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Andrew Scott in Black Mirror
Andrew Scott as Chris in “Smithereens”

Charlie Brooker: ‘I just reach for my phone on autopilot’

Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, and Andrew Scott discuss Smithereens, the new episode about our compulsive notification addiction

In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress over users’ privacy being compromised. Twitter has a Nazi problem. YouTube’s trending algorithm has created a shock-for-clicks culture. Instagram has been rated the worst app for your mental health. Yet we spend our lives on these apps, from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed.

The omnipresence of these tech overlords, and our dopamine-infused obsession with them, is the foundation for one of the new episodes of Black Mirror. “Smithereens” features Andrew Scott (yes, the Hot Priest from Fleabag) as an enraged, unhinged taxi driver searching for closure and communication after his addiction to notifications causes a car crash that kills his girlfriend. Black Mirror traditionally deals in the future, but this is very much a story set in the now.

Scott, who has a background in theatre, delivers a sensational (virtually solo) performance more or less entirely from a car, as a confused, grieving, guilty cab driver called Chris who lurks outside the offices of social media app Smithereen; the ultimate goal being to confront the company’s elusive CEO Billy Bauer over the role his invention played his creating his life of misery. Annabel Jones, co-creator of Black Mirror, describes him as “overwhelmed, somebody who feels like an onlooker, feels on the periphery of society.”

While “Smithereens” hits extremes (car crash, hostage situation, police shoot out) in terms of the impact smartphones have had on people, there can be no doubt that technology is evolving faster than our minds, or sense of morality, and that the lasting impact of this shift is yet to truly bear fruit. But, we all recognise that something’s up, and our relatively new cravings for constant connection are at the forefront of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ minds.

“I used to be a heavy smoker and I would reach for a cigarette first thing in the morning, without thinking,” says Brooker. “And now I just reach for my phone on autopilot – I can recognise there’s a similar reward-feedback loop thing going on. And that sense of immersion you get, when you’re constantly disappearing into your phone, that’s the sense of emergency you used to get infrequently in life – when you read a good book, or you watched a film, or a particular daydream or what have you. It feels now as though that’s happening every few minutes, for a very short period of time. What the ramifications of that are, I don’t know.”

“That sense of immersion you get, when you’re constantly disappearing into your phone, that’s the sense of immersion you used to get infrequently in life when you read a good book, or you watched a film... it now feels as though that’s happening every few minutes” – Charlie Brooker

In Chris’ case, the ramifications are the death of his lover, who died in the car he was driving after he lost concentration when responding to a notification alert on his phone. In the months that follow he swaps a universal addiction for a personal crusade, desperately trying to reach Bauer for answers, the irony being that to get close to him he needs to work for a Silicon Valley-created taxi app. A life outside these structures might be desirable, but it’s no longer possible.

“In an attempt to mix the most sophisticated, helpful, and attractive means of communicating, these things become more and more addictive,” says Jones. “They’re designed to be addictive, because they want to be loved, and they want to exist in every fibre of every minute of your day. So there's that relationship of a product designed to be as good as it can be, and a human being on the other end trying to manage addiction.”

“They’re designed to be addictive, because they want to be loved, and they want to exist in every fibre of every minute of your day” – Annabel Jones

Sean Parker is the co-founder of Napster and served as the first president of Facebook, although now he’s a vocally remorseful ex-employee, seemingly wracked with guilt over the impact that the platform has had on the world and its people. In 2017 he spoke at an event outlining how the developers deliberately designed Facebook to consume people entirely: “The inventors, creators – it’s me, it’s Mark Zuckerberg, it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

There’s a strange arc to the lives of tech CEOs – hackers and nerds that misused power and misinterpreted consequence, accidental billionaires who preside over total chaos, and have created an era that will be remembered forever as a turning point in the history of civilization, for better or worse. Billy Bauer, played by Topher Grace, is a cute amalgamation of Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, with the character spending time on a silent, meditative retreat, just as Dorsey did in 2018 in a bid to “hack the deepest layer of the mind and reprogram it.”

“It was 2016 (note: it was 2018) and I saw that Jack Dorsey had tweeted he’d been away on a retreat, a silent retreat for a fortnight or something,” says Brooker. “And immediately, his replies were full of ‘It’s fucking Hell in here, the Nazis are running around!’ And that just struck me because there was something interesting in that, an interesting parallel there with Andrew Scott’s character Chris, who is clearly struggling – he’s meditating and stuff like that, he’s struggling with mindfulness and staying in the moment and he’s trying to control his mind constantly.”

Chris, who has held a Smithereen intern hostage at gunpoint, does eventually reach Billy Bauer on his silent retreat, but not before navigating through a cabal of dead-eyed, secret service-esque Smithereen employees, who care more about damage control than human life. Andrew Scott doesn’t have a visible social media presence but is aware that we are in the “embryonic stages of knowing the influences that it (social media) has on us”. For Scott, the story was less about technology, and more about mistakes, catastrophe, and consequence.

“It’s the idea of the vulnerability of people that a simple mistake can be made at any given moment and you can blame it on yourself or you can blame it the powers that be, but both of those things exist,” he says.

There is a great – seemingly now-deleted – tweet by the American writer and editor Daniel Mallory Ortberg, described as the “canonical Black Mirror burn”, that simply reads, “Next on Black Mirror: what if phones but too much”. Out of all Black Mirror episodes, “Smithereens” would be the one that adheres most faithfully to that pisstaking plotline, but really this is an episode about people, and the grey area between good and evil.

Chris might be responsible for the death of his girlfriend, and he might take a young intern hostage, but he’s someone you root for throughout. Billy Bauer is an accidental emperor, who Brooker describes as “struggling to be at the helm of this thing he's created, which has morphed into something he didn’t quite see coming, who sees himself as this switched on, liberal, hippy kind of guy.” We are all humans of late capitalism, just some of us come out of it better than others.