Technology basically has no moral imperative — it may be used for both good purposes and bad purposes. There’s little inherently good or bad about most technology, as it’s how the technology is used that matters.
That being said, the show Black Mirror provides a number of warnings for a possible dystopian future. It’s a reminder that countries should now be devising ways to ensure technology is used in the public interest.
THERE’S NO REAL plot in the “Metalhead” episode in the new season of “Black Mirror.” The star of the episode is a small, uncommunicative black robot that walks on all fours and is armed with a pistol stored in its front leg. Who controls the robot, if anyone, is never divulged. The four-legged mechanical creature operates seemingly on its own and for its own purposes. Over the course of the 40-minute episode, it hunts down a woman desperately fleeing through a forest, as she tries in vain to evade its sensors.
For those unfamiliar with the show, “Black Mirror” is a science fiction series on Netflix about a near-future in which new technologies reap terrible unintended consequences on our lives; they strip away personal independence, undermining our societal values and sometimes letting loose uncontrollable violence. As terrifying as they are, the technologies depicted in the show are not outlandish. Like the autonomous robot in “Metalhead,” they reflect easily conceivable, near-term advances upon currently existing technologies, such as drones.
Since the first detonations of atomic bombs in the 20th century, pop culture has been morbidly fascinated by the realization that humanity has developed tools powerful enough to destroy itself. But the malign technologies depicted in “Black Mirror” are more subtle than nuclear weapons. Most of the show’s episodes deal with advances in robotics, surveillance, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence – fields that happen to be key areas for tech companies in the real world. The creators of the series demonstrate how, left unchecked, the internal logic of these new technologies can bring about the destruction of their owners.
“Black Mirror’s” slick production values and acting have won wide critical acclaim. But its social commentary also seems to have struck a nerve with a public that has begun evincing confusion, fear, and alienation over the consequences of new consumer technologies. A 2015 study by Chapman University found that three out of five of the top fears Americans have were related to the consequences of emerging technologies. The potential of automation to wipe out millions of U.S. jobs and artificial intelligence’s potential to undermine democracy have been well-documented.
Even if the most dire warnings about rogue artificial intelligence programs destroying humanity never come to pass, we have already sacrificed much of our personal autonomy to technologies whose underlying philosophies were unclear when they were introduced to the public. There is a growing backlash to this kind of corporate authoritarianism. Calls to break up tech companies under federal antitrust laws are increasing, while disillusioned former Silicon Valley executives have become increasingly vocal about the negative social side effects of the programs they helped develop. Technological utopianism is slowly giving way to an acknowledgement that technologies aren’t value-neutral, and it’s the role of a functioning society to govern how they are utilized.