Free Your Mind? ‘Black Mirror’ Isn’t Too Hopeful

Posted December 28, 2017 7:41 p.m. EST

The following essay includes plot points for episodes of “Black Mirror,” including Season 4, which arrived Dec. 29 on Netflix.

In the beginning, there was a rock. Pretty soon, someone got bashed in the head with it. Not long after that, someone fashioned a stone knife. Bronze, iron, steel: knife, knife, knife.

Create a tool, and someone will weaponize it: This has been the theme of Charlie Brooker’s speculative tech anthology, “Black Mirror.”

Since the series began in 2011, its anxieties have evolved. “Black Mirror” was first concerned about media, in episodes like “The National Anthem” (in which kidnappers coerce the British prime minister into having sex with a pig on live TV) and “The Waldo Moment” (a crude cartoon character runs for office). Then it focused on internet culture, in “Nosedive” (about a society in which one’s welfare is tied to one’s online popularity) and “Hated in the Nation” (a parable about social-media mobs).

In Season 4, Brooker has turned his dark imagination to the digitization of consciousness itself — what people will do with, and to, human minds that have been rendered into zeros and ones.

Unsurprisingly, Brooker is not optimistic. Where some futurists might see the potential for immortality or richly augmented brains, “Black Mirror” sees the opportunity for people to commit their usual cruelty and selfishness, creatively and in perpetuity.

In Season 3, uploaded consciousness was the premise of one of the series’ best and most hopeful episodes, “San Junipero,” in which two lovers reunite on the digital plane after their physical bodies die. It ends, boisterously, to the strains of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”

Season 4 makes reference to that technology — “when they upload old people into the cloud” — in “Black Museum.” But in this episode, it’s a horror show: Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), the proprietor of a museum of curiosities, turns out to be a perpetrator of cyber atrocities.

He introduces an implant that allows a doctor to feel the perceptions of his dying patients, which the physician finds addictive to the point of madness. Later, Rolo downloads a comatose woman’s mind as a “cookie” (another reference, this time to the 2014 “White Christmas” special), turning her into a device that her husband can shut off when he tires of her. Eventually, Rolo imprisons her in the body of an electronic teddy bear that can speak only two phrases.

Finally, Rolo captures the consciousness of a death-row inmate, charging museum visitors to “electrocute” his hologram. As a souvenir, they get to take home “a conscious sentient snapshot” of the prisoner, “a true conscious copy of his mind perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain.”

Sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke coined the law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Fittingly, Brooker’s episodes are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from supernatural horror tales. They warn that while the pain of physical weapons ended with the release of death, giving people power over eternal consciousness would turn ordinary sadists into digital Satans.

Every episode of the new season involves artificial consciousness or cyborg technology; over and over, probes, implants and needles interface with the human temple. Even the season’s simplest tale, the lean thriller “Metalhead,” involves artificially intelligent “dog” robots — possibly related to an apocalypse that seems to have ended most human life — hunting people as prey.

“Black Mirror” has been accused of being reflexively Luddite; Brooker has joked that people must assume the show is “written by the Unabomber.” But his target isn’t technology per se. Rather, the series assumes that people — enough people anyway — will look at any new device the way a terrorist looks at a truck or a box cutter, with an eye toward the damage they can do with it. So if science makes it possible to render people’s thoughts, their perceptions, their very selves into code, someone will figure out how to control them. In “Crocodile,” a device that seems like a boon to crime fighting — it shows a raw video feed of people’s memories — is used by a criminal to find and kill an investigator’s family.

Even in the lighthearted romance “Hang the DJ,” we learn that the characters we have hoped would fall in love are simulations in a dating app, conscious code that feels heartbreak over and over so that a couple on another plane of existence (ours?) can experience 99.8 percent foolproof love.

Sometimes, “Black Mirror” suggests, people will abuse technology out of love. In “Arkangel,” it’s the misguided love of Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has a surveillance implant placed in the head of her toddler daughter, Sara, then uses it to spy on her as she becomes a rebellious teenager (Brenna Harding).

The technology is fanciful: Marie can track Sara, see through her eyes, even adjust the settings so Sara perceives frightening images as pixelated blurs. But its attractions are familiar to any parent who has used tech to monitor a child, to filter her media experience, to keep her safe. “Arkangel” is a bit of a melodramatic after-school special, but it’s rooted in the fear at the heart of raising a child.

The technology that protects Sara robs her of the developmental experience of processing unpleasant events, the ability to make and learn from her own mistakes. As Sara’s teacher says during a lecture, “Moral responsibility implies the existence of free will,” a gift that Marie has denied her growing daughter. The next step from helicopter parenting is hacker parenting.

The season’s most explicit story of digital enslavement is its longest and most ambitious: “U.S.S. Callister,” written by Brooker and William Bridges. It also manages to be the best reconception of “Star Trek” in a year that also gave us “The Orville” and the actual prequel, “Star Trek: Discovery.”

It starts with an ingenious bait-and-switch. The opening, a campy sendup of the original “Star Trek,” turns out to be a virtual-reality simulation, created by Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), a socially inept coding wizard who is an outcast at the very company he founded.

The premise that the setup suggests, a Walter Mitty fantasy story about a sympathetic loser, is also a fake-out. Daly has created a private VR universe populated by conscious, subservient versions of his own company’s staff — destined to obey his whims forever — whom he terrorizes and tortures, men and women alike, with his godlike powers.

When a new employee, Nanette (Cristin Milioti), shuns him after the office whisper network informs her that he’s “stare-y,” he adds her as a new character, outfitted in a 1960s miniskirt. Her digital version externalizes Daly’s stunted sexuality; his swaggering captain character compels kisses from his female crew members, but they, and the men, have no genitalia. They’re the smooth-crotched virtual action figures for an omnipotent, overgrown preteen.

“U.S.S. Callister” allows you a glimpse of the way Daly sees himself — as the decent guy who can’t get the girl, before you see him as a predatory schlemiel-monster. This story of virtual workplace harassment is unnervingly timely, but it also captures an ugliness that’s been percolating in digital culture for a while.

Daly personifies a familiar figure: the Gamergate warrior, the social-media men’s-rights troll. His character touches at the curdled heart of modern misogyny — the pickup-artist mindset that gamifies sex, the grievance that “nice guys” are entitled to women’s attention, the craving by poorly socialized men to interact with programmable pawns rather than complex people. The technology in “U.S.S. Callister” is fictional, but these attitudes are very real in our virtual spaces. Online sexists use the “red pill” metaphor, borrowed from “The Matrix,” to argue that men have been imprisoned in a false reality created by social rules and must be awakened to a true one, in which they can claim dominance over women.

“U.S.S. Callister” inverts this idea by having its tech-bro channel his resentment into fashioning his own personal matrix. (Brooker has hinted at the marriage of technology and misogyny before; “White Christmas” and “Black Museum” involve a man employing absolute power over a woman in cookie form.)

“U.S.S. Callister” ends with Daly’s defeat, as the digitized Nanette pulls off an “Inception"-like ruse by blackmailing her flesh-and-blood self into helping her. But that makes the episode no less disturbing. Daly may have lost, and his technology may be a fiction. But creeps like him are very real, and so is their impulse to use the latest tools to make hell a place on earth.