What Can Sci-fi Tell Us About Innovation?

The technological inventions in Charlie Brooker’s show, Black Mirror, are both revolutionary and cautionary

“Black Mirror is a British television anthology series created by Charlie Brooker that features speculative fiction with dark and satirical themes that examine modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies.”

In a not so distant future, everyone has an electronic implant called ‘the grain’. It is inserted in the spot right behind the ear. It records all audio input while contact lenses, which are connected to it by Bluetooth, records everything you see. The lenses also can project images so that you and others (through wireless syncing) can re-watch your memories on a TV screen type format. You also can reenter your past; you can see and hear all of your memories like you are back in the moment.

This invention was the focal point in the season 3 episode 1 of Black Mirror, a show widely considered to be “The Twilight Zone’ for the digital age.” The grain allows people to exponentially expand their long-term memory beyond what the brain could normally capsulize. As a character in the show explains, without the concrete documentation, our memories can be subject to corruption:

“You know half of the organic memories you have are junk. Just not trustworthy. With half the population, you can implant memories just by asking leading questions in therapy. You can make people remember getting lost in shopping malls they’ve never visited, getting bothered by pedophile babysitters they never had.”

One night, the main character, Liam, unexpectedly shows up at a dinner party that his wife, Ffion, is attending. He walks in and his wife is very close to another man. The two are laughing when she glances and sees her husband watching them. She quickly tries to recover and casually introduces Liam to her friend Jonas. It’s clear she suddenly feels uncomfortable. They all sit down to have dinner and as the night goes on Ffion continues to laugh at all Jonas’ jokes. Jonas, it turns out, likes to engage in controversial conservations and quickly turns to the subject of relationships. He remarks that he easily gets bored with a monogamous partner. He explains how he often chooses to relive past sexual experiences with the grain rather than sleep with his current partner. At this, Liam turns to see his wife’s reaction. Ffion is gazing at Jonas with a small loving smile on her face.

When she turns to Liam, however, her expression suddenly falls and she forces a small smirk.

After the dinner, Ffion and Liam head back to their house. They put their 9-month-old daughter, Jody, to bed and begin to argue about Jonas. Ffion confesses that she dating him about a decade ago for a short time. Liam realizes that the “past sexual experiences” Jonas was reliving, were with his wife. As the fight escalates, Liam calls Ffion a bitch and, offended, Ffion goes to bed. Liam is overcome with jealousy. He drinks and compulsively watches the dinner party over and over. He would pause and zoom in on all the expressions his wife made. The next morning, Ffion comes downstairs and Liam is convinced that there is more going on between Jonas and Ffion than she is letting on. She tells him he is wrong that they only dated for a month years ago. She says that he is becoming obsessed. Liam refuses to drop it. Instead, he gets in the car — still drunk — and drives to Jonas’ house. Once invited inside, Liam attacks Jonas. Liam forces Jonas to put all of his memories of Ffion on a screen and delete them all.

The grain, just like all of Black Mirror’s inventions, is both revolutionary and cautionary. This episode is so hard to watch because, on one hand, the grain would be so helpful. It holds people accountable for the truth and helps maintain the joyful memories of the past. But, on the other hand, it prevents people from living in the present and can even drive people to be overcome with paranoia. The dystopian worlds presented in Black Mirror are both brilliant and strikingly realistic. They make us questions whether we are currently living in a dystopian novel or rather in a prequel to such. Universal electronic eyewear is not even that far away. Google X invented Google Glass in 2012 and it has all the same recording properties as the grain. Also, the culture of compulsive recording is something that already exists with the growing use of phone camera technology, especially with apps like snap chat.

This show is one of the most important artistic commentaries on technological innovation. The episodes are eerily similar to our own lives. We find ourselves able to relate to the characters in ways we wish we couldn’t. Black Mirror’s cynical viewpoint shows us that some inventions may both harm as much as it helps. It makes us questions the merits of past inventions and helps us reimagine the right inventions for the future.

Liam, still paranoid, re-watches the moment when he forces Jonas to delete the memories with Ffion. He pauses and zooms in on one of the memories. It is a picture of his wife from “18 months ago” in Liam and Ffion’s bed.

He walks into the bedroom, waking up his wife in the process. He asks if she used a condom. She is confused and he repeats himself. She is still bewildered, so he shows her the video in which he forces Jonas to delete the memories. He pauses and zooms in on the memory from 18 months ago in that very room. Ffion begins to cry. He repeats himself, “did you use a condom? Am I Jody’s father?” ✧

For decades sci-fi writers have been inventing devices for television. One older sci-fi movie, in fact, was set in the year 2015. Are the inventions in Back to the Future, Part II, now a reality? Find out more in the last installment of “8 Stories That Will Make You Rethink Innovation.”