How far would you go to stop people knowing your darkest secrets? What if virtual reality played on your deepest fears? Could you imagine a world where we’re rated the whole time? How would people react if they knew what you really thought? Who wants to live forever? What if your very worse moments got shared with the rest of the world? Black Mirror is back to answer all these questions, and more…
Charlie Brooker’s anthology series returned last month, debuting on Netflix, with six brand new episodes, ripping out the cruel heart at the midst of 2016’s most cutting-edge technology. New targets this series include virtual reality, drone technology, social media (obviously) and Twitter furore.
Black Mirror is at its absolute best when the creepy technology it focuses on points towards the broken human heart at its centre. As Brooker himself said before the latest series was released: “I don’t worry about technology, I worry about our inability to control these new superpowers it grants us.” And of course the reality is that while ostensibly about the future, Black Mirror is very much about the here and now. And in its third series, it seems to have turned its lens towards connection, or more accurately, disconnection.
In the first episode, ‘Nosedive’ we follow Lacie in a world defined by rankings. After every interaction - be it with the barista serving your coffee, your colleague or someone you walked past in the street and made eye contact with - everyone is ranked out of five stars. The higher your ranking, the more popular you become, and the wider variety of social options, transport perks and even housing choices you are able to enjoy. This boils each interaction down to a superficial scoring system, and puts pressure on people to perform at each and every moment. Even relationships are judged and managed according to the system: surely a ‘four’ would never go out with a ‘two’? There are no real connections, merely staged surface-level associations.
‘Men against fire’ explores the role technology plays in warfare, showing how drone (and other) technology has separated soldiers from their targets, de-humanising conflict and lessening the psychological impact. Even war has become disconnected.
The series’ final episode, ‘Hated in the nation’, takes the fear of public shaming, but focuses on the perpetrators of the furore, rather than the victims. As people online kick up a fuss about anything from offensive newspaper columns to disrespect of war memorials, the focus of these controversies are then killed off using (as it’s the future) some confusing technology… from the future. Those who perpetuated these online storms end up killing these people by proxy, without ever facing the consequences.
The thing is, jumping on a Twitter bandwagon can feel pretty good. It’s pretty cathartic. “They said a thing that wasn’t politically correct!” “This column wasn’t acceptable.” “I don’t like his hair.” Enough voices pipe up and we blend into the group - the assembled disapproving mass. We feel great, and who cares about the person at the other end - they deserve what’s coming, right? But how many of us would harbour the same level of anger offline? Would we happily barricade someone’s house with pitchforks and torches? Or do we just protect ourselves behind online avatars, giving little thought to those at the other end?
The internet has opened us up to myriad connections, many of them immensely positive, but at its heart there remains this central disconnection. When we shop online we’re removed from those supplying us. When we talk to people online we miss the genuine connection that can only come from face-to-face interaction. But more than that, it limits the connections we do have. We end up streamlining those we do have contact with, allowing a select few onto our timelines and into our lives. We build echo chambers of people who agree with our worldview, our religion and our politics. We ‘like’ what we agree with and mute those we don’t. This isn’t just self-indulgent, it’s dangerous and short-sighted. If we surround ourselves with like-minded people, we don’t engage with viewpoints we disagree with, and can’t begin to understand them. In the last year we’ve seen what were seen as sure-fire victories for ‘remain’ and Hilary Clinton shockingly undone as those campaigning struggled to understand the concerns and fears of the vast majority of the electorate, outside of the political bubble - we’ve got 4G coverage everywhere, yet we’ve still got a connection problem.
And this obviously, is hugely important for our work with young people. In a disconnected, superficial culture, young people remain desperate for connection: connection with their real selves, connection with others and connection with something bigger than them. If youth ministry has a relevant message to this fragmented, disconnected generation it must be an offer of genuine, real connection; the opportunity to be yourself without filters or ratings; the chance to tap in to a transcendent being that ties all of this together.
Black Mirror isn’t scary because it shows a technology-craven future, it’s terrifying because it reflects our disconnected present. In a society yearning for genuine connections, youth ministry is perfectly placed to offer real community.