Charlie Brooker’s often dystopian and technology-driven thriller series Black Mirror is a must-watch for anyone interested in technology and society, not least because we might already be living it.
Black Mirror, which airs on Netflix, is one of the most talked about shows the past couple of years. This is not just because it’s a well-written and well-directed show, but because it raises questions about our use of technology and where we are headed in a remarkably prescient and timely way. It shows us different, often dystopian futures where plausible technologies have gone wrong, and how it can augment the worst parts of the human psyche. If you watch the series, you might enjoy the entertainment, but ultimately write it off as just that, and that’s why this article exists. I aim to show exactly where we currently stand on some of the so-called Black Mirror-tech, and to which extent our world already is Black Mirror.
Technology: Creating or uploading a digital copy of your mind
As seen in: “White Christmas”, “San Junipero”, “USS Callister”, “Hang the DJ”, “Black Museum”
What it does: Variants on technology that creates digital copies of the mind are some of the most pervasive in the series, and so are lumped together. The copy has all the memories of the owner and is often under the impression that it is the original mind, and not a copy. In the series this opens up for ethically ambiguous and otherwise horrible scenarios involving torture, inhumane interrogation methods and enslavement of the copy.
Real-life comparison: While not at the point where we can copy our minds to a digital computer, or live a happy afterlife through our uploaded selves, attempts at finding ways to integrate our minds with computers are well underway. Perhaps the most prominent example is Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which aims at implanting a brainwave-reading mesh that will connect our minds to computers. But if this succeeds, will an eventual digital copy of us have the same rights as our physical selves? This is a technology that begs us to find an answer to the age-old question of what makes you you.
Technology: Killer robots
As seen in: “Hated in the Nation”, “Metalhead”
What it does: In “Hated in the Nation”, small robotic bees are weaponized and used to kill whomever is deemed necessary through online voting polls. In “Metalhead”, normal civilization has broken down as robotic “dogs” roam around and kill any people they encounter.
Real-life comparison: Autonomous warfare has been described as the third great revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear weapons. It’s easy to imagine that once warfare becomes effortless and for all intents and purposes free, we will see a lot more of it. So, look no further than the new videos from Boston Dynamics to welcome the ancestors of our future robot overlords. With robots that can do back flips or that look eerily like the killer dogs in Black Mirror, it’s hard to believe any argument that these will never be weaponized. It may be true for the time being, but remember that the U.S. military drones used in the Middle East were also initially simply surveillance drones.
Technology: Simulating the dead by analysing their social media profiles
As seen in: “Be Right Back”
What it does: An AI built to simulate the dead which the bereaved can talk to. It’s also possible to get an android that looks and acts like the deceased person.
Real-life comparison: While we don’t have androids to implant them in (yet), there have been several attempts at making chatbots which act like those who have passed. Eugenia Kuyda made a bot called Replika, which mimicked her best friend, while James Vlahos made a “dadbot” of his dying father. Furthermore, services such as Eter9 and Eterni.mi creates a digital counterpart of you either by scraping your social media profiles or through your interactions with them, so be aware that what you post on social media might determine “your” personality forever.
Technology: Surveillance of children
As seen in: “Arkangel”
What it does: Another implant, this one allows a parent to look through the eyes of their child and follow their every move from a tablet. Furthermore, the parent can censor sounds and images, so that they appear just as a blur to the child.
Real-life comparison: Again, the implant technology is missing from our life, but there are several quite comprehensive parental control apps that will do much of the same work, such as PhoneSheriff or Norton. These apps, in addition to giving real-time location updates, can control which apps are usable on the child’s phone, and for how long. Seeing as how much of young people’s lives are lived through their phone, this is probably the closest thing we have to Arkangel for the time being.
Technology: People rating
As seen in: “Nosedive”
What it does: Like rating restaurants on Yelp or movies on Netflix, people have a contact lens which allows them to real-time review others, and in turn be reviewed themselves. Rated on a scale up to five, your social score determines which reservations you can make, bank loans you can get, and modes of transportation you can take.
Real-life comparison: While there have been attempts at making apps for people rating, such as Peeple, the by far largest and most disconcerting instance of this technology is underway in China. Launched in 2016, and until 2020 voluntary to be a part of, the Social Credit System gives every citizen a score not unlike modern credit scores. Your score decides anything from whether you will receive a visa for travelling abroad to which schools you (or your children) can attend to where you will be allowed to live. While the algorithms it uses are not public, it’s reasoned that one of the factors which affect your score is not just what you say online and in public, but what your contacts say. Just imagine what Erich Mielke would have given for this technology. All the same, if you can accept that this happens in China – a country with a history of oppression and control – you would reflect on how many things we do now that were unacceptable just five years ago. The pressing question is not if China’s system can be implemented here as well – it’s when?
Black Mirror plays with a myriad of different technological possibilities, but the show is ultimately about human relations, actions and desires that are made possible – and worse – by technology. As all good dystopian fiction, it warns us of what may happen if we are not careful and aware of both the direction of technology and our own psyche. If we are able to do that, we may still stand a chance to avoid some of the worst possible scenarios painted in Black Mirror.