The new series of the hit technology dystopian anthology series Black Mirror hit yesterday, now produced by Netflix on a much larger budget and stage but still holding onto the same core message that technology has changed our world and not always for the better.
While all the episodes of the new series are intricately produced, featuring well-acted and scripted messages ranging from our obsession with social media perfection to the dangers of increasingly dehumanised warfare or even how technology could allow us to avoid death itself, the series finale that is initially presented as a 90 minute detective thriller is probably the most relevant to the modern world and equally the most impacting.
SPOILERS GALORE BELOW
The film length piece, wrapped as an official inquiry, starts as it means to go on with the death of a Katie Hopkins-like figure, who is currently derided for mocking the death of a disabled campaigner, with no obvious signs of a perpetrator other than herself. In another part of the country an egocentric rapper appears on a live Oprah-like show and slags off a young fan of his who had copied his dancing and posted it online, only to suffer a seizure backstage before dying in an MRI machine when taken to hospital. The only thing linking the two crimes is that both were subject of hatred on Twitter hours before their deaths and the presence of a mechanical bee found in their brains during autopsy.
Two police detectives, experienced officer Karin Parke and her junior colleague Chloe Perrine who transferred from cyber-crime, head to the government-backed Granular Project who are producing the bees, now relied on for plant pollination due to the complete colony collapse of their organic counterparts. While the helpful bosses deny any responsibility for what happened they find that someone has been able to remotely take control of the bees via a government-introduced backdoor designed to allow the bees visual sensors to act as mobile surveillance across the whole nation.
While the two Officers feel that progress is being made they soon start to be interfered with/helped by Shaun Li, a member of the National Crime Agency acting under orders from political higher-ups to keep the more sensitive aspects of the investigation out of public view leading to the death of another victim (this time a political protester), with the team discovering that what appears to be one person acting at random is in fact an insidious game being played out over social media with an unknown individual using the bees to kill off the most popular figure chosen by the #DeathTo hashtag. Despite attempts to silence it the news soon hits headlines, with talk shows now devoting entire segments to analyse who is currently most popular in the game, and politicians now in the firing line such as the George Osborne-like Chancellor.
With the Granular Project no longer having control of the system making a good outcome doubtful Officer Perrine soon makes a breakthrough in the case, discovering a manifesto hidden on the hacked bees which leads to an abandoned safehouse used by the hacker and a partially destroyed hard drive. While this allows them to find code to retake control of the system when used the two Officers feel that the trail has been too easy, with new files listing everyone who used the hashtag, but are overridden by Shaun, whose plan of using the army to destroy the artificial hives ends in the deaths of military personnel, after orders come from up top. Though the gambit initially appears success it triggers the hackers final act, the use of the bees to kill everyone who took part in the voting leading to the deaths of nearly 400,000. As Kate’s part in the inquiry wraps up she is accosted by a mob outside, making it clear the public learnt nothing from the tragic events earlier. While the hacker at first appears to get away with it he’s tracked down by a now rogue Perrine but his final fate is left ambiguous.
Up until the final act the episode’s moral message seems clear, that while the killing of the hate figures was bad they can’t expect to say anything they want without consequences. It’s a condemnation of the world as it is right now, with professional paid trolls in the form of Katie Hopkins or Milo Yiannopoulos living off of the clicks and tweets generated from their deliberately hateful views on others, and how society despite knowing how cruel these people are can’t help but partake in the collective interest around them. This issue of viewer culture has been running through the show going all the way back to The National Anthem in the now distant 2011.
The earlier mentioned subtheme of lack of consequences in the online age or the lack of thinking about them is perhaps best personified by the third victim of the bees. Unlike the first two victims this one is fairly ordinary being just another student activist/layabout who mimed pissing on a war memorial, harking back to striking image of the 2010-11 Student Protests where the son of a Pink Floyd star was subject to online hate for swinging on the Cenotaph. The “crime”, which to many including myself would be seen as disrespectful to the war dead, is fairly unsubstantial with it being reliant entirely on the subjective view of her actions as opposed to being illegal, but sees her killed all the same as the others simply because her name was having its 15 minutes of shite online, after which everyone would’ve forgotten who she was, all down to the fact she never thought about what others would think of her photo.
While the fourth victim, George Obsorne clone Tom Pickering, never actually dies his placement as the next victim is used as a conduit to re-explore the issue of mob justice from episodes like White Bear, with people devoting YouTube videos and radio interviews to saying that he ‘deserves’ it in some bizarre attempt to justify their desire to see someone killed as better than others. This theme gets twisted slightly as well, with a COBRA meeting displaying the Establishment attempting to smear a political rival into being the one to die because they “know” the guy is a paedophile (noticeably no proof of this is given however).
With the last twist of the episode proper however the previous moral theme of lack of consequences by certain individuals radically changes, with it becoming a commentary about how everyone and anyone, regardless of how many followers you have or who you choose to target, is equally guilty in the modern age of online abuse and that what may seem like harmless venting in 140 characters or less can lead to a literal swam of hatred online. This is the motivation of the killer himself who was never acting to primarily kill the hate figures but to seek retribution for the near death of his friend who found herself on the end of a social media shitstorm for making what she thought were harmless comments of receiving harassment from someone she hadn’t realised had learning difficulties.
The episode’s lens also looks at many other current issues in society such as the Goverment’s flawed plans for demanding backdoors into all companies so that GCHQ or MI5 can view communication. Much in the same way as its defenders in real life the fictitious Granular Project claims the system is unhackable, having military-grade encryption to stop intruders, but refusing to acknowledge that anyone with enough resources and information would eventually be able to crack it, in this case a former employee. In a world increasingly reliant on connectivity people acquiring the skills to undertake such attacks is growing, just yesterday with a major DNS hub going down which could’ve been down to a group of kids or even a Nation State.
The longstanding issue of growing State surveillance also gets its brief five minutes of fame during the episode, with it being revealed that the only reason the government even backed the Granular Project was for its potential as the ultimate CCTV system, allowing the Security Services of the UK to access the system during times of ‘heightened alert’. This is of course a meaningless phrase whose definition is up to the Security Services and politicians themselves meaning it is used constantly and unchecked.
Even with the episode packed full of moral messages about the human condition and political issues what makes the episode most hard-hitting and uncomfortable to watch is the fact there are no innocent characters here. Even the heroes themselves are seen to be partaking in this culture of shame and ridicule right from the beginning, with a scene of Karin Parke enjoying ice cream only to drop it on her shirt as she is mesmerised by the TV coverage of the latest online mockery, despite being the ones who are meant to protect us from it, with another police officer ending up dead after taking part in the hashtag when he sends one aimed at the perpetrator.
Overall the new series continues the show as a cautionary masterpiece for the digital age, with Charlie Brooker once again displaying his skill at showing us how technology can be manipulated for the worse as well as the better. This episode however, with a brush that paints us all as perpetrator as well as victim, goes to show that the view of the world of tomorrow is at its most shocking when it’s a second to midnight.