Two reflections on the blackest of mirrors

Thoughts on Charlie Brooker's latest Netflix season of 'Black Mirror'.

The fourth season of standalone episodes starts, in true Black Mirror style, in the mind of Robert Daly, a shy, socially awkward chief of technology at a games company. Daly’s real life is dull and unfulfilling, and characterised by a lack of power and presence despite his position. This is a sharp contrast to his fantasy life, within a modified version of the game he created, where he’s the captain of a space ship that flies round the galaxy defeating evil. The twist in this dark Star Trek parody is that Daly’s crew are sentient beings, digital replicants created from the DNA of co-workers who he feels have wronged him. It’s a ‘bubble universe ruled by an asshole god’. Questions about sentient code and AI are raised throughout the episode, especially in a profound conversation where they discuss ‘dying’.  

The second instalment, ‘Arkangel’, kicks off the Year of the Woman in style. Directed by Jodie Foster, it follows a mother and daughter and their developing relationship. After temporarily losing her young daughter, Maria has an experimental chip installed in the child’s head. Psychologists might be interested in the treatment of the cortisol response in the learning of fear and appropriate behaviour, and the transferring online filtering and censorship from the digital realm to real life. The breakdown of trust between mother and daughter highlights aspects of Jung’s Electra complex.

The trademark Black Mirror head chip also features in ‘Crocodile’, one of Black Mirror’s darkest offerings to date. What if we could see the memories of others? Visually, the depiction of the memories is as many would expect if this machine were real: fragmented, hazy pictures that the insurance investigator describes as subjective. She even opens beer and plays music to help stimulate memories, which has parallels of context-dependent recall. Subtle moments, such as when the visual of the memory changed according to what was said, highlight a sense of paranoia regarding the uses of these machines in everyday life.

Black Museum ends Season 4 with an anthology riddled with Easter eggs for hardcore fans. Apparently confirming the shared universe of Black Mirror theory, this episode uses props and outfits from previous episodes as the museum exhibits. Whilst this episode is relative self-explanatory compared with others in this season, the concepts that it raises, of life and death, will most likely stick with you long after the show has finished. 

- Reviewed by Michelle Dodd, a psychology undergraduate

 

Another week, another news article questioning children’s reliance on smartphones. It’s always a good time to review the new series of Black Mirror, the often unsettling sci-fi series that explores our relationship with technology.

Series 4 has six episodes, varying in their ‘sci-fi-ness’. ‘USS Callister’ and ‘Metalhead’ are the episodes that feel most typically sci-fi, with the former set in space and the latter involving the protagonist being hunted by robo-dogs. For me, one of the strongest episodes was ‘Arkangel’, which focuses on a mother and daughter’s relationship and questions whether you would keep surveillance on your own child in a bid to keep them safe. I also loved ‘Hang the DJ’, a romance by all accounts, focusing on a couple in a walled world using an online app to choose their perfect match. What would happen if we allowed technology to control not only how we formed relationships, but also when we ended them?

In ‘Crocodile’ we see a world where we can share our subjective experience of events to overcome issues with eyewitness testimony. Something I really enjoyed in this episode was the susceptibility of memory to change with additional information: ‘Others said her coat was yellow.’

Two things struck me from a psychological point of view. First, the popularity of the series does not seem to be simply down to the interesting questions posed, which, for an audience of psychologists, are likely to intrigue and infuriate in equal measure. It comes from a pervasive and ubiquitous fear we carry that relates to our level of dependence on machines, and the people behind them. 

Second, when I wanted to see the reaction to the new series, I went to Twitter. Here, I found hundreds of people ranking their favourite episodes, and this got me thinking about how this awareness of others’ attitudes might shape our own, possibly before we are sure of them ourselves. Perhaps by using social media and seeing the constant barrage of others’ opinions, our attitudes are changing, just in the same way that the eyewitness in ‘Crocodile’ saw a different colour based on someone else’s feedback.

- Reviewed by Sarah Wilding, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leeds 

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