Black Mirror: 2020
By Ahad Sanwari
You know how everyone keeps talking about how The Simpsons keeps predicting the future of the world? Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you, the challenger: Black Mirror.
That’s right, the British sci-fi phenomenon that explores the tremulous relationship that human beings have with technology is pretty much deciding the fate of the world as we know it. Sure, it’s hard to judge exactly how much of its content will actually come true, such as “White Bear” and its experimentally torturous justice system, or “San Junipero” with its virtual retirement home scheme. But as scary and otherworldly as it may seem, it’s much, MUCH closer to reality than you think.
In fact, it’s impossible to evaluate our current situation (hi, COVID-19, doin’ okay?) and not draw parallels to existing episodes of the show, like “Hated in the Nation,” where a Twitter movement starts killing people pandemic-style using mechanical bees; or “Metalhead,” where the protagonist is on the run from a robotic dog.
How about going as far as saying that it’s really an episode of its own? That maybe, in one of the alternate Black Mirror universes (aka the United Kingdom), there’s probably a man in his 50s somewhere who’s taking his daily ride on the Tube one Monday morning. And he suddenly comes down with a cold.
Two days later, that cold turns into a full-blown illness. He’s bed-ridden, short of breath, constantly tired, the works. Fast forward to the man’s recovery being overshadowed by news of more cases of this mysterious viral infection erupting throughout the country. Wait, throughout the country? No, no, I mean the world.
But there’s an unlikely savior (beyond the doctors, of course), and that’s a virtual communication app called “Connect-a-World.” The app not only allows you to live-stream and video call, you can also create temporary projections of yourself in the receiver’s house. “Connect-a-World” is working at quintuple the capacity it usually is used to considering that everyone in the world is using it. Everyone’s being advised to stay at home, but that’s mostly so that no one can spot the turmoil that the governments are going through.
The same man from the beginning, the first victim of the disease, is now roaming the empty streets of Sussex. Simultaneously, on a collective “Connect-a-World” call between all the major world leaders, the Prime Minister of the UK is getting blasted for not spotting signs early, and insults are being thrown at him in every major world language. At this point, the Chinese and the Russians don’t even bother to translate. They’re coming at him with all the native slurs they have, along with the rest of the leaders. The call ends and the British PM is now just staring out his window, finally letting loose the coughing fit that he’d been suppressing for the entire conversation.
“Connect-a-World” is a worldwide phenomenon. There are virtual funerals, virtual weddings, virtual sex parties, even virtual health check-ups. No stock is rising except for “Connect-a-World’s.” The disease starts resurging each time it goes down, each time people think it’s safe again to be reckless, each time washing hands isn’t a priority, disgusting as it may be. “Connect-a-World” is now a significant part of the history of humanity during this phase.
Before you say it, no, this is not the plot of Contagion. This is in the UK, it’s clearly VERY different.
As far as casting goes, of course, the lead man has to be Idris Elba and the British PM would be Tom Hanks (in a suspicious accent). Considering that these were the two major celebrities who brought the initial focus to the disease by announcing their diagnoses, it’s only fair.
Now obviously, this isn’t the first time anyone’s drawn any parallels between the Black Mirror series and the real world. In fact, showrunner and creator Charlie Brooker himself acknowledged this in a tweet in March, saying, “Okay, fuck it. This is happening so frequently I’m just going to have to accept that I’m a soothsayer or a mystic or whatever you want to call it.” The episode “The Waldo Moment” is a good example of this, telling the story of a vulgar computer-animated bear from a TV show running for office, eventually leading the world to ruin in a state of autocratic domination. Think about it. And while you’re at it, think about the fact that this came out a full three years before Donald Trump’s election as President.
Does all of this make you anxious? Then it’s doing its job. The underlying purpose of Black Mirror and similar content has always been to make viewers feel uncomfortable. People putting tape on their webcams after the release of the episode “Shut Up and Dance,” where a teen is blackmailed by a hacked webcam video of him masturbating to child pornography, is a testament to just how much it can unnerve. It makes you believe that everything that’s happening on the show could just as easily happen to you. Right this very moment.
It’s the same effect that disaster movies have on the general public, especially if the outside world mimics what they see on their screens. Movies like Contagion and Pandemic have seen such an uptick because the sheer accuracy of it makes it that much more timely. It’s almost as if it functions as a break from reality — by immersing oneself in even more reality.
But the real reason that so many people are gravitating towards these disaster epidemic movies right now is solace. They provide you the comfort of knowing that it’s all fiction. The world is (probably) not going to end and the Coronavirus won’t kill people in those numbers and that swiftly. It pays to have what you see be that much more disturbing and intense, because that just pushes it that much further away from being real.
Black Mirror likes to toe the line between “real” and “aspirational,” between “current” and “dystopian.” While it’s the anxiety of realizing that it’s all very possible that makes people borderline terrified to watch it, it’s also the relief of knowing that each episode of the show has to end at some point that keeps people who do indulge still watching.
And this episode, Black Mirror: 2020, will end, too. It’ll end straight at the beginning: the travelers on the Tube, that very Monday morning, when the first case of the virus developed. The episode ends with the Tube pulling into the station as it did, with the man feeling a cold coming on. And walking away from behind him is another man in a suit that no one noticed. “Connect-a-World” briefcase in his gloved hand. Pushing a test-tube back into his pocket (Zoom, please don’t come at me).