Black mirrors: Why are so many TV shows obsessed with tech?

From "Westworld" to "Black Mirror", 2016 saw a wave of TV shows and movies exploring the fantasy -- and fear -- of the digital future.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read

In 2016, TV shows and movies were more tech-obsessed than ever. From new offerings like "Westworld" and "StartUp" to the continuing stories of "Silicon Valley", "Halt and Catch Fire", "Mr. Robot" and "Black Mirror", the darker side of modern technology regularly showed itself on screens big and small.

Among 2016's tech-focused new shows, "StartUp" introduced a band of criminals building a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency. "Westworld" explored the morality of creating machines indistinguishable from humans, an increasingly relevant issue as artificial intelligence becomes ever more real. "CSI: Cyber", "Second Chance" and "Pure Genius" all had tech at their core.

Oliver Stone brought Edward Snowden's story to the big screen, and a sequel was finally announced to seminal sci-fi parable "Blade Runner". Even stories that aren't at all about technology reflect the way gadgets have taken over our lives, like the episode of "Atlanta" devoted to a character's Twitter beef.

These TV shows and movies obsess over tech's dark side

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"It's not surprising to see so many movies and TV shows featuring digital communication technologies," says Paula Kiel of the London School of Economics and Political Science. "Digital technology is practically ubiquitous. It's in our pockets, on the streets, in the workplace, inside our children's bedrooms."

Yet as much as we love our connected lives, many of the shows that delve into them express, at best, ambivalence about technology.

"Each epoque has its own specific fantasies, anxieties and dreams about how the technology of that time can have significant impact on all levels of society," Kiel says. So "Star Trek", first aired in the midst of the Cold War, linked to the hope and fear around the 1960s space race that emerged in politics, scientific progress and popular culture. Today, it's shows like "Black Mirror" dealing with everyday digital media use.

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"Black Mirror" imagines how technology brings out our worst impulses.

David Dettmann/Netflix

"The current fascination for technology-related content reflects two very contradictory things," says Des Freedman, professor of media and communications at London's Goldsmiths University. "There's the sense that technological innovation is the new frontier, the new space race, the new industrial revolution. Coders, designers, entrepreneurs are the ones who are going to build the cathedrals of the future. Who wants to miss out on that?"

Yet these utopian visions come coupled with dystopian anxieties, "the feeling that not all is right, that we may be losing some essential human and interpersonal qualities," Freedman says.

Take what is perhaps the defining dilemma of our time: the conflict between the desire for security and the threat to privacy. In the past few years, blockbuster movies including "Spectre", "Furious 7" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" have questioned the morality of pervasive surveillance.

"The more we see spooks and cops effortlessly securing personal information at the click of a mouse, the more this helps to normalise enormously controversial practices of surveillance," Freedman says. "But I also don't think audiences are sheep."

Indeed, he says, shows like "Mr. Robot" and "Black Mirror" are part of a long tradition of fictional stories that pose fundamental questions about who should control powerful new innovations, and what impact they have on us.

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"Westworld" asks questions about the technology taking over our lives.


Once, "Pirates of Silicon Valley", which recounted the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates , was something of a curio. Then, in 2010, Oscar-winning film "The Social Network" brought Mark Zuckerberg and the tech industry to the entertainment mainstream.

"We all know the stories of Jobs, Zuckerberg and Elon Musk ," says Jason Cohen, writer and director of "Silicon Cowboys", a 2016 documentary about Compaq and the nascent computer industry. "Technology has become such a pervasive part of our society to the point where those who are driving it are now celebrities."

The future belongs to innovators and disruptors -- "or at least that's what we are told," Kiel says. "This makes us wonder: who are those people? Shows like 'Silicon Valley', even if in a humorous way, fabulate these innovators, turning them into something that we can imagine."

So the tattooed, hard-partying celebrity character played by James Franco in the 2016 movie "Why Him?" is a tech entrepreneur rather than a wild rocker or movie star. And as YouTube sensations like PewDiePie and Smosh become the new pop stars in the eyes of kids, so Disney's "Bizaardvark" follows the stars of a fictional YouTube-style online video service called Vuuugle.

Wooing us back from these digital distractions is a crucial objective for traditional media struggling to compete for our attention. "The consumers of all this technology," Jason Cohen points out, "are the much sought-after millennials that advertisers salivate over."

Whether or not the digital natives of the online generation trust tech companies and the people behind them, some shows are more positive about these innovators.

CBS medical drama "Pure Genius" and forthcoming Fox cop show "APB" both centre on a wealthy technology wunderkind using entrepreneurial drive and unlimited cash to quite literally save lives by outfitting a hospital or a failing police precinct with tech toys. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.)

David Renaud, a real-life doctor and writer on "Pure Genius", admits the show's vision of a tech billionaire fixing health care is "an oversimplification". Not every tech figure is as benevolent as Elon Musk, with his plans to heat our houses cheaply. At best you might find these business-driven figures taking a liberal approach to paying taxes, while at the other end of the spectrum are controversial figures like John McAfee, the antivirus magnate embroiled in mayhem and murder allegations, or tech figures such as Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey wielding their power and cash to further their own agendas.

In 2017, the question of whether we can trust huge technological monoliths and their mercurial founders will get prominent play when the chilling warning of Dave Eggers' novel "The Circle" comes to the big screen. In a shrewd bit of casting, the cuddly Tom Hanks plays a tech billionaire with a creation that's definitely not to be trusted.

With movies like "The Circle" and TV shows like "Loaded" coming in the new year, our fears and fantasies will continue to play out on screens as we race into our tech-obsessed future.

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