By Jamie Grant
If you haven’t watched Charlie Brooker’s hit series ‘Black Mirror’ by now, you might be thankful to have escaped the beautiful trauma it renders on viewers. Gone is the catharsis that audiences have come to expect with modern drama – to quote Lemony Snicket: ‘not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.’
Six episodes offer unique and varying glimpses into the tangible and very-probable future that we could be occupying in our lifetimes; one where technology is king, ethics are for losers, and progress must come at any cost.
A common trope in dystopian fiction, across multiple mediums, is the idea of humanity’s scientific and technological development outpacing that of its moral compass, of its compassion. In the pre-computing era, these warnings were based on the very real, physical consequences of a Cold War turned hot, and the nuclear devastation that could snuff out humans on Earth. It’s a trope not without truth, especially in our grave post-truth political era.
Nuclear weapons can be seen. Their visual effects are the highest evidence needed for their regulation, condemnation and control. It’s much harder to protest that which cannot be seen. These days, the threat from technology lies in what’s behind the screen. Algorithms aimed to snatching our attention for longer and longer. Facebook using the power of big data to manipulate emotions. ‘Dumb’ Artificial Intelligence which operates in ways even its creators can’t really explain or understand.
Social media and artificial intelligence, taken separately, each have the potential to alter our lives, societies and future far beyond what’s come before. Together, we’re in danger of eroding the very pillars of our democratic systems, of civic debate, discourse and the ability to find common ground.
In the past, the tools for participating in civic society – reading, writing and basic arithmetic – were openly taught in schools, and little changed in these skills across generations. Now social media has enabled the construction of the plurality of online bubbles that is gradually eroding our ability to seek truth, to find common purpose, and ultimately to work together.
Coupled with a widening generational and socio-economic gap between the tech-illiterate, the tech-literate and the engineers behind the silicon giants, and we’ve a serious problem for democracy on our hands.
Technological progress is not inherently good or evil. At least for now, humans can still shape application and impact. Will the future be as bleak as Black Mirror suggests? It very well could be. And that’s the scariest part of all.
Black Mirror Season 4 is available on Netflix.