Season three of the science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” has finally arrived on Netflix. Previous seasons explored our relationship to technology, specifically how evolving technologies might have a frightening impact on our lives. Season three, by and large, continues this trend. When storytelling is at its best it not only entertains, but also teaches us something about ourselves. “Black Mirror” attempts to look into a nebulous future and point out potential pitfalls. Like the seafaring maps of centuries past, the series outlines areas of uncharted territory and warns the viewer, fellow travelers on the road to the future, to tread lightly because here there be monsters.
Each episode tells a self-contained story with its own message or moral lesson. Within the coming digital pages, we’ll ponder the gospel of series to see if we can learn anything that might direct us more safely along our way.
Episode Two: “Playtest”
Virtual reality has been a gamer’s dream for decades, the final frontier of digital fun. Finally, after decades of dreaming and waiting, it seems that horizon is finally in view. So, it should be no surprise that “Black Mirror” took an opportunity to explore the implications of the medium.
In “Playtest” our protagonist, Cooper, has left his family life to globetrot around the world after the death of his father due to complications with Alzheimer’s. Cooper dodges calls from his mother as he makes his way from country to country taking selfies in front of various tourist attractions. He eventually finds himself in London where he uses an app standing in for Tinder to meet up with a local, Sonja a gamer and tech journalist.
After sharing a night in bed, Cooper gets another call from his mother which he once again declines only to later discover that his bank account has been hijacked and he no longer has the money to buy a plane ticket home. Cooper briefly considers reaching out to his mother for help but doesn’t, perhaps now because of the added guilt of only calling her when he needs help, and instead returns to the home the previous night’s tryst for a place to crash while he figures out a plan.
Using an app called Odd Jobs, Cooper finds employment with a local gaming company play testing a new game and takes the opportunity for some quick cash to solve his problems. Sonja suggests he snag a picture of the secret project going on at the game company for even more cash than the odd job can offer.
When Cooper arrives on site, having been ferried by a company car, his phone is turned off and he’s asked to sign an NDA which includes a release form for a minor medical procedure which is promised to be no more invasive than a piercing. When the games company representative leaves the room to get the final page of the NDA, Cooper turns his phone back on to quickly snap a picture of the technology and send it to Sonja.
Cooper is fitted with a “mushroom” a small implant inserted at the base of the skull which offers augmented reality described as additional layers on top of the real world. Think Microsoft’s Hololens but without the screen interface, piped directly into your head.
Once the software is uploaded into his head, Cooper is presented with five discs which his brain uses as markers. They become holes in the table and a pixel art gopher pops up through one. After a series of digital enhancements the gopher looks less “Mario Bros.” and more “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Cooper plays the game and is then given the opportunity to beta test the full experience for additional money.
What follows is a horror survival games the likes of which we’ve never seen, but probably will in the relatively near future. The mushroom implant digs into Cooper’s sub-conscious to ferret out his deepest fears like some sort of digital Boggart. Placed in an abandoned house, Cooper is left to endure the existential terror as long as he’s able. The manifestation of his fears begin with what you would expect, spiders, childhood bullies, and then bigger spider/bully hybrids.
Soon, new fears manifest. They are no longer so primal. They become more deep seated. Cooper sees an image of Sonja come to rescue him from the game company, claiming they are up to something nefarious. This suggests Cooper’s fear of the unfamiliar situations he’s thrust himself into.
Later, he finds himself at home but his mother can’t recognize him suggesting he fears that he’ll lose her to the same despicable disease that took his father. Finally, Cooper loses control of his own memories as the mushroom systematically burrows into his mind and deletes everything there, suggesting a fear that he will also lose himself.
“Playtest” ultimately reveals that none of these things happened. In fact, shortly after the mushroom was implanted, Cooper’s phone rang when his mother once again tried to reach him. Interference from the phone caused a problem with the implant and he has a stroke after only .4 seconds. The events of the episode were a final scene played out in his mind as it short circuited. Cooper dies screaming out to his mother. A final piece of poetic justice that in the end, he finally called his mom.
On the surface, this episode is about the dangers of integrating computers with our brains. It begs the question, once digital environments are indistinguishable from the real world, can you ever again trust what you’re experiencing?
On a deeper level, “Playtest” is about the importance of maintaining familiar relationships in an increasingly solitary world. Cooper is able to navigate the world without the necessity of interpersonal relationships. His money is digital, his experiences digitally documented, even his most intimate moments, he uses an app to find jobs that supplement his income. Even his most intimate moments, those he shares with Sonja, were a result of an algorithm, an app that put him in touch with someone he had matched.
Had Cooper made any effort to keep in touch with his mother, he could have called her for help. He wouldn’t have needed to take a job shrouded in secrecy. He wouldn’t needed to have stolen a photo in order to make enough to get home. And she wouldn’t have called again, the direct cause of his death. He wouldn’t have died alone, afraid, and crying for his mom.