Like everyone else with a Netflix account and too much time on my hands, I recently worked my way through Season 3 of Black Mirror. On the off-chance the show needs an introduction, it’s a collection of standalone dramas, each set in the near future. Roughly speaking, they explore what might happen if our technology outpaced our ability to keep a handle on it.
So (spoilers to follow) there’s Nosedive, a pastel-tinted Stepford nightmare in which your every interaction is rated out of five. Never mind your Uber rating, or how many bored Tinder addicts have swiped right on you, this is a world in which the digital bleeds into the real and wholly determines your standing IRL.
Then there’s Playtest (machine learning gone rogue), Shut Up And Dance (4chan vigilantes up their game), Men Against Fire (military sci-fi) and Hated in the Nation, which has to do with Twitter trolls and bees. Only San Junipero, a meditation on the nature of consciousness, contains anything like the seeds of hope, and even then they’re scattered somewhere contentious.
Charlie Brooker, the series creator, has said that technology is never the villain in these tales – it’s just a backdrop for human weakness. That said, Black Mirror strikes a chord precisely because it toys with a real anxiety – what if our tech does keep spiraling onwards and upwards and past a point of no control?
It set me thinking about what kind of role is served by futuristic fiction. In 1999, back when I was just a baby techno-catastrophist, the Sunday Times ran a series of supplements whimsically reporting the news from the decades to come. The first week there was 2000-2010, the second week there was 2010-2020, and so on until 2050. I tried to hang on to these supplements, to see if the predictions came true, but they got lost amid a series of clearouts.
What I do recall is that they were some way off the mark. 9/11? Wasn’t in there. The rise of reality TV and social media? Not acknowledged. There were no real fears about artificial intelligence, or how our patterns of thinking might change in an era when WiFi is supposedly a higher priority than sex.
What was in there was a load of projected anxiety about cloning and GM crops and everything else that stressed us out in the 90s. If you paid heed to the futurologists of 1999, there was definitely going to be a genetically modified master race in the works by now.
This pattern is starker when you watch sci-fi from the 60s. Back then, governments were pumping money into space travel in some kind of grandiose America versus Russia dick measuring contest. As a result, their predictions for the future all have to do with space colonisation. And it’s not like you can particularly analyse 1984 without taking Stalin into account.
As Lionel Shriver says in her own economic dystopia, The Mandibles: “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”
Dystopian fiction, then, is a useful tool for interrogating what ails us. But I think it’s important to draw a line between on-the-nose sci-fi, and the sort of outright doomsmongering that has lately become the norm.
Just take the now-infamous Medium article I mentioned in my last post. Or the reams of quasi-scientific predictions about the extinction of the species. Or (less scientifically) the Nostradamus woo about ‘the great shameless audacious bawler’ who will spell the end of the world. This kind of stuff has infected my Facebook feed more thoroughly than the baby photos.
Now, clearly I have a tendency to latch onto it myself – to jump from current upheavals to mass extermination. It’s in my constitution. Had I been born in a medieval village, I’d most likely have interpreted every freak rainstorm as a harbinger of the apocalypse, and would have rolled around in sackcloth and ashes to atone for my excessive mead-drinking.
But it’s not a helpful tendency. It doesn’t help us make sense of events – it causes us to curl up, brace position, against an undifferentiated mass of Bad Shit, and therefore close our eyes to what might be done.
We’re living through what is perhaps the most anxious time in living memory, in which the Good Ship Late Capitalism is sinking fast, holes hastily plugged with chewing gum. I don’t know what would help, but I’m guessing freaking out isn’t the answer. Somehow, we need to look at the world face on without defaulting to this kind of antsy millenarianism.
Let’s keep the dystopias though. Brooker’s good.
Freelance writer and expat