Microsoft made a big announcement last week, revealing that Windows, a lucrative legacy franchise, was about to be unleashed into the physical environment through a set of goggles called the HoloLens that superimposes the operating system on the actual world. In one sense, it was heartening. Business reporters are frequently hung up on the new and the insurgent, but seeing mature companies adapt to a changed world is equally interesting.
But something about Microsoft’s new technology creeps me out, and it probably has less to do with the threat of holograms populating our everyday lives and more to do with something I’ve been watching on a different screen.
“Black Mirror” is a three-season, seven-part anthology series, which first appeared in 2011 on Channel 4 in Britain and recently became available on Netflix, eliciting a lot of provocative chatter stateside. The show shares DNA with “The Twilight Zone,” but is very much about the present future we are living through.
Created by Charlie Brooker, a former video game reviewer, a writer for The Guardian and the host of his own television show, the series uses technology as a way to reflect on who we are becoming in the increasingly screen-infested environments we move through. The black mirror of the title refers to the blank screens that live on our walls, on our desks and in our pockets.
The show came to mind when I watched a video demonstration of Microsoft’s HoloLens, because as screens have proliferated, the amount of actual, unencumbered reality we experience seems endangered.
I am not some sad-eyed romantic for a pretechnological age. I have five tablets, four remotes on my night stand and three screens in my backpack. Our lives have been enriched by the Internet and all the devices that allow us to play there, at least to a point.
But “Black Mirror” asks fundamental questions about where this is all headed, not by creating an improbable dystopian future, but by hitting us right where we live. Its world is just one click away from the one in front of us.
This is a satire that is built not on laughs but on a deep melancholy. In one episode, the prime minister is forced by purported terrorists to perform an unspeakable act while the entire public stares.
In another, a man’s suspicions about his wife are on vivid display, because nothing is ever secret anymore. In one of the more heart-rending episodes, a woman can’t resist reconstructing and tragically falling for an avatar of her deceased partner. In a Christmas special that is yet to screen in the United States, a character played by Jon Hamm uses virtual reality on unwitting subjects to dark and merciless ends.
In all of the episodes, the act of watching — not doing — implicates the viewer.
Remember Chance the Gardener from “Being There,” the classic Jerzy Kosinski book (and subsequent film starring Peter Sellers)? He was fond of saying, “I like to watch,” which struck those around him as wise, but he was actually an idiot.
In 2013, the movie “Her” made quite a splash by positing how a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, could fall in love with an operating system. Now Annapurna Pictures, the production company that made the film, is forming a division to create virtual reality content. In this case, life imitates, well, an imitation of life.
What is it about our current reality that is so insufficient that we feel compelled to augment or improve it? I understand why people bury themselves in their phones on elevator rides, on subways and in the queue for coffee, but it has gotten to the point where even our distractions require distractions. No media viewing experience seems complete without a second screen, where we can yammer with our friends on social media or in instant messages about what we are watching.
Every form of media is now companion media, none meriting a single, acute focus. We are either the most bored people in the history of our species or the ubiquity of distractions has made us act that way. As Mr. Brooker said in a column he wrote for The Guardian several years ago, “If technology is a drug — and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side effects?”
The individual need for placation and augmentation plays out in ways big and small. Because my daughters are grown, I used to worry about my friend’s younger children becoming bored when they stopped by to visit. Not anymore. The children are made to look up long enough to greet me, then they resume interacting with the screens in their hands.
And it’s not just those raised on screens who are prone to distraction. As adults, we make “friends” who are not actually friends, develop “followers” composed of people who would not follow us out of a room, and “like” things whether we really like them or not. We no longer even have to come up with a good line at a bar to meet someone. We already know he or she swiped right after seeing us on Tinder, so the social risk is low.
What matters more, the experience or the media representation of it? The president of the United States is in the middle of displaying mastery over all manner of new media, including but not limited to Medium, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit. Perhaps his traction on these platforms is distracting him from the fact that he has been less successful at the actual act of governing.
The growing appetite for screen time has not gone unnoticed by American businesses. Amazon was built on the idea of using the web to bring physical objects to your door — first books, then paper towels and finally groceries. So what has it been up to lately? Madly buying and producing content that can be streamed into your home, by investing in television, film and gaming sites like Twitch.
I was freezing the other day and resolved to buy a better pair of gloves. As soon as the feeling returned to my fingers, I went on Amazon, typed in “warm men’s gloves” and ordered a pair. But what if I could have — using a HoloLens — tried on several pairs to see how they fit and looked? On a recent trip to the International CES trade show in Las Vegas, I saw plenty of applications that would do just that.
If Windows or something like it becomes the operating system not just for my desktop but for my world, how much will I actually have to venture out into it? I can have holographic conferences with my colleagues, virtually ski the KT-22 runs at Squaw Valley in California during my downtime and ask my virtual assistant to run my day, my house and my life. After all, I already talk to my phone and it talks back to me. We are BFFs, even though only one of us is actually human.
By most accounts, Microsoft has created a technology that blends the real and the virtual into a helpful hybrid by overlaying a screen on what we see. I just wonder if more screen time is what we really need.