'Black Mirror' Fears Should Inject Wariness Into CES Gadget-Fest

It's simply hard, in a post-'Black Mirror' world, to be all that optimistic about the future of technology

Bellus shows off masks created with its 3D scanning cameras Credit: CES

The Consumer Electronics Show is an inherently optimistic enterprise: company after company eagerly unveiling the best of both the now and the near-future, competing to showcase their visions of how life will get better or easier over the next several years. In years past, these products often felt superfluous at their worst – I’m still not sure why I would ever want a curved television screen or a toilet with a voice assistant – but rarely did they feel particularly sinister. This year, though, something has changed in the air, infusing the influx of headlines touting new gadgets and services with an undercurrent of creeping horror. CES 2018 has come back around in the midst of peak Black Mirror fervor, immediately following the release of the show’s long-awaited fourth season on December 29th, and suddenly it feels like an endless succession of “next week on…” teasers, or the first ten minutes of an episode on loop. It’s simply hard, in a post-Black Mirror world, to be all that optimistic about the future of technology.

So many of the narratives we encounter and consume on a daily basis in films, television, and (especially) video games are narratives of exceptionalism, hero’s journey power fantasies that tell the stories of people or groups of people who succeed in the face of impossible odds. As audiences, we find these narratives comforting and enjoyable. In our natural, human impulse to identify with their viewpoint characters, this litany of lone survivors and chosen ones, we are encouraged to imagine ourselves and our own lives as being similarly exceptional, or at least carrying the potential for some exceptional future. However, Black Mirror, in its focus on the darker consequences of future technological advances, creates a different form of exceptionalism for its characters. The stories are centered on these characters not because they are necessarily destined to succeed in any way, but because of the way that the situations that they face happen to uniquely illustrate the potentially horrific or poignant human and societal consequences of their episode’s particular technological focus. Often, their problems are less a result of systems that function as intended or of the machinations of any specific malicious actors than they are simply worst-possible edge cases: extreme examples of what can happen when an innovation designed with good intentions collides in an unexpected way with the messy realities of people’s lives. So it is that to watch the announcements of CES 2018, so soon after the release of a new season of Black Mirror, becomes a chilling exercise in imagining the worst ramifications possible for each successive product or service – the ways in which we could ourselves potentially end up as exceptionally unlucky edge cases.

The inherent pessimism of Black Mirror’s conceit is perhaps hardest to ignore because of the countless real-life news stories that feel like they could be ripped from past or future seasons of the show. Today's reality includes Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature outing a psychiatrist’s clients to one another, Target’s pregnancy-prediction algorithm revealing secret pregnancies, hackers RAT-ting webcams in order to spy on and blackmail people. Living in the modern world increasingly means adjusting to the knowledge that with each new convenience we gain, we become potentially vulnerable in ways that we could not possibly have imagined or predicted, and then most likely still adopting those conveniences anyway while hoping it won’t come back around to bite us. We decry invasive surveillance while carrying internet-connected devices with cameras and microphones and GPS locators with us everywhere we go, hoping that they will not become compromised, knowing that if they do (or if they are already have been), we will most likely not find out about it until well after the fact. We feel uneasy when a new app requests permission to access the camera and microphone, perhaps pausing for several seconds, and then we most likely accept anyway, because we want to see our faces with the animated panda filter on. We think, "I can go back in and disable this later," and then sometimes we even do. But a lot of times we don’t.

Given their shared focus on extrapolating forward a few years from current technological trends, it makes a certain amount of sense that CES and Black Mirror can feel at times like evil-universe twins of each other. CES seeks to show us a boundless array of better potential futures, while Black Mirror takes useful technologies and highlights their ironic downsides in the bleakest possible manner. The memory-recording technology from the season four episode “Crocodile” has obvious potential to hugely benefit society by making it easier to catch dangerous criminals, alongside equally obvious privacy implications, as the episode briefly touches on in the scene where the dentist has his memories examined. However, instead of being content to simply coast on highlighting the privacy concerns that immediately jump to mind, the episode instead takes a shockingly dark turn to explore what happens as a result of this technology’s implementation in a situation where a criminal is determined to eliminate all possible witnesses to their crime. The events that follow in this case are most directly the result of a bad person choosing to commit bad acts. But they are acts that would not have occurred if it weren’t for the existence of the beneficial technology; a tool to eliminate crime indirectly causes far more horrific crimes to occur, in a way that its creators most likely did not conceive of. This is the lesson that Black Mirror delivers again and again, and when it arrives in such proximity to CES, it’s hard not to see the relation between the two.

So I see the potential benefit of a wifi-connected smart shower like U by Moen, but not without first envisioning the potential for a hacker or angry family member to use its remote connectivity to suddenly burn a someone in the shower with scalding-hot water. I see the ways that Blue Frog Robotics’s companion robot, BUDDY, can improve the life of someone who needs extra daily assistance or wants to feel less lonely, but not without first picturing what will happen years down the line when a BUDDY begins to degrade and owners must watch their beloved companion robot die. The pessimism is infectious – I may not know or be able to picture exactly how a smart fridge can nightmarishly screw me over, but in early 2018 it is simply hard to shake the feeling that somehow, one day, it could and it will.

Are these fears at all realistic or rational? Most likely, no, they are not. But if Black Mirror, and the past few years of real-life edge cases, have taught me anything, it's that future realities that I haven’t considered could very well be worse.