Design Lessons from Black Mirror?

If you are a Designer creating technological solutions for users and have not been terrified by the premise and plots of the UK Netflix series, Black Mirror, then you are probably living in another dimension.

Over the holidays, and with some downtime, Netflix suggested Black Mirrorwas a very high match — and even at 87% probability of me liking it, I was hesitant, partly because I am not one to follow trends and would rather wait for perennial TV series. But after mousing over other options, I accidentally clicked and decided it was meant to be — so Black Mirror. My last Netflix engagement was watching a portion of The Dave Chappelle’ Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation earlier, which I never finished; I am not good at TV commitments and I was also looking for something that would make me laugh and not something to incite terrors. Moreover, this was not an exact transition in the genre, but Netflix seems to know me well enough but I decided to go straight to season 4, skipping seasons 1–3. Of interest, I had for some reason started the season at season 1 months ago but never followed through, but forgot why until I took a peek at Episode 1 progress. I now recall that watching the Prime Minister of Britain have sex with a Pig in exchange for the release of a Princess, was not worth feeding for my mind. But through Netflix persistence, here I am, skipping a few seasons as this season was a commentary on our technological zeitgeist, making it more appealing to my senses.

In Season 4 Episode 1, USS Callister, the actor Jesse Plemons plays Robert Daley, a nerd with little social skills and CTO of a company, Callister Inc. At Callister Inc, Daley perceives he is being bullied by his colleagues; in reality, they are such things as not saying hello to him, or getting him the wrong sandwich or laughing at his expense, when he trips over objects on the floor. For many, these are things we deal with and move on in our daily lives. But for Daley, instead of confronting his “bullies,” he escapes into Space Fleet, a Star Trek-like world he has created as a virtual escape. Space Fleet is complete with cheap props, and most shockingly versions of his colleagues, who had “bullied” him in real life.

As it is revealed later to the audience, Daley captures his real-life colleagues’ DNA, through objects with saliva contact, such as cups and lollipops and loads them into him scanning machine into Space Fleet. In Space Fleet, his colleagues possess the same personalities, but most disturbing, they retain a memory of their full real-life self and awareness of their captured state. They exist as virtual clones trapped to entertain Daley and hail his greatness for the smallest feats of perceived alpha-maleness. It is a world from which they cannot escape. In fact, on the outside, they continue to grow old but remain the age of their capture. Daley’s collection of virtual people seems to have gone on a long time- years even — until the last prisoner, a coding genius, joins the USS Callister crew. Her addition adds an infusion of hope to the jaded team, who had tried to escape and realizing there was no way out had given up over time. Their new crewmate, with current knowledge of the outside world, later convinces them that they need to fight for their virtual life as prisoners in this space. When Daley is offline to tend to his real life, like getting pizza, they use these moments to course out an escape plan. This plan includes making the connection to the real world to destroy the DNA. Eventually, they escape, but I will not spoil how.

In another episode, MetalheadBlack Mirror continues with its commentary on technology and presents a chilling backdrop of a world with killer humanoid robots that make the movie Terminator seem like a relic of the past. Not unlike what many believe — that one-day robots will take over the world and we will be trapped in this man created hell. This thinking of our fate is also shared by Elon Musk who, in a recent response to a Twitter post about the humanoid robot made by Boston Robotics jumping up on raised surfaces with the caption, “we dead,” Musk responded with a warning:

“This is nothing. In a few years, that bot will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams…”

Well, they move very fast in Black Mirror, forcing me to take a much-needed binge break to ensure a restful sleep, free of robots chasing me. So needing a diversion to recover from the terrors of Black Mirror, I decided to check out my so feed, away from my computer, on my mobile. I mentioned earlier that my previous Netflix session before watching Black Mirror was Dave Chappelle’s. After feeling raw about my current love-hate relationship with technology, I needed a break to awake me from the binging trance. So I tried to find something enlightening to read, turning to Medium, my content reading platform. And there on my feed was sitting quite dominantly on my interface a story about Dave Chappelle, specific to the episode I had just watched on Netflix desktop. I had never searched for Dave Chappelle on this mobile and will momentarily set it aside as a coincidence, though it is clear that my mobile and desktop may be aware of each other’s history. For some, this is a welcome integration and anticipation of their actions. But for me — it was a reminder of where we are as a society, moving towards a singularity, of sorts — never to reset.

Black Mirror’s commentary on society is glaring and not to be missed. Aside from the growing concerns of human escapism with technology, there is also the subtext of the sense of loneliness and social anxiety that seems to plague us as we become have yet to understand the wider impact of technology on our social lives. From a designers perspective, who work with technology, it can be said that our ambitions to create perceived solutions for undefined problems, we have succeeded in creating technological nightmares that render us as addicts and prisoners of our own making