The Reflection in Black Mirror

The controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica has caused a drastic increase in the worldwide concerns about the downside and the threats of technologies we use today. But as scary as it all might seem, it’s even scarier to consider how far this technology and its impact on us can go in the future. In a way, Netflix’s Black Mirror illustrates it tellingly.

The British television series created by Charlie Brooker is today one of the most widely followed sci-fi fantasies around the world. In fact, the term ‘sci-fi’ doesn’t really do justice to a show that offers an image of a much larger dystopian world, with a particular combination of shock, wit, absurdity, and of course, some of the most bizarre technology concepts you can think of. But it’s not the technologies themselves in the show that are worrying. Rather it’s the idea that some of the ‘predictions’ of their use, as we can call them, may in fact become a reality soon. In some cases, they already exist today.

A news article was published a few weeks ago on The Verge, talking about how China will ban people with poor ‘social credit’ from planes and trains, where citizens will be rated by the Chinese governments using a social credit system, on the kind of things they say, do or buy. In other words, their behaviour. And anyone with a low ‘score’ is at the risk of a penalty or certain restrictions. Although China looks to roll out the complete system in 2020, an early version may be in place as early as May 2018.

While this may resemble a large-scale real-life version of the TV shows ‘Big Brother’, or its Indian counterpart, ‘Big Boss’ the first thing that came to my mind was Black Mirror episode, ‘Nosedive’, that follows the story of a woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, eager to boost her credit score, which impacts every other major aspect of her life, just like it does for everyone else around her.

Imagine a world where everyone around you knows where you go, what you shop for, which sites you browse, who you hang out with, what you do on weekends, and many other aspects of your social life. It’s not too difficult to imagine this scenario, given our digital presence on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and how often we share our thoughts, opinions, pictures, even our workout routine from our smartwatches, free for everyone on your social profile to see. Now imagine all this being monitored, assembled, categorised, and evaluated to give you a ‘social score’. That’s something that can get you thinking about what you post on these platforms.

If we know one of Black Mirror’s predictions is so close to becoming a reality, it makes you wonder: What other predictions have we seen in this intriguing show that can soon become a reality? Or for that matter, which of these predictions already exist today? Here’s a short list of some of the episodes and their parallels with the real world.

  1. The National Anthem
    The first episode of this series starts off with a terror threat to the British Prime Minister, on an all too familiar platform. YouTube. A platform we all use almost every day for a variety of videos.
    Almost four years after its release in 2011, ‘The National Anthem’ was followed by the ‘Piggate’ scandal, which claimed that former British Prime Minister David Cameron put a ‘private part of his anatomy’ into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston Society. Although this isn’t a correlation of any technology in this instance, it’s an episode that seemed to have no end for the then British PM, despite his rejection of these allegations and any lack of evidence to support this radical claim.

  2. The Entire History of You
    One of Black Mirror’s most popular episodes is a story of a couple, living in a world that allows people to record every aspect of their lives, and play it back any time they want. A story that doesn’t end for the couple in focus.
    Even if we aren’t exactly there yet, there are a couple of new inventions that do walk a similar path. Spectacles for one, introduced by Snap Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, allows users to record video snippets and upload it to Snapchat. And if that wasn’t close enough, Samsung recently patented their special contact lenses that once worn and activated, takes a picture every time the user blinks.

  3. Be Right Back
    In a painful story where Martha loses her boyfriend, Ash, she replaces him with a synthetic AI substitute that has cloned Ash’s entire personality using his digital presence, namely his pictures and videos. But even an AI can have its limitations, as Martha eventually finds out.
    Today, not only is AI becoming an increasingly large part of our lives, but Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ latest and most advanced robot is taking AI to a whole new level, constantly learning and evolving as she interacts with each human interaction she has, like most human beings one might add. Which is what makes Sophia not just a robot, but a globally recognised cultural icon and media personality today.

  4. The Waldo Moment
    Possibly one of Black Mirror’s lowest-ranked episodes so far sees Waldo become a central figure of the British political landscape. There’s probably nothing curious about someone becoming a distinguished face in politics, even with a name as light-minded as ‘Waldo’. But what if Waldo was a cartoon character? That should add something to the drama.
    We may not be so far ahead as to have a virtual or a cartoon character-based politician, but platforms like Apple’s Animoji allow you to map a popular emoji of choice on to your face, enabling it to move and express itself just like you would.

  5. Nosedive
    Another one of the series’ more popular episodes follows the story of a young woman, who is more than eager to boost her social score, in a world where an individual’s social score is a deciding factor in many aspects of that individual’s life.
    Even before a social credit system resembling the world from Nosedive was developed by the Chinese government, we’ve already had platforms like Tinder and Peeple that let you rate the lives of other people. All this in addition to a host of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram where getting more and more likes for every post has become so much of an unsaid necessity for some users, that certain studies have even claimed this social media gratification can be as addictive as smoking.

  6. Hated in the Nation
    A story of a series of mysterious deaths, where each of the deceased has been singled out and targeted on social media using a hashtag is a compelling plot by itself. And when you add drone bees that have been hacked and ordered to kill these social media targets to this plot, you really have a worthy Black Mirror episode.
    While we fortunately haven’t reached a stage where we have to worry about killer robot bees, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed robot bees, also referred to as Autonomous Flying Microbots or RoboBees, with potential uses in search and rescue missions, surveillance, weather and environmental monitoring, and of course, crop pollination, much like the bees in ‘Hated in the Nation’ were designed to do before they were hacked.

  7. Crocodile
    Season four’s episode centers around the investigation of a series of unfortunate and violent events, all set in motion when a self-driving pizza van hits a pedestrian. So just over a week after the release of this episode, when Pizza Hut tweeted its concept of a self-driving pizza delivery vehicle that it will be working on in partnership with Toyota, it was bound to raise some eyebrows.

  8. Metalhead
    The story of another robot animal, but this time instead of bees, a robot-guard dog determined to chase down a lone survivor in a post-apocalyptic world.
    Today, we already have a host of robot animals that you can have at your house, with Sony’s AIBO being one of the most well-known ones. For someone who really wants a pet dog, but constantly lives in the fear of one, this can be a refreshing sight, as long as these robot dogs don’t develop a brain of their own and decide to go on a manhunt, which I’m sure Sony has taken its own precautions to avoid.

So if you look at it, out of the 19 Black Mirror episodes, we have 8 of its technology predictions that already exist today. And that’s not considering some of the other technological advances like the ingenious techniques hackers use to access and takeover your laptop and smartphone cameras, not unlike what we saw in ‘Shut up and Dance’. Or the augmented reality that forms the basis of the military technology used in ‘Men Against Fire’. And to a certain extent, a version of smart-houses that we see in ‘White Christmas’. It’s also entirely possible that I’ve missed some of the other predictions from the show, that are proving themselves to be more a reality.

Is that what Black Mirror is all about? Technology? Technology is, of course, a large part of the show. It goes to show how far we have come over the years, and hints at how far we can potentially go when it comes to the development technology concepts. It shows the kind of impact modern technology can have in shaping our society. In fact, understanding these impacts, and more importantly, ensuring young minds don’t end up building technologies that endanger our society, is why an MIT professor made it a point to show students Black Mirror as part of their education.

But as much as Black Mirror is about technology, it is also about us, the people who use technology. Despite all the claims made by countless people about how ‘technology can also be harmful’, there can hardly be any argument made that would support a statement that claims technology to be ‘evil’, despite the power it possesses. It all lies in about how we use it. Technology by itself is neither good, nor bad. It’s about the intention that lies behind the design and use of each new piece of tech, and about how careful or clumsy we are with its utility. Even when technology is heavily used to accomplish anything evil (or even something good), technology is nothing more than an accomplice, or a tool used by humans. Even the design of the most destructive piece of technology cannot support the statement that ‘technology is evil’. The dark side of technology as we commonly refer to it, is nothing more than an extension of the darkness within us.

Is Technology good or bad?
Is Technology good or bad? That depends entirely on us.

And that’s what Black Mirror is all about. The title ‘Black Mirror’ by itself tells us this story. When our devices, whether laptops, TV screens or smartphones are turned off, their screens become what are literal black mirrors where we can see our reflections. Despite all the power technology possesses, its true power lies in how it reflects inside us. How it reflects who we are. And how it reflects who we can become and what we choose to do with new technology. It’s like the creator of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker says, “It’s not a technological problem we have, it’s a human one.”

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