they’re really about how “art is a lie; nothing is real”

    • Yep, from the mind of Charlie Brooker: critic turned writer.

      As if your points needed punctuating, there’s his first foray into writing, Deadset: the zombie movie in the big brother house.

    • I think you’re 100% right about the show being about art, but I think it’s a matter of more legitimate concern than it appears. Art is the bridge between reason and intuition. If it breaks, the human mind itself will break in two. I feel the same stress on this bridge that charlie brooker does and urgently want to express it, but find myself unable to do so in a way that anyone seems able to understand, or even to bear listening to.

      I never finished watching the waldo moment. I put it on pause during the debate when the waldo operator guy started telling the truth, and never unpaused it. Something about it scared me, felt like it threatened to reach around behind my back and tap me on the shoulder.

      Now I understand why. I feel that I am the waldo, both the puppet and the puppeteer, being stretched thinner and thinner as the two halves of the world separate, simultaneously gaining power and losing myself. This must be how artifacts are formed, from people who are stretched into things as though falling into a black hole.

      Not as horrible a fate as I’d expected, really.

    • I find your analysis more satisfying especially in regard to “Fifteen Million Merits”,
      the entire episode is a show of how an audience receives and chooses a heartfelt performance but then twists it to fit its own needs.