In the digital age, ‘Black Mirror’ becomes a window into reality

In 2018 Tech Issue, Opinion
(Dalia Quiroz / Daily Titan)

“I got his permission to upload and monetize this. He’s fine now,” stated the uploader of a YouTube video documenting a 13-minute session of “VRChat”, a video game in which players assuming the avatars of mostly popular characters interact with each other in an uncannily detailed virtual reality.

Early in the video, the gamers enjoy the lifelike environment when they notice that one player’s robot avatar is collapsed on the ground in a fetal position. The player can also be heard gasping for breath over his in-game microphone.

It becomes clear that this player is experiencing a seizure in real life, and the others, a set of frantic anime characters, a 3-D Morty from “Rick and Morty,” a likeness of television personality Phil Margera in his underwear and an LED-lit Wendy (Yes, the Wendy from the titular hamburger chain), are all surrounding the incapacitated player, trying to bring him to his senses.

But this is a virtual world. None of the other players, who could be from different points of the globe, can provide any real medical assistance. All they can do is watch, speculate and listen to the player’s agonized breathing.

The video, uploaded by YouTube user Rogue Shadow VR, garnered over 600,000 views online. A multitude of responses in the comments section contained the words “Black Mirror.”

On phone screens, laptop monitors and TV’s, it’s easy to stare for hours at electronic, moving visuals. When the device is shut off, all that can be seen in the dark screen is oneself staring back.

In 2014, Charlie Brooker told British television station Channel 4 that this came to mind when naming “Black Mirror,” his “Twilight Zone”-esque anthology about futuristic technology.

From a dating app that literally simulates users’ relationships over and over again based on their matching traits and qualities (“Hang the DJ,” season four) to electronic bee swarms reprogrammed by Twitter trends to become brain-burrowing killers (“Hated in the Nation,” season three), the series theorizes potential human nature when faced with feats of as-of-yet unseen technology.

As some viewers have pointed out already, those theories may soon be realized.

The show’s firm stature in pop culture has nurtured a keen eye in some internet users for potential episodes in the day-to-day unveilings of new, real-life tech by major companies.

A March 2017 report by the Wall Street Journal detailed one of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s more ambitious ventures with his company Neuralink, which seeks to integrate human brains into computers in an effort to extend the human mind and help it process information faster.

The Journal also reported that the company has raised $27 million of the $100 million goal from investors so far.

In response to the story, Twitter users were immediately met with “Black Mirror” flashbacks, harkening back to “Playtest,” an episode from season three in which a tech company uses the human mind as an interface for an ultra-realistic, virtual reality video game, much like the aforementioned “VRChat”.

Hooking up the human mind to a computer was an idea also covered in “San Junipero,” an episode from season three, in which people could upload their consciousnesses into a virtual party town.

In another example, a Jan. 8 tweet from Pizza Hut’s Twitter account announced the company’s concept for a “fully autonomous,” pizza delivery truck. The tweet came just days after season four of “Black Mirror” was released on Netflix, including the episode “Crocodile,” in which a self-driving pizza delivery truck set off a chain of dramatic and irreversible crimes.

The unveiling of Pizza Hut’s concept was so outstanding to those who had seen “Crocodile,” that the official “Black Mirror” Twitter account responded to Pizza Hut with the tweet, “We know how this goes.”

Perhaps the most disturbing example of all, however, is one that has not been fortuned by any “Black Mirror” episode yet.

A Jan. 19 report by The Intercept investigated classified National Security Agency documents provided by Edward Snowden, which disclosed the NSA’s ability to analyze one person’s distinctive voice through characteristics such as pitch, shape of the mouth and length of the larynx.

The Intercept reported that the NSA uses an algorithm to create a computer model of the individual’s vocal characteristics, or “voiceprint,” and that “by intercepting and recording millions of overseas telephone conversations, video teleconferences and internet calls … the NSA has built an unrivaled collection of distinct voices.”

The consequences of such a technology? “There are microphones all around us all the time,” said Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, to The Intercept. “We all carry around a microphone 24 hours a day, in the form of our cellphones.”

The Intercept’s story, which raised the collective eyebrow of Twitter, was perhaps the first major wake-up call for the public on the ramifications of advanced technology in the wrong hands. How will the government use this voice-recognizer now? How will it be used in the future? With issues of free speech and press overtaking the national conversation in the last year, picturing this new form of surveillance in the hands of the current U.S. administration could practically raise Orwell from his grave.

Technology is indeed society’s double-edged sword. With every innovation meant to progress humankind, a pitfall is presented. Maybe that pitfall is the autonomous pizza delivery truck handing people their fate, or the NSA recognizing voices like Siri, or perhaps worst of all, having a seizure in a virtual reality video game and then coming to and seeing a half-naked Phil Margera standing over you.

Regardless of how valid these concerns may be, it is clear that “Black Mirror” is quickly becoming a window into reality.

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