This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK. It contains major spoilers for Black Mirror season 3.
In the gap between Black Mirror’s haunting Christmas episode “White Christmas,” and its first Americanized season on Netflix, I began to notice a lot of news articles pointing out the similarities between real life and the unsettling predictions that Charlie Brooker based his first seven anthology episodes around. Not least a certain situation involving a pig and a Prime Minister.
And when the bountiful harvest from Netflix arrived last month (six new Black Mirror installments, all at once!), the news stories came even quicker. Brooker’s imagination and modern day society/science seem to be scarily in sync now.
Here’s a look at the Black Mirror predictions that might be coming true in real life…
Shortly after the new episodes landed online, the Black Mirror Facebook page jokingly shared an article from the Washington Post. The headline was this: China’s plan to organize its society relies on “big data” to rate everyone.
Yep, “Nosedive”’s five-star rating system for all human encounters (and the MeowMeowBeenz episode of Community that came before it) really isn’t all that far from the truth. Admittedly, America isn’t on the verge of turning all its citizens into nervous Bryce Dallas Howard clones, but China seems to be thinking about it.
TWP’s article contains a link to an official document from the Chinese government, which outlines a desire to “establish and complete a social credit system, commend sincerity and punish insincerity” within the next four years. The news outlet summarized the document better than I could:
In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticizing the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points.
And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are — determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant — or even just get a date.
Denyer also explained that government-approved pilot projects are already underway, stating that “eight private companies have set up credit databases that compile a wide range of online, financial and legal information.”
One of the biggest of these pilot companies is Sesame Credit, which has tens of millions of users and exists within the Alibaba Group retail conglomerate. Already, “users with high scores have been able to rent cars and bicycles without leaving deposits […] and can avoid long lines at hospitals by paying fees after leaving with a few taps on a smartphone.”
You might also like to know that a people-rating app does exist, and its cutesy name is Peeple. It allows you to score people on professional, personal, or romantic interactions. The app’s iTunes reviews box is currently full of unimpressed Black Mirror fans.
Also, before we move on from “Nosedive,” a quick word about the “media straight into your eyeball” tech that often appears in Black Mirror. When I wrote my last article about this, I pointed to Google’s plans to let us film our whole lives and MHOX’s idea to create a Wi-Fi-enabled 3D-printed eyeball.
Now, you can add Samsung to the list of companies that are looking into straight-to-the-eye visual interfaces: they’ve recently patented a smart contact lens with camera capabilities and augmented reality video playback. Sony is also developing its own smart lens. At a guess, I’d say it’ll be a fair few years before any of these are up for sale to the public.
“Playtest” frightened the bejeezus out of me. Partly because it was very well made and partly because of its personal relevance to me: I was involved in a scientific study back in my teenage years, where I had my brain scanned while playing some rudimentary video games, in exchange for a small amount of cash.
No one injected anything into my neck, and my main memory of it is being chuffed that I had a printed out picture of my own brain to bring home with me. It was a fun experience. But still, watching “Playtest” was extra unsettling for me. Finding a Black Mirror protagonist highly relatable isn’t exactly where I want to be in my life.
Admittedly, though, for the purposes of writing this article, it’s nice to know that I did some of the research years ago. Yes, of course, studies and developments into how we interact mentally and physically with video games are going on all the time.
A great Guardian article by Keith Stuart goes into the specifics of how “Playtest” apes modern gaming phenomena. Specifically, it’s an interesting look at how games are learning to respond to our behavior, personalities, and reactions. Here are some highlights:
– In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, video game writer Sam Barlow introduced a psychotherapist character that asked the protagonist (as a proxy for the player at home) personality-based questions at key points in the game. Based on the answers you gave, the levels ahead would change based on what would scare you the most.
– Georgia-based PhD student Matthew Guzdial has developed a neural network that will watch how you play Super Mario Bros. and build new levels based on your style. For example, if you prefer sprinting ahead to exploring nooks and crannies, you’ll get more of the former and less of the latter.
– Back in 1997, Konami’s Oshiete Your Heart was altering game content based on the player’s heart-rate and skin conductance. More recently, we’ve seen software like Affectiva monitoring facial expressions to try and judge player emotions during gameplay.
Thankfully, Stuart concludes that, “Brain-computer interfacing of this sort is still the stuff of bleeding edge medical research and science fiction.” We don’t need to worry about anyone injecting deadly test games into our spinal columns just yet.
As a side note: the augmented reality whack-a-mole game feels very feasible in the age of Pokémon Go and VR gaming, doesn’t it? I’m sure someone could cook up a version of that which doesn’t require an injection. If Samsung or any other company manages to master a smart contact lens with AR abilities, games like this would surely be a doddle to produce.
Shut Up and Dance
When I watched “Shut Up and Dance,” I thought to myself, “There’s no way this one could be real.” A vague plan was forming to fill this section with stuff about online trolls in general. Maybe I could go into the history of the troll face meme thingy.
But, lo and behold, a few days after talking about the episode with a mate at the pub, he sent me a link to a shockingly similar true-life story that had just appeared on the BBC News website.
The article documents a scam that takes place over social media, with a first-hand account from one of its targets. First, an attractive woman added him on Facebook and got chatting. Next, she added him on Skype. Eventually, she was encouraging him to masturbate on camera for her. And he did.
Here’s what happened next, in the words of the victim:
A half hour later I get a message on Facebook. ‘Listen,’ it says, ‘I’m a man, and I recorded a video of you masturbating. Do you want to see it?’ He sends me the video. It’s about five minutes of me masturbating.
‘I have a list of your friends and family from Facebook – your mum, your sister, your cousins,’ he says. ‘You have one week to send me to send me 5,000 euros (£4,450), or I’ll send them the video.’
As he didn’t have the money and feared he’d just be asked for more even if he did stump it up, the victim waited in fear for the week to pass. He changed his security settings so the scammers couldn’t tag him in any posts. He hoped that nobody would click on a random video sent to them by someone they don’t know.
Then the blackmailer uploaded the video to YouTube.
“I keep reporting the video [for containing sexual content],” the victim writes, “Each time I’m watching the number of views to see if anyone else has viewed it. After about an hour YouTube takes the video down. From what I can tell, all the views were mine, except for one. That could have been him viewing it after he uploaded it, or one of my relatives. I’ll never know for sure, but I’ve never heard from anyone.”
Scarily, another part of “Shut Up and Dance” is true to life: it is possible for a virus to take control of your webcam without you knowing. In 2014, Jared James Abrahams was sentenced to 18 months in prison after using the malicious malware Blackshades to hack women’s webcams and extort them into filming sexually explicit videos for him.
Additionally, and if you’ll forgive me for sounding like a conspiracy theorist for a minute, former FBI member Marcus Thomas told the Washington Post in 2013 that “The FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer’s camera — without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording — for several years.”
The idea of someone getting into your webcam and blackmailing you really isn’t unrealistic or impossible at all.
As I mentioned while writing about the seminal episode “Be Right Back” in my previous ‘Charlie Brooker knows the future’ article, there are indeed companies in the real world attempting to develop digital immortality.
Humai is the most well-known. Its CEO Josh Bocanegra is attempting to build a chat bot based on his mom’s speaking patterns so they can talk after her death, and he has expressed an interest in broadening this technology for users around the globe. There’s also Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov, who’s pouring cash into a project “to create technologies enabling the transfer of [an] individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” And British entrepreneur Thomas Stanley is currently building a social media tool called Loggacy, with the aim “to create a platform allowing people to preserve their lives in digital format.” And while none of these endeavours seem to be all that close to offering a digital heaven akin to “San Junipero”’s eponymous afterlife system, you can see how these ideas could develop into something like that in the decades to come.
In “San Junipero,” living people also get to use the system, fully immersing themselves in an uncanny digital landscape full of photorealistic people who’ve done the same. In our real world, with virtual reality gaming very recently becoming available to players at home, it’s easy to envision a game like this existing in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, VR graphics are getting so convincing that Ronnie O’Sullivan was utterly fooled by a digital pool table…
Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world Second Life, have recently announced the development of a virtual reality network dubbed “Project Sansar.” It’s a digital world with cutting edge graphics that you can plonk yourself into and explore for hours. There’s no word yet on whether it will have offer 1980s skins, though.
Nostalgia therapy is a real thing, too. Among the psychologists looking into the possibilities of using nostalgia within treatments are Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, who told the Guardian in 2014 that they’re “cautiously optimistic” about the start they’ve made in “nostalgia-based therapies for illnesses that include clinical depression and perhaps Alzheimer’s.” Their experiments chiefly include “getting individuals to describe one particularly meaningful or positive memory” and have also touched upon “identifying melodies and lyrics in songs which elicit nostalgia.”
So, they’re not exactly integrating people into virtual reconstructions of the past as a form of treatment, but, give it a few years, and maybe the availability of VR will have grown to a point where they can. “San Junipero” is essentially a combination of different ideas that are being developed in the real world right now.
Men Against Fire
“Men Against Fire” is another episode that brings together a few technologies that aren’t too far off, creating in the process a vision of the future close to the realm of plausibility.
At the moment, an American company called ARA is promoting a product called the ARC4, a binoculars-esque headset that displays military mission data before soldiers’ eyes using augmented reality. If Sony, Samsung, or Google can master their in-development smart lenses and splice in augmented reality functionality, there’s no reason why devices like the ARC4 couldn’t eventually shift from hefty headwear into contact lenses. Soldiers could see digital maps and data right in front of their eyes, just like they can in “Men Against Fire.”
Similarly, who’s to say that virtual reality advances in the years to come won’t reach a point where photorealistic zombies can be superimposed over actual people within our field of vision? If we’re all going to wear super-advanced computerized contact lenses around the clock, with state-of-the-art AR capabilities, and if a particularly nasty government had control of them… it’s not exactly impossible.
After all, it’s easier to have the wool pulled over your eyes when you’ve chosen to wear a woolly hat. But I’m starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist again, so let’s move on.
One thing from “Men Against Fire” that is definitely viable: those translators that the soldiers wear to talk to the locals. Waverly Labs has already made an app, and a earpiece to go with it, that can translate in real time, so two people speaking different languages can have a face-to-face conversation…
Another idea touted in “Men Against Fire” is the ability to control dreams. And just last month, a company emerged that is trying to make this a reality. Arenar raised €644,249 on Kickstarter to fund its iBand+ invention, which claims, among other things, to be capable of inducing lucid dreams. That’s when you know you’re dreaming but don’t wake up.
According to the Kickstarter page, the iBand+ will monitor your sleeping and play “audio-visual clues” in order to stimulate lucid dreaming, triggering a state in which you should apparently be able to “take control of your dream actions and consciously reshape the dream to fulfill any fantasy and experience you can imagine.” Even orgies with multiple versions of the same person, one assumes.
Hated in the Nation
Robot bees being created to do the pollination work that real bees can’t – it sounds like one of the wackiest ideas Charlie Brooker has ever dreamed up. But, scarily enough, these actually exist in the real world already.
Scientists at Harvard have been working for years on RoboBees: “man-made systems that could perform myriad roles in agriculture or disaster relief.” Each RoboBee “measures about half the size of a paper clip, weighs less that one-tenth of a gram, and flies using ‘artificial muscles’ compromised of materials that contract when a voltage is applied.”
In reaction to advancements like this, Greenpeace has launched a petition to encourage governments to increase preservation attempts for real bees rather than funding robotic alternatives. Indeed, the only difference between our world and that of “Hated in the Nation” is that no government has picked up Harvard’s project, chucked loads of funding at it and decided to roll out a RoboBee population nationwide.
(Fun fact: there’s also a company called Festo working on robotic ants.)
The online trolls within the episode were also based on reality. Talking to the BBC, Brooker recalled the online backlash that followed his controversial Guardian article from 2004. It was entitled, ‘Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr — where are you now that we need you?’
“My own incident pre-dated Twitter, and my vilification was done by good old-fashioned email,” Brooker revealed, but some of the characters in “Hated in the Nation” say things that I was experiencing at the time, and I also read a book for research that deals with people caught up in Twitter storms. The author hangs out with them and sees how devastated they are, often by the sheer volume of comments they receive. The whole thing is terrifying.”
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Brooker confirmed that this book was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Having read it, I can confirm there are some haunting stories within about people who made mistakes in the online realm and never heard the end of it. Particularly relevant to Black Mirror is Lindsey Stone, who jokingly posed for a picture swearing and pretending to shout next to a “silence and respect” sign in a military cemetery.
When the internet at large clapped eyes on the picture, the onslaught of outrage was immense, so much so that Lindsey’s employers caught wind and she was fired the next day. In the months that followed she saw application after application ignored as she tried to find a new job. She eventually found one, working for an autism charity, but still lived in fear of being found out.
Jon Ronson ended up introducing Lindsey Stone to a chap from Reputation.com, a company that specializes in rebuilding online reputations that have gone down the pan. They helped her build and populate Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn pages to try and push the notorious cemetery picture down in her search results. That service isn’t particularly different to the consultancy firm that Bryce Dallas Howard visits in “Nosedive,” is it?
Luckily for Lindsey Stone, hackable robot bees that can burrow into your brain and cause excruciating pain have not been released into the public realm, and internet trolls with that level of power are one of the few things from Black Mirror series 3 that haven’t come true…