Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1 ‘USS Callister’ Shows How Technology Enables Creeps

Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1 'USS Callister' Shows How Technology Enables Creeps


  • Black Mirror season 4 is available on Netflix
  • “USS Callister” is the first episode of new season
  • Charlie Brooker co-wrote, stars Jesse Plemons

Spoilers ahead for Black Mirror season four episode one, “USS Callister”. If you haven’t seen the episode, turn away and come back later.

At its surface, “USS Callister” – the first episode of anthology sci-fi series Black Mirror’s fourth season, out since Friday on Netflix worldwide – seems like a parody of Star Trek. It’s how the poster, stills, trailer, and the title have been set up, but that’s merely because marketing any episode of Black Mirror is a challenge, given its reliance on twists. (It’s also why Netflix prohibited us critics from revealing much about it.) The one in “USS Callister” appears less than 10 minutes into the episode, when it’s revealed that it’s all just a locally-stored Trek-themed fork of a popular virtual reality game.

From that moment on, the Trek inspiration turns merely into elaborate dressing, from the clothes to the sets, which hews as closely as possible to Gene Roddenberry’s vision with the 60s original series, without getting the CBS lawyers off their cushy seats. The real target of the episode are the power fantasies of human beings, and how can they can go very quickly from harmless to beyond creepy with advances in technology. Black Mirror has always been fascinated with digital consciousness – first with “White Christmas”, then “San Junipero”and now this – though it gets a much heavier focus on “USS Callister”.

Out in the real world, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) is the brains behind the online multiplayer VR creation, but he’s always been the ignored nice guy. He doesn’t get the credit unlike the public-facing Walton (Jimmi Simpson) – the CEO calls himself the “shiny front-end”, and refers to Daly as the back-end – he’s laughed at by his colleagues at the company, and he doesn’t get the reception he expects from the receptionist. Black Mirror makes it easy to sympathise with him, and view him as someone who can’t catch a break, but then turns that image on its head over the next hour.

black mirror season 4 uss callister nanette Black Mirror season 4 USS Callister

Annoyed and incensed by how he’s treated, Daly has created a modded version of the game, and he’s slowly introduced digital clones of his co-workers by stealing their DNA from the office, and using high-end tech to recreate them in the virtual reality. New employee Nanette (Cristin Miloti), who admires Daly professionally, is pulled in after he overhears her dismissing the idea of liking him in personal capacity. There, he expects her to be nice to him and forces her to comply when she refuses, like he’s already done with everyone else. In short, he’s the God.

But unlike, say, in a game of The Sims, his actions are far from harmless. The digital clones can think and feel pain like their counterparts outside, so when Daly demands a kiss from every female crew member at the end of each playthrough, or torments someone by creating a clone of their son and killing him in front of them repeatedly, that carries a lot more weight than starving a Sims baby to death. Black Mirror has always tried to warn us about the unanticipated dangers of new technology, and “USS Callister” posits how it can enable harmless creeps – Daly doesn’t seem bold enough to be a criminal – from acting out their fantasies.

That doesn’t make his actions any less criminal, though whether the laws in “USS Callister” have caught up to the available technologies is entirely unknown. Is Daly as bad as someone who would torture people in real life? Since the in-game versions of his co-workers have consciousness too, should Daly pay the same price as a criminal would in our world? And should a citizen be allowed to own a device that can help you digitally clone someone in the first place? Those are all questions raised by the episode, which has been directed by Toby Haynes (Doctor Who, Sherlock).

But Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror and co-writer on “USS Callister”, is more interested in creating an empowering story. Nanette is the true protagonist here, as it becomes clear, but the episode hides that by introducing us to the world from Daly’s eyes. We’ve all experienced situations where we’ve wanted to have control over someone, and that makes seeing Daly go through with that all the more harrowing, because there’s a bit of him in all of us.

black mirror season 4 uss callister deck Black Mirror season 4 USS Callister

“USS Callister” also ends up being accidentally timely, what with a woman having to escape from the clutches of a man who views her as an object serving as an allegory for the ongoing #MeToo social movement that erupted across the globe in the wake of sexual assault allegations levelled against major Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In the episode, the video game versions of Callister employees are stuck in a universe where Weinstein is the only movie producer, so they have to work within those restrictions or face retribution.

While her other co-workers have chosen to give in, Nanette comes up with a strategy to free themselves from Daly’s control, which involves blackmailing her own self out in the real world. By doing so, she actually makes the original version of her self commit a crime – breaking and entering – who remains completely oblivious to how she’s helping a few digital souls escape their tormentor. We aren’t told how this impacts real-Nanette when Daly is inevitably found dead, but clone-Nanette ends up in a procedurally-generated world with infinite possibilities.

Black Mirror also gets in a dig about online gaming, with the first encounter for the digital clones being a conceited gamer – cheekily voiced by Aaron Paul’s distinctive voice – who threatens to blow them up for not serving his purpose. As an exasperated Nanette instructs her crew to warp away, he proclaims himself as ‘the king of space’, the words sounding hollow as you look at the vast virtual emptiness. The world will never be perfect, “USS Callister” argues, but you’ve always got to fight to make it better.


How To Lead Creative People (When You’re Not A Creative Yourself)


Creative people tend to be sensitive souls – some might even go so far as to say ‘highly strung’. They don’t always take criticism well, no matter how kindly it’s meant, and can perceive even the smallest piece of negative feedback as an unbridled assault on their competence.

In their work, many leaders who do not come from a creative background themselves have to learn how to motivate agency staff and freelancers. So how can they get these volatile ideas folk to produce truly outstanding work? Here are five top tips for encouraging the sparks of genius to fly:

    1. Praise us! If you want to keep getting great work out of creative people, the secret is not just to pay their invoice promptly at the end of the project (although that helps a lot, admittedly) but also to give them positive feedback if you’re happy with a job well done. You’re our client. We want to make you happy. If we were just in it for the money, we would have done something else instead – like law.
    1. Brief us properly. Sadly the place where most creative projects go wrong is right at the start – ie the part where you’re involved. If you don’t take the time to give us a proper, well-considered brief, either in writing or verbally, you’re effectively setting us loose to interpret what we think you want in the way we think is best. Unless you really are very open-minded about what you want, that’s a recipe for disaster. It’s a bit like saying to a builder: “Hey there, please can you build me a house” and just leaving them to get on with it.
    2. Be specific in your feedback. Saying something ‘doesn’t quite work for me but I don’t know why’ isn’t very helpful to a creative. If you want to get a better result, you need to be able to tell us why you don’t like a piece of work and what might make it better. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with a challenge and make your own input. Creative people value collaboration. In fact, the best results often come out of clients and creative teams working together constructively.
  1. Remember that we have feelings. You might not like the work we’ve sent you but unless it’s obviously sloppy – riddled with spelling mistakes, for example – the chances are that we’ve really labored over it and truly believe that we’ve done a good job for you. So before you embark on a long list of what’s wrong with a piece of work, try to highlight any parts of it that you do like or acknowledge where you may not have been clear on an aspect of the brief. Build a relationship with us – along with everyone else, we try harder for people we like.
  2. Be realistic. About everything. Don’t give a writer a strict word count and then ask them to make lots of points that could not conceivably be made effectively in such a small number of words. Don’t give a designer a day to turn around a complex piece of artwork that incorporates lots of charts. Finally, don’t expect to pay pittance and get outstanding work delivered ahead of deadline. You will just end up with a frustrated creative who produces suboptimal results.


How to Start a Career in the Creative Industry

Want to make a career out of the stuff you make? The creative industries describe business and organization that focus on creativity: music, design, art, publishing, literature, architecture, film, visual arts, fashion, and drama, to name a few.

Within those industries are needs for high-level design, marketing, and advertising professionals.

Why are creative careers so important? They’re creating jobs in the digital sector and the economy at large. “Creatives,” as employees in the creative industry are called, are in high demand.

What’s great about the creative industry? It’s constantly changing, and you get to work with people who are just as passionate as you are.

Let’s take a closer look at how to start your career in the creative industry—and Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) where creatives succeed.

1. Get exposure and make your art

How? Network, network, network, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. The more contacts you have in the field you want, the more likely it is that you’ll find work.

Make a few phone calls to companies that interest you, and see what they offer.  Not quite there? Check out their websites, and prepare a few pitches for projects that you’re interested in doing.

If that’s getting you nowhere, find someplace you might want to work and volunteer, apprentice, or intern. Cast your net wide, make the connections, get out there, and do it.

Lorenzo Longo, a designer in Milan since 2006 and graduate of IED, tells about his first experience working for Pirelli tires. He said, “In that occasion Pirelli choose me to be part of their engineers’ team and I developed the design of new tire patterns for them. I worked for Pirelli tires for about one year, in the same period I opened my studio.”

De-Signum, the studio he opened, is a multitasking design enterprise that works across architecture, interior design, and product design.

2. Work hard

This shouldn’t come as a shock: you have to work hard. Positions in the creative industry are competitive, especially if you’re just out of school. The key? Experience and attitude. Get as much experience as you can, and as many key connections as you can while you’re in school. It will pay off.

Longo says, “Creativity is an attitude, it’s very difficult to learn to be creative if you are not curious and interested in everything that surrounds you. You should be as a “parfumeur,” you should learn how to develop your own smell, develop your own spirit of observation, work hard, not be boring, learn how funny it is to be working in team, have patience.”

3. Follow your passion

Do what you love. Don’t worry about what other people think. As long as you care about what you do, respect others, and work hard to make a positive impact, you can make it in the creative industry.

Anna Rogg, coordinator of the Career Services Offices at IED Italy and responsible for the official IED Alumni platform says, “My advice, for young creatives, is to try to share ideas with colleagues, your boss without being jealous, never criticize other people, but try to find always positive sides. Always attending specific courses during weekends, evenings… be up-to-date!”

4. Get the right master’s degree: IED

Ready to launch your career in the creative industry? Already have your bachelor’s degree?

Get the right master’s degree at IED in Italy. With specialized and technical training, real projects with partner companies, and a wide alumni network, IED offers students masters courses in contemporary art, design, fashion, and communication.

Long says he’s still in touch with IED. He says, “It still happens that IED calls me for special projects. I worked for the Campari Group about a year ago.”

Rogg echoes the sentiment. She says, “We help students for twelve months after their graduation. This year we are going to launch our first IED Alumni platform with special deals, partnerships and job postings dedicated to our IED Community. Last year, IED Milan found internships for 92 percent of our former students who recently graduated.”

If you’re looking for a step up in that creative field that you’ve dreamed about forever, now’s your chance. Check out IED and give your creative career the boost it deserves.

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

How free porn enriched the tech industry — and ruined the lives of actors

Journalist Jon Ronson describes his new podcast series, The Butterfly Effect, this way: “It’s about what constitutes a reputable person and what constitutes a disreputable person.”

More specifically, The Butterfly Effect is a four-hour, seven-part exploration of the impact of the tech industry on the porn industry. It’s about the way free porn sites, notably PornHub, have made it very hard for porn workers to make a living.

The music industry has gone through similar upheaval, but musicians get more sympathy than porn actors (and can make money doing live gigs), Ronson says.

In the podcast, Ronson interviews Fabian Thylmann, PornHub’s millionaire founder, along with a spectrum of sex industry performers and creators struggling to make ends meet. For instance, Ronson profiles Mike Quasar, a porn cameraman and director, who tells Ronson he’s powerless to stop his films from being instantly pirated online. (The volume of streaming sites and sharing methods makes it hard for porn companies, often strapped for resources, to fight piracy.) Some porn stars make niche custom videos — performing content in ways requested by specific fans, for a fee — in order to survive financially.

For two decades since Them, a best-seller on extremists, Ronson has been creating engaging, funny accounts of people on society’s margins. The Welshman turned New Yorker’s last book was So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about the internet pile-ons against the likes of inappropriate tweeter Justine Sacco.

In a wide-ranging conversation — lightly edited and condensed — Ronson discussed porn’s future, Alex Jones, and legitimized bullying.

Alexander Bisley

So these sites like PornHub, which are stealing porn and giving it away for free, have wildly depressed the money available for productions and the fees the performers are able to get, right?

Jon Ronson

Yes. So a lot of people are making a lot less money and are working much, much longer hours to make that money. That’s happening a lot. Whereas the people in charge of PornHub are making so much money they don’t know what to do with it.

These tech people who’ve never set foot on a porn set in their lives, these optimizers and algorithm people and AB testers, these “respectable people” — they’re the ones who seem to be causing the most trouble [in] the lives of porn performers.

I saw time and time again, people [in the porn industry] would have to move from pretty nice houses to much smaller houses. Porn performers have to go into escorting to pay the rent. More and more producers are going out of business. So in many ways it’s decimating the San Fernando Valley, but the tech people are doing very well.

The tech takeover of the world isn’t being criticized enough. It’s having these seismic changes, and people tend not to think about it because they’re giving the world what it wants, which is free porn.

Alexander Bisley

What do you think the future of porn will be, given this seismic shift?

Jon Ronson

I was just reading a comment on Slate that addressed this question. The commenter — Allen Garvin — wrote, “Dirty magazines are dying, porn shops are dying, mainstream porn video companies are dying (or else getting into extreme fetishes). People that go to porn conventions or show up at strip clubs to see specific porn actresses are getting older each year, with young men failing to replace them because they get their porn for free.”

I think all that’s true. So what will take its place? Amateur porn shot on cellphones. Some of those people will get deals with PornHub, and the like, where they’ll make some money from clicks, but it’ll be a fraction of what they would have made in the pre-streaming days.

And the people who built the industry? Some will move into customs and niche fetish stuff; most others will just vanish away into the ether.

Alexander Bisley

One of PornHub’s tech guys, exploiting performers’ work, boasted to you: “I’m not a piece of garbage, peddling smut.”

Jon Ronson

When I ask him about the people whose lives were being decimated as a result of the business practices, he went, “Ugh, okay. Their livelihood.” He talked like a tech utopian, somebody who thinks the tech world can do no wrong. A lot of tech people go out of their way to not think about the negative consequences. You shouldn’t not think about those insidious consequences.

Alexander Bisley

Tech guys like the one you quote above basically dehumanize the labor?

Jon Ronson

Yeah. In the same way we dehumanize people that we tear apart on social media. Or in the same way that despots from the past dehumanized their victims. We just don’t wanna think about it. And that’s one of the reasons my public shaming book got some backlash, because people didn’t want to be confronted with the truth of the psychological tricks they play on themselves to not feel bad about the bad things they do.

Alexander Bisley

Since Them: Adventures With Extremists, your book and documentary series about conspiracy theorists, the idea of humanizing the dehumanized has featured in your work. Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist that has interviewed Trump on his show, was one of your early subjects, both in writing and in documentary. Did you go too far in humanizing him?

Jon Ronson

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think Alex has changed. Alex is a different person now compared to how he was when I first knew him in the late ’90s. A lot of people who work for Alex would probably say the same thing. So the way we should regard him, the way we should write about him, should change. He’s changed partly because he’s more powerful now, and he’s richer, and he’s got an ally in the White House, and some of his conspiracy theories have got darker.

A couple of years ago, when Alex suddenly made a fortune from the Super Male Vitality supplements and so on, that’s pretty much exactly the same time that his discourse got more aggressive. As much as he denies saying that Sandy Hook didn’t happen, he did promote that conspiracy theory.

Alexander Bisley

How do you feel about the future of media?

Jon Ronson

I strongly believe the future for that industry of broadcasters is to welcome idiosyncratic voices and then just give them the freedom to do just that, which is exactly what Netflix did with Bong Joon-Ho for Okja, a film I co-wrote, and what Audible did with me and The Butterfly Effect. The days of gatekeepers making you jump through hoops is kinda over.

Alexander Bisley

The Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap, wrote a compelling essay about the Internet zeitgeist. “I have become increasingly wary of morality disguised as politics and of our reversion to a language redolent of sin and shaming, certainty and righteousness.”

Jon Ronson

Yeah. The way I would describe it is legitimized bullying. The destruction of people like Justine Sacco [who tweeted an inappropriate joke that launched a viral pile-on and that led to her being fired] — what of social justice? It was a cathartic alternative to social justice.

When you’re bullied in school, quite often, you’re bullied by everyone. You don’t have friends to turn to. Monica Lewinsky, in an interview I did with her, told me of her scandal: “I was hung out to dry by everyone; I didn’t belong to any group.” That’s the same as what happened to Justine Sacco — she was hung out to dry by everyone: Misogynists hated her, philanthropists hated her, social justice people hated her, Donald Trump tweeted about her. So that’s probably why I felt so animated about that story … because it reminded me of school. When you’re being bullied by everybody, it’s legitimized bullying.

In a way, it’s the reason I wanted to do The Butterfly Effect as well. Because it’s a story about every time somebody watches porn for free on PornHub, they are potentially exploiting the lives of the porn people they’re watching.

Alexander Bisley

David Simon, creator of the sex work–themed television show The Deuce, believes a big problem with porn and sex work is poor labor rights.

Jon Ronson

Definitely in terms of royalties, back-end and stuff like that, porn people would agree with David Simon. Where they might disagree is that there’s definitely a narrative out there about porn people being forced to do things they don’t want to do on set by exploitative directing. Maybe their boyfriends were coercing them in some cases. But I can say that the side of the San Fernando Valley industry that we were in for a year on and off [making The Butterfly Effect], I saw nothing like that. That may happen in Miami and Las Vegas.

But the [Valley] directors and the producers and the other porn actors — it’s basically a kindhearted and respectful community, certainly more than outsiders might think. It has its problems, but it’s way more collegiate than outsiders would think it.

Alexander Bisley

What might surprise listeners about The Butterfly Effect?

Jon Ronson

Probably the most surprising thing about the series is how moving and endearing it gets. How supportive the performers are to each other. And in the world of custom, in the world of bespoke porn, how there’s this really lovely bond between the cast and producers and their client, their fans. A bunch of people have said they’ve never thought that a series about the tech takeover of the porn industry would make them cry, but the end of the series will make you cry.

Alexander Bisley

And challenge them?

Jon Ronson

There’s this amazing line in episode five of The Butterfly Effect where I’m talking to this girl who was a big porn watcher, and I said to her: “Did you ever learn their names?” And she said: “No, I never learned their names. It’s like when you kill a deer; you don’t name it because then you can’t eat it.”

Alexander Bisley

In addition to the pressure for some of them to work as escorts, porn stars have to be an enthusiastic brand all over social media. Is that a challenge?

Jon Ronson

Yes! In episode two I meet this woman called Maci May who was having a terrible time, and she used to vent about it on social media but now she’s much more wary because you have to be like a brand. She can’t tweet, “I don’t have any money.” She’s discouraged from acting that way by porn producers and directors who say to her: “No, no, you’ve got to constantly be chirpy and happy.”

When she said that to me, I thought, “That’s really sad.” In a parallel universe, there’d be a Twitter where Maci May could do all of that stuff, vent about how unhappy she was. But that’s not the Twitter we created for ourselves, sadly.

Alexander Bisley

“Sex is probably the most interesting subject in the world,” Paul Auster says.

Jon Ronson

I would never disagree with anything Paul Auster says, because he’s amazing. … I never thought of sex as interesting. What I thought was interesting about The Butterfly Effect wasn’t sex, but it was about what constitutes a reputable person and what constitutes a disreputable person. The thing that really got me interested was this idea that tech people are considered reputable; sex workers, porn people are considered disreputable. But this story shows that the porn people and the sex workers are supportive, kindhearted, lovely people, whereas the tech people are amoral, ruthless people.