Aug. 14, 2023

Netflix series Black Mirror reflects a society tussling with tech’s promise and peril

A UCalgary communication, media and film prof discusses the change in tone of the popular show’s newest season
Black Mirror

Recent years have seen movies and television tackle our fears and anxieties about technology and its role in our future, none more effectively than Black Mirror.

The newest season of Netflix’s hit dystopian anthology series started streaming in June, however the reaction has been mixed from critics and audiences alike.

“The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, actually sat down and tried to use ChatGPT to generate an episode,” says Dr. Julia Chan, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at UCalgary.

“Basically, he said it tried to read all the summaries of previous episodes and combine them, and it showed him where he was repeating himself on technology. So, that might have been part of the pivot towards a different tone.”

Julia Chan

Julia Chan

Change in tone noticed

The change in tone has been noted by many critics and viewers, with the grim and pessimistic outlook on technology from earlier seasons being replaced with a lighter tone and more supernatural horror elements.

Earlier seasons of the show focused on the ways particular technologies could mediate our lives detrimentally. However, Chan says we are living in a time where our fears and anxieties about technology, like AI, are given plenty of coverage by the media and not just in shows like Black Mirror.

“It’s like we’re marinating in this stew of anxiety,” she says. “So, part of the shift could be trying to look at technology in a different way, not so unrelentingly pessimistic.”

Chan says the shift recalls the two popular narratives that we tend to have about technology.

Anxieties we share about new technologies

The first, used in horror movies and earlier episodes of Black Mirror, plays into anxieties about new social, digital, or computer technologies and the role they will have in our lives. The other narrative is used more in marketing, with technology being portrayed as something that will solve our problems and is helping us progress and advance as a species.

“That seems to be the cultural oscillation we’re caught in, and that’s the tension a lot of cultural texts are trying to navigate,” Chan explains.

There are certainly plenty of texts that deal with the fears and anxieties narrative; however, they run the risk of becoming outdated quickly.

Chan recalls screening the film Unfriended for one of her classes. Released in 2014, the film was one of the first features to be set entirely on a computer screen, portraying a Skype conversation between six friends. When she showed the film in 2018, students remarked on how dated the Facebook pages and other websites looked.

Hardware evolves but themes linger

Even though the risk of having the technology appear dated is real, Chan says the themes these movies deal with can better stand the test of time.

“A lot of those core questions about what technology does and its role in relationship to humans isn’t something that gets old,” she says. “It’s just the hardware around it that might get dated.”

Chan will be teaching a course in Film Studies in fall 2023 investigating the role of technology in horror. The course will look at questions of artificial intelligence, social media, digital media, surveillance, medical technologies and camera and image-making technologies.

“I’m not 100 per cent sure on what we’ll be watching yet, but it’ll cover a range of themes and eras,” she says.

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