Obviously, I have a problem with the beloved show Blackmirror. Why I am a dissenter is probably related to my rolls as both dyslexic, Appropriate technologist, scientist and science fiction author of no standing whats so ever. Why do I find the program so annoying ? I guess because it’s lazy. Actually it’s not lazy. I’m a realist enough to understand that black mirror is more symptom than diseases. Its existence owes more to the cultural codes of certain TV executives then any intention of its writers. TV executives like TV executives around the world only care about what successful, all other considerations are secondary or for lip service and advertising. Being driven by external metrics means that they are simply a set of rules. Like any other set of rules there can be consequences beyond the intentions of the individuals involved ( if this seems familiar then yes thats a deliberate reference) .
So why take a swing at the popular TV show? I guess I will always be tilting at windmills. I think for me what makes Blackmirror so disturbing is the thinking behind Blackmirror.
As a technologist, I think what I find most uncomfortable is the constant recycling of the Frankenstein trope over and over again. It’s like watching one of those polar bears in a zoo. The sort that has been driven slowly mad by their years of incarceration. You stand there watching piteously as they walk round and round in identical circles, repeating each movement like a strange biological animatronic fur coat. Their physical entrapment is echoed by the repetitive swaying and movements that they do. For Blackmirror I guess what makes me most disturbed is the lack of reflexivity.
Let’s look at the typical black mirror episode. A new technology comes along, it offers some extent in benefit, ohh suddenly there is a downside and people’s lives are ruined. But why am I worried about lack of reflexivity?
To best understand my irritation with this trope is it is best to try retelling that same trope but within another artefact replacing the word ‘machine’ or ‘technology’ with ‘book’
Blackmirror season 12: Episode 4 called simply ‘Novel’
Imagine some future society not too far away from now. In this world, there is this new technology we will call ‘novel’. People spend hours staring at ‘novel’ turning pages of ‘novel’ and escaping from reality using ‘novel’. ‘Novel’ becomes so successful that one ‘author’ can be ‘read’ as they say technically, by millions of people, so influencing peoples thoughts and ideas. In this future society economic depression has caused someone to ‘author’ a new ‘novel’.
A mad person who insists on calling himself ‘author’ uses this new ‘book’ technology to influence people’s minds. In our short story, the mad author writes a ‘novel’ let’s call this ‘novel’ ‘my struggle’. Half autobiography, Half self-help book, this book it becomes an overnight publishing sensation. People love this novel. Many go about quoting it to each other. After many years of economic failure, the book helps people understand, what happened but also helps to bring them together to build a new society.
Unfortunately, a side effect of this self-help book is that it causes people to hate certain segments of society. The novel blames the problems of the country on those segments. The episode ends with huge numbers of people from the segments being killed as enemies of the state and the country is gearing up for war as a way of reclaiming its own identity and renewing senses of ‘self control’ and self-respect.
Sounds absurd right? someone writing a book which becomes so popular it turns a nation to evil. So why is it absurd to think a ‘novel’ could be this dystopian but a technology could not?. As I mentioned in my book I’m a Cyborg’s Pet, why can we have evil scientists, evil generals, evil politicians but not evil Mathematicians, evil aromatherapists, evil nurses, evil artists, evil authors. From my knowledge of scientists they are as likely to turn to evil as the average gardener and be half as dangerous.
What confuses me about the use of the ‘technology getting out of hand’ trope is that it could equally apply to any system of rules for example, Government. Why don’t we get short stories were people naively invent a law to fix a problem only to have it have some unintended consequences? Why do we restrict the trope to just technology and why do we want to watch it again and again?
I think as an appropriate technologist what irritates me is the practice of standing behind the ‘we want to start a debate about the impact of technology on modern life’ it’s like an evangelical healer saying your failure to be healed is because ‘you don’t believe enough’. There are lots of myths about technology which we need to challenge. For example what about the myth of the march of technology?
Case in point. I once was talking to Cory Doctorow after a talk he did about digital rights management. His thesis was that digital technology had disrupted Hollywood, who wanted to vainly control content taking it out of the hands of the users. Now it was to digital it was to late. OK, that’s a one-sentence paraphrase of a very good one hour talk he gave but you get the idea. Afterwards, I asked if this DRM was a problem why didn’t Hollywood just say ‘well from now on we will only issue movies on advanced analogue methods’ by being non digital, copies of copies would degrade due to the law of physics. DRM problem over. Hollywood is big enough to decide what technology succeeds or fails, but strangely they chose not to.
Perhaps that’s a little obtuse and name dropey for you ( After did I mention my books do better than Cory’s on Wattpad? ) Let me give you another way. As a young researcher, I would hall my ass over to the patent library to photocopy papers. I did that so much, people thought I worked there. While I waited I would randomly pick patents from the shelves and read them. 99.9% of patents where for technology that has and will never exist. Getting a patent isn’t cheap , about £50,000 when I got one, a patent isn’t a light undertaking. People invested a huge amount. Do you remember the Microsoft Lune ? What about Google Glass or Apple’s Pippin or Newton? Most new technology has the survival rate of a freshly hatched turtles surviving the predation of vast numbers of seagulls while crawling down a beach to the sea only to be run over by a SUV driven by a park ranger. Most new technology fails.
Self driving car of the future – here to day and has been running well for the last 10 years.
So there is no march of technology. There is no ‘progress’ in the singular. There are progresses, there are progresses in the plural and we are constantly choosing between them. We are constantly deciding the future. Self driving cars ? There were some designs in the 1960s. If you go over to Terminal 4 you will see a generation of self driving cars from the 1990s going between the airport and the car park for 10 years. The latest is just the next generation to run the same dream and could end up with the same failure.
So for me what makes technology interesting is the social process by which we adopt one, while rejecting another. Over the years I have built up a wonderful list of tech that never was. Technology which could easily exist, make money and transform our lives but we decided never to exploit it. Perhaps that’s to thoughtful for television.
So where does this leave Blackmirror ? It’s kind of the sci-fi version of Michael Heseltine, more interesting for what he could have been rather than what he was. It tells us more about society for what it didn’t say than what it did.
As an addendum this from the DUST youtube channel shows us what Blackmirror could be like
There the distopian world is proberbly driven by religious fundermentalisum and the desire to protect human rights. Like all good Scifi it’s true because you know if it was possible ( which I will be ) then you could see a good many American states endosing it. I also like the mention of ‘nudges’ and other computing based ‘behaviour change’ terms.