This post contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Black Mirror. For part two of this post, click here.
If you care at all where technology is taking us, you should be watching Black Mirror. As many have already pointed out, the series strikes a chord not only because it’s unsettling, but also because it’s recognizable.
For every stop sign a thinkfluencer throws up when wondering if technology is going too far, an entrepreneur is willing to blow through it. For every word of caution a regular person like you or I toss out there, a researcher is willing to ignore it. Because, of course. You can’t stop progress, and all that.
So while Black Mirror is disconcerting and bleak, it’s not farfetched. As I was watching the series, I kept thinking about how many of the scenarios brought to life in the show aren't only realistic, they're actively being made possible by scientists, companies, and the people who are willing to let tech completely permeate their lives. Yes, lots of these technologies are somewhat in their infancies, but, every day, the show is quickly moving from the realm of sci fi into the world of everyday existence.
Here’s the first part of our episode-by-episode look at the technology that is making Black Mirror real. Find part two here, which includes the final two episodes of season 2 and the just-aired Christmas special.
"The National Anthem"
Black Mirror starts off with little of the subtlety we come to see in later episodes—a terrorist has captured the Duchess of Beaumont, and will only release her if the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has sex with a pig on live national television. The terrorist releases this video on YouTube. On its face, it's an utterly absurd premise—but is it, really? We've already watched the Islamic State release threats and show horrifying decapitations on YouTube. It's used Twitter to recruit soldiers and spread fear.
After the Sony hack and the ensuing blackmail-y demand to not release The Interview, we now have politicians openly wondering whether we've entered the era of digital terrorism. We’ve got Anonymous-affiliated groups threatening to release a pop star’s sex tape unless she bows to their will (and the media eating it up). And we've got web artists and hoax practitioners actively trying to fool the media to write about whatever the hell they want, just to get a rise out of people (it's fitting that a performance artist is behind the "National Anthem" plot. Perhaps the most chilling thing about the episode is that, if something like it happened tomorrow, it wouldn't be all that shocking.
"Fifteen Million Merits"
While "The National Anthem" is about as blatant as you can get, you have to start squinting to see exactly how we'll get to the indentured servitude hell that is "Fifteen Million Merits." But the pieces are all recognizable and, in fact, commonplace in today's society.
In “Merits,” the underclass lives inside a hopelessly artificial digital colony and spends all day biking to power said colony, in exchange for a digital currency called "merits" that can be exchanged for entry into reality shows, swag for your avatar, or prepackaged apples.
We aren’t all biking all day to keep the lights on (and we’re not spending our digital currencies on virtual reality porn—well, most of us aren’t), but is the economy imagined in “Merits” all that different from putting in hundreds of hours earning new plants in Farmville? Is it any different than trading in real cash for FarmCoins and FarmCash?
There have been horror stories of people spending thousands of dollars on "freemium" games, and "Merits" hits on Bing's (the protagonist, not the search engine's) idea that people are working their asses off for something that, at the end of the day, isn't real.
One of the most powerful moments of "Merits," for me, was when Bing attempts to close his eyes or look down to avoid watching the porn advertisement with Abi in it, only for the ad to pause until he started looking at the screen again. We're not quite there with eye tracking technology, but that's where a lot of the research money is going in the advertising world right now.
GazeHawk, a company that specializes in user eye tracking, was just purchased by Facebook to, well, help it sell ads. Google has floated the idea of a "pay-for-gaze" ad-sales mechanism built into Google Glass, and a company called Tobii has an entire division devoted to figuring out where our eyes are when we're looking at content (and other "eye tracking solutions" for advertisers). It's only a matter of time until we are forced to confirm to companies that we are, indeed, viewing their ads.
Meanwhile, studios have experimented with "user operation prohibition," which doesn't allow consumers to skip ads on DVDs (and other platforms), YouTube has considered letting users pay to skip ads (much like Bing does for most of the episode), and companies are trying ever so hard to blur the line between advertising and content with sponsored posts and videos and ever-more-entertaining ads that consumers don't want to skip.
Then, of course, there's the whole ecosystem that "Merits" takes place in: One in which the rich live an impossibly privileged life, while an underclass of indentured servants live in a world that, by many measures, is more comfortable and arguably better than humanity has had it for much of recorded history— but one in which the gap between the rich and poor is more pronounced than ever.
"The Entire History of You"
This episode is the one that got many into Black Mirror, it's the one that my friends instantly jump to when I talk to them about the show. And that's because we're moving ever closer to a society in which everything is recorded, all the time. It's not too hard to make the leap from smartphones, or Google Glass, or police body cameras, to eye cameras that record and store everything you experience and can later be used to endlessly pore over “redos,” or replays of everyday life.
In fact, the biggest barrier to turning "History of You" into a reality is probably storing all that crap. Sandisk introduced a 512 GB SD card earlier this fall, but, really, when you're recording and recalling HD video 24/7, we're talking about petabytes of data. You can't be hot swapping SD cards when you're having makeup sex with your significant other just to call back happier times (that scene was certainly one of the darker things I've ever seen put to film).
Instead, we'll probably call on DNA storage. DNA is stable (that's why we can grab it from organisms that died many thousands of years ago) and it's mind-bogglingly efficient at storing data. In 2012, a team at Harvard was able to store 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA. Right now it's incredibly expensive to do, but you know how these things work.
Some form of body cameras and smartphones and Google Glass and DNA storage are how we'll probably get to a place where "History of You" is feasible ( my money is on smart contact lenses, for what it's worth), but is there another path forward? What about reading back our memories, themselves?
Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California is working on chips that can be implanted in the brain to help form and store long term memories. Ostensibly, it'd be to help fight memory diseases such as Alzheimer's, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that it could be used in a way similar to the memory chip, called Grains, in Black Mirror.
Scientists are getting closer to conquering memory and mind reading in general, which could be an alternative way for us to get to a world where "Redos" are commonplace. In mice, scientists have implanted false memories, changed the "meaning" of a bad memory, deleted memories, and have watched memories form, as well.
"Be Right Back"
BlackMirror's sparsest episode also just happens to have an entire movement (transhumanism) and an entire religion (Terasem) dedicated to making it into a reality. One company, in fact, already offered the exact type of service purchased for Martha—a digital replacement for her dead boyfriend—in the show. Intellitar, which allowed you to create a digital clone of yourself for "legacy creation and preservation" was a colossal failure—the company is now defunct—but, well, it's a thing that someone made.
The idea of creating a digital replica of yourself that can be roboticized is an idea that isn't going away anytime soon. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics Corp., was profiled in an utterly fascinating New York profile earlier this year. She's the world's highest paid female CEO and she just so happens to have also formed Terasem, a religion that hypothesizes that "a person's mind file may be downloaded into a robotic, nanotechnological or biological body to provide life experiences comparable to those of a typical human."
Rothblatt commissioned BINA48, a robotic replica of Rothblatt's wife, Bina Aspen. Hundreds of hours of conversations with Aspen were used to create the robot, which is constantly being improved to make it more lifelike and more similar to a real human.
A company called LifeNaut (slogan: “eternalize”) is handling the “mindfiles” that give BINA48 her personality, while a company called Hanson Robotics is handling her mannerisms and making the robot itself as lifelike as possible. The saga of BINA48 and Terasem, in general, is detailed in Rothblatt's new book, Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortality, which sounds quite like Martha's experience in "Be Right Back."
The spate of research behind " whole brain emulation" continues to accelerate, which is a field of research being led by a scientist named Randal Koene who is actively working on mind uploading. Oh, and, by the way, scientists have already created the first “digital” animal, a worm that was “born” inside a computer and can have its brain uploaded into a robot.
So, yeah. Black Mirror is lots of things, but implausible isn’t one of them. I’ve still got an episode or two to finish—check back later this week for a look at the people who are trying to make the technology seen in “White Bear,” “The Waldo Moment,” and “White Christmas.”