For the first time in a long time, I feel like I found a TV show deserving of a new genre description. The show is BBC hit (and recent Netflix transplant) Black Mirror, and I call it exaggerated surreality.
Black Mirror is an anthology series focusing on the pervasive role of technology in postmodern society. Its title refers to the various LCD screens on smartphones, tablets, and video monitors that facilitate, accompany, and invade our everyday societal interactions. Each episode takes its premise from a specific aspect of technology, then ramps up the stakes in absurdly grandiose proportion. What results is often shocking and horrific, and sometimes darkly comic. Black Mirror presents a world markedly different from our own, yet not plausibly distant. Showrunner Charlie Brooker likens the constant allure of technology to a drug, and says he uses his show to examine its side effects.
So, for example, in the third-season premiere, “Nosedive,” viewers watch a young socialite trying to use a social media app to ingratiate her way into elite status—a brilliant concept that was also tackled by Dan Harmon on Community. Or in Season 2’s “White Bear,” we see a young woman trying to combat her amnesia and solve the mystery involving the roaming hordes of people filming her on their smartphones.
And if Brooker is right about technology, then we’re all, to borrow the British expression, in a bit of a pickle. He was quoted in The Guardian as saying his show is “all about the way we live now, and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind it’s this: we’re usually clumsy.”
In other words, our ubiquitous use of technology has the potential to amplify our faults and reveal our true nature.
Just like a mirror.
I find this mirror simile compelling; it might be because I’ve seen it before—from the Bible. In his New Testament letter, James intends to encourage believers to endure in their faith, and part of that endurance involves learning how to not only hear the Word of God, but put it into application. Toward the end he says,
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:23–25)
Similar to Charlie Brooker’s vision of technology, James asserts that repeated exposure to the Word of God has the potential to reveal our true nature, but only if we actually apply it to our lives. Also like James, Brooker’s anthology seems to suggest that technology is not the problem itself, but rather a symptom of a greater problem—the inescapable depravity of humankind.
This is an important distinction, because I would hate for people to walk away from Black Mirror thinking technology is the problem. The fact is, technology is not new. Ink-quill pens and parchment are technology. So are oil lamps, horse-drawn carriages, and running water. Technology has always been with us. The bigger, more important question is, how should we respond to the technological advances that surround us?
It’s a salient question, because most discussions of technology and futurism tend to bend to either the extreme of naïve optimism or grim pessimism. Regardless, much of the work futurists engage in defines the values that guide us toward technological advancement. Like autonomous cars, they drive us toward the future.
James had a lot to say about values. But what sets this biblical letter apart from others is the way he emphasizes how those values should be applied—with action. Most people remember the book of James for its simplest aphorism that faith without works is dead. All throughout the letter, he implores believers to endure trials, love their neighbors, and live out their faith through tangible deeds.
Similarly, Black Mirror questions not the value of technology in the abstract, but shines a light on how technology is to be integrated into daily life. Every episode contains technology that could be marketed as part of a futuristic utopia, but it comes with hidden costs and unintended consequences. So, for example, in “Nosedive,” Lacie’s obsession with her social app score means all her interactions are vapid and fake. In “The Entire History of You,” Liam and Ffion are granted the ability to record and replay their interactions, but rather than enriching their lives, it detracts from it.
As we try to tackle the myriad of social, technical, moral, and economic challenges of the twenty-first century, we’ll need more than just abstract faith. We need to learn how to live it out.
Technology can help us with this. The challenge is in learning how to make it submit to our faith, not vice versa.