Black Mirror’s fourth season continues the themes of the previous three series of the show. As discussed in this post, the show makes often uncanny connections between human life and technology, frequently covering the ways in which social media, AI, biometric devices, and other advanced technological systems and devices affect and change society. What makes Black Mirror so effective, and often so disturbing, is that in each of the anthologized stories it contains not only a vision of the future but also a warning about the disruptions that would happen to people along the way. The reality depicted in Black Mirror is like an amped-up version of the world that seems to be already nearly within reach, with technological advancements abound to make life easier or more entertaining. However, the point of view in the show is markedly dystopian, forcing viewers to consider the addictive or even dangerous influence that immersive technologies could have.
The fourth series of Black Mirror continues all these themes of the impact of and risks inherent in excessive technology in human life. Topics such as privacy, security, and truth in a digital age still dominate the narrative, urging questions about how to develop and adapt technology in balance with the formidable ethical and moral concerns that go along with it. Data privacy, consent, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity are all recurring issues in the show. However, Black Mirror series 4 demonstrates an additional aesthetic developing in the show, including stronger depictions of power, community, and justice in a technologically-advanced society.
- “USS Callister” (Series 1, Episode 3): The writing of this episode preceded the #MeToo cultural moment that has inspired a massive social justice movement in which women have spoken up about sexual harassment and assault and organizations have begun to contend with changing expectations and necessity to reform their views of institutional responsibility. For more on the challenges organizations must face and overcome in this area to inspire real change, check out this post on the United States Olympic Committee. In this episode of Black Mirror, a young woman finds that a colleague of hers has taken a DNA sample from her without consent and used it to create a digital copy of her which he then uploaded to a gaming environment (along with other digital copies of people) which he controls. The episode delves into the paradox of the digital self versus the natural self, highlighting the way human consciousness may be impacted by digitalization. With the unauthorized use of the DNA, this episode also covers bioethics and privacy. Finally, cybersecurity plays a major role in the resolution of the episode, as the digital copies contend with the application of a “patch” to their digital environment.
- “Arkangel” (Series 4, Episode 2): In this episode, an overprotective single mother uses an experimental technology to allow her to keep track of her daughter via a biometric implant that connects to a tablet computer. Bioethics is an important theme here as well, as the show delves into the ethical considerations of implanted devices, with or without the implantee’s consent and knowledge, initial or considering. As the mother continues to watch her daughter well into adolescence and beyond via the implant, surveillance and the tension between security and privacy are in focus as well. The social contracts in which people give and expect both trust and liberty are impacted heavily by a relationship that is ruled by a device such as this one, which can never be taken out and can always be accessed at even the most vulnerable or personal moments. The show notes that the device, which was experimental when implanted at the beginning of the episode, was never approved in Europe and is no longer marketed for sale, prompting the viewer to consider that perhaps the compromises to freedom and privacy were judged unacceptable within even the high-tech universe of the show.
- “Hang the DJ” (Series 4, Episode 4): This episode has been compared to the popular “Nosedive” episode from series 3 and shares some themes from that episode, as both examine how social interactions could be affected by immersive networks with technology-aided social judgment and design ethics of such a system that would pervade human relationships so deeply. “Hang the DJ” sharpens the focus on this, looking at dating via virtual assistant. In a world where people already use dating apps and online matching services to find potential partners, extension of these practices into using a chatbot virtual assistant interface is not that hard to imagine. With this type of artificial intelligence, the morality of machines becomes an important question, as it is necessary to wonder whether human judgment and choice can ever be compared to machine or deep learning. No matter how carefully humans submit their preferences and feedback to machines, human consciousness and decision-making may never be supplanted. Ultimately, humans have an important role in not just teaching AI but stewarding its ethics and intervening with natural choice when a machine thought process just cannot measure up for more esoteric and emotional, and quintessentially human, criteria.
- “Metalhead” (Series 4, Episode 5): This episode is similar in theme to the third series episode “Men Against Fire,” in that both depict a post-apocalyptic/crisis-ravaged world where devices operated by artificial intelligence have become a common threat. concerns the future of warfare in a post-apocalyptic world. “Metalhead” drives to the root of the fear many people have about autonomous weapons, where these technological devices can be used to injure and murder without the direction, monitoring, or control of humans. The use of robotics to hunt and kill humans is a dark and disturbing idea made all the more upsetting by the fact that the robots have been anthropomorphized. Calling an android a dog and giving it traits and quirks similar to the animal’s is a nod to anxieties about human-like androids. People find these robots especially disturbing because their appearance blurs the line between natural and artificial intelligence, driving questions about how the advancement of technology may bring machines and animals ever closer, and possibly at some point too close if the risks inherent to this are not properly considered and managed.
- “Black Museum” (Series 4, Episode 6): This episode, an anthology-style episode within the series which itself is stand-alone anthologized stories, connects several episodes which are all riffs on the theme of bioethics in the digital age. Use of neurotechnology and consciousness transfers creating sentient digital “selves” to upload to the cloud or into devices presents classic ethical dilemmas in medicine, including patient care, the use of artificial intelligence, and informed consent. The episode presents digitalization as a limited format versus humanity, suggesting that human consciousness can never be replicated by technology. As the characters cope with the impact of uploading consciousnesses of others and the responsibilities that creates, this episode touches upon many consequences that could come from doing so. For one example, is deleting a digital copy of a person death? Design ethics will need to consider these challenges and much more as neuroscience and medical technology advances.
Check back next Friday for another post on Black Mirror, this time focusing on portrayals of justice in the show. Issues invoked by episodes throughout all four series of Black Mirror include punishment, reparations, confessions, investigations, judgment, and surveillance.