The Dark Side of Our Gadget Addiction
By Charlie Brooker
Every life includes significant landmarks: your first kiss, your first job, your first undetected murder. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, last week I experienced a more alarming first: my first unironic conversation with a machine.
I was using the new iPhone, the one with Siri, the built-in personal assistant you talk to. You hold down a button and mutter something like "Set the alarm for eight in the morning," or "Remind me to ring Gordon later," and Siri replies, "OK, I'll do that for you," using the voice of Jon Briggs, better known as the voice of The Weakest Link. And he sets everything up, just the way you wanted.
Siri is a creep — a servile arselick with zero self-respect — but he works annoyingly well. Which is why, last week, I experienced that watershed moment: for the first time, I spoke to a handheld device unironically. Not for a laugh, or an experiment, but because I wanted it to help me.
So that's that. I can now expect to be talking to machines for the rest of my life. Today it's Siri. Tomorrow it'll be a talking car. The day after that I'll be trading banter with a wisecracking smoothie carton. By the time I'm 70 I'll be holding heartbreaking conversations with synthesised imitations of people I once knew who have subsequently died. Maybe I'll hear their voices in my head. Maybe that's how it'll be.
The present day is no less crazy. We routinely do things that just five years ago would scarcely have made sense to us. We tweet along to reality shows; we share videos of strangers dropping cats in bins; we dance in front of Xboxes that can see us, and judge us, and find us sorely lacking. It's hard to think of a single human function that technology hasn't somehow altered, apart perhaps from burping. That's pretty much all we have left. Just yesterday I read a news story about a new video game installed above urinals to stop patrons getting bored: you control it by sloshing your urine stream left and right. Read that back to yourself and ask if you live in a sane society.
When I was making the series How TV Ruined Your Life, we went out and asked members of the public to comment on a new invention we were claiming was real: a mobile phone that allowed you to call through time, so you could speak to people in the past or future. Many people thought it was real: not so much a testament to gullibility, but an indicator of just how magical today's technology has become. We take miracles for granted on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, I relish this stuff. I coo over gadgets, take delight in each new miracle app. Like an addict, I check my Twitter timeline the moment I wake up.
And often I wonder: is all this really good for me? For us? None of these things have been foisted upon humankind — we've merrily embraced them. But where is it all leading? If technology is a drug — and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side-effects?
This area — between delight and discomfort — is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The "black mirror" of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone. The series was inspired, indirectly, by The
Twilight Zone, Rod Serling's hugely entertaining TV series of the late 50s and early 60s, sometimes incorrectly dismissed as a camp exercise in twist-in-the-tale sci-fi. It was far more than that. Serling, a brilliant writer, created The Twilight Zone because he was tired of having his provocative teleplays about contemporary issues routinely censored in order to appease corporate sponsors. If he wrote about racism in a southern town, he had to fight the network over every line. But if he wrote about racism in a metaphorical, quasi-fictional world — suddenly he could say everything he wanted.
The Twilight Zone was sometimes shockingly cruel, far crueller than most TV drama today would dare to be. In one famous episode, the main protagonist, a luckless bookworm, wanders through the rubble following a nuclear holocaust. Discovering he is the last man on Earth, he decides to commit suicide, only to spot the remains of a library nearby just as he lifts the gun to his temple. Suddenly lifted by the realisation that at last he can read all the books he wants, uninterrupted, he gleefully assembles a year's worth of reading. But as he reaches for the first book, his glasses fall off and smash on the floor. He ends the episode weeping and alone.
In Serling's day, the atom bomb, civil rights, McCarthyism, psychiatry and the space race were of primary concern. Today he'd be writing about terrorism, the economy, the media, privacy and our relationship with technology. Or trying to, because while present-day TV drama may be subject to less censorship, it also has fewer avenues for exploring ideas. The majority of dramas are long-running returning series or genre pieces — detective stories, period dramas and the like. It's as if there's a constant pressure to reassure a nervous viewer: to say look, it's episode 89, it's got the same faces as last week, in the same precinct, with the same woes. You know you'll like this — because you've already seen it.
For me the joy of shows like The Twilight Zone, such as Tales of the Unexpected, or Hammer House of Horror, or erstwhile "showcase slots" such as Play for
Today, was precisely that you hadn't already seen it. Every week you were plunged into a slightly different world. There was a signature tone to the stories, the same dark chocolate coating — but the filling was always a surprise.
That's what we're aiming for with Black Mirror: each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they're all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy. And if there's one thing we know about mankind, it's this: we're usually clumsy. And it's no use begging Siri for help. He doesn't understand tearful pleading. Trust me, I've tried.
The three episodes of Black Mirror
1. The National Anthem
Set slap-bang in the present, The National Anthem, starring Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan, recounts what happens when fictional royal Princess Susannah is kidnapped and prime minister Michael Callow is presented with an unusual — and obscene — ransom request. The traditional media finds itself unable to even discuss what the demand is, while the Twittersphere foams with speculation and cruel jokes. As the ransom deadline nears, events start to gain a surreal momentum of their own. This was inspired partly by the kerfuffle over superinjunctions, and partly by the strange out-of-control sensation that takes grip on certain news days — such as the day Gordon Brown was virtually commanded to apologise to Gillian Duffy in front of the rolling news networks. Who was in charge that day? No one and everyone.
2. Fifteen Million Merits
In 1984, Apple ran a famous advert that implied the Mac might save mankind from a nightmarish Orwellian future. But what would a nightmarish Orwellian future that ran on Apple software actually look like? Probably a bit like this.
Fifteen Million Merits, co-written with my wife Konnie Huq and starring Daniel Kaluuya (The Fades) and Jessica Brown-Findlay (Downton Abbey), takes place in a world in which the population is apparently doomed to a life of meaningless toil enlivened only by continual entertainment and distraction courtesy of ominipresent gizmos and screens. So not really sci-fi at all, then. Your sole chance of escape or salvation from this world appears to be a talent contest called Hot Shot, where the judges are played by Julia Davis, the grime MC Bashy, and Rupert Everett.
3. The Entire History of You
Anyone who's ever nosed through the Facebook profile of a potential lover will feel right at home here. Today, most of us routinely leave a trail of personal information behind us — from emails to idle thoughts on Facebook, to images of ourselves grinning at parties. Go to a live event and instead of lighters in the air, you'll see the glow of people recording proceedings on their smartphones. This final episode, starring Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker, and written by Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show, Fresh Meat and The Thick of It fame, explores the logical outcome of this, something many might consider a fantasy scenario: what if you had a kind of Sky Plus system for your head, so you could rewind and replay memories at will? You'd never forget where you left your keys again, for one thing. And it would be great for winning arguments. But it might not be brilliant news for the health of your relationship. After all, how much do you actually want to know about each other?