ECS 189: Black Mirror – Syllabus – Rogaway – Spring 2024

Please read this syllabus, in its entirety, before our first class. Sucks, right? Having to do stuff already. Know too that there is work to be done before the first class meeting. Get it from the schedule.


Welcome! This is a seminar on technology, society, and ethics that uses the TV series Black Mirror (BM) (2011–2023) to center our conversations. Here is the flyer I circulated advertising the class. The course is experimental and largely student-run. It will be taught in the tradition of ECS 188, with students sitting in a circle and doing most of the talking themselves. I’m here to keep things moving along in a good way. There is no TA: it’s just you and me, baby, the the ghost of Charlie Brooker hanging out in the back corner.

We will meet

You must sign up for four (4) units. If you signed up for something else, go online and change it.

Our class is extremely overenrolled (30 enrolled, 42 waitlisted); feel free to exit! You should take this class only if you are genuinely interested in the subject and will be an active participant in our class. If you are going to drop, please do so sooner rather than later, to help your fellow students. Also, if you miss a class or assignment during the first two weeks (without making arrangements in advance) then you’ll need to drop, as the grading policy guarantees you an F.

The basic approach is this. At home, you will watch an assigned episode. All BM episodes are available on Netflix (rebranded to Streamberry in the BM universe). I will assign something else, like a Twilight Zone episode, which you may need to find elsewhere. Please watch films on a proper TV, not a laptop or phone. I encourage you to watch with a classmate or friend. Some episodes are hard to understand or have unexpected twists; you might need to watch more than once to get everything you should.

We won’t go through the episodes in the order they aired; rather, I tried to group them topically. The schedule tells you what to prepare each day. After you watch a BM episode you will prepare episode-notes. Upload your episode-notes to Canvas by 11:00 am (class starts at 12:10 pm). Bring a hardcopy of your episode-notes to class, which I might collect for attendance. Here’s an episode-notes template (docx, pdf) and example (docx, pdf). Please adopt the format used in this template and example, or something close to it.

Please grow your episode-notes by prepending each day’s notes to your prior notes. Please start each day’s notes on a new page. By the end of the term, then, your final submission will actually include all of your episode-notes from the term.

We will cover most episodes in the series, but omit a few. That’s because I consider a few to be weak or outside the science-fiction genre. Also, with 28 episodes, it was just a bit too much to do one episode per class.

I want to warn you that many episodes of Black Mirror are deeply disturbing. For example, I found White Bear to be especially difficult to view. If you’re not at a place where you can handle genuinely disturbing material, do yourself a favor and find another class. I will further warn that some Black Mirror episodes contain profane language, homosexuality, nudity, and sex.

We will sit in a circle. If you can, come a little early to help rearrange the furniture. And, if you can, please help restore the seats before you leave the classroom. Please do not wear scented products to class. Before class begins, place your folded-index-card name-tag on your desk in a way that everyone in the class can read it. Try to learn one another’s names. I myself can’t do this; I’s profoundly faceblind. If I can’t recognize you, it doesn’t mean I don’t care.

Each class will have two students in charge of leading our discussion. They should work together to organize their class. They will probably want to watch the episode more than once, read about it on outside sources, prepare good questions, and brainstorm on anything special they’d like to do with the class.

Please speak up in class. Feel free to articulate your thoughts without worrying that someone might find your words inappropriate, impolitic, or offensive. We will follow the Chatham House rule for our class; you should not reveal who said what outside of class. Correspondingly, no audio recordings may be made in our class.

Near the end of the term you will do a creative project: you will work out the ideas for a new Black Mirror episode, and you will pitch it to me and your classmates. You won’t write the whole screenplay, but will work out the plot, characters, themes, technologies, and visual look. You’ll want to storyboard it. You are welcome to film some short scene from your episode, but nothing like that is required. Your episode should be in the spirit of other Black Mirror episodes; it should fit right in. But it shouldn’t just recapitulate ideas explored in any other episodes. It is okay to adapt ideas from other works of fiction, as long as you clearly identify what you have taken from where. Creative projects will be done in groups of two or three that you choose. You will have 12 minutes for your pitch. You will also need to have a writeup, 3–10 pages, to submit to me on the day of your presentation.

There is no required text. Inside Black Mirror (2018) is an episode-organized insider’s guide to seasons 1-4. Black Mirror and Philosophy (2019) is a collection essays that focusses on philosophical themes of different episodes. These resources might be helpful in preparing the class you lead, if your episode is covered. Other scholarly articles can be found with Google Scholar. And there’s no shortage of insightful (and not-so-insightful) analyses on the web. I encourage you to go look at secondary materials only after you have have watched the episode and tried to understand it on your own.

Our course is actually numbered ECS 189L (Special Topics in Computer Science: Computer Science), the modifier “L” serving as a catch-all designation when there’s nothing matching in the 14-element (A-to-N) list of topics. Thus the real semantics of that telltale “L” is that ethical and societal concerns are of so little interest in CS that nobody ever imagined that a topics course might one day be taught that would focus on that. I don’t need to be constantly reminded of this fact; I know it all too well. I say we simplify and call our course ECS 189.

The course webpage is a click from my personal homepage. Both are on the web, not on Canvas.

Your Teacher

I’m Phillip Rogaway, a cryptographer, theoretical computer scientist, and dinosaur in the CS department. My office, which I no longer use very often, is Kemper #3009. You can email me I have other email addresses, but, for class stuff, please use this address only. Office hours are immediately after class on Mondays and Wednesdays, or by appointment.

Beyond my work in cryptography, I have a broad interest in the ethical and sociopolitical consequences of modern technology. I regularly teach ECS 188, Ethics in an Age of Technology, a course I reinvented and pushed for.

I have no background in film studies, but I do like film. My father was a film buff, and a trained as a cinematographer. One of the few good things he gave me, I think, was an appreciation of film. He started taking my sister and me to see serious films when were young children; it was cheaper than hiring a baby sitter. Our class will not center any theoretical, historical, or critical approach to cinema as art, but, in our discussions, I will be happy to hear from students with such perspectives.

This will be my last term at UCD. I had actually planned to retire last summer (7/2023), but stayed another year largely because some students wanted to take this experimental class with me, or take my cryptography class (ECS 127).


Attendance is mandatory. If you can’t attend almost every class meeting, don’t take this class. That said, please skip class (sending me an email in advance) if you are sick with something potentially communicable. Your classmates and I don’t want your viral souvenir.

If you can’t attend a class because of illness or some other significant problem, email me before class starts to with a brief explanation of what’s going on and with a subject line of

     ECS-189-absent XY

where XY specifies which class you are missing, encoded as X∈{1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10} for the week and Y∈{M, W, F} for the day. For example, use a subject line of ECS-189-absent 3W to report that you will miss the Wednesday class of week-3. I will excuse absences at my own idiosyncratic discretion.


The anticipated breakdown is To pass the class you must show up to almost every class (a maximum of four absences), prepare all of your episode notes, and do the final project. I won’t look at late work. There will be no final exam; the project takes its place.

Percentages do not map to letter grades in any pre-determined way. As is the trend in CS and across the campus, grading will be relatively generous for students who do everything that’s been asked of them, and do it with competency and care. On the flip side, you will not pass if you have an excessive number of absences (more than four) or missing assignments (more than four).

Weeks 1–2 — No Absences or Missing Assignments

There is a special grading provision to help deal with over-enrollment: to pass our class you may have no missing work or unexcused absences during weeks 1 or 2. That may seem draconian, but I have found no fairer option. Showing up and doing all work for the first two weeks does not guarantee that you’ll get into the class—but failing to show up or failing to do any piece of work during the first two weeks effectively guarantees that you won’t get into the class.

Academic Misconduct – Phones – Laptops

There’s another set of rules that might be unfamiliar:

Violating these norms will be treated like any other form of academic misconduct; you’ll get an F. More specifically, if you are found guilty of academic misconduct, either by your own admission or by a finding from OSSJA, I will assign you an F grade in the course. This is in addition to whatever OSSJA does. This is the default policy across the CS Department. I refer all academic misconduct matters to OSSJA.

You may use books or online resources to help you understand BM episodes, but I strongly advise you not to look at outside sources before watching and thinking about an episode. Make sure to acknowledge sources you looked at in any notes you prepare, and, of course, do not copy or paraphrase anything (apart from something being quoted). You may not use ChatGPT or other generative-AI for any purpose associated to this class. There is one exception: you may use (properly attributed) generative-AI for generating images used in storyboarding your final project.

If you are having personal or academic problems motivating you towards academic misconduct, please come and talk to me, a counselor, a friend, or OSSJA.

Too Shy to Participate?

Being an active participant in our class includes speaking up, with something worth saying, in most class meetings; co-leading one or two class meetings; and presenting your project to the class. If you’re painfully shy but want to take the class, all of this could be a problem.

If it’s “just” a matter of personality / disposition, here is my suggestion, which is less stupid than you might think: try, for ten weeks, try on uncharacteristic personality trait, one that enable you participate and without great discomfort, pulling it on like a new set of clothes. You are more plastic than you think. It is totally possible. On the other hand, if you don’t speak up because your oral English skills just aren’t there, then this is not something that can be remedied by pushing yourself in an uncomfortable direction. In that case, consider taking a class like COMM 1 or COMM 3 instead.

Parting Thoughts

As I said earlier, this last term at UCD. I have been teaching here since 1994. It is a bittersweet time. There were some wonderful things about having spent my career as a cryptographer and a UCD professor. And some not-so-wonderful things, too. Perhaps we will pause every now and then to discuss such matters. Most of us professors are keen to convey facts and techniques, but less concerned with fostering perspective or introspection.

Have a good term, my students. Do well and do good.
Phil Rogaway
Syllabus written in
Portland, Oregon; Davis, California; and Ferron, Utah
March 2024