Here’s All the Terrifying Technology That Inspired ‘Black Mirror’
*SPOILER WARNING: There are heavy spoilers for Black Mirror season 3 in this article.*
Black Mirror season 3 has finally been released on Netflix, with writer Charlie Brooker’s new chapter in his critically acclaimed anthology series clocking in at 6 episodes, making it the biggest season of the show yet.
In previous Black Mirror series we’ve watched as Brooker cast a cynical eye upon our increasingly technology reliant world, presenting different variations of a tech-obsessed dystopia that routinely felt within arm’s reach of the present day. Season 3 is no different, with it using its extra episodes in order to provide a more all-encompassing overview of why we should be so paranoid about the devices we’re allowing into our lives.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the comparisons between the various terrifying technologies featured in Black Mirror and their real-world counterparts:
‘Nosedive’ and Social Networks
The first episode of season 3 sees aspiring socialite Lacie trying to navigate a world which is controlled by a social network, with this particularly pervasive app allowing anyone to rate their interactions with each other out of 5 stars. This rating system is then used to deduce an individual’s popularity, which in turn can affect everything from their ability to purchase a new home, through to the line they must stand in when waiting to hire a rental car. In this world those with a 4.5 rating or above are given preferential treatment over everyone else, leading to a society in which everyone is attempting to convince one another that they are likeable in order to achieve a higher score.
‘Nosedive’ obviously draws immediate parallels with Facebook, showing how a social network can have an unfortunate impact upon our real-world relationships. Lacie is depicted as being incredibly envious of the ostensibly perfect lifestyle showcased by her old school friend, with her wanting to push herself into her social circle in order to increase her own popularity. This correlates with the sense of inadequacy many feel as a result of too much time spent on Facebook, with a study conducted earlier this year discovering that in a test group of 1,787 adults who used social media extensively, a quarter showed high indicators of depression with linear associations being drawn between the frequency of social network activity.
However, a much more direct comparison can be drawn between ‘Nosedive’ and the controversial app Peeple, which aimed to provide its users a “Yelp for humans.” Peeple was released in early 2016, with it allowing its users to leave reviews for individuals based upon their experiences with them. The app was initially pitched as a way for its users to be more aware of the quality of various professionals, from doctors through to babysitters, though it was pointed out that it could essentially become a platform for cyber-bullying. Peeple allows users to rate their experiences with users by selecting their relationship with them, offering the categories personal, professional and dating to choose from, before giving their experience a rating of either positive, neutral or negative.
Although Peeple is hardly as prevalent as the fictional social network featured in ‘Nosedive,’ it shares the same basic concept. Interestingly, Black Mirror‘s take on it actually results in the opposite effect of what was predicted for Peeple, with many fearing that it would lead to increased cyber-bullying. Contrarily, the app shown in Black Mirror leads to its users becoming overly friendly with one another, as a result of them being afraid that they’ll be given a low rating.
‘Playtest’ and Virtual Reality
Given the rising popularity of virtual reality, it was inevitable that Brooker would tackle the topic in Black Mirror‘s third season. Though some form of VR can be found in a few of its episodes, it is placed at the front and center of second episode ‘Playtest,’ in which a cash-strapped backpacker signs up for a day of paid-for playtesting with a major video game company.
The episodes sees American traveler Cooper pointed in the direction of game company SaitoGemu by his fleeting English romance Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), with him signing up to be one of the first to try out a brand new augmented reality experience, similar to Microsoft’s unreleased HoloLens or, on a lesser scale, the failed Google Glass. The technology requires a “small medical procedure” that sees a small chip implanted into the back of his neck, though the woman SaitoGemu employee demoing it to him explains that it is as temporary as an ear piercing.
This playtest begins harmlessly enough, with Cooper playing a virtual version of whack-a-mole, though after he’s transported to a creepy abandoned mansion things take a turn for the worse. While in the mansion, Cooper is informed that the tech will adapt to his fears, learning what he is most afraid of and playing on these anxieties in order to make the experience more terrifying. This initially leads to him being confronted by a giant spider and a ghostly version of his old school bully, but eventually becomes thoroughly more uncomfortable after confronting him with his late father’s dementia. At the end of the episode it is revealed that Cooper hasn’t been playing in augmented reality at all; the mansion and the events that transpired within it were not real. He has instead been playing the “game” via virtual reality, meaning that he has remained in the chair he sat in when he first entered the SaitoGemu building, and every interaction he has experienced since then has taken place firmly in his own mind.
The virtual reality comparisons are easy to make, with it obviously sharing similarities with the likes of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and the recently released PlayStation VR. While SaitoGemu’s fictional version of the tech is obviously far more advanced than the headsets we currently have access to, it still sees its player occupying and interacting with a virtual world, albeit without the downside of having to have a chip inserted into your neck in order to do so. However, there also video games that the ‘Playtest’ concept echoes, such as 2015’s Nevermind.
Nevermind utilizes either a webcam or a heart rate sensor in order to determine how much it’s terrifying the player, with the game turning it up a notch whenever it senses that it is doing so. An example of such a scenario is an area in which players are trapped in a kitchen, wherein they must solve a puzzle before the room fills with milk. The more nervous they get, the quicker the room fills up, with it eventually drowning the player if they do not complete their objective.
There are other games that adapt to match the fears of their players, too. 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories “psychologically profiles” the player in order to alter the game in accordance with the decisions they make, changing everything from the imagery they will see in the game and even the interactions they have with other characters. 2015’s Until Dawn takes a less subtle approach, directly questioning the player regarding their deepest fears and then mimicking their answers in-game. For instance, if the player tells the game that they have a fear of needles, the antagonist will therefore adopt a syringe as his weapon of choice. While ‘Playtest’ may feature far more advanced technology than these examples, it’s clear that many horror game developers are seeking to emulate its method of terrifying its players — though perhaps on a less deadly scale.
‘Shut Up and Dance’ and Hackers
‘Shut Up and Dance’ doesn’t feature any futuristic technology, instead opting to show us a thoroughly unsettling vision of how our current technology can be used to manipulate and blackmail us.
The episode focuses upon a young man who is unwittingly filmed masturbating after his laptop webcam is hacked by a secret group, with him then being tasked with carrying out a series of odd objectives while the video is held as ransom. From this point it’s revealed that he is not alone in this group’s plans, with him encountering a variety of other individuals who each have their own secrets to hide, and who are also being blackmailed to carry out tasks against their will.
While the secret group’s plans are far more ambitious than anything we’ve seen from our current slew of online “hacktivists,” the concept behind ‘Shut Up and Dance’ is hardly out of the reach of plausibility. Hackers have been gaining access to webcams for as long as webcams have existed, with them utilizing malware in order to infiltrate laptops and desktops before spying on their users and, in the most obscene cases, publishing the results on shady websites. In a particularly horrific case back in 2014, it was revealed that a hacker had gained access to a baby monitor, with the stranger then shouting at the 10-month old while she lay sleeping in her crib.
Likewise, the online vigilantism exhibited by the episode’s secretive hacktivist group isn’t anything new, with there existing various examples of this in the present day. Perhaps most common is a subset of vigilantes dubbed “pedophile hunters,” who track down those seeking to meet underage kids via chat rooms before posting their encounters with these prospective sex offenders online. In the UK, where this breed of civilian justice appears to be most common, an award-winning documentary on the subject of these vigilantes was broadcast on Channel 4. The Paedophile Hunter showed how the popular online activist Stinson Hunter had cultivated a large audience of followers as a result of his divisive videos, with Hunter working without the aid of the police in order to track down and expose pedophiles in Britain.