An early episode of the latest season of Black Mirror opens with the bedtime routine of two young children, ostensibly twins, one boy and one girl. They brush their teeth, go to the toilet, and get into bed. Their mother comes into the room and reads them a story, then their father enters to wish them goodnight. He leans over to kiss the girl on her forehead, and gently pushes a small silver device that looks like a thumb tac into her temple. As he goes to do the same to his son, the boy wriggles away, runs to his mother, and starts crying. The mother restrains him with a calm smile, and the father forces the device to his son's temple. He then takes out his phone, opens an app called Sleep+, and switches the touchpad from 'on' to 'off', after which both of the children fall instantly asleep.
It's one of many moments in this season of Black Mirror where a familiar, seemingly innocuous power dynamic is made unfamiliar and terrifying through technological intervention. The sleeping device amplifies the fascism already inherent in parenting. That power is the central theme of season four of Black Mirror comes as a relief. In season three the show's writer Charlie Brooker crafted convoluted plots that moved away from critique and satire and closer towards a fantasy genre where the technological conceit and human drama seemed to bear little correlation. But in this latest season Brooker has redirected the course. The stories he tells are multilayered and closely-observed extrapolations on trends in our current machine-mediated reality, stories which explode out to their logical limits and reveal how we use our tools to control each other and compete for dominance.
The first episode of the new season, 'The Long-haul', follows an elderly truck driver called Bill as he struggles to keep his job in an increasingly automated logistics industry. It begins with Bill sitting in a classroom filled with other men as an instructor lectures them about what he calls "the new driving task", where humans are only required to drive on and off the highway, while an on-board computer does the rest. Throughout the rest of the trip, the drivers are required to "monitor" the computer in case of unforeseen obstacles on the road.
One thing that stands out in this opening scene is Bill's age. His colleagues are men in their 20s and 30s all wearing monotone company tracksuits. Bill, in his trucker hat and blue jeans, is a walking anachronism. As the episode progresses we find out that, in fact, Bill is the only man over the age of 50 at the company, and that others of his generation retired after being offered a severance package during the rollout of the new self-driving technology.
Unlike his peers Bill stubbornly signs on for retraining, despite discouragement and intimidation from his youthful superiors. In one scene Bill is forced to change his old work clothes into the company tracksuit that hangs loose from his diminishing frame. "I look like a fucking bag of bones," he says to himself in the mirror. Brooker's portrait of Bill is skilfully realised. He is not a heroic figure resisting technological unemployment, but a man who appears to have little capacity to imagine himself doing anything else but driving trucks.
Indeed, Brooker here is suggesting that all resistance in this future is futile. The first time Bill pulls onto the highway in his truck he holds off switching to automatic mode for as long as possible, until a voice inside the cab begins to insist "Please engage the system, please engage the system" as the seat belt tightens around his chest. Bill eventually relents, and lets go of the steering wheel. He then gets into the coffin-like bunk at the back of truck and tries to sleep. The scene highlights a subtle point that is often overlooked in conversations around automation - namely that automation usually entails the degradation of human labour, not just its replacement.
As is often the case in the best Black Mirror episodes, the final scene of 'The Long-haul' lingers on in your mind long after you've stopped watching. Halfway into the first journey where he hands over control to the truck, Bill wakes up to the system's voice: "Obstacle detection, human assistance required." He climbs out of the bunk, takes the wheel. The truck is going 150 kilometres per hour down the wrong side of the road. Bill tries to de-engage the system by gently stepping on the brakes, but the truck accelerates. He attempts to steer the machine to the right side of the road, but the wheel is locked.
In a beautifully edited final sequence, Bill watches as his truck drives itself towards another semi-trailer. The first shot is from inside Bill's cab, him desperately trying to take control of the vehicle, the seat belt getting tighter and tighter around his chest. The second shot is a bird's eye view of the diminishing distance between the two trucks. When the vehicles come within 200 metres of each other the other truck swiftly diverts to the opposite side of the road, avoiding crisis. At this point Bill's seat belt slackens and withdraws from around his chest. Then, just as Bill lets out a sigh of relief, the system slams the breaks, sending Bill flying through the windscreen. The final shot shows an empty driver's seat covered in glass, while the computer repeats the phrase "Please engage the system; please engage the system."
It took a while for me to decode the significance of this ending, but it eventually occurred to me that the mostly likely explanation for Bill's death wasn't system error, but murder. The company had pre-orchestrated a scenario in which Bill would appear to have disengaged the system, and purposefully driven into oncoming traffic. It's a gruesome ending that portends a terrifying prospect for workers of the future. After all, what better way to advance full automation than to murder superfluous workers, and frame it as human error?
The season's fourth episode, 'Oh Captain', revisits the theme of automation in a way that feels designed to disturb on a subtler level. It features a storyline about a young and idealistic teacher, Paul, and his star student, Indrani, and is set in a not-too-distant future where a technocratic bureaucracy called the Committee has taken control of the education system. While Paul is convinced that Indrani's essays show the early signs of genius, she often does badly in standardised English tests that are administered by the Committee, who use automated essay-marking technology for the sake of "fairness and consistency". To Paul's dismay Indrani is moved into a remedial class, where she is "re-aligned": taught how to write syntactically sound yet meaningless drivel that that machine rewards. She quickly masters this new skill and is moved back into Paul's class, who is devastated by Indrani's atrophying ability. In one scene, Paul keeps Indrani back after class and asks her who her favourite writer is - she answers that it is Virginia Woolf. In front of Indrani he logs into the essay-marking platform and uploads one of Woolf's stories onto the system. Like Indrani, Woolf receives a poor mark for her composition. Paul looks jubilant, but Indrani just shrugs.
The following day, at a school assembly, a Committee member calls Paul up on stage and in front of the student body revokes Paul's teaching licence, and assigns him for "teacher re-alignment", after which the students mechanically applaud. What Brooker offers in this episode is a vision of the industrial-model of education in the computer age, where teaching is nothing more than preparing students for a society in which they are judged, sorted, and classified by inscrutable algorithms. Ultimately, it is not Paul's ruin at the hands of the system that disturbs here, but the students' apathy and submission to it. While in this episode no one fucks a pig or smashes through a windscreen, the stripped-back tone of this episode-even its colour palette is mostly greys and beige-makes it perhaps the unhappiest and most nihilistic that Brooker has offered so far.
The same can't be said for the final two episodes of the season, both of which explore perverse medical dystopias. The first, 'Terminal Growth', imagines a health care system that functions according to the logic of crowdfunding. I won't describe it here, but do know that some scenes are still troubling my dreams. The final episode is a Brechtian tale in which a pharmaceutical company develops an artificial womb that allows gestation to take place outside the human body. The womb is a distended, purple backpack-looking thing that is worn backwards on the body and connected to the carrier - either male or female - via a surgical incision at the base of the spine. Most of the action of this episode unfolds as dialogue in an all-male board meeting, where we learn that the company is planning to use the womb in the coming decades as a way to control gender populations in developing countries. But the episode is at its best during one brief visual interlude, when the CEO has his female assistant help him put on the ectogenetic womb on in his changing room. As she tightens the straps of the embryonic sack around his belly he groans with pleasure.
This strange moment is almost like a thesis statement for the whole season. Ectogenesis, the technology of detaching gestation from the female body, was once held by some second-wave feminists as the key to women's liberation. Shulamith Firestone for example said that "the heart of woman's oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles" and that ectogenesis would free women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology. And yet Brooker frames this technology in just the opposite way - as a mechanism designed to perpetuate patriarchal control over vast swathes of the human population. The point he is making in this audacious final episode-and indeed throughout the season-is that technology cannot on its own liberate. That technology often condenses power in the hands of those who already have it. This bleak yet clear-eyed point goes against convictions pervasive in our culture, which so often declares that there are technological solutions to any and all political problems.
Oscar Schwartz is a writer based in Darwin. He is currently working on a book about humans being replaced by machines for Scribe.