Even if you’ve happily embraced a fully plugged-in life, it’s hard not to feel a worrisome tingle sometimes — What is this doing to me? That is, what are the effects of hundreds or thousands of hours of hyperconnectedness, of click-like-share feedback loops, of social media’s polarizing mob mentality?
No one has captured those fears in as evocative, disturbing, and morbidly funny a way as Charlie Brooker, the British writer, producer, and TV host whose anthology series Black Mirror fuses dark Twilight Zone–style single-episode storytelling with the excesses and depredations of our always-on era.
Given his résumé, which in addition to Black Mirror includes the media-analysis show Newswipe, the parody cop procedural A Touch of Cloth, and the documentary How Video Games Changed the World, it’s no surprise that Brooker, 45, is a little bit interested in everything. So ahead of Black Mirror’s third season, which streams on Netflix October 21, he spoke, over two phone calls, about his show’s prescience, liberal groupthink, the U.K.’s grim political situation, and the video game he could play forever.
I was looking at your Twitter feed before doing this interview, and somewhat surprisingly, it feels like you’ve been able to avoid the addiction that’s consumed some of us. What are your Twitter habits?
I lurk a lot. I check it in the morning. When I used to smoke I’d reach for a cigarette in the morning; now I reach for the phone. I have scaled back, because I started wanting to interact less. I wrote a column about this actually, one of the last columns I wrote for The Guardian. I started getting overwhelmed by the futility of writing anything because I felt like I was pissing into the sea, like there was enough conversation going on. What’s the fucking point of participating? If six months after the fact you go back and look at tweets you’ve posted, you have no recollection of any of them.
I can’t remember articles I wrote last week.
That’s terrifying. There’s so much stuff flying around online and it’s so easy to get into arguments with people. I intermittently do just pop up and post things. Or the other thing I do is mean to post things and then don’t get around to it. It’s a lot of work maintaining a fucking social-media profile. I’m lazy.
Well, seeing how quickly opinions and behaviors can shift now, especially online, and given how interested Black Mirror is in those shifts, do you have any regrets in terms of missed opportunities? Or themes the show could’ve handled differently?
Yes. There was an episode [about a profane animated bear who runs for office] called “The Waldo Moment” in which I think the stakes weren’t right. In the age of Trump and other figures like him who are springing up all over the globe, that episode looks a lot more prescient than I probably realized at the time.
That’s interesting. Have a lot of Americans told you they feel like “The Waldo Moment” predicted the rise of Trump?
They have. Waldo was loosely based on the British politician Boris Johnson, who’s kind of a quasi-Trump. He was one of the guys behind Brexit and also quite a clown. He appeared on comedy-panel shows here in the U.K. and was known as a sort of an oaf — which inoculated him from criticism, weirdly. There was a feeling that politicians were all bland robots parroting the same platitudes, and suddenly now you’ve got colorful characters springing up. Here was an entertainer coming along and taking advantage of that and becoming a lightning rod. And there’s intense polarization now, too. That’s what we’re seeing in the U.K. at the moment. Some of the statements that our new government has been making over the last couple days have been shocking. You think, how the fuck did we end up here?
There was talk of making creepy lists of the names of foreign workers, right?
Lists of foreign workers! If you told me at the start of 2016 that by October half of our cultural icons would be dead and the government would be proposing that businesses have to list foreign workers I assume I would’ve said, “Come on. This isn’t a Black Mirror episode. This is reality.”
Just going back to “The Waldo Moment”: In that episode, an obscene cartoon character wins the hearts of the British electorate and eventually siphons off enough votes so that a button-down conservative wins. It was hard not to come away from that episode feeling almost anti-populist. When you think about Brexit and Trump supporters, there are a lot of people who have genuine complaints and are genuinely fucked-over by the powers that be. As a “liberal elite,” how do you say to people, I understand why you’re angry, but what you’re doing is stupid?
When it comes to something like Brexit, I am part of the liberal-media London bubble, and so to me voting to leave was madness. My perspective was that it was cutting off your nose to spite your face. Yet in the run-up to the referendum, as soon as you went outside of London there were “Vote Leave” banners up everywhere. So you’d have to have been blind not to notice the huge sway of public opinion. There was a huge complacency on the “Remain” side, and the “Leave” side was extremely angry and enthusiastic about voting for their side, and as a result they won. Then, immediately afterwards, there were a lot of people who went, What happened? We’re going to be dealing with that for generations.
Do you have a sense of what the ultimate outcome might be?
I don’t know how it will turn out. I miss the middle of the road in many ways. In the U.K. we’ve got the Labour Party, which is the more liberal, left-leaning of our main parties, and that’s destroying itself because it’s retreating further to the left. So we seem to have ended up with a fairly far-right government, a fairly far-left opposition, and people in the middle going What about us? Maybe we’ll get a third party that leads us to the promised land. I don’t know. It’s a weird, scary time.
As someone who’s done a lot of TV about the media’s shortcomings at communicating complex policy, was it particularly painful watching the Brexit campaigns? Or, from afar, watching the American presidential campaign?
The issue became — and I know this is happening in your election — what do you do when people just spout untruths? What do you do when they’re promising that if you vote Leave there’s going to be three million pounds a week for the National Health Service? How do you counter that when the laws are such that each side has to receive equal airtime. What you’ve got is people increasingly selecting their own facts. My theory that is that we’re all going towards dissociative mental disorder.
What does that mean?
There are different groups of people in your life that you behave slightly differently with. You behave one way with your family. You behave in a different way with your work colleagues. You behave differently with your friends from the movie club, your fitness instructor — all subtly different personas. I remember once throwing a birthday party, and people from different pockets of my life were walking around in one room, and I kind of had a psychological breakdown. I didn’t know how to speak. I’d walk over to some of them and it was like, Hang on. How do I speak if my work colleagues are with my old college friends? Who am I?
And the online experience exacerbates that feeling?
Online, you’re trying to appeal to everyone and people who you don’t know at the same time. So I think as a side effect it amplifies the desire for groupthink. And also because of the way there are algorithms going, Oh, so you like hearing this fact about Hillary Clinton, let’s show you something else that’s like that — it reinforces your echo chamber. We’re all helplessly spiraling into corners and bellowing at each other. I miss everything being boring. Just a few years ago everyone was dismissing everything as dull and now nothing is. It’s all brilliant or shit.
That makes me think of that entire American suite of far-right, hysteria-driven websites, which because of the echo-chamber effect you mentioned now means there are millions of Americans who know in their hearts that the country has been overrun with Syrian refugee terrorists. Is that parallel-universe effect occurring in the U.K.?
Here it’s the tabloid press. For years and years and years — and in the run-up to Brexit — they ran anti-immigrant stories. Stories saying “Muslims Demanding Their Own Toilets” and stuff like that. What do you do when people are choosing their own reality? I don’t know what you do about that. But how do I know that my reality is the right one? How do I know that I’m not doing the same thing?
That’s a very Black Mirror question.
Maybe all these things look crazy to me because that’s the way I’m built and I’m only nodding my head in agreement with the facts that suit my agenda. We do at least have the BBC. A lot of people in Britain don’t believe things unless it’s reported by the BBC. Though whatever flavor of government we have, they always end up hating the BBC. Blair’s government hated the BBC. Now its Theresa May’s government that hates the BBC, which is there as a fairly reasonable center.
Going back to Black Mirror, is there an episode that’s inspired the most visceral, holy shit reaction from viewers?
“White Bear” is definitely up there. It’s interesting because you can kind of psychologically profile people from their favorite Black Mirror episode. People have very strong opinions on which is the best one or the worst one. There’s not a huge consensus. For some people the best one is something like “The Entire History of You” or it’s “Be Right Back” or it’s “Fifteen Million Merits.” “The National Anthem” is the most divisive one, I would say, but “White Bear” has a certain type of person who goes for it.
So how would you psychologically profile a person whose favorite episode is “White Bear” — which is about a woman who believes she’s being surveilled and hunted by anonymous sadists?
Someone who likes “White Bear,” I think that’s a bit like liking The Wicker Man — the original Wicker Man, not the Nicolas Cage version. It delivers one level of horror, and then the trapdoor opens and there are several additional levels of horror. In some way that must confirm to you that the world is a horrible place because it presents a society in which the world is a horrible place. If you’re neurotic and fearful, then maybe “White Bear” tickles that synapse. But it’s reassuring, in some way, to watch films that reveal society to be insane and heartless. It’s like the filmmakers are saying, “We’re not saying that this is a realistic portrayal. It’s a chilling nightmare.” Actually, it seems I can’t answer your question. I confidently stated that I could psychologically profile people. I can’t.
You’re like a politician who can’t handle follow-up questions.
I know. I was just fucking posturing when I said it the first time and now it’s come back to bite me on the ass.
At its best, Black Mirror can be pretty intense and hard to watch. When you’re mapping out an episode, to what extent are you thinking, I don’t want people to feel overwhelmed 20 minutes in?
I don’t really adhere to scriptwriting rules. I don’t even really know them. I don’t sit there thinking, Right, here’s the end of the first act, here’s the start of the second act. What I’m doing, I suppose, when I’m writing and it’s going well is just describing what I’m seeing in my head, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. I’m telling the film to myself. And you go into a little bit of a trance, and in that respect you just instinctively know if something feels right or if it’s not working.
So writing is an intuitive process?
I’d call it lucky.
This is a broad question, but I’m curious: Which aspects of creating and writing get easier as you get older and which ones get harder?
Something that should get easier and does a bit, but not as easy as you’d hope, is realizing that the first draft can be shit and that doesn’t matter because it will improve. You just have to put your head down and carry on and get to the end, and then you’ll go back and improve it. You get confidence in knowing that something will be okay. What gets more difficult? Finding time; I’ve got kids now. Finding the energy, too. If I look back to when I was 20 I’d just churn out comic strips like a fucking machine. I wasn’t being paid for them. I did them for fun. What was wrong with me? So maintaining a workload gets more difficult as you get increasingly wizened.
Before Black Mirror, you did your media-criticism show, Newswipe With Charlie Brooker, which comes back in different forms now and then. Do you think the role you play as a media critic in the U.K. is similar to the role someone like Jon Stewart plays over here? Or are there important differences to your approaches?
I’m nothing like as prevalent as Stewart was, because my show tends to be a lot more irregular — though I’m doing an end-of-the-year show for the BBC. Also, despite everything I’ve already said, I’m not very political most of the time. I’ve got my allegiances as anyone does, but, for example, on the show we were really hard on Ed Miliband. He was the leader of the Labour Party, and we were constantly taking the piss out of him. That was partly because we were on the BBC, so you want to try to be impartial and also partly because I yawn if people are too partisan. I think my output tends to be, well, I wouldn’t say neutral but not as left-leaning as people suspect. Really, when I’m doing the Newswipe shows or Weekly Wipe, I try and adopt the persona of someone who’s watching the news as just another entertainment show. I’m nowhere near as interested in politics as people seem to think. It’s something I seem to have sort of stumbled into.
Stumbled into just because you’re interested in people and psychology in general?
Probably because I’m terrified of the future. Probably out of fear. I don’t know. I am extremely politically ignorant in many ways. My nightmare would be to find myself in a serious news studio having to answer for my opinions, because I probably can’t back them up with facts. You saw how I floundered on the psychological-profiling question. I would be the person who just ends up — you could probably convince me of anything. You could probably convince me I was wrong about liking chocolate ice cream if you showed me a graph that said I hated it. I try to avoid political discussions in real life for that very reason, because my foundation’s built on candy floss, really. So I’m always slightly suspect of own leanings.
That’s a disturbing level of humility! I’m not so used to interacting with people who feel that way. Whenever I make that argument that liberals are just as likely to fall for groupthink and misinformation as conservatives, liberals freak out because they’re like “No, no, no. We’re not the dumb ones. They’re the dumb ones over there.”
But it’s absolutely true. It’s absolutely true. When the right complains that the left are spouting hate speech because they’re calling Donald Trump fat or whatever, it strikes people on the left as ridiculous. But we would be the first to complain if it’s the other way around. So I suppose whenever someone is extremely partisan or very, very confident in their partisan view, I am immediately slightly worried on some level. I mean, I’m slightly bored, if I’m going to talk to them, but I’m also slightly worried because absolute moral certainty worries me. Maybe that just makes me wishy-washy. I don’t really know. I think it’s maybe that I do have my views, but I just wouldn’t be good at defending them. I just buckle under intense questioning and run away crying.
Last, I want to move on from the political collapse of our respective countries to a slightly lighter subject.
The collapse of the world?
Video games. You were a reviewer in the ’90s and also helped make the documentary How Video Games Changed the World. If you could only play one video game for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?
It would probably be Doom, but it would have to be in 1993. I think it came out that year. Doom was such a black-swan event. It was so beyond anything I’d seen that I thought, That’s it. This is the best that games are ever going to get. It can’t get better than this. So if you could freeze time in that moment, I’d be satisfied.
So you want your present-day success and financial security, but with the added excitement of playing Doom in 1993?
No. I’ll just take Doom in 1993.
This interview has been condensed and edited.