Innovation

Black Mirror: Science fiction or a chilling reality?

With the new series due for release next month, Chris Middleton explains why Black Mirror and the real world are already indistinguishable from each other.

November 22, 2017

In an October article for Hack & Craft News, I made the prediction that facial recognition technologies would be defeated by criminals wearing realistic 3D-printed masks of other people’s faces. This unlikely sounding story was dismissed by some as being more like an episode of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian techno-satire, than something that might happen in the real world. Yet less than a month later, The Register, CNet, and others, reported that hackers claimed to have overcome the face-recognition login of the $1k Apple iPhone X using a $150 3D mask.

The story revealed not only how fast technologies are moving, but also that the futurist’s and the satirist’s jobs are getting harder by the second. In 2017, other real-world tech stories have included: the CIA deploying AI to determine if citizens with tattoos are going to commit crimes; facial recognition technologies predicting if people are gay; and right-wing think tank Reform suggesting that robots could force teachers and doctors to compete with each other by reverse auction to work for less and less money.

Meanwhile, in China – as my facial recognition report revealed – shoppers are paying for goods with their smiles, while others are ‘beautifying’ themselves on video using skin-whitening algorithms. Any of these ideas could have appeared in a Black Mirror episode: a “dystopia that thinks it’s a utopia” as the world of the series has been described.

In 2013, Brooker told the Guardian that his series explores the side effects of the “drug” of modern technology, explaining, “The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.” But it is also a mirror held up to our times – with the opening logo cracking apart as reality breaks through – heralding years of bad luck, perhaps.

Each story is a futurist satire on our current relationships with technology and each other, which places it just a click away from the present day. So, leaving aside the vexed questions of whether a British Prime Minister might ever have sex with a pig (‘The National Anthem’, 2011), or an offensive TV star might run for office (‘The Waldo Moment’, 2013) what other Black Mirror topics and technologies are just a swipe away from reality in today’s Trumpian, post-Cameron world?

‘White Bear’ (2013), ‘Hated in the Nation’ (2016), and ‘Shut Up and Dance’ (2016) are essentially stories about something familiar to us all: trial and sentence by social media, in a comms-enabled world in which escaping from the past is no longer a realistic option. But the story that feels most imminent, perhaps, is ‘Nosedive’ (2016), in which a woman’s high social rating plummets, and she finds herself exiled from the social elite and services she craves. Once her veneer of politeness is stripped away, she finds herself locked in a room screaming abuse at a man in the cell next door: the princess has become a troll, perhaps.

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The ‘Uberisation’ of the economy has made this a reality for many, while the more self-obsessed among the millennial generation might see it as a public information film rather than a satire. But the society that is making every aspect of the story real is, once again, China. In 2020, China will introduce a mandatory social credit system to rate the trustworthiness of its billion-plus citizens.

The government says the policy will “forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity, and the construction of judicial credibility.”

The scheme will be all-embracing, covering financial health, bill payments, medical records, purchases, transport use, and even friend networks. By giving citizens low ratings for idle behaviour, unhealthy shopping habits, and more, China hopes that the scheme won’t just monitor people’s behaviour, but also influence it via rewards and preferential treatment for those with high scores (including loans, faster check-in, and prominence on dating sites) and penalties for people with poor ratings.

“If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere,” says the policy, which will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. Penalties include slower internet speeds; restricted access to services, travel bans, and even removal of the right to buy certain goods.

Early episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (2011) also explored the idea of rewarding citizens in a world dictated by their technology consumption, forcing them to literally power the economy through physical exercise.

Crime and dissent eliminated at the checkout? The ultimate commentary on a consumer economy, perhaps: the gameification of conformity, big data meets Big Brother. In China, citizens will be warned off befriending people with low social scores, while some have predicted the emergence of a black market for good reputations. And the scheme begs the question: what if the data is wrong, or lacking in vital context? What if people are penalised for nothing, and the problem of bad data snowballs?

Over time, some citizens risk becoming ‘non-people’ – individuals who are ‘blocked’ from human society, a concept explored in the disturbing Black Mirror episode ‘White Christmas’ (2014), in which Jon Hamm – Mad Men’s Don Draper – plays a character who is deleted from the world, becoming a featureless shadow figure in the eyes of the tech-enabled populace, his voice silenced.

Of course, human beings have always been data: everything about who we are is encoded in our DNA. But this trend towards big data merging with our everyday lives suggests that the world of another episode, ‘The Entire History of You’ (2011) – in which the ‘Grain’ brain implant records every moment for instant replay – is also just around the corner.

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The idea of embedding electronic devices in the human body is nothing new: transhumanists are a widespread group who believe that human beings and machines will eventually merge. Some of them experiment with tech implants – robotics expert Prof. Kevin Warwick injected a chip in his arm as far back as the mid-1990s. Transhumanists even have their own social network.

Meanwhile, millennials record every aspect of their lives, while many of us use wearable devices such as Fitbits, smart watches, VR headsets, and smart earbuds – the first step on a journey towards incorporating those devices into our bodies, perhaps.

But that journey is neither inevitable nor unstoppable. Neither Google Glass nor Snapchat spectacles, which allow wearers to record whatever they see, have caught on so far, partly because their wearers are seen as invading other people’s privacy. Other reasons for the lack of uptake include the tedious reality of recording reams of pointless data.

But as facial recognition systems enter our world en masse over the next few years, it is likely that these barriers will eventually be seen as blips, as we all become used to being watched (and watching) more overtly. At that point, the blocking explored in ‘White Christmas’ (which is already an option on dating apps and social platforms, of course) may become a horrifying reality.

And as virtual, augmented, and mixed reality become more prevalent alongside location-based services, the use cases for wearable devices that remove the need to carry bulky hardware will grow. Projectors already exist that can turn any surface into a touchscreen interface, the latest Apple Watch no longer needs to be linked to a smartphone, and so on, so over time we may no longer need tablets and phones. At that point, the journey towards integrating our devices with ourselves will gather new momentum.

Arguably, the entire history of technology itself can be seen as a journey towards higher resolutions – replicating ourselves and the world around us. After all, we’ve gone from VHS to ultra high-def 4k video in a single human generation, and from crude 8-bit gaming to the type of immersive reality and photo-realism explored in the episode ‘Playtest’ (2016).

Arguably, the entire history of technology itself can be seen as a journey towards higher resolutions – replicating ourselves and the world around us. After all, we’ve gone from VHS to ultra high-def 4k video in a single human generation, and from crude 8-bit gaming to the type of immersive reality and photo-realism explored in the episode ‘Playtest’ (2016).

And with Moore’s Law clearing the path to ever greater storage, computing power, and processing speeds, the world depicted in the critically lauded episode ‘San Junipero’ (2016) could become a reality – a world that asks the question, Do you want to live forever?

What begins as a romantic, Thelma and Louise-style buddy movie is gradually revealed to be two elderly women using immersive reality to relive their youth in an idealised 1980s world: the ultimate retirement home and – the story suggests – eventually a heaven on Earth. When human consciousness can be uploaded to a vast computer system, the two women can find each other again in San Junipero and live there forever.

A similar concept was explored in the episode ‘Be Right Back’ (2013), in which a replica of a woman’s dead lover is created from all the data that remains online, and in the 2017 movie ‘Marjorie Prime’, in which an ageing woman shares her life with a simulation of her long-dead husband.

Mind uploading or whole brain transfer is a theoretical concept that some transhumanists and AI experts are working towards as a means to extend life. Indeed, some see it as a logical endpoint of neural network research. In theory, there is no need to fully understand the workings of the human brain if it can simply be scanned in microscopic depth and digitally replicated – perhaps even 3D printed – and either stored in a virtual reality emulation, or in a robot, computer, or new bio-engineered body.

But would it be the same person, or merely a facsimile? Or would it be a new consciousness entirely – one that is free to make new memories? These are intriguing questions, particularly when billionaire technologist Elon Musk believes that we may all be living in a computer simulation; merely characters in an advanced society’s virtual world. That belief is shared by a number of scientists today.

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Either way, it’s conceivable that this may be one of the destinations in our shared journey with science and technology: not disproving that the afterlife exists, but creating it for ourselves and our loved ones. And perhaps, an unknown number years in the future, even building a new universe ourselves, stored in vast quantum processors.

And if Elon Musk is right about the universe we live in today, there may be an infinite regression of simulated universes; a multiverse of data. So does the real one even exist? Look into the Black Mirror and see.

The new six-episode series of Black Mirror will debut on Netflix before the end of the year.