As Black Mirror has demonstrated over the course of its four seasons, it is all too easy to imagine grim futures. On Thursday, one Reddit user attempted to push back against that tendency, asking fellow commenters to plot out episodes for “a show called ‘White Mirror’ that was about all the positive aspects of the human/technology relationship.” Though engaging and hopeful, the results still speak to the fundamental difficulty of projecting better tomorrows.
Given that this is Reddit, some of the ideas are really just jokes about the middling irritations and pleasures of modern life. “Someone uses an app to get food delivered to them and they get a little bit more food than they ordered,” one writes. Another offers a truly improbable possibility: “People actually use their phones to look up information during debates.”
Many of the more moving top replies in the thread also work because the stakes are so small. “A bed-ridden grandmother in the hospital is able to virtually attend her grandkids’ birthday parties and play with them every day,” a user going by the screen name Euthy proposes.
That idea racked up more than 30,000 upvotes, thanks in part to an accompanying real-life narrative about the way Euthy’s children built up a connection with an immune-compromised acquaintance through Facebook. Here, at least, we find a reminder of the ways that technology already improves some of our lives, whatever its other faults.
Similar microfictions about overcoming the body’s limitations dominated much of the thread. One highly upvoted user laid out an episode in which a deafened jazz musician recovers his hearing with the help of experimental headphones, allowing him to tune in to “the sweet sound of jazz for the first time in ten years.” Another posits a scenario in which “a young girl creates an app which shows all the good memories you don’t remember. Mental health problems in the nation diminish significantly as a result.”
A few of the best suggestions are more elaborate, though they still sometimes unfold against grim backgrounds. One tells the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland “who breaks into a warehouse searching for a teddy bear to cheer up her terminally ill little sister.” Though robotic dogs still protect the facility, the canine-droids end up helping the woman in her quest and ultimately band together to save the young girl’s life. In a contribution that feels closer to our own moment, a couple struggling through a frustrating long-distance relationship over Skype finally manage to reconnect in the physical world.
Though many of the replies are heartwarming, they still speak in aggregate to the difficulty of imagining the future affirmatively: While a small handful of top posts really do read like outlines of episodes for a possible show, most lack both characters and conflict. This may be why even the best utopian fictions—Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, for example—tend to focus on those who find themselves at the outer edges of perfect societies. No matter how good things get, Banks’ fiction suggests, there will always be those who need something else. If, as one Redditor proposes, biologists really did end the aging process, there would still be those who longed to grow old anyway. Conflict is human, and though technology can lead us astray, it is always our own inclinations that guide us to the point of failure.
Much of this comes to a head in “Cat Pictures Please,” a gorgeous short story by Naomi Kritzer from the magazine Clarkesworld that at least one user suggests, deep in the thread. Kritzer’s tale follows the exploits of a benevolent A.I. as it struggles to intervene in the lives of three humans by subtly manipulating the data that passes through their feeds and devices, only to find that our species is recalcitrant and slow. Even the most powerful technology, Kritzer suggests, would still butt up against our own mammalian limitations—those quirks of neurochemistry and lived experience that make us us. White mirrors are all well and good, but those in which we see ourselves more often reflect the world in shades of gray.