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Space-age sci-fi has been full of ominous planets inhabited by aliens. Sci-fi in the Information Age also has its dystopias of Big Brothers and earthling victims.
The British TV drama Black Mirror offers up a crystal ball into the future when human beings are inter-connected by technology to the dangerous degree that the lives of many are easily wrecked.
The episode ‘Shut Up and Dance’ could have been written by Edward Snowden himself. It is a chilling commentary on the omniscience and omnipotence of Big Brother or hacker, often one and the same thing. Kenny is a teenager who has viewed something online which he shouldn’t have. Through a malware on his computer, a hacker has filmed Kenny’s indiscretion and coerces him to take part in a crime. What’s special about the crime is that all of its perpetrators (a spectrum of ordinary folks) are in the same situation as Kenny, their scandalous secrets threatened to be posted online if they do not yield to the hacker mastermind.
Another episode ‘Nosedive’ paints a tragic-comical dystopia in which people not only give and get ‘likes’ on social media but depend on the ratings they get for their convenience and happiness. Lacie tries to be nice and friendly to everyone in the hope of raising her rating a few decimal points. But through a series of mishaps she finds her rating nosediving, and Armageddon descends and drives her to the edge of disaster (she is refused boarding on a plane and in every other way socially ostracized). In a world where total strangers or mere acquaintances could decide your happiness, liaisons on social media easily slips into liaisons dangereuses.
‘Be Right Back’ is a dark meditation on where human life ends and big data begin, or vice versa. Martha’s partner Ash died in an accident. In coping with her grief, Martha stumbles upon a company which uses the words Ash had posted on social media to enable a synthesized voice to carry out conversations with Martha. Martha got hooked and soon finds that even Ash’s body and behaviour can be cloned through coding. She can live and sleep with Ash again. The drama asks if we have indeed solved the human problems of intimacy, memory and mortality in one go with reprogrammed big data.
This crystal ball treats us to a long view of how developing technology may impact on our lives socially, morally and philosophically. The aliens, however, do not exist on distant stars but in the devices.
This article was originally published in No. 496, Newsletter in Apr 2017.