The Disturbing Clairvoyance of Black Mirror

Technology’s scary future is already here

The images, characters, and neuroses that populate the pastel world of “Nosedive” are eerily familiar: Styled latte shots. Breezy captions. Hitting “post” as anxiety for social approval sinks in like teeth.


But season three’s first episode of Netflix Original series Black Mirror, released in October 2016, insists on interrogating the reality we know. For every interaction, online and in person, the inhabitants of the world in “Nosedive” rate one another on a scale from 1 to 5. The average is publicly displayed, resulting in preferential treatment for elite 4.7s and pariah-like status for those whose ratings fall. The hierarchy is based on social media graces and forced pleasantries.


The episode begins as amiable (specifically, 4.3), everygirl Lacey decides to raise her rating. In the tradition of most Black Mirror protagonists, Lacey is thwarted, and her situation quickly unravels into nightmare.


The premise of “Nosedive” sums up the driving ethos of Black Mirror, the brainchild of British producer Charlie Brooker: Tap into a real-life anxiety about technology and human nature, and run with it to its furthest, most disturbing hypothetical.


Like its speculative sci-fi/dystopian predecessor The Twilight Zone, each episode of Black Mirror has a distinct narrative and cast. Both shows explore the theme of cynicism toward technology, but what sets Black Mirror apart is that every episode is set in a near, plausible future. While The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling introduced audiences to a supernatural dimension “beyond that which is known to man,” each episode of Black Mirror evokes a deliberate and disconcerting intimacy between real life and dystopia.


Each episode is grounded in the world-as-we-know-it, but with one futuristic “what-if” alteration: What if a hacker group collected private information on the internet and used it to orchestrate mass blackmail? What if people had sophisticated recording devices implanted in their eyes, rendering memory both perfect and inescapable?


The situations are outlandish, but, perturbingly, are not outlandish enough. Each episode imparts the queasy feeling that this isn’t quite fiction. In many ways, the world of “Nosedive”—with its commentary on the desire for validation, on how easy it is for the wealthy, beautiful, and white to achieve popularity—merely makes explicit the social machinations already at play today.


Black Mirror impels us as viewers to recognize ourselves in the horror that unfolds—not just as onlookers, but as culpable participants.


On that note: Don’t expect to get the warm fuzzies from this show. Most episodes are roughly the same degree of devastating.


Standout episodes include “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back” (or, as I’ve taken to calling them, “the best thing ever” and “the dead boyfriend one,” respectively). “San Junipero” unspools slowly, as a budding romance between two young women blurs the bounds of time and space. In “Be Right Back,” a young woman mourning the sudden death of her boyfriend signs up for a service that allows her to “talk” to him—chillingly, through an algorithm that synthesizes his digital traces to recreate his speech patterns, preferences, and memories.


These episodes represent the show’s strongest artistic capacities. Beyond scathing social commentaries cloaked in horror, Black Mirror also has the potential to achieve moments of startling tenderness and insight into our humanity.


Black Mirror is emotionally and intellectually compelling. It is also stressful. While the stress can be productive and enjoyable, I do think that some episodes require a trigger warning. I urge readers to be aware of their own comfort level and to consider researching more about the content of each episode before watching.


So why watch Black Mirror today? It’s no secret that now is a time of collective disillusionment with institutions: a time of distrust, not only of rapidly-evolving technology but of the passive assent to these new technological capacities despite the ethical quandaries they pose. Contemporary cynicism makes well-crafted art like Black Mirror exceedingly salient, even cathartic, to watch.
I can’t put it better than a friend, who (ironically) messaged me via a social media platform to speculate, “Maybe it’s because society is so messed up already that I love seeing it decay through Black Mirror.” We are already living at the edge of hysteria—a show that is as smart as it is ruthless, Black Mirror shows us our proximity to the fall.