Bringing Tech Nightmares to One of the World's Big Tech Events: Charlie Brooker Talks 'Black Mirror' and SXSW Sydney

With his first-ever SXSW experience, and first trip to Sydney as well, Charlie Brooker is hoping to go home with a head full of ideas.
Sarah Ward
October 17, 2023

What do perusing the inaugural SXSW Sydney conference program and scrolling through Netflix have in common? Artificial intelligence, cybernetics, tech-enhanced dating, social media's ups and downs, science fiction-esque healthcare applications, digital afterlives and interactive gaming all feature in both — and the list goes on. On the streaming platform, you'll find the above in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. Since starting with a squeal in 2011, the British anthology series has become pop culture's go-to place for futuristic visions dripping with unease. It ponders what might come, often with prophetic insight, and imagines how humanity's use of any given gadget or advancement will bring out our worst impulses.

No one is going home from SXSW Sydney with nightmares, of course. Still, it couldn't be a better place for the creator of Black Mirror to dive into the latest in tech and future innovations. He's one of the keynote speakers at the first-ever SXSW outside of Austin, Texas since it was founded in 1987, getting chatting in an interview-style discussion about his hit series, its ideas and what fascinates him about technology. "Luckily I don't have to deliver a speech," he tells Concrete Playground after freshly arriving in Sydney. "When you say 'keynote speaker', I always get a stab of fear like an anxiety dream where you haven't done your homework, because I have not prepared a speech. So I'm just going to answer questions as off the cuff as I can."

Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for SXSW Sydney

From the moment that Brooker was added to the SXSW Sydney lineup, joining a bill that also features Chance The Rapper celebrating 50 years of hip hop and Future Today Institute CEO Amy Webb musing on tomorrow's possibilities — plus literally hundreds of other speakers and sessions — the two seemed a dream pairing. Somehow, this is the first time that Brooker and SXSW have connected at all. "I've not been to South by Southwest in the States. I've not been there, and I've never been to Sydney before, either," he explains. "So these are two firsts for me happening concurrently, so that's very exciting, and I'm intrigued to see what it's all about."

As well as Brooker's in-conversation session on Wednesday, October 18, SXSW Sydney is about everything from streaming algorithms to simulations. True crime features on the SXSW Sydney Screen Festival lineup, too — but no, even with the two clearly sharing plenty of fields of interest, the event isn't happening inside the latest and sixth season of Black Mirror that arrived this past June.

Behind the scenes of Black Mirror.

Netflix

What should get fans of Brooker's work particularly buzzing is his SXSW Sydney plans beyond regaling an audience. On the list for the former video gaming journalist, satirist, Wipe franchise host, creator of both Big Brother-but-zombies gem Dead Set and the Cunk mockumentaries, and the reason that Netflix also has choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive short Cat Burglar in its catalogue: "digging into obviously the screen side of things, and also the video games and technology side of things".

Will the next season of Black Mirror find its basis in SXSW Sydney's talks upon talks? Will Sydney inspire a new Philomena Cunk instalment after this year's Cunk on Earth? And how does someone navigate a tech, innovation, ideas, music, screen and gaming conference when they gave the world a series that's become synonymous with tech anxiety? As Brooker soaked in the Harbour City's weather — "it seems like there's about ten times the amount of light here, whereas in Britain it always feels a bit like it's on eco-saving mode" — he told us about all of the above, plus marvelling at getting to talk to anyone about Black Mirror, being mistaken for being anti-technology and his dream to make a Black Mirror game.

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Charlie Brooker and Colin Daniel, Managing Director of SXSW Sydney

Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for SXSW Sydney

ON DISCUSSING BLACK MIRROR AT SXSW — AND STILL MARVELLING AT THE SHOW'S IMPACT

Ask Brooker if he ever imagined that Black Mirror would bring him to SXSW's stage and he's emphatic that it didn't even cross his mind. "I didn't conceive that I would be talking to anyone about it other than myself, so I'm amazed and delighted that I can talk to anyone about the show. I wouldn't have foreseen it at all," he advises.

"Our first episode, the story of that is quite divisive. Certainly way back yonder when doing the very first episodes of the very first series, at that point I thought 'wow, this is never going to…'. I just, in my head, assumed it would only ever be of interest colloquially in Britain."

Black Mirror

"It's been astonishing that the show has travelled, as they say, or it's got legs or whatever you want — global reach, whatever you call it. That is constantly startling to me."

"I've come here to Sydney, so I'm on the other side of the world from where I normally am. I don't often go out of London, basically. I'm a writer, so I spend most of my time sitting typing in in West London. And so I have to occasionally check myself. I think it's weird I've flown all the way to Sydney, Australia, and I can talk to people who've heard of the show. That's quite odd — that does my head in."

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Black Mirror

ON BLACK MIRROR BECOMING SHORTHAND FOR TECH ANXIETIES, DYSTOPIA AND NIGHTMARES

It's inspired by The Twilight Zone. It surveys the tech landscape. It's famed for predicting everything from Prime Minister pig scandals to social currency systems. And it features a spectacular cast, with Daniel Kaluuya (Nope), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Loki), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Sarah Snook (Succession), Andrew Scott (Fleabag), Annie Murphy (Schitt's Creek), Salma Hayek (Magic Mike's Last Dance), Zazie Beetz (Atlanta), Breaking Bad co-stars Aaron Paul and Jesse Plemons, and Miley Cyrus are just some of its stars. Black Mirror isn't just a series that the entire world knows about, though. It has become a term itself. That too isn't something that Brooker ever anticipated.

"It is weird. It's an odd thing to have done. I remember the first time I really thought 'ohh okay, this has entered common vernacular in ways beyond the reach of the show itself'. I think it was in 2016 that somebody said, 'hey, did you see Hillary Clinton just referred to something as being a bit Black Mirror?'. And I thought 'oh my god, that's a bit Black Mirror in itself'."

Charlie Brooker

"So it's weird. Actually, the only aspect of that I find frustrating is when people assume I'm going to be anti-tech or that I'm some Luddite who thinks we should smash all computers up with his shoe, because I'm actually quite pro-technology. It would be the worst job if you hated technology, doing Black Mirror, because a lot of it involves thinking about product design of some gizmo or other that someone's going to use to wreck their own life. What it's showing is that it's human foibles that are the problem, not the amazing tool that is technology in and of itself."

"So that's the only aspect I find frightening. That said, I love it if people are going say, 'oh, that's a bit Black Mirror' about some new Samsung fridge that comes out that sings to you every time you pour milk from it. That's all free publicity for me."

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Cunk on Earth

ON POTENTIALLY FINDING NEW BLACK MIRROR OR PHILOMENA CUNK IDEAS AT SXSW SYDNEY

Anyone who's ever watched Black Mirror is always wondering what's coming next, whether the series is dropping an interactive film such as 2019's Bandersnatch or years have passed between seasons (four from 2019's fifth season to 2023's sixth, for instance). If you've seen Cunk on Earth and its predecessors Cunk on ShakespeareCunk on Christmas and Cunk on Britain, the same train of thought applies. Perhaps SXSW Sydney might inspire the next chapter in both Brooker-created shows.

"I was thinking we should send Cunk here, because we're always looking for nice filming locations, apart from anything else. And I know Diane [Morgan, who has played Philomena Cunk since 2013–15's Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe] hates it when it's cold. That's her main complaint — she doesn't like being anywhere cold."

Black Mirror

"Hopefully I'll go home with a head full of all sorts of things. It's interesting because, like I say, it's a new experience for me being here — and then we're also we're going to travel a bit over the next week."

"I'm looking forward to digging into the video games and VR side of things that are going on the South by Southwest, partly because I used to be a video games journalist — so I'm also very interested in all of that as well."

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

ON EXPLORING INTERACTIVE AND GAMIFIED STORYTELLING WITH BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH — AND THE DREAM OF MAKING A BLACK MIRROR GAME

A series about technological possibilities, Black Mirror fills its frames with new gadgets and inventions — and new evolutions of today's tech as well. As Black Mirror: Bandersnatch showed when it had audiences pushing buttons to guide a gaming programmer through his decisions, Brooker's hit also likes tinkering with its own technology. He'd like to do more.

"I'd love to do a sort of full-bore video game, as it were. With Bandersnatch, actually the original design was even more explicitly game-y than the finished thing ended up being. There were going to be achievements you could unlock, and stuff like this. And it was structured a bit more like an escape room puzzle that you had to solve," he explains.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch event

Kevin Lake

"It feels like it's a very different skill set. I think the most-impressive video games that I encounter tend to be, when they tell a story, they tell it in a way that you couldn't do in any other medium. So I'm thinking of games like Lucas Pope — he did a game called Papers, Please and a game called Return of the Obra Dinn."

"Those are both fascinating and very different, but really interesting forms of storytelling. I think all scriptwriters should sit down with those games and see how they tell a story in a very deceptive way — they're puzzles, but they tell quite complex stories."

"I'm in awe of that sort of thing. I don't think I probably have the skillset to be able to think that way. But I'd love to see a full a full-blown Black Mirror video game. That'd be great."

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Charlie Brooker in Conversation takes place at SXSW Sydney at 1pm on Wednesday, October 18 in the Pyrmont Theatre at ICC Sydney, 14 Darling Drive, Sydney.

SXSW Sydney runs from Sunday, October 15–Sunday, October 22, and SXSW Sydney Screen Festival from Sunday, October 15–Saturday, October 21. Head to the SXSW Sydney website for further details.

Black Mirror streams via Netflix. Read our review of season six.

Cunk on Earth also streams via Netflix. Read our review.

Top image: Netflix.

Published on October 17, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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