The computerized future will soon be upon us, and Black Mirror is here to remind us of its most unsettling consequences. The new season (which everybody should immediately watch, by the way) came to Netflix on Dec 29th, ushering in six episodes of dystopian delight.
To celebrate, we held a contest to send a reader to Las Vegas and CES — for free! There was just one catch: The winner had to endure a Black Mirror experience of their own, allowing us to surveil him or her for 24 hours.
44 entrants were happy to reconcile the idea of giving up their privacy in exchange for a free trip. The winner was Jonathan Salfen of Portland, Oregon, and not only did we rob him of his privacy for 24 hours, but we also deprived him of that pesky little device that’s become so emblematic of humanity’s dependence on technology: his phone. That meant I had access to everything from his full range of apps, to his texts and contacts.
We booked Jonathan a room at the Cosmopolitan hotel and outfitted it with Nest cameras set to roll for 24 hours. On the morning of the 11th, Jonathan surrendered his phone. My coworker Justin readied his camera, and we steeled ourselves for a full day of invading another human being’s physical and digital space.
Our first stop was CES, a brightly lit, hyper-stimulating showcase of every tech product imaginable to (and imagined by) mankind. Drones buzzed in netted enclosures, branded tote bags were pressed into our hands, and neon lights flashed and blinked from every direction. As Jonathan beelined toward the robotics booths, I thumbed through his apps, swiping away streams of group message notifications. I noticed that he budgets with Mint and banks with Chase. Like me, he leaves thousands of emails unopened and is still on Couchsurfing. He has the deadliest trifecta of distracting apps — Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — grouped into a folder entitled, “Fo real???”
As we sat down to eat lunch (Philly cheesesteaks, Jonathan’s first) on the floor behind the Polaroid booth, I posted to Jonathan’s Instagram account, adding every hashtag and account tag requested by the reps whose booths we took photos in. I followed my own account from his, of course. Scrolling through his feed, I noticed that his targeted ads were for cat food, UX software, protein bars, and frozen pizza.
When dusk fell, we made our way onto the world’s tallest ferris wheel, the LED-lighted High Roller, where we had our own spherical cabin. The city — a gaudy, glittering sprawl that seemed to exist in defiance of the surrounding desert — was visible in every direction, compounding the bizarreness of the situation. I responded to a text Jonathan had received but didn’t know what to say.
By the time we ended our night at our CES afterparty, I was more than ready to relieve myself of the duties of stalking another person.
A surveiller’s job, I discovered, is a tedious chore. Not only did I have to accustom myself to Jonathan’s habits and phone organization, but I struggled to find fascination with peering into his private life. The discomfort of monitoring another human being exceeded any sort of voyeuristic appeal, and I constantly felt concerned over what Jonathan himself was experiencing. Above all, I found myself pitying actual surveillers tasked with keeping tabs on everyday citizens. “Omg so glad I don’t have an actual surveillance job. IDGAF,” I texted a friend the next day.
As for Jonathan, the day was equally dissonant. “The first part of the day, I didn’t feel like I was being watched because being at CES was so overwhelming, distracting, and awesome,” he wrote me in an email after we had all returned home. “But later in the day, when we were all trapped on the ferris wheel without any distractions, the surreality and uncomfortableness of the situation set in. I’ve never liked posing for photos. I don’t like the attention and the pressure to perform. In order to hold it together, I had to continuously remind myself that I needed to tolerate the torturing bits of the trip and behave as payment for going to CES.”
Nonetheless — was the trade-off worth it? “Hell yeah,” Jonathan said. “I saw an opportunity to profit and I took it. I got a cool trip in return for a few smiles.”
“For me, hanging with staff members from my favorite blog while attending a fair of future technology was an amazing, surreal experience. In the end, I think you guys were more uncomfortable with the experiment than I was.”
He was right. On top of the awkwardness of following someone around all day, there was the fear that I’d lose his iPhone or inadvertently cause some sort of life-ruining disaster.
The discomfort, though, was eclipsed by a sense of camaraderie. We were in this strange experience together, and the inherent power imbalance of the surveiller and the subject was offset by the lack of true stakes. Barring an aforementioned accident, there were no real consequences at hand.
The same can’t be said for the characters in Black Mirror. As we shuttle towards a future that increasingly resembles the show’s dystopian depictions, I hope moments like these — of human solidarity — will shine through. We’re all just trying to make it in a weird and capricious world, at the end of the day.
Angela Wang is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.