The British series “Black Mirror” has made its mark by projecting the unintended and often alarming consequences of technology. Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator and showrunner, notes that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
That’s one of the reasons the show is so popular: These scenarios could happen. If not now, then someday soon. What does this say of our workplace fears about technology? (Be warned: There are lots of spoilers ahead.)
A Future Where Your Employer Sees Everything
There are few workplace events more stressful than performance evaluations. In Black Mirror’s “Nosedive,” we’re constantly being evaluated. People are given a one- to five-star rating for every interaction they have in this cheerful dystopia. Forced smiles and pleasantries are the norm, as more authentic behavior can lead to a lower rating. Those with low ratings are excluded from much of society, and this peer-review system also determines one’s socioeconomic status. The premise is played for campy shock value — but does a universe where individual merit matters less than popularity actually differ all that much from our own?
We already feel freed by the anonymity of technology to swipe away a potential mate after a mere moment’s glance, or to leave a nasty review for a minute’s inconvenience at a restaurant. It’s not such a jump to worrying that our every action will soon be digitally graded, possibly by our employers. Many are already expressing concern over China’s planned “social credit system,” meant to assess citizens’ “trustworthiness” by scraping the web for all available data on them. Citizens would be scored based on social, political, legal and commercial factors, and those with low scores could see restricted privileges.
For the episode’s main character, Lacie, her reactions to the unpleasant scenarios anyone could face on a bad day leads to her losing everything. That’s relatable; most of us have genuine and rational fears regarding what others think of us and what the impact of those perceptions could be. “Imposter syndrome,” that haunting feeling that one will be found out to be a fraud, is not uncommon for even the highest-performing individuals.
And then there are those of us who really do have something to hide.
Surveillance technology plays a role in many episodes of “Black Mirror,” as it does in the ongoing social debate over what personal information should remain private. “The Entire History of You” and “Arkangel” play on the common fear that our most intimate moments will be revealed to others. Blackmail is used against those spotted engaging in illicit activity in “Shut Up and Dance,” and an awkward guy uses spy tech to seduce his date in “White Christmas.” And let’s not forget “Hated in the Nation,” where drone insects meant to artificially pollinate crops are also used for spying and assassinations.
As troubling as all these technologies are, arguably the most disturbing piece of privacy-shattering tech is presented in “Crocodile.” Here, a device called a “Recaller” is used to retrieve and display memories. Initially, the device is used for criminal investigations, but the insurance industry quickly adopts it. An insurance adjuster armed with a Recaller is deployed to find out what really happened before settling a claim, inadvertently revealing the main character’s violent past.
With many employers going beyond the standard background check and drug screen and making a deep dive into an applicant’s social media activity and a credit history, it’s not hard to imagine this technology being adapted to that end in our own society.
A Future Without Work
AI and machine learning are on everyone’s mind. Tech visionaries are promising the code of tomorrow will change just about every element of our daily lives.
Just as advancements in agricultural technology led to a vast reduction in the number of people needed to produce food, and automation slashed the number of workers in modern factories, autonomous vehicles, drones and clever algorithms threaten to upend the futures of millions of workers. From what we’ve seen in the past, there are winners and losers with every major burst of innovation. But ultimately, new industries and jobs are created with these advancements. While jobs are lost and workers are displaced, the demand for newly created jobs leads people on to new endeavors, and economies continue to grow with workers who are more productive than ever thanks to new technologies.
Still, what if AI runs amok and forcefully takes over the current workforce?
“Fifteen Million Merits” presents characters immersed in a world where nearly every surrounding surface is an interactive screen, bombarding them with ads perfectly tailored to their exact tastes and preferences — because they’re under constant surveillance.
People do continue to work, but most jobs have been reduced to menial tasks, such as pedaling exercise bikes that power the world around them. In this unfortunate paradigm, humans are left to serve the machines they’ve created. The episode also addresses the growing class anxiety that accompanies economic inequality. Low-skilled workers are offered a chance at upward mobility with a chance to compete in an “X-Factor” or “American Idol”-style talent throwdown. They need only turn over massive sums of “merits” earned from their time on the cycling machines.
This episode runs parallel to the ongoing conversation we should be having both within industry and government about how we will transition a workforce that will be increasingly integrated with intelligent machines. We can’t trust the tech giants to feed us revolutionary technologies without also planning for the disruptions they will create in millions of lives.
A Future Where Work Never Ends
“Black Mirror” explores the topic of immortality in several episodes. In one in particular, “Be Right Back,” a woman named Martha revives her lover, Ash, as an android after he is killed in an accident. Android Ash lives on, with a personality based entirely from his prolific past use of social media and other online communication.
In “White Christmas,” Matt, the main character, works for a company that temporarily implants a tiny chip called a “cookie” in willing clients’ brains. The cookie duplicates the person’s consciousness and is later removed and installed into an egg-shaped device that serves as the central control for the house of the future. It also serves as the client’s ultimate personal assistant — one that truly knows everything about its boss.
While having an assistant that runs your household around an acute awareness of all your tastes and preferences may sound appealing, viewers are presented with an ethical dilemma. Matt is tasked with orienting a copy of a woman named Greta’s human consciousness to its new job, and must do so by crushing its humanoid spirit.
The digital Greta is deeply traumatized by this situation, as she initially believes she is the real Greta. Confined to a bare, white room with only a computer and desk to carry out her tasks, simulated Greta refuses to cooperate. To make her comply, Matt alters her perception of time, making a few seconds confined in the room feel like months. The boredom and loneliness ultimately create a submissive, catatonic being, perfect for a life of servitude.
A less sadistic example of putting our digital selves to work comes in “Hang the DJ,” in which a dating app pairs simulations of real people to determine perfect matches with uncanny accuracy. Many of us might wish for a virtual version of ourselves to suffer through the horrors of dating for us. But, taken together, these episodes leave us to wonder if it’s right to subject digital forms of consciousness to situations that range from unpleasant to outright abusive.
A Reflection and a Warning
Aside from presenting our fears of isolation and the perils of immortality, “Black Mirror” also touches on our fear of being trapped in a job we hate. This is evident in “USS Callister.” Robert Daly, a brilliant programmer who designs a revolutionary and successful video game platform, traps simulated versions of co-workers he feels have wronged him in a special version of his game. In this fantasy world, his coworkers must cater to his every whim lest they be tortured or turned into space monsters. In desperation, they’re driven to try to to delete themselves.
As dark as “Black Mirror” can be, we should view the series not as signalling our fate, but as a warning. The real threat to our livelihood comes not from technology, but from the way we treat one another. As long as we’re able to respect and empathize with our fellow workers, we shouldn’t have to fear omniscient employers who reduce workers to soulless drones. Like the many different settings and realities that exist within the “Black Mirror” landscape, the technology we’re becoming more and more dependent on can lead us in an infinite number of directions. It’s up to us to preserve our humanity and steer technology in a way that maximizes well-being for all.