As previously discussed on this blog, the universe of the science fiction show Black Mirror is very interesting from a compliance and ethics perspective. As discussed in this post about the first three series of the show and this post about the fourth series, the show often focuses on connections between humanity and technology. The show frequently contemplates the negative impact of excessive or dangerous reliance on technology and warns of the disruptions to people and communities that could result from overly integrating advanced technology into life.
While the most common themes of Black Mirror indeed pertain to traditional risks of overuse of technology, such as data privacy, consent, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity, there’s an additional layer of commentary on the show which focuses on broader social issues, such as power, community, and justice. Indeed, the question of how a technologically-advanced society might define and handle justice uniquely is compelling. Portrayals of justice throughout all four series of Black Mirror include the treatment of issues such as punishment, reparations, confessions, investigations, judgment, and surveillance.
- “White Bear” (Series 2, Episode 2): In this episode, a woman wakes up in a strange house with no memory of who she is or how she got there. She seems to be caught in a post-apocalyptic world where she is hunted by masked people and other people stand around recording her but not intervening or acknowledging her. It is eventually revealed that the whole thing is a simulation and the woman is there as part of her sentencing after having been found guilty for participating in the murder of a child. The town where she wakes up every day with no recollection of the prior day is actually a “justice park,” the hunters are actors, and the bystanders recording her are visitors who come to participate in this as entertainment for them and punishment for her. This is certainly a creative form of justice for particularly heinous crime, in which she is psychologically tortured and then forced to re-confront the evidence of her actions every day. It is interesting to question whether this sort of punishment might be considered particularly apt or, conversely, cruel and unusual.
- “White Christmas” (Special, 2014): In this special Christmas episode of the show, multiple stories of dishonesty, misconduct, and crime link together via a technology for storing copies of consciousness on digital chips referred to as “cookies.” Across multiple stories, these cookies are used and misused to exact punishment – both real-time via the capability of people to block each other and post-hoc via justice system registrations and civil judgments. They’re also manipulated to extract confessions, layering simulations of reality where criminals and law enforcement interact with each other, creating tension between actions done and statements made in “natural” bodies vs in “virtual” bodies.
- “Nosedive” (Series 3, Episode 1): While “Nosedive” is rich with all the other interesting themes of the Black Mirror series – biotechnology, social networks, and addictive technology – the system in which people exact socioeconomic judgments of as well as consequences on each other via a rating system visible to all is an intriguing form of crowd-sourced justice. These real-time judgment assessments can have tremendous impact on people’s lives, and indeed people orchestrate their relationships and interactions around receiving positive ratings and in fear of the exile and estrangement that will come from receiving negative ones. Punishments via rating adjustments and commensurate withholding of social standing or access permeate every waking moment of life, making justice and judgment a constant infringement upon people’s liberties and identities.
- “Shut up and Dance” (Series 3, Episode 3): In this episode, a teenager named Kenny falls victim to a hacking scam where he is blackmailed by a mysterious text message correspondent who possesses embarrassing video of him. The hackers lead Kenny on a horrible scavenger’s hunt of tasks he must complete with other people who are also being blackmailed by the hackers. Though Kenny completes all the tasks, committing bank robbery and a murder in the course of the day, the hackers leak his video and all of the evidence they had of everyone involved in the blackmail anyway. While Kenny’s actions depicted in the video originally seem innocent and mild on the spectrum of incriminating, ultimately it is revealed that his behavior was actually socially reprehensible and vile. The blackmail and surveillance that Kenny suffered under for the whole episode, with warnings for privacy and cybersecurity risk control to avoid being manipulated in such a way, then appears to be more like vigilante justice.
- “Crocodile” (Series 4, Episode 4): In this episode, the main character Mia starts off helping her friend cover up an accidental death. Fifteen years later, she kills her friend when he wants to confess to the murder. In the moments after her crime, Mia also witnesses an accident on the street below while she is looking out the window. In this accident, a self-driving vehicle hits a pedestrian, whose insurance company then begins to thoroughly investigate his injury claim by using a device called a Recaller, which scans people’s memories for verification information. The insurance adjuster uses this device on numerous individuals and is struggling to determine liability in the accident before identifying that she needs to get testimony from Mia. This testimony exposes her earlier crimes and leads to Mia committing several additional crimes in the effort to cover up her actions, which is ultimately not possible thanks to the police having the Recaller at their disposal. The privacy of memories is a challenging concept for justice and law enforcement, portrayed here by the discovery of secrets to elicit confessions in augmented reality. “Natural” and “artificial” learning and knowledge are in play here too, with unreliable memory supplemented by the deeper and involuntary scrutiny of the Recaller device.