Black Mirror: Season 4 created by Charlie Booker (Netflix, Zeppotron, Channel 4)
Starring Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brenna Harding, Andrea Riseborough, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Georgina Campbell, Joe Cole, Maxine Peake, Douglas Hodge, and Letitia Wright.
Normative Questions of Technology
Recently, comedian Kumail Nanjiani, Star of The Big Sick and Silicon Valley, launched a viral thread on Twitter. As an actor in a comedy focused on tech culture, Nanjiani has access to many tech startups in Silicon Valley. Usually, such a relationship represents a nice you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-your-back scenario. While Nanjiani researches the culture to better perform his role; these tech firms get to wow employees and bring in notable people to increase morale.
But recently, Nanjiani’s relationship with these companies began to raise questions for the comedian. Namely, are technologists spending enough time thinking about the ethics of what they do?
The fear, for Nanjiani, rests on the uncritical march toward the new and innovative. Too often, Silicon Valley asks the question, “Would this be cool?” Not often enough are these companies asking, “Should we do this?”
Thread: I know there’s a lot of scary stuff in the world rn, but this is something I’ve been thinking about that I can’t get out of my head.
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) November 1, 2017
The normative question is important, and new technology disrupts its own industry but also ripples into other spaces. As an easy example, consider the internet. The technologists who first dreamed of a World Wide Web might not have been thinking about the viability of a local newspaper. Alas, the rise of one technology ruined another. But technology is more insidious than that. We all like our smart phones and one would be hard pressed to say the world would be a better place without them, but the constant need to check our phones can create a low-dose dependency or addiction on this technology.
Long story short, Nanjiani’s Twitter thread questions the normative function of technologists. It posits, if our focus is on the “cool” factor but not a “moral” factor, what is keeping us from creating a technology that ultimately ruins us in an unexpected way?
Want to see this idea in practice? Then, watch Black Mirror.
Four seasons in, Black Mirror has perfected the cutting and satirized take on the relationship between technology and society.
Charlie Booker, Black Mirror’s showrunner, has mastered the art of installing plausible technologies into a future-state society and then letting those scenarios run afoul, a narrative version of Nanjiani’s normative question.
As an anthology, each stand-alone episode isn’t necessarily strong, but the stand-outs offer gripping television, even if one would think the premise is running out of steam.
No matter the technology, Booker’s central thesis tends toward tragedy. In one episode, a parental control app drives a wedge between mother and daughter. In another, a technology that visualizes memory creates collateral damage in a crime spree—can’t leave witnesses if their memories can become evidence!
Both in style and in execution, Black Mirror’s two best episodes this season, to me, emerge in “Hang the DJ” and “Metalhead.”
Hang the DJ
In “Hang the DJ,” Booker imagines a utopia/dystopia where a Tinder-like app automatically pairs you with another person and gives you an expiration date. Some relationships last a few days, others last a year or more. From the app’s point of view, these pairings create the necessary data to find the ultimate match.
In an odd way, the premise almost makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to know how long a relationship will last? Wouldn’t it allow you a better grasp of how much emotional weight to put on it? And yet, would you be willing to wait a year if the relationship clearly doesn’t fit after a couple of days?
Shot with clean lines and warm colors, “Hang the DJ” is an inviting episode, one that doesn’t necessarily conclude in the rank-and-file nihilism of the series.
And yet, the other standout episode of the season, “Metalhead,” doubles down on said nihilism.
Shot in black and white, “Metalhead” is the shortest episode of the season at just over 40 minutes. The episode depicts a post-apocalyptic hellscape, somewhat resembling The Road, where a trio of scavengers are looking for some lifesaving supplies.
While raiding a warehouse, the trio encounters the episode’s technology, a robotic dog intent on murdering any life-form. Given enough sci-fi tropes, Black Mirror lets the viewer piece together the “why.” We can only assume something went terribly wrong in the creation of this technology to create these little terminators.
After the introduction of these “dogs,” the rest of the story transforms into the tense chase-scene style most often reserved for the cinematic universe.
No matter the episode, and truthfully, no matter the season, Black Mirror rests on its laurels as the cynic and skeptic of technological advancement. Kumail Nanjiani justifiably asks these startups if they have considered whether or not they should be inventing these disrupting technologies. Charlie Booker shows us what could go wrong if these unethical technologies take root. Black Mirror ought to be watched if you can stomach its nihilism.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5