Think 2017 is ‘like an episode of Black Mirror’? We study the phrase of the year with the dystopian show’s creator
We are not mathematicians here at ShortList. We’re words for life. Grammar or die. That said, a little numerical ineptitude couldn’t stop us from going full maths detective ahead of our talk with Charlie Brooker. Cold, hard arithmetic, social-media scrolling and temple-rubbing revealed to us that once every three hours, someone somewhere on Planet Twitter is likening a surreal world event – an unreal political reality, a sinister technological advance or celebrity caught doing the unbelievable – to his dark and hellish Black Mirror universe. See for yourself. Punch ‘like an episode of Black Mirror’ into Twitter and watch it repeat itself endlessly across your screen, courtesy of your fellow dumbfounded humanoids.
It’s a comparison that we’ve used to make sense of everything from Pokémon Go’s zombification of adults to the NHS cyberhack and, most notably, a Tizer-faced reality TV star heading for The Big Chair in the White House, to such an extent that the show’s official Twitter had to react and confirm that no, Trump’s election was not in fact one huge Black Mirror gag, sorry.
So what does the man himself think? We sat Brooker down to get the true definition of ‘just like an episode of Black Mirror’, and posed six recent real-life events to him, all of which have been compared to his bleak and twisted landscape, just to see how accurately we’re using his creation’s good name…
JAPAN’S RENT-A-FRIEND BUSINESS
In a nutshell: Family Romance, a successful eight-year-old company, has a staff of more than 800 professional actors ranging from infants to the elderly, and is ready to fill any friendship role its Japanese clients wish.
Brooker says: “So you can pay people of all ages to be your friends? How does that… that’s not real friendship, is it? I mean, you might as well draw a face on a sheet and put it over a broom and go, ‘This is my friend, Sheetface.’
It sounds like it’s largely aimed at people trying to fool others into thinking they’re popular, like an Airbnb for friends. God, that’s sad. There’s maybe some The Truman Show potential in there. What if you discover that everyone is in fact doing it? How would you know? If nobody is anyone’s real friend? That said, I don’t entirely see it being ‘like an episode of Black Mirror’.
It’s hard to see where the story is. If there was a more high-tech element to it, then possibly. Maybe if you discover that everyone in the world is an employee of everyone else, and it’s one huge churning cycle. It would probably involve a type of digital avatar, though. I suppose we’re not a million miles away from a world in which instead of a real friend, there’ll be an android or a robot or a phone on a long stick.”
SOCIAL DATA SYSTEM
In a nutshell: The Chinese government announced plans to implement a social credit system. It would rate the behaviours of its 1.3 billion individual citizens and reduce the data to a single number, assigning each person a credit score. This score would rate trustworthiness, be ranked publicly against fellow countrymen, and be used to help determine eligibility for mortgages, employment and more.
Brooker says: “I know it. I didn’t want to read the whole article because I found it too creepy. I didn’t have any option, though – so many people have sent me this story, actually telling me, ‘Hey, this is a bit Black Mirror!’ and comparing it to the system we used in ‘Nosedive’. The idea for that episode had been knocking around for a long while, but the original idea was very different to the outcome. It was more like [1985 comedy] Brewster’s Millions, whereby someone with a very high rating has to reduce it to nil in 48 hours, without breaking the law, but just running around saying offensive things. That could be a really good follow-up, maybe. A good way to use this.
The main difference between this and our episode though, is that there’s a central government assessing things. Being state-controlled, it feels even more sinister. There’s a point where it starts to rate you based on who you are friends with, too. That’s very insidious. It sounds like an attempt to make the population behave in a particular way. I think you get penalised for criticising the government, too. That’s no fun.”
In a nutshell: Amazon has developed a service that will allow its delivery drivers to unlock your front door for one-time access in order to drop off your parcels.
Brooker says: “Oh God, yes! Obviously, obviously, it’s only going to work until the day a delivery man gets clobbered over the head by someone waiting the other side of the door. It seems fraught with problems. I can see that they’re trying to solve a problem – that it’s bloody annoying when packages miss you or get thrown over your gate and land in a puddle.
So what’s the alternative? I suppose eventually we’ll all have 3D printers and print anything we need. There won’t be any deliveries anywhere any more, and the entire delivery industry will collapse. And then we’re all fucked. But yes, I can imagine this as a Black Mirror story. Maybe a little indie movie-style episode where you follow an Amazon delivery guy struggling in the gig economy as he goes from house to house, looking around rich people’s expensive homes. It could be a social day-in the-life thing, or something melodramatic, like how he lets himself in and stumbles across a murder. Yeah, I guess Amazon Key is a bit Black Mirror. It’s certainly like the first couple of minutes of a Black Mirror episode.”
In a nutshell: Before James Vlahos’s father died of cancer in February, the Californian journalist recorded hours of conversation with his dad in order to create an artificially intelligent chatbot that he can speak to via his smartphone. The bot retains his father’s experience and personality, and has been dubbed ‘Dadbot’.
Brooker says: “Well, it sort of is an episode of Black Mirror – ‘Be Right Back’. That one came after I’d been on Twitter and wondered, ‘What if all these people were dead, and these were just chatbots? How would I know?’ It’s a peculiar thing to think at 3am. I was thinking a lot about psychics and mediums at the time, who tell you they can put you in touch with your bereaved uncle or whatever. I can understand why people buy into that – because they want desperately to speak and connect to that person again. And I can understand the argument that there’s something therapeutic about that process. But you’re just placing yourself in limbo.
“In ‘Be Right Back’, we deliberately build in the problem that the version of the dead boyfriend who ‘comes back’ is too bland. He’s too inoffensive. He has no sharp edges, and that annoys his girlfriend. She’s quite lucky actually – a lot of people, if you brought them back based on their social-media presence, would be horrible. There’s already an app available that’s quite like this. It’s called Replika, and it mimics you back to yourself. You talk to yourself. It’s meant to be a novelty, but really quickly people are using it as a therapeutic tool. That sounds fine, but I think, well, what happens if you get a serial killer? Isn’t it just going to confirm killing people is a great idea back to him?”
HUMAN ASHES TREE PLANTER
In a nutshell: Bios Urn is a biodegradable urn that turns human ash remains into growth material for trees. Place the dust of a loved one inside and wait as a plant gestates, and eventually sprouts.
Brooker says: “Someone sent me a tweet that Chrissy Teigen posted about this story, something like, ‘What if the loved one was just trapped in the tree and left screaming from inside it?’ It’s the next phase, isn’t it?
You take ‘Dead Dadbot’ and place it inside something else, like a plant, that talks to you. Your dad, the plant, asking you to water him, and you’re saying, ‘No! Because I never liked you! I’m going to watch you wilt on that shelf!’ Or there’s the old Steven Wright joke where he says he likes to torment plants by watering them with ice cubes. That would be the Black Mirror version – a sentient copy of a relative’s consciousness is put inside a plant and then it’s slowly tormented with ice cubes instead of water.”
In a nutshell: On a late February train to Peterborough, one girl’s placing of a bagel atop a fellow passenger’s head somehow escalates into a multi-narrative Hieronymus Bosch-esque hellscape of screaming, chanting, scraps, police, hurling breadstuffs from windows and more. Dougie Stew, who captured it all on video, described witnessing the event to national newspapers as “like an episode of Black Mirror”.
Brooker says: “Generally, bread products don’t feature too heavily in the Black Mirror universe. We’d need to Black Mirror #Bagelgate up a bit, though. Maybe she’s putting bagels on people’s heads because she’s a malfunctioning robot that’s misunderstood an instruction and believes piling bagels on top of another is a move to help humankind? No. Having said that, it is a potentially small scenario snowballing and spiralling into a miserable nightmare.
In that respect, yep, it’s Black Mirror. If it’s simply a performance for camera, it’s like our episode ‘White Bear’. That came about when I did a zombie drama called Dead Set. Riz Ahmed, who’s now massively famous, was running down the road chased by a zombie. Local kids turned up to watch the filming, and it was one of the first times I saw people take their phones out to record the situation. I thought that it was actually scarier than what we were filming: people just standing there, recording footage of a guy in trouble, being chased. People experience things through a screen so often in the modern world. I can understand if you found yourself witnessing something awful you might feel that there’s something beneficial to put some sort of mediating thing between you and it. If it’s replaced the impulse to actually go and help someone that is screaming and in need, then yeah, not so great.”
Black Mirror Season 4 is out later this year on Netflix
(Main image: Rex)