Being a bit of a cheesecake, my most favorite episodes of Black Mirror are “San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ,” in either-or order. Black Mirror fans would know these two as among the few episodes in the series that ended well for the protagonists; what can I say, I’m a sucker for happy endings.
But I’m also a sucker for thought-provoking science fiction. While “San Junipero” offered us a unique alternative universe and the choices we can make within it to think about, the central conflict of the story was pure romance. “Hang the DJ,” on the other hand, offers us the alternative universe, the romantic decision, and a political challenge to boot.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, think “The Twilight Zone,” or “Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories” for the 21st century and you’ve got Black Mirror. Like these predecessors, boundary-pushing technologies and all-too-human conflicts are important themes, making these episodes fertile ground for more social ruminations.
OK, at this point readers must be warned that there will be spoilers ahead.
The episode begins with Frank and Amy meeting for the first time for what appears to be a blind date.
But there is something more than meets the eye. Frank and Amy take instructions from a handheld device they call “Coach,” and while the device talks calmly, it is strangely disembodied and dispassionate as it gives them romantic and dating advice. There are stern-looking bouncers milling about the restaurant. They don’t get to order any food because their dinner had already been pre-selected based on their “likes.”
After their dinner a driverless buggy takes them to a neatly furnished cabin – the buggy, the cabin, and the garden through which they drive all have a severely manufactured feel to them; everything seems to be pre-arranged.
As the episode unfolds it becomes clear that the ultimate objective at this spa/retreat/resort is to assign perfect life partners to the people in it. People are matched in relationships that have predetermined expiry dates that last anywhere between hours and years. The idea is that once an individual goes through several relationships, the “system” behind this all will calculate who one’s perfect partner is. On that first date (with an expiry of just twelve hours), Frank and Amy agree that the previous practice of leaving such decisions to the individual was just ridiculous: with too many choices and ways by which relationships could go wrong, the current system (with an accuracy rate of 99.8%, as they keep repeating throughout) was a much better one.
At this point, the episode began to remind me of that pleasantly bizarre film “The Lobster” and its dystopic and depressing look at the extremes of either being “romantically attached” or being in “perpetual singlehood”. But unlike “The Lobster,” everyone here is guaranteed to end up with someone. The dilemma now becomes, what if the person that is your “perfect” match really isn’t?
This becomes Frank and Amy’s urgent concern as they go through one programmed, algorithm-calculated relationship after another. They both begin to realize – and decide – that they are meant for each other. To their delight, they are matched up again. They promise to take it a day at a time, and not to look at their expiry. But an anxious Frank takes a peek, by which he discovers that their initial duration of five years had now been recalibrated to just twenty hours. They part unhappily and could take no comfort in Coach’s voice detachedly assuring them that the system was “perfect.”
Sometime later, Frank and Amy separately find out that their “perfect” partner had already been selected for them. Neither of them have any idea who that is. Tomorrow will be their “Pairing Day,” after which there was no turning back.
In the meantime, they are allowed to say farewell to any previous partner of their choice, allowing Frank and Amy to meet a final time, where they profess their love for each other. Amy then convinces Frank that they should rebel against the system. As they bolt for the door, the people around them freeze like a program that hung. They run to the outskirts of the town and begin to scale the mind-bogglingly high wall to escape as their surroundings flicker like an app shutting down.
As it turns out, this Frank and Amy are indeed in an app – a dating app that runs simulations of real people to try to match them with partners out here, in our world. Of the 1000 simulation spontaneously run by the app, the Frank and Amy simulations rebel against the system 998 times, making them compatible with a 99.8% accuracy rate. The episode ends when actual Frank and actual Amy meet for the actual first time, and I melt with butterflies in my stomach.
While the twist may be seen as an effort to make it more contemporary, it actually tells us more about our society beyond simply being a comment on the role of apps and the internet in our personal lives.
Consider how the app is run – smoothly, of course, as virtual Frank and Amy are repeatedly assured. But in the Black Mirror universe, virtual versions are just as conscious and agentic as their real counterparts – perhaps even more so. The wall near the end of the episode is visually illustrative of what seems like the insurmountable odds they face when they decide to rebel. And yet they still do.
There is something additionally extraordinary here. The possibility to rebel – something of a “glitch in the system” – is already built into the app. This glitch is the anomaly that needed to be acted upon in order to usher in something better – something which Amy and Frank had no way of knowing, but did so anyway, even without any guarantees.
And in so doing they get and keep the loves of their lives.
This virtual app universe is really our own. The system we find ourselves in tells us what to desire. It assures us that it knows what we want and entices us into how to get it. “The system is perfect,” Coach intones. A house? Cars? Properties? Comfort? Study and work hard, because following the system pays off. Just wait until Pairing Day.
But at the same time, there is already an anomaly inherent within it. For all that talk of “perfection,” there is that crack that we – as subjective agents choosing to take control of our lives – can break through. As Marx said, any exploitative system already carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. But it still needs to people – active and agentic – to work and struggle and to dare to win victory over it.
So to everyone who struggles to love and loves the struggle, Happy Hearts’ Day! (davaotoday.com)