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Beyond Tinder: Black Mirror simulates true love

Explore Black Mirror's exposure to the modern world of digital dating

By Jonny Wise

Warning: This article contains spoilers regarding Black Mirror episode ‘Hang the DJ’.

Immediately after watching a show, it’s quite rare to find yourself totally unsure of whether to feel gloomy and depressed, or wholly uplifted. After all, these rather polar emotional responses surely have correspondingly distinct triggers, right? And yet, ‘Hang the DJ’Episode 4 in the latest series of dystopian anthology Black Mirrorhas caused many viewers to feel exactly this sort of emotional conflict.

In typical Black Mirror style, the story is inspired by a real aspect of our high-tech societyin this case: Tinder. The society depicted appears to be solely focussed around matchmaking. Nobody works or has friends; you just eat, exercise and date. An artificially intelligent orb, ‘Coach’, harvests data regarding your emotional reactions to organised relationships, with the ultimate promise of finding, with 99.8% accuracy, your ‘perfect match’.

The two protagonists, Amy and Frank, spend 12 hours together, before moving on to other more prolonged relationships, placing all their trust in Coach’s ability to find their match. However, it becomes more and more apparent that they wish to be together. In the episode’s climax they decide to rebel against the technology pushing them apart, and attempt to escape over the gargantuan walls enclosing the community. It is at this point that the viewer is treated to one of those slack-jawed, head-spinning, stupefying twists, as the landscape appears to fall away.

Amy and Frank appear, surrounded by 997 versions of themselves that have all just lived through the same simulation. It turns out that 998 of 1000 simulations resulted in the couple’s escape, giving a success rating of 99.8%—a reference back to the perfect match accuracy promised to the virtual characters. The final layer of mystery is shed in the final scene, set back in the real world, as Frank checks his smartphone to identify his 99.8% match, Amy, who appears across the bar. The whole episode was just a showcase of what went on inside a phone (perhaps in a fraction of a second) in order to set two people up on a date.

Despite this episode showing humanity’s abandonment of the spontaneity and uncertainty ever-present in traditional love stories, I was left feeling optimistic. The application of cold statistics and predictability to love may seem like a bleak indictment of today’s tech-obsessed world, but at least the purpose was to enrich people’s real-world experiences. There is also a compelling irony built into the concept: the willingness to rebel against a machine being used as a metric for a perfect match is indicative of the common feeling that technology can be stifling. However, this feeling is built-into the virtual versions of the people themselves; the technology is designed to resent its own existence, and real people (perhaps begrudgingly) accept its utility on the basis that the result is genuine real-world happiness.

Whilst some aspects of the technological capabilities in the episode are left open, ‘Hang the DJ’ brings many relevant philosophical questions to mind. For example, as also seen in the season’s first episode, ‘USS Callister’, viewers are left wondering how to feel about the 1000 versions of Amy and Frank, who are born from ‘sentient code’ and forced to live out their lives essentially as prisoners—their paths may vary, but will always stay within certain constraints. Whilst this concept is slightly far-fetched, the recent surge in development of machine learning, virtual (and augmented) reality and artificial intelligence makes it seem believable. With this, ‘Hang the DJ’ goes from being merely entertaining, to truly thought-provoking and reflective.

From Issue 15

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