If there's one sentiment that seems to be completely non-existent in the future-dystopian universe of Black Mirror, it's optimism. Written and created by the notoriously sharp-tongued British television critic and satirist Charlie Brooker, the recently upped-to-Netflix British dark comedy is indeed a mirror of sorts, offering a brutally unforgiving look at our post-internet, tech-obsessed times. Still, the seven episodes that have aired thus far (including, most recently, a special "White Christmas" episode with John Hamm) tend to feel less like characterizations of the present than glimpses of a possible future that we could be living a couple decades from now—that is, if we don't stop to think about the human consequences of the technological developments we tend to reflexively embrace.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't watched the show yet, please do so before you proceed: this article reveals some of the plot surprises. If you have, read on for seven potentially scary outcomes of technology foreshadowed by the show, from digital husband surrogates to in-brain police investigations.
Episode: "The National Anthem"
In the inaugural episode of Black Mirror, a fictional British Prime Minister awakes in the middle of the night to discover himself the target of an anonymously authored ransom video: the royal princess has been kidnapped, and she'll be killed unless he has sex with a pig on national television. At first, he and his staff try to everything they can to spare him this gruesome inevitability—making preparations for a simulated version of the fornication scene in a TV studio, sending a squad team to a compound where they believe the kidnapper may be housed. When these attempts backfire, his approval rating takes a hit, and mounting pressure from the public via social media compels him to go through with it.
However, as is often the case with Black Mirror, things aren't exactly as they appear. It turns out the kidnapping was a conceptual art prank, one designed to make a very specific point: when we're too busy rubbernecking the latest sensational headlines online, we miss out on what is readably observable in real life.
How likely is this? It's already happening, on some level. According to The Guardian, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker says the scenario was partly inspired by the real-life experiences of Gordon Brown: when the former British prime minister was caught on-tape making disparaging remarks about a voter who'd just asked him some questions on camera, the public kicked up such a storm that he was forced to publicly apologize.
Episode: "The Entire History of You"
Life in this domestic drama doesn't look or feel all that different from the present, except nearly all the characters has something called a "memory grain" implanted in his or her neck—a device that enables you to record video-style footage of everything you see and hear, then play it back for yourself and others, in a process referred to as a "redo". Consequently, the characters spend a lot of their time reliving things that happened to them in the past—often for entertainment and nostalgic purposes, in the way that one might Bluetooth one's Instagram feed onto an Apple TV for friends. Instead of only preserving select memories, though, "grain" technology records pretty much everything that happens to you; that means that you can always relive cherished memories of a lost love, but in the case of the married couple at the heart of this episode, the impossibility of "deleting" the past proves disastrous.
How likely is this? We don't have anything like the memory grain implant yet, but one could achieve a similar result by walking around wearing a Google glass or a GoPro, hitting record, and letting it roll all day. Those more expensive technologies aside, we're always recording everything with our phones. Who knows what's next?
Episode: "White Bear"
Probably the most psychologically excruciating episode of Black Mirror, "White Bear" follows a day in the life of a woman who wakes up in her house one day and finds herself on the run from a crew of mask-wearing, blood thirsty vigilantes (along with the rare cluster of unsympathetic civilians, mindlessly capturing the events on their cellphones). To her horror, she discovers that she is actually the protagonist of a reality TV show—and a criminal, convicted for her participation in a gruesome kidnapping and murder plot spear-headed by her deceased boyfriend.
Instead of being locked up behind bars, she's been condemned to a life as the star of a TV series that has turned the scene of the crime into a stage set, and forces her to relive the circumstances of her crime on the daily as a "studio audience" walks around, helping to record footage of the action. At the end of each day, she undergoes a round of electronically induced amnesia, and the scenario repeats again. Probably the scariest thing is, because of the amnesia factor, there's no knowing whether she's actually guilty of the crimes she's being punished for—or if she's just an ordinary civilian who signed an unusually punishing reality TV contract, all for the sake of her 15 minutes of fame.
How likely is this? Reality TV has always been pretty ethically cringe-worthy, whether it's spotlighting people with mental illnesses or driving otherwise healthy individuals to psychological breakdown or worse; there's something pretty ugly about turning a person's real-life trials and tribulations into mass entertainment. On the other side of the coin, one could also read "White Bear" as a metaphor for the voyeuristic sensationalizing of true crime in the media, transforming tragic events into public, "town-pillory"-style shaming spectacles.
Episode: "White Christmas"
The plot of Black Mirror's 2014 Christmas special has a lot of elaborate twists and turns, but much of the action revolves around a fictitious technological device called a "cookie." Via a surgical operation, inhabitants of the world of "White Christmas" get a chip implanted into their brain; a couple weeks later, they get the chip removed and then place it inside a vessel that looks kind of like an egg-shaped paperweight, but functions as a digital "copy" of the person's brain activity. In one guise, the "cookie" functions as a kind of luxury consumer product: one of the characters has her "consciousness" copied for use as a kind of virtual personal assistant. In another guise, though, it serves a much more sinister function: in the investigation of a potential double-murder, we see a crew of detectives use it to extract a confession from a suspect, undergoing a long and torturous interrogation of his surrogate consciousness.
How likely is this? Not that likely, but that doesn't mean that science isn't working on it. According to an article by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker this month, a handful of companies—like Affectiva, Emotient, Realeyes, and Sensio—are already making strides in so-called "affective computing," a field aiming to pioneer "emotionally intelligent" technologies that can read our emotions via minute changes in our facial expressions. So far, these technologies have been mostly aimed at the corporate world, where companies will one day be able to tell whether their ads or product offerings are working based on how viewers respond to them—but it's possible that the justice system will be able to find a useful application for them, too.
All images are stills from Black Mirror. Additional research by Molly Long.