Is Black Mirror already happening?

By | 26th October 2016

A couple of days ago I have finished watching the third season of Black Mirror on Netflix. I must say that it was pretty good, but, perhaps not as good (and, sometimes, frightening) as the previous seasons. However, as I already experienced with the episodes produced by Channel 4, I sometimes got the sense that what I was watching on my screen was not just a bleak premonition of the near future or, just as many viewers, commentators and even Charlie Brooker itself put it, the logical outcome of the current technological and social developments led to the extreme, but that it was also something that already happened or that is happening right now.

Consider, for instance, the first episode, ‘Nosedive’, where people continuously rate each other and most of them are obsessed with it because many things depend on one’s own rating: your bus stop queue, the car model you are allowed to hire, the party you are invited to, your own job, and so on. It might apparently seem quite a dystopia, but it is already occurring or about to occur. Consider, for instance, Peeple, the app invented by Peep Inc., a Canadian start-up, and which “is a reputation application that allows you to recommend and be recommended by the people you interact with in your daily lives in the following three ways you can know someone: Personal, Professional, and Dating”. Peep Inc. claims that they “want character to be a new form of currency. Peeple will provide you a safe place to manage your online reputation while protecting your greatest assets by making better decisions about the people around you”. I cannot say how successful this app has been. It might well be one of those which make it on the newspapers and then disappear, unused, in oblivion. However, some days ago the news about plans of a sort of nationwide rating system in China called ‘Internet Plus’ started to circulate. I quote from The Independent:

In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points. And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.
(…) The overriding principle: “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.” A whole range of privileges would be denied, while people and companies breaking social trust would also be subject to expanded daily supervision and random inspections.
The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China’s companies and citizens in a single place – and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal “credit.”

I am not really sure how things would work if such a rating system were put in place. Actually, there might be a number of unintended consequences that could potentially make it a disastrous social experiment, or perhaps just unworkable. As far as the intended plan is concerned, I think a few similarities with the reality described in Black Mirror‘s ‘Nosedive’ may be noted.

In ‘Shut Up and Dance’ (episode 3), resemblance to reality is even more striking. In the story, some people are forced to do some actions demanded by hackers threatening to reveal some of their most hidden secrets (watching paedophile porn, having an extramarital affair, or racist behaviour). Someone on Wikipedia wrote that similar circumstances occurred when Brian Douglas Well, a pizza delivery man in Pennsylvania, who had a remotely controlled bomb fastened to his neck under coercion, was blown up by the maker of the bomb after robbing a bank. I would rather point out that in the case of the character caught attempting cheating on his wife using an online dating website, one may recall the case of the Ashley Madison hack last year, which even led two people to commit suicide. But it is not just the latest season that has displayed similarities with real events.

Comparing David Cameron’s alleged and unproven Piggate to the events of the first episode of the series, ‘The National Anthem’, would really misleading, since the number of differences as for the facts and the context is huge. ‘The Waldo Moment’ (season 2, episode 3), instead, reminds me of something that happened in Italy. According to Slate‘s Laura Bradley, Waldo may resemble Deez Nuts, a fake candidate set up in the United States by a 15-year-old boy in Iowa and who, at one point, started faring quite well for an independent candidate (between 7% and 9% in Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina). Charlie Brooker, instead, compared Waldo to Donald Trump. I think, as some have noted in Italy (Pietro Minto on Studio and Philip Di Salvo on the Italian edition of Wired, for instance), that Waldo is Beppe Grillo. Grillo started his career as a comedian and is not a cartoon, of course, but he has sometimes a cartoonish style; moreover, he is angry, he is not afraid of using swear words, and, thanks to his widely read blog and the MeetUp platform, he created his party, the 5 Star Movement. The main rally event in the history of Grillo’s party is the so-called V-Day, which stands for Vaffanculo Day (that is, Fuck Off Day) – a thing that would be typically Waldo-style.

One last note. The 5 Star Movement won a 25.5% share of votes in the latest general elections in Italy, held on the 24-25 February 2013. Huge (and pure) coincidence is that ‘The Waldo Moment’ was first aired on 25 February 2013.

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