Security, Technology, Innovation

Looking into the Black Mirror

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cracked glass on black background

Several years ago, my partner came home with a Netflix recommendation from co-workers: “Black Mirror.” He claimed that several individuals at his office had praised the program, which dealt with futuristic themes. 

So, one evening we settled on the couch and turned on episode one. It was disturbing. The plot was a repulsive story of media manipulation and political blackmail involving a kidnapping, a prime minister, and a pig. We almost gave up on the show but stuck with it.  I am glad we did.

“Black Mirror,” which originally aired in Britain in 2011 before being picked up by Netflix in 2014, provides an often disturbing glance at what the future might look like. The creator of the show highlights innovative and futuristic technologies, illustrating how they could change human society. The plot lines include personal and national security, social media influence, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, militarizing technologies, and online dating. The stories have twists that highlight exploitable weaknesses in the technologies, frequently leaving us questioning humanity’s moral standards.

Some topics are extremely relevant to today’s technology. For example, in the episode, “Nosedive,” people rate each other from one to five stars, and your overall average rating determines your success in life. Every interaction provides a chance to rate and be rated, and the story examines the effects on one individual. Other episodes feel more like the distant future, such as “Arkangel,” which explores using a human implant chip for surveillance. Parents microchip their children in order to track and monitor their behavior, record their visual and auditory history, and trigger safety features such as censorship. The story follows one mother and daughter’s experience with the program. And finally there are situations you may never have imagined. In the episode “Hated in the Nation,” an online video game engages the public to target other individuals’ social media accounts with “hate” hashtags. Autonomous Drone Insects (ADI) then eliminate the individual with the highest number of hashtags at the end of each day. The plot investigates who is behind this “game.”

Each episode stands alone rather than building on the last. It is like watching a short movie, so it does not trigger the binge-watching temptation that other shows do.  Episodes always leave me with two thoughts. How likely is it that the scenario playing out on my television screen will also play out in real life? And who are these writers and where does their insight come from?

What I find alarming about watching “Black Mirror” is that I can honestly imagine any of the fictional scenarios happening. Yet I did not realize how close we are to these realities.

Fast forward several years, and I now work as a program specialist for the Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology at American University. The Center’s focus is researching and exploring technology and its impact on society and our security. So we examine risks and benefits of technologies similar to those highlighted in the show.

I have lost track of the number of times I have been reading something or talking with someone and thought “that’s straight out of Black Mirror”--except it is real. Just a few Black Mirror-like topics that I’ve seen this year include an artificial intelligence (AI) enabled headset that allows you to communicate through your thoughts, a mother reconnecting with her deceased daughter via virtual reality, and an artificial human project by Samsung called Neon. What is amazing to me is that the show aired in 2011, meaning that it explored these technologies almost a decade ago.

And now, with the continuation of global social distancing due to the Coronavirus, individuals and governments are relying more heavily on technology, speeding up the rate at which we are seeing some of these innovations—or so it seems to me.  

For example, in Singapore they are utilizing a robotic “dog,” created by Boston Dynamics, which patrols a local park and reminds people to social distance The robot will also be scanning surroundings and sending back surveillance videos to alert officials to the estimated number of people in the park.  Just the other day, we saw three robots on our neighborhood sidewalk, delivering food for a local restaurant. For a moment we felt as if we were in an episode of “Black Mirror.”

As for how it is written, the show's creator, Charlie Brooker, says that most of his ideas come to him either when he is talking to others or out on a run. Growing up in the 1970s, Brooker’s childhood home was full of nuclear paranoia. Shows such as Threads, a British apocalyptic war drama, influenced the dystopian scenarios of “Black Mirror.” Brooker does not seem to have inside information on undisclosed future technologies--just a strong imagination, general knowledge about technologies, and a talent for imagining worst case scenarios. In fact, prior to inventing “Black Mirror,” Brooker built a website, TVGoHome, where he created imaginary television shows that outlined plotlines to fake shows. That site appears to be a prototype for his current series. Also, Brooker has a large team of writers. Each episode takes months of work and employs hundreds of people to ensure they are accurate, believable, and relatable. 

For a deeper dive into various Black Mirror episodes, check out the book “Inside the Black Mirror” Furthermore, Business Insider published an interesting article in 2018 about various Black Mirror predictions that could come true.

And to keep up with current innovations and technologies and how they influence our personal and national security, in both wonderful and risky ways, follow us on twitter and sign up for our CSINT newsletter.


About the Author: 

Jess Regan is the program specialist at CSINT. She supports the Center through various channels including design work, content development, event planning, and program management.