A Black Mirror on Technology

“Digital technology has made us antisocial.”

Beneath those words lay an image of several people within a room. Their necks tilted down, their heads drawn to something in their hands as they keep to themselves. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that they are all gripped by their phones.

We’ve all seen that image. An unshakable feeling of skepticism, fear, and paranoia about the advancement of digital technology has driven plenty of criticism recently. Doubts about their unreliability, lack of security, and proneness to error have been at the forefront of debates concerning the future. Even at social level, technology has been the subject of negative rumours. Allegations of its ability to decrease intelligence, seed unemployment, and pardon laziness often frequent the public sphere. Such fear of technology has been a recurring theme for quite a while.

The dystopian genre in movies and TV shows is particularly compelling to the mass market. The popular anthology series Black Mirror, for instance, is controversial and self-conscious for its bold, yet realistic depiction of possible futures where our society relies heavily on technology. Westworld explores the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) becoming self-aware by portraying an entire world constructed and maintained by technology for human entertainment. Even Wall-E, a movie targeted towards children, presents a world where technology exists purely to serve humans, who have degenerated into lazy, obese creatures.

The sense of wariness concerning technological progress is, after all, not completely unfounded. The rise of the digital age was not without issues. When Edward Snowden risked his life to expose state secrets about how the NSA was illegally surveilling its own citizens, people were shocked – and rightly so. Cybercrime has continued to increase and even facilitate the flow of criminal acts such as corporate theft, child abuse, human trafficking, etc. Even mobile apps and social media have subjected individuals to discrimination and abuse. All of these phenomena have fed into the public’s increasing sense of paranoia and insecurity about technology, as the dystopian movies mentioned above have aptly shown.

In spite of the drawbacks, however, technology holds a lot of potential for the future. There have been just as many, if not more, positive depictions of technology as negative ones on the big screen. Marvel’s Iron Man film series and BBC’s Doctor Who TV show are just a few of many well-known examples that present the positive potential of technology. Even though the setting of Wall-E presents how technology has gone awry, the film still demonstrates the extent to which technology exemplifies human achievements. The humans in Wall-E all live within a spaceship equivalent of a yacht that is self-sufficient and is a habitable home for humans (even though its inhabitants, the humans, have devolved into incapacitated creatures). In fact, the conflicts arising within the film plot are often simply caused by the human abuse of technological power or the lack of caution people have when designing their inventions. Black Mirror episodes are a particularly strong example of this, as they show the audience how people are always behind the horrors that occur due to technological use for invasive, illogical purposes.

If arguing about the state of the future seems too full of uncertainty, then look at the present! Not only has new technology helped various fields of research in their search for knowledge, they have also made life easier for humans in general. Crowdsourcing, for example, is a beneficial Internet activity that facilitates the gathering and distribution of creative ideas and mass information. This information sourcing model has been proven as important to raise awareness during times of crises, as illustrated by Facebook’s “Crisis Response” hub. Websites such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe have also been crucial in helping to raise funds for personal or charitable causes. Even celebrities are now able to help their fans through the use of social media, as demonstrated by Kendrick Lamar providing a disabled fan with a wheelchair and a wheelchair-accessible van. Even professional researchers have taken advantage of crowdsourcing to further their research. Sarah Parcak, an American archaeologist, has used crowdsourcing to assist in her research and enabled ordinary citizens to look for signs of hidden archaeological sites.

Another positive benefit brought by technology also includes the use of online media as a source of income. Nowadays, anyone can go on the Internet and earn money from their creative pursuits, which not only includes Youtubers and bloggers, but also authors, digital illustrators, artists, aspiring entrepreneurs, and more. The Internet has enabled a global distribution of information and a level of interconnectivity that allows anyone to learn about anything they want while creating employment opportunities unrestricted by location. Technological innovation has been the driving force of research in medical and astronomical fields, and technology previously used only in one area is now being developed for use in others. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR), for example, both started as the imaginations of the entertainment industry. Their functionality has now spread to assist with breakthroughs in the scientific, medical and educational industry.

All of this is not to say that our fear and wariness of the digital era is unreasonable. There will always be risks and uncertainties associated with the future. Nevertheless, we cannot let it hinder our progress. Humans have survived so far in history by continually adapting to the circumstances and improving life for ourselves. Technology has been an enormous help for us in that respect, significantly speeding up academic, economic, social, and political progress to get us to where we are now. However there is still so much to be done, and technology remains an immense source of potential in helping us to overcome the unknown challenges we are bound to face. After all, if Black Mirror taught us anything, it’s that technology itself is not what’s bad; instead, it’s how we use it that matters.