Black Mirror is among Netflix’s most popular original programs. The series features plots ranging in emotional impact. Any given episode may end up happy, sad, or sometimes utterly terrifying. One of the show’s key themes is technological advancements. Every episode of Black Mirror features a new, fictional bit of technology, like a robot dog, that the audience gradually learns about to understand the plot of the episode.
One of the biggest takeaways from Black Mirror is the seismic clash of human nature and the new technology introduced. Oftentimes, this clashing serves as a warning against current or potentially overstepping technological advancements. In other words, we should watch what we create because it may have unforeseen consequences.
In the show, the result of this clashing proves deadly, and in one case, post-apocalyptic. Despite warnings against technology we see on the show, some people are seeking to create things similar to the fictional technology on Black Mirror.
One of the first instances of Black Mirror technology: Robot police dogs
Boston Dynamics, a company that focuses on robot design and product solutions, recently created a 70-pound robot dog “Spot” or “Digidog.”
These four-legged and faceless creatures are uncanny look-alikes to the insidious robot dogs depicted in Black Mirror. Boston Dynamics shared Spot with a few police departments across the country. Back in April, you could find them in Massachusetts, New York, and Hawaii.
Boston Dynamics designed Spot to be incredibly mobile so one could “automate routine inspection tasks and data capture safely, accurately, and frequently.”
Thus, Spot could hypothetically help police investigate crime scenes to ensure safety before any officers are sent in. Some also believed that these robot police dogs were a win for the Black Lives Matter movement, as a formulaic robot might not have the same biases against BIPOC as officers do.
However, Spot and the police departments that utilize him have been receiving a lot of backlash–and for good reason.
The robot dog receives backlash
First, the use of these robot dogs to bolster law enforcement is inappropriate especially now.
Police in America have been under public scrutiny for years for the way they treat BIPOC and marginalized groups. The push to defund the police was emphasized over the summer in conjunction with a re-emphasis on the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of Black individuals including George Floyd
Public recoil against these dogs is understandable considering how these robots only help militarize the police, further upsetting the power balance between police and BIPOC. Luckily, the NYPD ceased to use these robots at the end of April for this very reason.
Second, Spot comes across as “creepy” and dystopian. Artificial Intelligence decked out with legs, cameras, and lights and working alongside the police seems like something straight out of apocalyptic fiction. And that’s probably because it is.
Black Mirror’s technology and recreating dystopian science fiction
We saw robot police dogs first in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The weaponized “mechanical hounds” in Bradbury’s dystopian society would be sent by firemen (the main law enforcement) to hunt fugitives.
We’ve also seen these mechanical police dogs in the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead.” This episode follows a woman fleeing from the robot dogs in an unexplained post-apocalyptic world.
The show implies these robots may have taken over their creators. They hunt her and other humans down using sophisticated tactics and weapons. I would not be surprised if the creators behind this episode found inspiration from Bradbury’s work, be it conscious or unconscious.
Both of these works of sci-fi highlight the hyperbolic dangers of artificial intelligence in government control. It was the stuff of fiction, but now we’re seeing these robot police dogs in the streets of the US. Why are we playing with the tropes of dystopian sci-fi? Is it wise to ignore what these fiction creators are telling us?
Dominos robot pizza delivery
I was sitting on my couch when I stumbled upon a Dominos pizza commercial featuring an interesting new company prototype. It’s a driverless, automated pizza delivery “car” that is being tested in select US markets.
Surely an interesting concept, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this somewhere before. I had.
I saw it on Black Mirror, in the episode called “crocodile.” In said episode, was it a benign piece of technology? Mostly, yes. Although it did hit a jaywalker as he crossed the road. This action set in motion the remainder of the events in the episode.
Is a pizza robot hitting someone nearly on the same level of severity as a killer police dog apocalypse? Obviously not. Does it beg the same question to be answered? Yes, it does.
Just like in Black Mirror, why create technology we can’t control? Why would anyone seek to build things featured in a science fiction show about the perils of technological expansion?
Science fiction isn’t usually prophetic
Look, science fiction is much more often wrong than it is right. The whole genre hinges on the sensationalization of new technology that we don’t understand. Often, the technology we are meant to “fear” in the history of science fiction becomes something we eventually learn to live with.
Take Frankenstein for example. When Frankenstein was written, the goal was to capitalize on public fear of this radical piece of technology called “electricity.” It goes without saying that in modern times, electricity is one of the most essential parts of our lives.
Jurassic Park was released in the 1990s when research in genetic mutation and selection was at an all-time high. The movie highlighted the dangers of becoming carried away with this technology that the public feared so much. What became of it? Nothing.
Genetic research still plays an important role in various scientific fields and is no longer viewed as overly threatening. Maybe the “threats” we perceive from science fiction are just an escalation.
Even robots themselves originated from science fiction. As David J. Gunkel reveals in his interview with Scientific American:
We get the word robot from the Czech word robota, which comes to us in a stage play from 1920 by Karel Čapek. So our very idea of “robot” is absolutely connected to, and you can’t really separate it from, science fiction—because that’s where it began.David J. Gunkel
So how are Black Mirror and current technological advances different?
The difference between the above works of science fiction and what is currently happening with technological advances is the follow-through.
Take for example the previous examples regarding Frankenstein and Jurassic Park. Nobody ever successfully followed through on an effort to clone dinosaurs or reanimate a corpse.
But in this case, scientists have successfully introduced prototypes similar to science fiction technology. It is as if engineers are looking at works of dystopian sci-fi like Black Mirror to figure out what to do next. Should we really be bold enough to replicate aspects of dystopian societies?
Although these writers and producers created works of fiction, their societal commentary still deserves our attention and respect.
As we see the terrifying works of Black Mirror and Fahrenheit 451 come to life… as we see Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale become frighteningly relevant when Roe v. Wade is under attack, we should turn our attention to these intellectuals behind works of brilliant fiction. They aptly warn us of the dangers underlying our society–they just do it with a creative touch.
Additional contributions by Sam Shenkler.