How 'Black Mirror' Became the Technology Era's 'Twilight Zone'

Rob Sheffield on the way the British sci-fi/horror anthology taps into our tech addictions – and targets the people holding the smartphones

'Black Mirror' doesn't just tap into our gadget love – Rob Sheffield on how the tech-era 'Twilight Zone' targets the people behind the smartphones. Credit: David Dettmann/Netflix

Welcome to the machine: Black Mirror is finally blowing American brains in its excellent third season, after years as a word-of-mouth cult hit. Charlie Brooker's English anthology horror series does for computer screens what Dark Shadows did for vampires, tapping into the terror of technology as it zooms past the point where our minds can keep up. Are our smartphones an innovation like electricity or fluoride, something that will quickly get taken for granted as a fact of life? Or are they more like angel dust or Quaaludes, an invention that looks normal for a few years but then gets recognized as not healthy for children and other living things? What does constantly clicking our screens all day do to our grey matter? Is the selfie surveillance state irreversible? What happens when some moron ruins your perfect Uber rating?

Part of the ironic thrill of Black Mirror is watching it as a Netflix stream, on the same screens where you already live most of your emotional and commercial life. The episodes lay out one dystopian tech nightmare after another, all stoned what-if sessions taken to their horrifyingly logical extremes. What if emails from dead lovers could be used to clone them? What if a grain implanted in your brain could let you re-do every scene from your sexual history? What if your sister used your laptop and accidentally installed an app that sends you post-masturbation texts reading "We Know What You Did"?

The series should be nowhere near as frightful as it is, since its insights on technology aren't exactly bleeding edge. People have been worrying about gadget addiction since long before OK Computer, and as Styx once sang to their special friend Mr. Roboto, "The problem's plain to see, too much technology / Machines to save our lives / Machines dehumanize." And that was the Eighties – they didn’t even have call waiting yet. The day after Walter Mondale lost the 1984 presidential race, he blamed it on microphones, saying, "I don't like these things. I like to look someone in the eye." It’s not so different from Dante in The Divine Comedy warning that too much chivalric romance literature can corrode your soul – if technology has been dehumanizing us since the 13th century, maybe we're not all that human in the first place.

That's the whole point of Black Mirror, and that's why it hits home right now. Technology is never the trap in these vignettes – the truly deadly trap is the human brain. And at any level of tech sophistication, we find ways to jump in. There’s a key moment in the new episode "Men Against Fire" when an army shrink asks a kill-crazy soldier, "How did you feel emotionally?" He replies, "I didn't." A shudder goes down your spine, especially if you just watched him slaughter people on your screen of choice and didn't feel anything either. This is what makes the show so much more than a satire of technology – the real target is humanity. It's like The Twilight Zone updated for a world where we let alien gadgets live our lives for us, because all they want is a chance #to #serve #man.

This season's "Nosedive" is the most chilling Black Mirror ever, written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur, with Bryce Dallas Howard finding that her whole private life is a social network. (Her dad Ron once turned this premise into a Matthew McConaughey comedy called EDtv, which in its way was even more terrifying to watch.) Every aspect of her life is given a Yelp-style one-to-five star rating that goes down on her permanent record. Slip below a 3.5 rating, and life gets mighty ugly. Tales like this are why the show isn’t really built for binge-watching at all; consuming more than one episode at a time brings diminishing returns. It’s much more effective to watch an hour and then go about your normal day. Or what previously seemed like your normal day. Black Mirror has a way of making it all feel a little less normal.