In “Black Museum”, the last episode of the latest season of Black Mirror, we came across the conclusion that there is one person to blame for the evils of technology, with a “Get Out”-esque ending that was very satisfying. Yet, a character seeking the thrill of technological advancement, but more importantly acclaim for their popularity, seems too easy of a reason for the destruction technology causes in this series. This brings us to a debate about whether technology is inherently evil or technology at the hands of questionable human morality is the true evil. I’m more inclined to believe that Black Mirror is about what happens when we are faced with moral issues that aren’t obviously right or wrong because technology has complicated them and provided us with even more degrees of diffusion of responsibility than we currently have now. Phew, run-on sentence.
The point is, we are faced with questions which we never had to think about before. Because it is a new situation, we are left with no reference point and instead must figure out the moral question ourselves, instead of reverting to commonly held notions, like “of course killing or hurting someone is bad”, we are asked to think who is doing the killing, who is enabling it, how many people are involved, did they have the intention to kill, and whether or not it’s really killing (in some cases). This is what morality demands of us with or without technology, that we consider the complexity of a multi-dimensional issue. So each Black Mirror episode leaves us wondering to ourselves over and over “what would I do in that situation?” When dealing with copying someone’s consciousness and having it exist, fully sentient, to do the original consciousness’ bidding, the question is not how could technology be so evil but why do we think this is wrong? What moral weight do we give to a copy of consciousness manifested through technology? And most importantly, would we consider doing that?
When I first started watching Black Mirror, one episode would leave me so perplexed about the meaning of life that I could only watch one at a time. With season 4, I whipped through the entire season in a matter of two days. Maybe I’ve become inured to the psychological trial of Black Mirror episodes. Or maybe there’s something different about season 4. The endings provide more closure and triumph. For the most part the “bad guy” loses in a lot of these episodes. There is a denouement in the end in which characters are left with hope and the option to start another chapter after we leave them. This is a first for Black Mirror plot lines, which normally leave us with a feeling of hopelessness as the characters are faced with impossible situations which they must live with for the rest of their lives.
Some part of the British satire element is lost in the fourth season. This season gives a sense of righteousness at the end of the each episode, more reminiscent of Hollywood ending than British parody. Or perhaps the series are just as shocking but the ultimate message leaves us with a more tranquil moral consciousness instead of the unanswered, ambiguous conclusion to the episodes of the former seasons. That is to say, that the characters have figured out how to control technology in a liberating way. (INTERESTING!). Consider a comparison between iconic episodes from seasons 1-3 and their related episodes in season 4.
San Junipero (series 3) : The characters, Kelly and Yorkie, find their true love only after they are past their prime age in a simulation over which they have very little control. In the end they find themselves living in the simulation instead of real life and ultimately ceasing to exist in the real world.
Hang the DJ (series 4): The characters in this episode find each other in real life after their simulations have undergone 1000 tests of love in a simulation designed to match couples with 99.8% accuracy. They are using the technology to their benefit, and as we find out that we have been watching a simulation for most of the episode, we discover the real people or original consciousness’ have been in control the entire time.
Playtest (series 3): In this episode, virtual reality and games are also the main theme, except the protagonist has no control over the virtual reality as it takes over his mind. He is not in control, the game creators are. Eventually we find out that a malfunction killed him 5 seconds into the game but created a simulation in his brain which lasted several weeks (months?).
USS Callister (series 4): In this episode a woman finds herself in a game- or rather a copy of her consciousness- that is that is run by an ego-driven, self-gratifying man. The woman is also a computer programmer in real life and she works at the company this man helped found. She ultimately takes over the virtual reality from the inside and triumphs over the perverted game her and others had been subjected to. We are left feeling hopeful for the future of the characters- even if they are copies of consciousness inside a game.
So what changed? As far writers go, writer and creator Charlie Booker is still behind the plot of Season 4. Although not all episodes in season 4 have a happy-ending, MetalHead, for example, there is undoubtedly a change in the writing and message the show leaves us with. Ultimately, it’s a feeling: I feel more hopeful for the future than dejected after season 4. And to be honest, I’m not sure how much I like that.