- After years of exploring society’s dark absurdities, the sixth season of Netflix’s dystopian anthology series “Black Mirror” gazes at its own reflection.
- In the episode “Joan Is Awful” we see deepfakes generating content tailored to individual users.
- Charlie Brooker, the show’s sardonic mastermind, says he toyed with generative AI during the making of the show and found it lacked any semblance of original thought.
Like all good sci-fi, Black Mirror reflected our present into the future, but in the four years since the last run of episodes on Netflix the world seems to have become so dystopian that you couldn’t make it up.
The pandemic forcing everyone indoors, the riots on Capitol Hill fed on social media conspiracy, the rise and rise of generative AI, entrepreneurs commercializing space, and, of course, the metaverse.
The Emmy-winning anthology series is back and writer-creator-showrunner Charlie Brooker has been talking about how he took the opportunity to mix things up.
“It feels like the dystopia is lapping onto our shores at the present moment,” he told GQ’s Brit Dawson of the five-episode instalment.
“I definitely approached this season thinking, ‘Whatever my assumptions are about Black Mirror, I’m going to throw them out and do something different,’” Brooker said.
This included more comedy, particularly in the episodes “Joan Is Awful” and “Demon 79,” a horror story subtitled “Red Mirror” that draws on staples like Hammer and the work of Dario Argento.
“I sort of circled back to some classically Black Mirror stories as well,” Brooker said. “So it’s not like it’s a bed of roses this season. They’re certainly some of the bleakest stories we’ve ever done.”
He’s also perhaps not as wary of the future or of technology as his Black Mirror persona might suggest. He recalls how frightening it was in the 1980s during the height of the nuclear cold war.
“That didn’t quite happen! The other thing I would say, I do have faith in the fact that the younger generation seem to have their heads screwed on and seem to be pissed off. So that’s going to be a tsunami of people, it’s just that they’re not at the levers of power yet,” he says.
“We have eradicated lots of diseases and generally lots of things are going well that we lose sight of but it’s just a bit terrifying if you think democracy is going to collapse. That and the climate breaking down.”
In another pre-season interview with Amit Katwala at Wired, Booker continues, “I am generally pro-technology. Probably we’re going to have to rely on it if we’re going to survive, so I wouldn’t say [Black Mirror episodes] necessarily warns, so much as worries, if you know what I mean. They’re maybe worst-case scenarios.”
Three of the five episodes are set in the past, with seemingly no connection to the evils of the internet from past seasons.
“I think there was a danger that Black Mirror was becoming the show about consciousness being uploaded into a little disc,” Brooker explains to Emma Stefansky at Esquire. “Who says I have to set this in a near-future setting, and make it all chrome and glass and holograms and, you know, a bit Minority Report?” he asks. “What happens if I just set it in the past? That opens up all sorts of other things.”
However, one episode does openly “worry” about a near-future in which AI takes control of our lives in ways we hadn’t imagined. “Joan Is Awful” is about a streaming service called Streamberry — cheekily mirroring Netflix and clearly with the streamer’s consent — that makes a photoreal, AI-generated show out of a woman’s life.
It was specifically inspired by The Dropout, the ABC mini-series about Theranos founder and convicted fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, along with the possibility of all of us having the ability to generate personalized media using AI. Except in Black Mirror’s take this is another example of Big Tech using our private data for the entertainment of others.
People prefer viewing content “in a state of mesmerized horror,” the CEO of Streamberry says in the episode.
“Obviously the first thing I did was ask [generative AI] to come up with a Black Mirror episode to see what it would do,” Brooker told GQ. “What it came out with was simultaneously too generic and dull for any serious consideration. There’s a generic quality to the art that it pumps out.
“That was the first wave [of generative AI], when people were going, ‘Hey, look at this, I can type “Denis Nilsen the serial killer in the Bake Off tent” into Midjourney’ and it’ll spit out some eerily, quasi-realistic images of that, or ‘Here’s Mr. Blobby on a water slide,’ or ‘Paul McCartney eating an olive.’
“It’ll be undeniably perfect in five years, but at what point it’ll replace the human experience? It does feel now like we’re at the foothills of new, disruptive technology kicking in again.”
In an interview with Vox and Peter Kafka’s Re/code podcast, Brooker put his thoughts on generative AI and emerging tech another way: ‟It’s like we’ve suddenly grown an extra limb, which is amazing because it means you could juggle and scroll through your iPhone at the same time. But it also means that we’re not really sure how to control it yet.”
In general, it seems more accurate to say that Brooker is skeptical about people, rather than certain technologies. ‟Usually our technologies give with one hand and sort of slap us
round the back of the head with the other,” he told Kafka. He thinks people tend to be the problem, rather than the tech, so ‟I wouldn’t want to delete this stuff from existence necessarily.”
The episode “Loch Henry” is set in the present day, following a pair of documentary filmmakers who plan to give a shocking hometown murder the lurid true crime treatment. “Loch Henry” relies on VHS tapes to build its narrative, instead of a smartphone app or webcam.
“It’s a weird one, because it is about the archive of the past that people are digging into,” Brooker tells Stefansky. “But it is also about the way all that stuff is now hoovered up and presented to you on prestige TV platforms — that we’re mining all these horrible things that happened and turning it into a sumptuous form of entertainment.”
He continues, “There’s nothing more frustrating than when you’re watching a true crime documentary, and it starts to dawn on you somewhere around Episode 3: They’re not going to tell me who did this. Not what I want. I want to see an interview with the killer. Go and generate one on ChatGPT.”
At Wired, Katwala speculates that maybe the next step is personalized content about personalized content. Society and social media has been moving in this direction for years, he says.
“One of the supposed benefits of generative AI is that it will enable personalized content, tailored to our individual tastes: your own algorithmically designed hell, so horribly well-targeted that you can’t tear your eyes away.”
But, he wonders, what happens to cultural commentary when everyone is consuming different stuff?
The irony is that while hyper-personalized content might be great for engagement on streaming platforms, it would be absolutely terrible for landmark shows like Black Mirror and Succession, which support a whole ecosystem including websites like Wired and NAB Amplify.
“We siphon off a portion of the search interest in these topics, capitalizing on people who have just watched something and want to know what to think about it. This helps explain the media feeding frenzy around the Succession finale and why I’m writing this story about Black Mirror even though we ran an interview with the creator yesterday,” Katwala argues.
“In a way, you could see that as the media’s slightly clumsy attempt to replicate the success of the algorithm.”