Editorial: Society and black mirrors

  • "Black Mirror" creator Charlie Brooker accepts the award for outstanding television movie for "Black Mirror: San Junipero" at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. AP

Thursday, January 04, 2018

For all of the mind-rotting content television has given viewers over the decades, many shows have managed to give people a deeper understanding of the current cultural moment.

There was Star Trek and The Twilight Zone in the transformative 1960s, and All in the Family and M*A*S*H in the chaotic 1970s. The 1980s was a relatively lean stretch for timeless programming, but the end of the decade brought American audiences The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Murphy Brown. And during the past 25 years, viewers have enjoyed an embarrassment of small-screen riches: The West Wing, Lost, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things – everybody has their own list of must-see TV shows.

But in a world where people are shifting their gaze from the “small screen” to the even smaller screens of smartphones and tablets, and much of adolescence and young adulthood plays out on social media, we are hard-pressed to come up with a more important show for this cultural moment than Black Mirror.

If you’ve never heard of the British anthology series that released its fourth season on Netflix last week, think Twilight Zone with a focus on the extremes of technology. The “black mirror” refers to the dark screen of a “sleeping” iPhone or tablet. While you might see only a muddy reflection of yourself, the show’s creators see a dystopian future that is frighteningly easy to imagine.

Most of the show’s best episodes came in seasons one through three, but season four is still a disturbing and mesmerizing expansion of the show’s purpose: take technology that is already part of our everyday lives and follow it to its often nightmarish extremes.

The six episodes of the new season return to questions that run like threads through all 19 episodes of the show: What would happen if digital copies could be made of a human being without sacrificing consciousness? As technology gives helicopter parents greater tools to control what their children see, hear and experience, how will that affect the child’s development? Where will law enforcement’s ability to track individuals end, and how much privacy will society sacrifice in order to feel safer? As people become more and more desensitized to violence, to what lengths will society go to make violence entertaining?

Like every great show, some episodes of Black Mirror are better than others – but all of them feel important to this moment on Planet Earth. The technology that surrounds us is wonderful, but it casts dark shadows.

As a side note, we offer a small lament about television in general.

Many of the shows we mentioned earlier were once considered appointment viewing, meaning people all around the country would be sure to finish dinner and clean the dishes in time to watch Archie Bunker pontificate on the day’s taboo subjects or President Jed Bartlet show us how a truly “presidential” president should act. The next day, friends and co-workers would discuss the episode they had all watched together, albeit in different living rooms. That shared cultural experience doesn’t really exist anymore. People stream shows or record them on a DVR and press “play” when their busy lives allow – and society suffers a little bit because of it.

Maybe that television disconnect isn’t worthy of its own Black Mirror episode, but it is another example of the way technology can fray the ties that bind.