Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker on AI, tech, and creativity –

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A chat with Charlie Brooker about AI, creativity, and why tech can be like growing an extra limb.
It’s tough to remember, but in 2011, lots of us felt pretty good about our Silicon Valley overlords. The iPhone was going fully mainstream, Facebook felt like a fun place to share ideas, and Twitter was going to somehow liberate us from tyrants.
That was also the year Black Mirror debuted in the UK (it would come to Netflix in the US five years later) and offered a different point of view: What if all of this shiny new stuff wasn’t good for us, at all?
Since then, we’ve had a real reckoning about tech — or, at a minimum, our views about tech have gotten much more complicated.
Which, it turns out, is the way Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has always felt about this stuff: “I love technology, I love computers,” he told me this week on the Recode Media podcast. “But I’m also a natural worrier. I’m somebody who catastrophizes at the drop of a hat. And so I’m often worried when some new development or gizmo will give us power, and the responsibility that comes with that. And how easy it is to misuse that, or the unintended consequences or obvious clumsy consequences. … Usually our technologies give with one hand and sort of slap us round the back of the head with the other.”
Brooker often gets credit for creating scripts that seem eerily prescient on issues we’re just about to confront, and he pulled that off again with the newest season of Black Mirror, which debuted earlier this summer. Its first episode, which aired on Netflix just as writers and actors began to worry that Hollywood wanted to replace them with AI, features a tech executive who finds out her life has been turned into a Netflix-style show that’s been entirely created by an AI.
Peter Kafka reports on the collision of media and technology.
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Brooker, not surprisingly, isn’t very interested in using AI to help create his shows. But as we discussed, there’s a bit of nuance there: Current generative AI tech uses existing images and text to help create new, or at least newish, stuff. And writers like Brooker have always used other people’s work to inspire their own. Or in his words: “parasitically hoovering up something” someone else wrote. But I wouldn’t expect a ChatGPT version of Black Mirror anytime soon.
You can read excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity, below, and you can listen to the whole thing here.

How do you feel about the fact that people use Black Mirror as shorthand for “tech dystopia”?
On the one hand, I’m delighted, obviously. It’s free publicity for the show. But equally, it’s often depressing on a human level that that’s the stuff we’re looking at and confronted by a lot of the time.
But it’s not always about technology. When people say that, sometimes they’re talking about talking about a fucked-up situation. People will often say “black mirror” as shorthand for a fucked-up situation. If you look at our first-ever episode with the prime minister and the pig, that’s the very definition of a sort of fucked-up situation.
What do you make of the fact that you’ve been making this show for more than a decade, and it’s very popular, so clearly people in Silicon Valley have seen it. And you’re saying, “This vision of the future that I have is bad. This is not good.” And then [tech executives] come out and say, “We think this is great. We’re going to productize this.” Whether it’s VR goggles or AI-generated people or whatever. What do you think of that disconnect?
One thing I would say is that sometimes, clearly in the show, I’m highlighting something and saying, “This is bad.” Usually, however, the technology isn’t actually the villain. We’ve done an episode with autonomous robot killer dogs going around killing people.
Not positive.
Not really a positive read on that. But they were still presumably created by a human in that story.
But most of the time, when an episode is classically Black Mirror, you’ve got something that’s actually quite miraculous. That as a viewer, you can see the desirability of it. You can see why it would be useful, you can see why it would be transformative and in many ways extremely positive. And it’s usually the human beings, the messy human beings who are using this stuff in the story, who manage to balls things up.
And I guess that that reflects how I feel about a lot of things. In real life, I’m pretty geeky and techie. I used to be a video games journalist and I kind of love all this stuff. I love technology, I love computers.
But I’m also a natural worrier. I’m somebody who catastrophizes at the drop of a hat. It may come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the show. And so I’m often worried about some when new development or gizmo will give us power, and the responsibility that comes with that. And how easy it is to misuse that, or the unintended consequences or obvious clumsy consequences. And we see that time and time again with things. Usually our technologies give with one hand and sort of slap us round the back of the head with the other.
But that’s been the case with the printing press, it’s been the case with everything. I wouldn’t want to delete this stuff from existence necessarily.
Your show started in 2011. Back then, we were enormously optimistic about consumer technology, whether it was iPhones or social media. Serious people thought Twitter might bring democracy to the Middle East. Things have swung back dramatically in the opposite direction. Do you think that was always inevitable?
We were clearly looking at it through extremely rose-tinted goggles at the time. That was the thing in a way, I was tapping into in my head, certainly in some of those early episodes. Most Apple adverts looked to me like — have you seen Soylent Green?
Of course.
Charlie Brooker
There’s a bit where somebody is euthanized — an old guy is euthanized. And he’s taken into a sort of euthanasia clinic and the last thing he’s shown is images of the natural world which has now been destroyed. And it sort of moves him to tears and then he’s killed and turned into food, basically.
Which someone in Silicon Valley thought would be a good brand.
Well, there you go. I mean, that’s the ultimate sort of example. But the imagery there — the sort of pleasant imagery that this guy was shown against this extremely dystopian black backdrop — that was the sense I was always getting from sort of Apple ads at the time. They just seemed to be showing everybody having fun and dancing and smiling. And you just think, “Well, hang on a minute. Things usually aren’t this positive.”
And if we suddenly have extremely powerful tools at our disposal, we will do incredible things. We will also make incredible fuckups. So that seemed to me a well-founded concern I had that I felt wasn’t reflected at the time.
And I remember the positivity around the Arab Spring and people feeling that Twitter was bringing democracy to the Middle East. And now that all seems extremely naive. I think it was always inevitable that we were going to cock things up a bit.
But I wouldn’t want to be just completely cynical. The analogy I always use is that — especially something like social media — it’s like we’ve suddenly grown an extra limb, which is amazing because it means you could juggle and scroll through your iPhone at the same time. But it also means that we’re not really sure how to control it yet.
I do get frustrated sometimes when people characterize the show as “the tech is bad show” sort of thing. And I think sometimes I react to that probably too much.
You mentioned AI at the beginning of this conversation. In the space of a year we went from, “Look at this interesting AI art, isn’t that cool or trippy?” to, “Oh, AI could write a script with Chat GPT” to, “Now maybe AI is going to make a whole movie or a TV show.” Do you think about AI as a tool and/or as a threat?
I think it’s kind of both. The thing that actually depresses me almost more than anything else is — I’ve got two kids and one of them is 9 years old and he’s getting into drawing and he’s good. Really good, especially for his age. He’s proudly drawing, doodling away. And I was looking at this, and encouraging him, well done. And then the next thought that arrived was, “Yeah, but I mean, being an illustrator, that’s no career path these days, is it?”
And then our oldest is really into coding. And I’m thinking, yeah, but are you learning? Is this like learning mathematics, and now the calculators come along and render that like… a machine’s just going to do the icky bits of coding for you.
So I do very much worry about what the impact on employment generally is going to be.
I toyed around with all those things, Midjourney and stuff, like anyone else. And it’s telling — the images that go viral, that sort of thing; the things that are appealing are all kind of mashups, aren’t they? They’re all combinations of things. So I would type in, “Show me Jack the Ripper in the Great British Bake Off tent” or something like that. “Show me Boris Johnson shaking hands with Paddington Bear on the set of Seinfeld.” Because it’s parasitically hoovering up stuff that we humans have made or created or are. So quite quickly, with the AI art, there was something generic about it. Either it was riffs on existing IP or it was fairly somehow sort of too slick, like an auto-tuned vocal.
Yeah, you can see it.
And things like Chat GPT, I can totally see the value in using it as a sort of hyperpowered Google. “Oh, quick: List 10 jobs that somebody in Victorian England might have done.” I can imagine that as a writing tool. And the scary thing is I can imagine people using it to generate something that they then claim to own, which isn’t good enough to actually pass muster, that you’d have to then hire a human in, cheaply, to knock into shape.
It should be like the tools in Photoshop. I’m not scared by most of the tools in Photoshop. I think they’re super useful for artists.
Hopefully one outcome is it makes us up our game. It’s interesting at the moment, that we’ve had a lot of formulaic movies and stuff. Not to slight superhero movies — it’s just that there’s a lot of them.
And the audience seems exhausted.
Exhausted. Because I think that it does feel like you could say to Chat GPT, “Knock out the beats of a superhero [movie].” You know what the story beats are going to be.
Do you imagine using it? I’ve talked to folks who say, “Yeah, it’s good to make a terrible first draft, because I’d rather look at a bad first draft than a blank page,” or, “I can kick around ideas and a hundred ideas will be bad but one will be good. And that’s useful for me.”
I don’t think it’s at the point where it could write an even serviceable vomit draft. I don’t know that I trust its ability to generate an idea. Now riffing on an idea that you’ve got yourself? I can potentially see that.
But because it’s hoovering up other people’s stuff … Another thing I did [with Chat GPT] was type in, “Give me an idea for a Black Mirror episode.” And it immediately came back with things that … were fairly generic. They were emulation software’s idea of what a Black Mirror story is. And that just made me feel kind of self-parasitic.
It’s just leeching off me. And I’d be quite cross if somebody else was using it to leech off me. It’s probably seen somewhere that Black Mirror is a bit like The Twilight Zone, so it’s probably leeching off Rod Serling. It’s probably leeching off RoboCop, Starship Troopers — all these brilliant things that I found very influential …
And you did [that] as a human. You took all that stuff …
So, yeah, I mean, I can see that argument as well. Certainly, there’s episodes of Black Mirror that are directly inspired … We did an episode called “USS Callister,” which is a sort of Star Trek story. And it’s very directly inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life,” where there’s an ultra-powerful 6-year-old boy, who can …
It’s terrifying.
It’s terrifying and it still holds up today, and it’s absolutely chilling and terrifying. And I was trying to think of, weirdly, a very different story idea to do with people in the workplace, put into a musical, like a virtual musical, like Grease the Musical. And they wouldn’t know what their roles were. So I might be Sandy and you might be Danny, but we wouldn’t know — the real us wouldn’t know. I was sort of toying around with that idea, and then I thought, “God, you could do so many powerful things.” And as soon as I thought — “Well, what if this is a story about a tyrant? I remember that Twilight Zone episode …”
So now that is an example of me, I guess, parasitically hoovering up something that Rod Serling wrote, putting it through my own little AI in my brain. I guess you just call it “I.” There’s nothing artificial about it. Just my I.
And you created something wholly new. It’s one of your best episodes, most acclaimed.
I’m very proud of that episode. But hopefully that’s a different process because I’m saying, I owe Rod Serling a debt there. There was a heavy influence. I suppose [AI] feels like this is doing it on an industrial scale.
And you recoil at that. As you know, right now there’s a debate, with the actors and writers strike, about how much AI we are going to allow into our entertainment. Do you think that that’s a real fear for writers and actors — that studios would really want to use AI to replace much of what they do?
I think it’s a real fear. I think the fear with writing is that the studio could use it to generate vomit drafts of things, and then hire human writers to depressingly rewrite it. And make it human. And that’s a very depressing state of affairs.
But let me just play devil’s advocate for a second. Because it’s very standard in your business to have someone write a draft, and then fire that person, and then bring in multiple people, multiple times, to come and make that draft better. Or oftentimes worse.
That’s very cynical! I’ve grown up in the old Britain, where it’s quite different here — the ruthless sort of Hollywood side of writing looks terrifying to me! I’ve had a very lucky existence as a writer. Maybe I’ve got too rose-y tinted a view.
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