Black Mirror and The Horror of Forgetting / by Jefferson Geiger

Though Halloween is over, I’m going to continue the theme for one more column. This year’s scariest show airing on television is actually on Netflix. Charlie Booker’s anthology series “Black Mirror” is a “Twilight Zone” for the modern era.

As the name implies, the show portrays a close, but dystopian, reflection of our lives. It’s the darkest timeline where our fasciation with technology has gone too far.

Note: I will be spoiling some episodes. I’ll keep it as vague as possible and not mention any episode titles in full. If you rather go into “Black Mirror” blind, which I recommend, watch it and then return here.

Much of the show focuses on the horror of our highly connected future. In one episode, every single interaction between two or more people is rated and compiled into a universal score. A social structure then emerges based on the one-through-five scale. 

Real estate developments are closed off to those with lower ratings. Want to drive in the express lane or fly first class? You’re going to have to be rated at least 4.5.

In 2014 the sitcom “Community” tackled the same nightmare scenario in their episode “App Development and Condiments.” Last fall it almost became a real life app with the announcement of Peeple. Thankfully, the public realized that rating strangers could lead to harassment and it never took off.

In one season there’s an episode where the entire population runs on treadmills like hamsters. The more exercise one does the more currency they accrue, turning their life into a game. 

Later on there’s a portrayal of blocking and muting people in real life. If you no longer wish to speak to them they become a voiceless figure made out of white static. Another shows the dangers of the social media hate mob.

If there’s something that can go wrong with the advancements in Silicon Valley, “Black Mirror” has an episode on it. But there’s also a prevalent theme of Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

The show poses the possibility of infinite memory in one episode. Everyone has an implant that records video of everything the eye sees. People can rewind and replay moments inside their head indefinitely. However, they become more focused on the past than the present. Sometimes it’s better to forget.

A different script is about a horror virtual reality game. It uses an implant (do you sense a pattern here?) to mine data about each person’s fears. The player experiences amnesia because he’s afraid of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease like his late father did.

I have that fear as well. I lost my grandmother to Alzheimer’s four years ago. Much of the disease is still unknown but there is a possible genetic link. I try to live in the moment as much as possible and document what I can. I want the looming sense of oblivion to drive me, not paralyze me.

One of the most powerful episodes of “Black Mirror” addresses the philosophical debate of putting one’s brain in a vat to experience a simulation. The dilemma, first posed by Gilbert Harman, has been adapted into works of fiction with “The Matrix” franchise being the most notable.

On the show, the simulation technology started as nostalgia therapy for those suffering for Alzheimer’s. Upon startup the user can choose a time period to (re)visit. If you lived in the 90s before your mind started to fade then chances are you would want to return to the 90s.

Yet it’s not an exact duplication. It’s more like going on vacation to a new town in that specific time. It’s a different world and other people in the simulation make it a different life. You can go back to whatever timeline you wish, but you’re not reliving memories like in the other episode.

However, are the new memories even real? Is the sense of touch the same as touch? The brain can’t tell the difference in stimuli so what makes your opinion on what’s real and what isn’t true?

The program isn’t just used to pass the time, but used for the dying to pass over to the other side. The tech allows anyone to go to their own personal heaven.

Yet what if your friends, family and partners choose not to be there? Maybe they died before it was invented or didn’t have the means. Will you join them in the ground or would you rather go into the cloud?

But rather than put too much thought into that, the episode focuses on the freedom of the cyber world. People do what they couldn’t before, love who they couldn’t before and find happiness that would have been impossible.

I’m personally not sure if I’m ready to accept the singularity and digitize my brain. Maybe I will never have to. But if one of out of twelve “Black Mirror” episodes twelve can be uplifting, there may be hope for us yet.

This column was originally published in the November 2, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.