Subcutaneous recording devices implanted behind our ears allow us to queue and review our memories with perfect clarity – and ultimately damning results. Curious citizens wielding cellphone cameras are invited to witness a nightmarish aberration of the criminal justice system up close. A state-of-the-art digital avatar is used to harass and compromise local politicians. Already a minor sensation around the globe, the dystopian British series Black Mirror has captured the dark imagination of many an American viewer since it debuted on Netflix last year.
The anthology is a bit uneven across its six (currently available) episodes. Although its tone and opening credits might steer one to believe that he or she is witnessing dispatches from a similar yet distinct, alternate dimension, some of the scenarios still seem too outlandish for any nearby corner of the multiverse. But the sinister notion that our technology will betray us – or, more accurately, that technology’s ubiquity will allow us to betray ourselves – pervades the series pretty uniformly and is its most compelling facet.
Black Mirror’s captivating and arguably dead-on conceit is that we have become, for the most part, a worldwide population of passive observers, our bland curiosity facilitated by the presence of wired screens embedded everywhere from our public streets to two-inches in front of our eyeballs. Lulled into virtual submission by content overload, society unknowingly permits opportunists, criminals, terrorists even, to take advantage and manipulate. “15 Million Merits,” the second of three episodes in Black Mirror’s first season presents us with a world in which plebes pedal stationary bikes all day for scraps of food, porn, and pop culture. Characteristically cheeky in its vagueness, the show never quite lets on who put this system in place or who exactly benefits from all this redundant exertion. But the implication is that not everyone is along for the same ride.
A billion dollar manufacturer of snazzy handheld devices moves its massive corporate headquarters into a small city, providing free wi-fi and promising boundless conveniences to its citizenry. The inhabitants, blinded by their phones’ technicolor displays and ease of use, grant the corporation carte blanche even as it plans to turn a vast swath of the city’s natural wildlife into a sprawling campus for hipster code monkeys. This is not the plot of an existing or upcoming episode of Black Mirror. This is the backdrop for at least the first half of the final season of NBC’s critically acclaimed but regularly struggling sitcom Parks and Recreation.
Not only has the Peacock Network been burning off the last remaining episodes of Parks and Rec at the furious pace of two per Tuesday night, at the beginning of the season, the show leaped ahead Scott Bakula-like to the year 2017. The upshot: Characters’ allegiances have realigned, new, unforetold beefs have arisen, and, suddenly, everyone in fictional Pawnee, Indiana is carrying around a sleek handset capable of blasting backlit holograms an inch or so out from the screen. These gadgets are the products of Gryzzl, a ballooning tech superpower dreamed up by Parks’ writers and introduced during the final episode of Season 6 to represent Google, Yahoo, Apple, Amazon, and Pawnee’s inevitable modernization. By Season 7, Gryzzl is looking to plant roots in Pawnee and sparing no expense to do so. An offer on a parcel of land valued at $90 million is easily upped to a $125 million when the capitalist whiz kids are challenged by Leslie Knope and the heroes in Pawnee’s Parks Department.
Parks and Recreation is, of course, a workplace comedy about a handful of goofballs in local government and not – like Black Mirror – an ongoing treatise on the perils of technology. But the creators’ decision to make technology part of the fabric of its final season is a conscious one and worth remarking upon. In the episode titled “Gryzzl Box,” the corporate giant tries to ingratiate itself to the Pawnee community by delivering tailor-made gift packages via airborne drones right to residents’ doorsteps. When the township discovers that Gryzzl was able to make its boxes super-specific to each recipient by mining data from their private emails and texts, Pawnee rises up in protest – but not before one of the town’s most sensible guardians suggests that the victims have brought this invasion of privacy upon themselves by entrusting the internet with so much personal information.
In one of the better episodes of Black Mirror, a woman commissions a largely functional facsimile of her dead boyfriend from a mysterious manufacturer. The golem’s personality and intellect are entirely synthesized from information that the living, breathing man had made public via the internet over the years. The woman experiences happiness for a time before butting up against the synthetic creature’s creepy shortcomings and, finally, choosing to stow him/it away in the attic where he/it lurks for the foreseeable future, waiting to be useful. It only takes the people of Pawnee half a season and a bit of midwestern cunning to outwit Gryzzl and strike up a symbiotic relationship with the overbearing tech company. The latter is a much more optimistic resolution than the former. But in either scenario – darkest drama or comedy – the message concerning technology as a threat is just as clear as it has always been: We’re too far along and ahead; we’re just going to have to figure out a way to live with it.