Fiction, Not Prediction: Lessons on Ethics and Technology From Black Mirror

Let’s keep Black Mirror a work of fiction, not humanity’s forecast.

- In collaborative efforts of Maryna Babych and Olivia Dela Rosa 

Black Mirror is a dazzling example of a modern satire that explores the ever-present dark side of progress. While the latest tech advances promise us a bright future and prosperity, it is nevertheless necessary to maintain a critical perspective. Although the positive imagery holds a strong grip over our imagination, it could still be a part of a sales pitch by the perpetuates of innovations. The show lets us dream about the future, yet there might be negative implications which are still to be considered and debated. 

Nevertheless, Black Mirror offers us an entertaining yet utilitarian framework to question the present and contemplate the direction of human evolution. This is an article about how grim and ironical portrayals of near future could help us to augment the present.

Men Against Fire 

In "Men Against Fire", soldiers are implanted with MASS, which works like a heads-up display to improve efficiency on the battlefield. This episode is more of a futuristic tale about class segregation and the technologically enforced apathy among the military.

It is true that the altruistic nature of man can impede one’s participation in cruel acts, yet human history showcases how ordinary people could be turned into warfare agents, free of remorse. While the artificial implants in one’s brain offer a quick and definitive result, there are other ideological indoctrination techniques that the humankind has invented over the centuries. As such, one does not need a pair of lenses in their eyes - the lens of mass media is enough. The technological advancements of the last century have brought us a novel medium of communication: television and the Internet. Yet the news content present in any of these channels is frequently tainted with intentional biases. 

For example, during the beginning of the European refugee crisis, the right-wing press has focused on the elements of the national security. With an aim of dehumanising the issue to perpetuate its views, news sites like The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Daily Mirror have been using a derogatory language. This includes referring to Syrian refugees, forced to leave home, as “cockroaches”. Such terminology and propaganda arguably has helped to dehumanise the context and detach the viewers from the real suffering. Similarly, the soldiers in ‘Men Against Fire’ have been hunting zombie-like “roaches”. It raises the awareness of the issue of opinion control and the biases in the ongoing public debates, as well as a lack of empathy, which might be frequently enforced without the viewers’ conscious discretion. 

San Junipero: Assisted living in virtual reality

This episode tells the story of two women who met in San Junipero, a coastal town in California. In San Junipero, you are free to do anything you want, whenever you want. In this place, there is no pain. You can jump back from one decade to the next in a heartbeat. You can live your life in your young, carefree self, without limits. Best of all, you can stay there permanently when you die. 

Imagine all these but within a virtual reality simulation. The truth is that all the things that happen in this place are all products of a VR-induced collective consciousness uploaded to a cloud. And then now imagine all these in the context of two old, dying women. 

“Technology-assisted afterlife” is how the show’s creator Charlie Brooker describes it. For him, immersive nostalgia therapy has real value in this day and age and he sees that happening through VR. 

This kind of technology is not so far from what we have nowadays. Rendever Health by MIT Sloan School of Management graduate students is a company that deems VR to be the solution to improve elderly care services. How is that possible? By giving access to a personalised, unique sensory experience in the face of limited mobility. Despite physical limitations, VR allows the senior community to explore places and attend events in real time in the comfort of their seats. Rendever is a prime example of a tech startup that is looking to improve the quality of senior life by offering virtual adventures as an alternative form of therapy to deal with everyday life. 

If you think about it, it all makes sense: For these people, it’s more of a waiting game than a rollercoaster ride. “They don’t have enough stimulation. They need to have a sense of wonder about the world again,” Rendever cofounder Reed Hayes explains. In the world of VR, anything is possible: It can bring you to a country where you would not have been able to visit even if you were younger, go up a cliff that would have otherwise been a physical challenge, and visit your old hometown you haven't seen for decades. These might be virtually assisted experiences, but the immersive experience in itself certainly adds value to their lives. 

Shut Up and Dance

The episode "Shut Up and Dance" from the latest season is among the most excruciating so far. It tells the story of people whose devices have been hacked by an anonymous group to extract information for blackmailing purposes. The writers of the show have used quite hyperbolic examples to make a bigger emotional impact, where the hackers’ and victims’ acts were nearly devoid of all empathy. This immerses the viewer into a twisted drama, yet the reality is very close to fiction. 

Similar acts occur on a daily basis in real life, also known as sextortion. According to the UK National Crime Agency, 864 cases of financially motivated webcam blackmail have taken place just in 2016, doubling from the previous year. NCA has stated that most criminals are indeed men, aged from 11 to 30. The victims usually do not have the emotional capacity to deal with the situation, thus agreeing to criminal demands. For some, the mental and emotional trauma becomes to much to bear and leads to suicide cases, such as that of a British 17-year-old school boy.  

Although deeply disturbing, this episode highlights the issues of cybersecurity and web anonymity. Through the explicit depiction of the victim’s experiences, it manages to make the viewer emphasise with their situations. Such crimes mainly remain underreported, but the show is doing a good job of promoting the issue and potentially encouraging real-life victims to contact authorities for help.

Be Right Back

"Be Right Back" brings us to a time when the possibility of bringing someone back to life is a reality. A woman named Martha is suddenly overcome by grief when she lost her husband to an unknown incident. Not knowing how to deal with this void after his death, she resorted to trying out a new technology that allows her to communicate with him through an online service. This service simulates the real person (at least his voice and a big part of his personality) based on that person’s online accounts, social media profiles, uploaded files, and web communications. 

Sounds quite harmless, but the story escalates further into the dark side when Martha continues to interact daily with him, even to the point that she orders an android to represent him - an exact live replica of her late husband. 

The funny thing about it all is that this is almost a reality at the moment. 

Take Humai for example. This plot line from Black Mirror is exactly what this company tries to achieve: resurrect a dead person by transferring his consciousness into a bionic body. The thought process is to be handled by artificial intelligence, while the ageing of the body will be processed by nanotechnology. The whole procedure involves gathering extensive data from the person’s brain, though given that the technology is not yet fully developed right now, it will remain cryogenically frozen. 

From their website, “We’re using artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to store data of conversational styles, behavioral patterns, thought processes and information about how your body functions from the inside-out. This data will be coded into multiple sensor technologies, which will be built into an artificial body with the brain of a deceased human.”

But if you have the option to extend someone’s life (or your own) after death, isn’t that playing god? The ethical boundaries on this issue are slowly blurring, and one can't help but bring up the topic of singularity as well. One good question to ask would be that what type of regulation will be put in place. As Joichi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab, points out, there is a risk in the lack of interaction between computer engineers and philosophers and social scientists, leading to a lack of insight when it comes to emotional intelligence and empathy - just a few things that keep us human.  

Humai quotes that in the next 30 years, we will have the first resurrected human ever, and suffice to say that we'll never really know the consequences until then. 

Nosedive

Finally, in ‘Nosedive’, Black Mirror masterfully narrates the dark implications of the increasing social media obsession. It has depicted a world where instead of economical class segregations, social status was dependent on social media ranking. 

In the episode, if the characters were acting nicely, they would get high social scores. In contrast, if they were judged negatively, they would get one-star reviews, depriving individuals from social benefits and even jobs. This is Orwellian-class nightmare, where one must constantly control their behaviour, to the point of micro-expression, to fight for a better spot under the sun. 

One could have thought that such scenario is impossible in the modern democratic world. However, the inklings of the notion can already be seen. The Chinese government has started developing a “social credit system” that "compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distills it into a single number ranking of each citizen." Just like in this episode, citizens are encouraged to share their credit scores with friends and potential mates. 

Interestingly, social media already provides us with means to construct not-necessarily-true social identities for social compensation and identity gratifications. When one’s life is judged on the screen, it becomes a competition for a better score, such as a number of likes and shares. Therefore, such culture could even help to forward the Chinese government’s agenda and even pick up in other countries, as it would simply feed into the ongoing trend and obscure the social ‘Big Brother’ implications. 

The main point to take away here is that although Black Mirror makes its main points through exaggerations, it is still hits painfully close to home. Instead of being simply entertaining, it challenges us to think about the current technological developments and where exactly we are heading. 

While it's a consensus that technology and innovation have a great capacity to better our lives, it is nevertheless crucial to remain alert and prevent the potential power abuses. The reality is still flexible and could be mended if we foresee and act upon the potential negative implications. As such, let’s try to keep Black Mirror a work of fiction rather than humanity’s forecast.