Black Mirror is a very popular US-UK television science fiction series. It originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK and is now released and broadcasted by the subscription video streaming service Netflix. The series is anthology-style, with short seasons of stand-alone episodes which are like mini films. Most of the episodes of the series touch upon the dominance of and overreach into human life by technology, such as social media, AI, and other advanced, immersive systems and devices. The take offered is quite dramatic, often delving deeply into adverse psychological and sociological effects on modern society, taking a dark and even dystopian perspective.
While all the episodes of Black Mirror do depict a future reality, it is an immediate and accessible reality impacted by technology exceeding that which is currently possible but not so much as to be unthinkable. Indeed, the title of the show, Black Mirror, refers to current technology which is increasingly ubiquitous and addictive – television screens, computer monitors, and smartphone displays. The show both entices with the idea that many of these technological advancements could be convenient or novel or life-enhancing, while also warning that the obsessive and addictive aspects of technology could cause great harm and disruption if not developed and managed thoughtfully and carefully with the risks well in mind.
- “The Entire History of You” (Series 1, Episode 3): In this episode, a couple struggling with mistrust and insinuations of infidelity make disastrous use of a common biometric – a “grain” implant everyone has that records everything they see, hear, and do. The recordings on the implants can be replayed via “re-dos.” This is used for surveillance purposes by security and management, as the memories can be played to an external video monitor for third parties to watch. Individuals can also watch the re-dos from their implants directly in their eyes, which allows them to repeatedly watch re-dos, often leading them to question and analyse the sincerity and credibility of people with whom they interact. People can also erase the records from their implants, altering the truthfulness of the recordings. This troubles the status of trust and honesty in society which has already in contemporary life been eroded by the influence of the internet.
- “Be Right Back” (Series 2, Episode 1): In this episode, Martha is mourning her boyfriend, Ash, who died in a car accident. As she struggles to deal with his loss, her friend who has lso lost a partner recommends an online service that allows people to stay in touch with dead loved ones. The service crawls the departed person’s e-mail and social media profiles to create a virtual version of the person. After the machine learning advances enough by consuming and trying enough communications, it can also digest videos and photos by graduating from chatting via instant message to replicating the deceased’s voice and talking on the phone. At its most advanced, the service even allows a user to create an android version of the deceased that resembles him or her in every physical aspect and imitates the elements of the dead person’s personality that can be discovered by the online record. However, in all this there is no consideration given to the data privacy of the deceased person or to his or her consent to be exposed to machine learning and replicated in this manner, including even the physical android form.
- “Nosedive” (Series 3, Episode 1): This is one of the most popular, critically-acclaimed episodes of the series, and one of the obvious reasons for this is that it focuses on social media and how it impacts friendships and interactions. The addictive aspects of social media in current times are already a hot topic in design ethics, driving people to question whether social media networks like Facebook or Twitter are good for the people who use them, and where to locate the line between entertainment and a fun way to connect and share, versus a platform with a potentially dark and abusive impact on users. In this episode, everyone is on social media and is subject to receiving ratings from virtually everyone they encounter. These ratings determine people’s standing both on social media and in the real world as well – controlling access to jobs, customer service, housing, and much more. Anxieties and aspirations about ratings drive everything people do and all the choices they make. “Addictive” has been met and surpassed, with social media having an absolutely pervasive impact in everyone’s lives.
- “San Junipero” (Series 3, Episode 4): One of the most universally loved episodes of Black Mirror, San Junipero depicts the titular beach town which mysteriously appears to shift in time throughout the decades. Kelly and Yorkie both visit the town and have a romance. San Junipero turns out to be a simulated reality which exists only “on the cloud,” where people who are at the end of their lives or who have already died can visit to live in their prime again, forever if they so choose. In the real world, Kelly is elderly and in hospice care, while Yorkie is a comatose quadriplegic. Both eventually chose to be euthanized and uploaded to San Junipero to be together forever, after getting married first so that Kelly can give legal authorization to Yorkie to pass over. The bioethical considerations of such a reality are clear – in this society, assisted suicide is a legal normalcy, and part of patient care is planning one’s method of death and treatment path after death, which digitalization being a real option. All of the San Junipero simulations exist on huge servers, and judging by how many lights are flickering in the racks this seems to be a popular practice – but what about cybersecurity and information security of the simulations? What if the servers were hacked or damaged? This gives a new meaning to humanity and places an entirely different type of pressure on making sure that technology is used safely and the data stored on it is protected.
- “Men Against Fire” (Series 3, Episode 5): This episode concerns the future of warfare in a post-apocalyptic world. Soldiers all have a biometric implant called MASS that augments reality, enhances their senses, and provides virtual reality experiences. One soldier’s implant begins to malfunction and he soon learns that the MASS is in fact altering his senses so that he will not see individuals he is told are enemy combatants as people. It turns out that the soldier is part of a eugenics program practicing worldwide genocide and the MASS is being used to deceive the solders and turn them into autonomous weapons who murder on command due to the augmentations and alterations to reality by the MASS. This storyline falls cannily close to many current concerns about the adoption of autonomous weapons that are not directed or monitored by humans, which are nearly within technological capability to be created and are the subject of international calls for appropriate supervision of and restraint in their development.
Black Mirror offers many interesting scenarios for analysis of and study by compliance and ethics professionals considering risk management related to the use of technology in organizations and society. As described above, surveillance, data privacy, consent, design ethics, autonomous weapons and other AI, bioethics, and cybersecurity are just a sampling of the issues invoked by episodes of the series.