Report Card: White Christmas

Read all the Black Mirror, “White Christmas” reviews in chronological order.

I love Black Mirror. It’s not always perfect, but uses great story telling to get us to think about the consequences of technology in our lives. It’s a provocateur that invokes the spirit of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, and rarely shies away from following the tech into the darkest places. It’s what thinking about technology in sci-fi formats looks like.

But, as usual, this site is not about the show but the interfaces, and for that we turn to the three criteria for evaluation here on scifiinterfaces.com.

  1. How believable are the interfaces? Can it work this way? (To keep you immersed.)
  2. How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)
  3. How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)

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Sci: C (2 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

There are some problems. Yes, there is the transparent-screen trope, but I regularly give that a cinemagenics pass. And for reasons explained in the post I’ll give everything in Virtual Greta’s virtual reality a pass.

But on top of that there are missing navigation elements, missing UI elements, and extraneous UI elements in Matt’s interfaces. And ultimately, I think the whole cloned-you home automation is unworkable. These are key to the episode, so it scores pretty low.

It’s the mundane interfaces like pervy Peeping Tom gallery, the Restraining Order, and the pregnancy test that are wholly believable.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

From the Restraining Order that doesn’t tell you what it’s saying until after you’ve signed it, to the creepy home-hacked wingman interfaces, to the Smartelligence slavery and torture obfuscation, the interfaces help paint the picture of a world full of people and institutions that are psychopathically cruel to each other for pathetic, inhumane reasons. It takes a while to see it, but the only character who can be said to be straight-up good in this episode is the not-Joe’s kid.

Interfaces: A (4 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Matt wants to secretly help Harry S be more confident and, yeah, “score.” Beth and Claire want to socially block their partners in the real world. Matt needs easy tools to torture virtual Greta into submission. Greta needs to control the house. Joe wants to snoop on what he believes to be his daughter. Matt wants to extract a confession.  All the interfaces are driven by clear character, social, and institutional goals. They are largely goal-focused, even if those goals are shitty.

For reasons discussed in the Sci section of this review (above), there are problems with the details of the interfaces, but if you were a designer working with no ethical base in a society of psychopaths, yes, these would be pretty good models to build from.

Final Grade B (10 of 12), Must-see.

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Special thanks again to Ianus Keller and his students TU Delft who began the analysis of this episode and collected many of the screen shots.

I also want to help them make a shout-out to IDE alumnus Frans van Eedena, whose coffee machine wound up being one of the appliances controlled by virtual Greta. Nice work IDE!

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