When it first found its way to the US, Black Mirror had the enviable coolness factor that comes from being a little-known UK import. People had to sing its praises and pressure their friends to jump aboard the Outer Limits-style sci-fi anthology series that was blessed with a dark edge and a deeply-held antipathy toward, not modern technology, but the ways we have responded to and been changed by it. When the show finally broke out on Netflix, the praise and recommendations became ubiquitous as the growing army of fans clamored for more from creator Charlie Brooker. Finally, with the release of season three, those wishes were granted, but the reception was somewhere between positive and mixed.
If you watched those six new episodes, though, you may be dealing with more than just your overall view of what you witnessed. In that the show glides so closely to our techno-present in its view of the techno-future, you may be feeling concern for what was forecast. And because we want to really tweak those fears and unsettle you further (sorry), we decided to go through the third season of the show and rank the episodes based on feasibility with a quick look at the state of the tech featured therein.
Shut Up And Dance
The Story: An awkward teenager (Alex Lawther) gets a mysterious text message from a hacker who used his webcam to tape him whilst he was pleasuring himself. They threaten to release the tape to his mother and the world at large if he doesn’t follow a set of orders which eventually push him to extremes. Others are lured into the same trap, but any shred of sympathy that the viewer has for the victims of this cruel extortionary game are removed when the true extent of their despicable behavior is revealed.
The Reality: Cyber blackmail has been a problem for more than a decade. While the episode focuses mostly on men, in many cases, it’s women who are targeted with this crime. As for using someone’s webcam to take unwanted video of them, well, people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and FBI head James Comey put tape over their webcams according to The Guardian. There are also companies that sell stickers and other devices to cover webcams in a more fashionable way, indicating that the threat is quite real and that it has a lot of people’s attention.
Feasibility: 5 of 5
The Story: Social media bleeds into reality even more than it already has as all human interactions are rated by users, with immense pressure to be incredibly positive, cheery, and complimentary in a society that caters to those with the highest ratings while shunning those with those below a 2.5, a rating earned by being coarse or otherwise unpleasant.
The Reality: Remember Peeple? It was an app/privacy nightmare that more or less let you do exactly this. As for the societal consequences that might come should we ever embrace such a measurement of people’s true worth, well, there are already benefits in place for social media influencers, so why should anyone think that that would lessen or not become institutionalized if a Peeple like app rose to prominence?
Feasibility: 4 of 5
The Story: A backpacker winds up taking a job testing a truly immersive VR experience that utilizes implants to mess with brain chemistry and create hallucinations. Bad hallucinations, in some cases.
The Reality: A brain implant that can control your mental chemistry has already been engineered, and even tested in mice. The goal, though, is to assist anxiety and depression sufferers by letting them remotely regulate their brain chemistry, not to play Whack-A-Mole.
That said, as these neural implants are tested and put into use, it seems likely that they’ll be paired with the pioneering PTSD therapy that uses virtual reality to let users re-experience traumatic memories. So while you might never experience this as entertainment, you might know somebody who will do it to get past a tough time in their life.
Also, as powerful as tech companies are, it doesn’t seem super likely that they’d be able to hide a pile of brain busted human test subjects. So that element brings down the feasibility score a touch.
Feasibility: 3 of 5
Hated In The Nation
The Story: In response to the bee shortage, drone bees are constructed and then hijacked by a hacker who uses them to kill people who have earned (or been unduly targeted by) the ire of the internet with the help of a hashtag game and a judgmental populous.
The Reality: “Drone pollinators” are, in fact, in the works, although they’re very rudimentary. That said, with colony collapse becoming a grave problem that might damage our food supply, work is intensifying to figure out what can take over the role of bees in the pollinating process.
As for the killing via the internet idea, replace “bee drone” with “Predator drone” and “hashtag game” with “poorly written algorithm” and you’ve got the day-to-day reality of living in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries with terrorist groups. And innocents are definitely caught in the crossfire, as the US has admitted to over a hundred innocent deaths due to drone strikes. It’s not nearly the same as what’s presented in the season finale of Black Mirror, but there are enough elements (including the rise of internet rage mobs) to make people a bit wary of drone tech.
Feasibility: 3 of 5
Men Against Fire
The Story: Soldiers are forced to see their enemies as literal monsters in an effort to push them beyond their human limitations when it comes to the sins of warfare.
The Reality: The military’s goal with training is to get soldiers who think clearly under fire and who follow orders. While basic training has some psychological effects when you go through it and can have psychological effects for years afterwards, the military’s main goal isn’t to have people with guns panic at the sight of the enemy. It’s to take aim and shoot them without stopping to think about it, which may, in the long term, be a bit more creepy.
Feasibility: 2 of 5
The Story: The idea of a cloud-based afterlife is introduced. In the episode, people can choose to be uploaded into a preconstructed fantasy world that mirrors the recent past (the ’80s, the ’90s, etc) when they die (and beforehand to sample the goods). They can also interact with (meaning sleep with, hang out with, drink with) other inhabitants. Essentially, it’s the fountain of youth made real and given a rad soundtrack and fab clothes.
The Reality: While downloading the brain is still largely science fiction, we’re rapidly figuring out how to upload knowledge directly to the mind. Still, “whole brain emulation,” while still almost entirely theoretical, is absolutely something scientists are working on, in part because by cracking the mysteries of the brain, we can figure out how to create truly boundless AI.
That said, it’s not clear what, precisely, “uploading” your brain would do, or who’d want to do it. There’s a thick ethical quagmire here: Can your brain be uploaded without your consent? Should the “uploaded” be aware of the fact they’re just impulses on a computer chip or not? Who pays for the electricity and power this will eat up? All of that will need to be resolved before any sort of digital retirement home exists.
Feasibility: 1 of 5
So, there you have it. An uncomfortable look at how close we are, as a society, to this latest batch of Black Mirror episodes. Be honest, considering the cynicism of the show, are you really surprised that we ended up ranking the most upbeat episode as the one that is the farthest away from reality?