Anyone who has seen the TV show Black Mirror has probably come away from it more than once thinking, “Gosh, that could definitely happen.” That’s intentional: the dark speculative futures portrayed in the hit TV series are almost never set in the far future, and in many cases, the only real difference you can spot between the episode’s universe and our own is whatever technology is being highlighted in the episode.
Creator Charlie Brooker has said of the episodes, “They’re all about the way we live now and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” The technologies below are just a few of those that have made their appearance in both Black Mirror and reality, in order from most to least likely.
Warning: this article has roughly as many spoilers as Black Mirror has heavy-handed moral lessons about the dangers of technology.
Shut up and Dance: Hacking and blackmail
Prediction: hackers can access your webcam and personal data and use them against you.
In “Shut Up and Dance” vigilante hackers take it upon themselves to collect incriminating evidence against a number of people, then use their mobile phones to send them on a punishing series of errands.
Reality: While this exact scenario hasn’t happened, there’s nothing in it that couldn’t be real. Your webcam can be hacked, your computer can be hacked, and electronic blackmail is nothing new. There are even dozens of sites hosting live streams from unsecured Internet-connected webcams. Your computer most likely isn’t on there, but it doesn’t take much to hack a cheap baby monitor camera.
A little paranoia about personal cybersecurity is probably a good thing, but don’t get so scared that you fall for something like the email scam where someone claims they have compromising footage of you and demands payment. That’s a common trick, and they probably don’t have anything on you.
Nosedive: Social Scoring
Prediction: At some point we could find ourselves in a reality where a lot of our life (rent, jobs, dating opportunities, etc.) depends on how other people rate us.
“Nosedive” is “on the nose” with this one, centering around a world where every social interaction we have, from getting coffee to having a conversation, is rated in an Uber-like transaction. Your rating determines your social class, but it also plays into more tangible parts of your life, from rent discounts to cancer treatments. Extra spoiler alert: this does not go well.
Reality: all of this exists in some form already. We don’t have the AR vision implants that show us everyone’s ratings floating over their heads, but we do have, or have had:
- China, where a “social credit system” is being developed as a way to assign a score to people depending on how well they do on a number of social measures, whether it’s jaywalking, spending money unwisely, playing too many video games, missing a payment, or committing a crime. Failing to maintain a good score can result in you being barred from flights and trains, having your Internet speed throttled, determining what kind of job you can get, and more. It’s still in its testing phase, and many in China claim to like it, but aside from being more centrally administrated, it’s pretty close to the Black Mirror vision of such a system.
- Facebook, whose original purpose was to rate Harvard students’ appearances. It’s morphed into a very useful tool since then but still enables a lot of social status signaling, though Instagram’s emphasis on building an aesthetic brand is a little closer to the app depicted in “Nosedive.”
- Peeple aspired to be “Yelp for people.” That went over like a lead balloon, so now their app is much friendlier and requires people to opt in before they can be rated.
- Data-based credit scoring is already being used by a few companies to assign you a credit-worthiness rating depending on the personal data you give it – access to your social media, email, spending habits, location-history, etc. It may eventually replace the more traditional FICO scores, which only measures your financial history.
If you take the aggregate of social media as it exists today, it doesn’t quite add up to a nightmarish world where a number actually determines something about how your life goes. China’s social credit system and behavior-based credit scoring, though, seem like they’re bringing this sort of reality a lot closer.
Hated in the Nation: Drone Swarms
Prediction: In the future we will have autonomous swarms of drones wandering around doing things for us. They could be hacked and start killing people.
“Hated in the Nation” takes place in a near-future world where honeybees have died off and been replaced by tiny swarms of autonomous drones that do the pollinating. Unfortunately, the drones are hacked and used to kill people that have been deemed unpopular by social media. It turns out that the government is also using them to spy on people, which seems right.
Reality: This is a completely believable premise. Honeybees are having some trouble right now, and not only do we already have semi-autonomous drone swarms, but there have already been patents on honeybee replacement drones. Odds are pretty good that these will actually exist at some point, and given that people are people and drones have a slight history of violence, it would be extremely surprising if the technology wasn’t exploited to kill people, or at the very least, conduct surveillance on them.
Prediction: We will be able to create AI replicas of people that are close to the real thing, but we probably won’t be very nice to them.
Personality emulation is a big theme in Black Mirror:
- “Be Right Back” involves a woman bringing back her dead husband by giving an AI access to his data (she doesn’t like it that much).
- “The USS Callister” tells the story of a game designer who plays twisted games with digital clones of his coworkers.
- “Hang the DJ” shows an app that creates AI replicas to test relationship compatibility. (How self-aware are they? We don’t know.)
- “White Christmas” depicts a world where we get ourselves digitally cloned as personal assistants (and psychologically torture them into submission).
Reality: Though each episode has its own take on personality emulation, the general idea that we could create simulacrums of our personalities by using our data or our brains is more or less accurate. Though exactly how self-aware these will be is up for debate, we already have primitive “grief bots” that can use data to simulate interactions with people who have passed away, and there’s plenty of research going into trying to find robots that can pull off that human look without hitting the uncanny valley too hard.
Probably the most similar project in existence right now is ETER9, an AI-powered social network which promises to digitize your personality and create a cyber-counterpart for you.
Welcome to the other side of the mirror
So here we are. We’ve survived a lot of technology scares, and if we’re currently living in a dystopia, we seem to be handling it pretty well. Shows like Black Mirror represent a sort of speed limit on technological progress, using intentionally extreme scenarios to force us into considering how we should handle the future. Technology has bugs, and humans aren’t always the best at using it wisely, but in the long run, as long as we keep up a lively dialogue about the directions technology is taking, we’ll hopefully get more autonomous pizza vans and fewer social credit systems.