Alert the technology nerds in your friend group because Charlie Brooker – the man with the big yet terrifying brain behind Black Mirror – is in town.
Why, You ask? The English writer and presenter is one of the keynote speakers for the inaugural SXSW Sydney festival where a bunch of other big-brained visionaries sit in a room, chat and ponder about the future of society. But before Charlie takes the stage with the smart, funny, talented Julia Zemiro on Wednesday for Charlie Brooker In Conversation, we had a chat about all things Black Mirror and the intersection between creativity and AI.
I hope I didn’t lose you on that last bit because old mate has a lot of fascinating things to say on that topic. But first, let’s get into the Black Mirror goods.
In case you’ve somehow missed it, Black Mirror is an anthology series on Netflix. Most of the episodes are set in a dystopian future and explore the way society interacts with technology. Some episodes are incredibly depressing and debilitating and send me into an existential spiral, unlike any other show I’ve ever seen. Others are more lighthearted. Like the one where Miley Cyrus plays a pop star who releases a song called “On A Roll” that still frequents my gym playlist.
“It’s based off a Nine Inch Nails song,” Charlie quips.
“I got permission from Trent Reznor to do that pop version of it and Miley was fantastic.”
Although Miley did an incredible job, Charlie reckons Miley’s episode has been one of the eps that people misunderstood the most.
“We did the episode with Miley that I think some people like criticised because tonally, it was much lighter and frothier than many others we’ve done,” he explained.
“I thought well one of the things I enjoy about doing the show is that it’s different. Each episode is different and sometimes we do an episode like ‘White Bear’ which is bleak and horrible, like a glass of cold water in the face. And other times we do a sort of warm bubble bath – and what’s wrong with that?”
While audiences clearly crave the depraved, there have been episodes Charlie has written that he still finds harrowing to reflect on today. Of course, “White Bear” from Season Two is one of them. And thankfully for my sake, the creator recognises that he’s probably “one of the few people on the planet who knows all the episode titles”.
“Everyone else knows them as ‘the one where’ so this is the one where this woman wakes up and she can’t remember who she is and there’s this sort of ominous symbol being displayed on all televisions,” he explained.
“It’s got a really burly twist to it, one of the bleakest of all we’ve done.”
However, Charlie insists that the latest season, Season Six, isn’t entirely a walk in the park.
“This time around we did ‘Loch Henry’ which is a harrowing true crime story and ‘Metalhead’ which is one with a robot dog. Actually, loads of them are pretty harrowing. But we’ve done lots of positive ones too. And usually, there’s quite a lot of dark humour at play.
“We like to put a bit of sugar into the coffee. I don’t like sugar in coffee in real life, but I’m using a terrible metaphor.”
Of course, at a futurist festival like SXSW Sydney, there’s a lot of chat about AI and the impact it has on our creative future. Should we be worried, like many of the actors currently striking in the US are? Or should we view AI as a help rather than a hindrance?
Charlie reckons it’s a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. But he doesn’t think it’s as simple as asking ChatGPT to write an episode of Black Mirror and seeing how it goes.
“I think they’re right to be concerned about it,” he said.
“AI can come up with an outline for something that is very, very, very limited. But the worry for writers is that the execs could potentially use these things to generate a very derivative outline for something which they then believe is original, even though it’s basically hoovered up loads of us human beings’ work and repurposed it, and then they’ll hire in a human cheaply, pay them less to sort of rewrite this terrible bland thing that’s come out to human-ify it.
“I can see the value in using some of these tools to ask questions like a conversational Google. If you’re blocked and trying to write an episode about a Greek shepherd. Like what might he eat for dinner and what problems might he encounter? I can imagine that sort of thing that’s useful.
“Also the use of AI-generated imagery worries me to an extent, mainly in terms of destabilising society by weaponising misinformation but I’ll keep it light for now.”
Are you as fascinated as I am by this ChatGPT chit-chat? If so, make sure to catch Charlie Brooker In Conversation on Wednesday 17 at SXSW Sydney. Plus, you can watch all episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix.