Totally wired: Joshua McGuire in Privacy at the Donmar
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I want to tell you why James Graham’s play is so important – but I’m sworn to secrecy

Arriving at the Donmar to see Privacy, you feel an anarchic thrill at the instruction to switch your phone on.

This age’s innovations in information – emails, texting, googling, tweeting – have transformed most personal and professional lives. Those working in stage and screen fiction face the specialised dilemma of how to dramatise these new connections. In cinema and TV, a shot of a screen within the screen has become wearingly common,

not only in movies such as The Social Network that take modern conversation as their subject but in romcoms and thrillers, which must adjust to how love and crime are increasingly conducted virtually. Among the pleasures of Sherlock is its elegant way of visualising texts and web searches by overlaying the phrases across the action.

For theatre, an analogue medium, the challenge is even greater. Premiered at the National Theatre in 1997, Patrick Marber’s Closer was one of the earliest attempts to represent these new means of speech. I remember the range of audience reaction, from delighted recognition to mystification, when a screen appeared above the stage, displaying conversations in a sex chat room.

Generally, however, digital interaction is the enemy of theatre. Many plays about infidelity – Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Peter Nichols’s Passion Play, for example – can only be revived as period pieces because they feature anachronistic scenes of adulterers having to use public call boxes. And, with most theatregoers carrying camera phones, a warning against photography has been added to the now traditional request for members of the audience to switch off their electronic devices.

So, arriving at the Donmar Warehouse to see James Graham’s new play, Privacy (which runs until 31 May), you feel an anarchic thrill, like pupils on a mufti day, at the public instruction to switch your phone on. A wi-fi provider called “Privacy” provides high-quality broadband, with which actors invite us to send data and images (one scene involves taking a “selfie”) that are displayed on a screen at the rear of the stage.

Privacy is a tough play to discuss because, with thematic neatness, it ends with a plea to keep secret most of what has taken place. It can be said, though, that Privacy represents theatre’s most sustained attempt to date to explore the implications of 24-hour contactability, online exhibitionism and an entire population of photographers, while also ingeniously incorporating them into the performance.

In structure it is a hybrid of two currently popular dramatic forms: the verbatim play (often based on courtroom transcripts or interviews with professional experts) and the theatrical lecture, like the Royal Court hit Ten Billion, in which Professor Stephen Emmott delivered his theories about population growth. Graham asks his cast to ventriloquise his interviews with media and academic observers (including Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and several Guardian journalists) and to deliver illustrated speeches based on his research.

Many of the revelations are both funny and alarming. We are told that an algorithm can predict from Facebook exchanges whether couples will stay together and that records of online shopping show that, in the US, the item most commonly bought with a baseball bat is a ball, while, in the UK, the associated purchase is most likely to be a balaclava or knuckledusters. The implications of the latter – do, or should, the police monitor web retail sites? – are one of many issues about the uses of new media raised by the play, though it prefers to pose questions rather than debate or settle them. In another of the mini-lectures, those in the audience with the most fashionable mobile devices are warned that they are, in effect, wearing an electronic tag, recording every journey.

Another twist on the concept of privacy is that Graham and the director Josie Rourke are apparently represented in the play by characters called the Writer (Joshua McGuire) and the Director (Michelle Terry). The script seems to reveal candid information about their working relationship and private lives but it is possible that, like an online pseudonym, the disguises are intended to confuse. In that respect and others, we come out of the theatre not sure whether we really know what we think we know. In both content and execution, however, Privacy feels symptomatic of a wider theatrical reaction to the recent evolutions in communication.

A note in the Donmar programme that the play is “supported by XL Video” illustrates the blurring between stage and screen. At a time when a visit to the theatre is frequently indistinguishable from going to the cinema (both in plots and imagery), it will be intriguing to see the next show at the Almeida Theatre in London. Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns (5 June to 19 July), an off-Broadway hit, is set in a post-apocalyptic America in which all electronic culture (The Simpsons, pop music, the web) has disappeared and is known only through oral retellings. The provocative subtitle, A Post-Electric Play, declares her interest in pre-internet verbal and theatrical forms.

Most directors and writers, though, are taking their texts in the direction of, well, their texting. Although the majority of productions, unlike Privacy, will still warn audiences to turn their phones off, contemporary connectivity has turned theatre on to new ways of telling stories.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.