Enacting Reflection Through Sci-fi

Black Mirror and Philosophy

Black Mirror and Philosophy edited by David Kyle Johnson

Enacting Reflection Through Sci-fi

Black Mirror & Philosophy

Sergio Urueña

Editor’s Note: In the following, Sergio Urueña outlines how some Black Mirror stories—the ones that seem to have a certain dose of reality wrapped in halos of fantasy—not only tell something about our social realities but could also shape reality itself.

Science Fiction & Philosophy

How often have you tried to imagine a distant future and it resulted in being strongly influenced by futuristic technologies? Since late modernity, our visions of the future have been shaped by technology (and vice versa). This is probably not very surprising. Indeed, it is not necessary to be an expert about science and technology to know the important role that technologies play in our social reality and to recognize that this role will be maintained or even strengthened in the future.

Many artefacts (smartphones, computers, tablets, etc.) that surround us have fundamentally changed our relationships to our natural and social environment. The fact that technologies have a big impact on our daily lives, combined with the latest news about the promises and possible risks that emerging technologies could bring, invite us to imagine how the technologies of the future might look like and what futures these might hold. How will we change our lives through technologies?

One of the most popular artistic genres that introduces us into imaginary socio-technical future scenarios (i.e. future scenarios in which the interdependence of technologies and society is clearly discernible) is science fiction. Although by definition sci-fi narratives are fictitious, they always have nuances of reality that make them plausible or credible. (See Dickson) Who has not watched a sci-fi series or a film while thinking, “This is too close to reality” or “This could definitely be real?” In fact, it seems that the robustness of the connections between the fictional story and reality is what makes this genre particularly attractive and enables it to perform its various possible functions. For instance, sci-fi can be used to entertain, to popularize science and technology, or to encourage reflexivity at the present about the future implications of certain social and techno-scientific co-evolution paths. Indeed, as Ben Bova pointed out, “[o]ne vital role of Science Fiction is to show what kinds of future might result from certain kinds of human actions,” (p. 5) thus performing as a means for “act[ing] as an interpreter of science to humanity.” (p. 10)

Nowadays, a growing number of scholars from the humanities and the social sciences focus on this last critical-reflective potential of sci-fi narratives. More precisely, and because these narratives could be used as sources for enhancing critical reflection on a reality (such as the co-constituting dialectics between science and technology with society), they might find some connections with philosophical activity. Daniel Dinello expressed this same idea by claiming that “science fiction serves as social criticism and popular philosophy. Often taking us a step beyond escapist entertainment, science fiction imagines the problematic consequences brought about by these new technologies and the ethical, political, and existential questions they raise.” (p. 5) The same author also stressed a political side of sci-fi when he emphasized its potential to help us to understand the magnitude of the techno-totalitarian threat so we might invent tactics for confronting it.” (p. 17)

Black Mirror series is what sci-fi does best: it is a good source for popular philosophy. By raising the question “What if the technology ‘X’ co-evolves with the socio-political and axiological context ‘Y’?,” the dystopian or utopian scenarios in Black Mirror place the interaction of human values and technologies at the heart of their narratives and capture some of the multiple public concerns about the relationships between science, technology and certain socio-political regimes. What is important here is not too much the answer (i.e. the scenario) as such, but rather the very question of how people constitute worlds through technology. In fact, sci-fi stories have often failed to predict our future (obviously, that is not their aim). Black Mirror stories express more about our present than about future affairs themselves. They shed more light on contemporary fears and the hopes of humanity about some social and technological systems than on what will happen. The episodes echo the values and feelings that society has about how certain socio-technical systems could co-evolve. The threat of undermining our privacy, altering our identity, the desires and risks of immortality, the fear of falling into the society of spectacle (see Debord) or into techno-totalitarian systems are some of the key topics that the Black Mirror series invites us to reflect on. Similar to philosophical activity (widely understood), the role of Black Mirror is to open up a space for reflection on key issues that permeate our current state of concerns.

Apart from the reflective function that sci-fi may have, this genre could share another characteristic with philosophical activity. Philosophy is an activity that aims not only to make the world an object of reflection (“How to think the world?”), but also to provide a (minimal) basis for practice regulation (“How to act in the world?”). Philosophical (sub)disciplines such as applied ethics contain a normative orientation that directly combines reflexivity and conceptual elucidation with practical performance.

To what extent can sci-fi in general and Black Mirror in particular encompass this normative and (pro-)active dimension? In the following, I will briefly describe some of the practical roles attributed to socio-technical futures and sci-fi in science and technology studies (STS) and philosophy of technology to promote technological assessment and governance. The question I will address is to what extent fictional socio-technical futures (such as those presented by the Black Mirror series) could be somehow useful for promoting responsible innovation. In other words, I briefly outline how some of the Black Mirror stories that seem to have a certain dose of reality (see Cawley) wrapped in halos of fantasy not only tell something about our social realities, but they could also be helpful in shaping reality itself (hopefully for the better).

Future-Making through Anticipations

Over the past two decades, STS and philosophy of technology—partly influenced by futures studies—have paid particular attention to how the future is conceived and conceptualized. The basic idea behind these studies is that promises, visions, imaginaries and other future-oriented representations (often called “anticipations”) have a performative power (for example, orienting the development of technologies and the public perception of science and technology). The way we approach and conceive the future influences our orientation and performance in the present: “Promises and concerns around technologies in the making mobilize and legitimate the activities of scientists, innovators, policy makers, and regulators, along with NGOs and other societal actors.” (see Konrad)

Sci-fi, like other forms of (popular) art, can also have its space of performativity. Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel, for example, show how science fiction stories can influence designers’ plans and users’ needs and perceptions about technology. What would all the people who saw the episode “Crocodile” think of a memory-boosting tech came on the market? Probably many would be suspicious of the technology, while others would try to show that the device has nothing to do with fictional and ‘apocalyptic’ prophecies and that it is completely safe. Furthermore, artifacts that exist only in fictional stories may later stimulate the development of a technology, either to develop a similar technology that meets the identified needs, or to try to ‘remove’ or minimize beforehand some of the caricatured risks there anticipated. Utopian narratives that embed much of their optimism in technical artifacts can raise certain social expectations (e.g. ‘hype’) may serve, for example, as tools to legitimize some lines of research. (For knowing more about the technological “hype” phenomena, see van Lente.)

To affirm that the sci-fi narratives could have a performative power does not mean that those narratives have the power to create the realities they represent. Sci-fi can influence certain aspects of reality, but it cannot determine reality. The development of technology, like any other social phenomenon, is very contingent, complex and non-linear. Indeed, another lesson we can draw from STS is that technological systems can (co-)evolve very differently depending on the social context in which they are developed and embedded. Many of the technologies presented in Black Mirror will probably not exist in the future and, if they did, they would probably be integrated in other social contexts and under other functional parameters than those fixed in the series. So how is it possible that, despite the fictitious and speculative nature of these scenarios, they could be used as a resource to assess and shape reflexivity within technological development practices?

Science Fiction & Technology Governance

Recently, new perspectives and policy frameworks have emerged to steer the systems and practices of research and innovation (R&I). Despite their heterogeneity in terms of their basic motivations and main objectives, most of them share some basic features. For example, they stress that it is necessary to go beyond the “predictive paradigm” to assess the appropriateness and uncertainty of technological innovation (see Sarewitz), and argue that research processes should be conducted using governance criteria to make the co-production process of science and society as transparent, reflective and open as possible. (see Jasanoff) Both points reflect the need for early social intervention on technological development, oriented not only to identify the potential risks of emerging technologies, but also—and foremost—to align social values and interests with scientific and technological practice in such a way that alternative paths of innovation can be explored, considered, and pursued. (see Wiek)

Two relevant normative frameworks in this respect are Anticipatory Governance (AG) (see Barden, see Guston) and Responsible Innovation (RI) (see Stilgoe). Both articulate their goals by “assembling” different elements, one of which has a future-oriented character in both cases: ‘foresight’ and ‘anticipation,’ respectively. Anticipation and foresight are practices aimed at considering multiple perspectives on possible or plausible futures during the innovation process. The aim of these ‘futures’ is not to predict, but to increase resilience, to prevent potential problems, to assess the appropriateness of some visions (see Grunwald, see Berlin) to strengthen decision-making processes through pluralistic methods. (see Selin, 2011) This involves not only recognizing the agency of imagined futures (see Alvial-Palavicino), but also considering their heuristic character to better understand our present and thereby encourage a more reflexive and responsible decision-making. (See Miller, see Selin, 2008).

Scenario development and science fiction prototyping are two specific methods among the disposable methods aimed at promoting reflexivity within technology development through the creation of future stories that explore the impact of futuristic technologies on society. (see Merrie) The aim is to use the virtues of future fictional narratives to reach different audiences, listen (and connect their voices) and explore together how the future might look in order to improve the present. The objective is to use sci-fi to “inspire and articulate emerging popular geographical imaginations” and create some kinds of “knowledges” of future situations. (Kitchin, p. 20) As Schwarz and Burnam-Fink argue, the engagement through sci-fi can create more stimulating and imaginative (less restrictive) cognitive spaces, and promote a better understanding of the nonlinear changes and the contingency of the different possible scientific-technological trajectories (against the linearity of deterministic narratives). In other words, sci-fi may be a valuable resource for promoting “anticipatory knowledge and thinking.”

Although these methods seem somehow speculative to address such a serious problem as the promotion of more responsible technological development, the openness of the future and the existing uncertainty can give some degree of epistemic and political legitimacy to the inclusion of anticipatory practices in technological assessment:

In nanotechnology, promises about new technological options abound, but little can be said definitively about their eventual realization, let alone the impacts on society. As I have already noted, an impact assessment of nanotechnology will necessarily be speculative: one could call it science fiction (about future nanotechnology) combined with social science fiction (about the world in which future nanotechnology would have impacts). Still, it is important to try and anticipate and create controlled speculations about possible futures so as to stimulate refection and broaden the scope of strategic choices about nanotechnology, and more generally. (Rip, p. 103)

As might be obvious, not everything goes. Speculation must be controlled in such a way that the stories created by scenario development and science fiction prototyping are heuristically successful (e.g. serve to strengthen responsibility and to identify alternative points of view). Although some of the technologies shown in the series are inspired by real or already available technologies and placed in social spaces that may be familiar to us, many of the scenarios are far from reality. Certainly, there are social, physical, technical and biological limits to overcome immortality or to create robots or clones of our deceased loved ones. That is not the point. Although the probability of specific Black Mirror’s scenarios can be questioned, they must be assessed against other conditions: the question of how it shows us that some kind of values and socio-technical systems may or may not be desirable. Its validity lies in exposing the way in which socio-technical and axiological systems interact in order to open up the possibility of thinking and perhaps constructing other (more) desirable alternative realities.

In this sense, if we were to make a specific assessment of the probability of each of the socio-technical systems presented in Black Mirror, we would probably retain only a few. However, the series in general can be useful in making us realize that human values and actions are constitutively intertwined, and therefore we collectively (within our scope or area of action) should take responsibility for how socio-technical systems co-evolve.

The title of the series itself is a good metaphor to express it in other words. Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, said that the title of the series evokes the following:

“Because any TV, any LCD, any iPhone, any iPad – something like that – if you just stare at it, it looks like a black mirror, and there’s something cold and horrifying about that, and it was such a fitting title for the show.” (source)

The series as a whole is an exercise in which humanity is reflected in and through technology. Black Mirror should not be understood as a work aimed at promoting technophobia, but as a warning or criticism of the way we construct socio-technical systems. The series reminds us that we are the ones who develop, implement and use technology under certain social and axiological structures. Raising awareness of the axiological and socio-political nature of scientific and technological activities could be the first step to assess later whether things can or should be different. The invitation is not only to think about (or become conscious of) a reality, but also to take responsibility for our possible role in shaping our future socio-technical realities. Black Mirror itself could be interpreted as a kind of explorative and popular philosophy of technology. Let us look further into the mirror and act to take care of reflections we see through it!

Sergio Urueña is a predoctoral research fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy, Science and Values at the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU, Spain. His publications include papers on scientific realism and technological governance, and his primary research areas are philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and the study of the role of representations about the future in technological governance.

Works Cited

Alvial-Palavicino, C. (2016). The Future as Practice. A Framework to Understand Anticipation in Science and Technology. TECNOSCIENZA: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies, 6(2), pp. 135-172.

Barben, D., Fisher, E., Selin, C. & Guston, D.H. (2007). Anticipatory Governance of Nanotechnology: Foresight, Engagement, and Integration. In E.J. Hackett, O. Amsterdamska, M. Lynch, & J. Wajcman (Eds.), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Third Edition (pp. 979-1000). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bova, B. (1975). The Role of Science Fiction. In R. Bretnor (Ed.), Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow (pp. 4-12). Baltimore: Penguin.

Burnam-Fink, M. (2015). Creating narrative scenarios: Science fiction prototyping at Emerge. Futures, 70, pp. 48-55.

Cawley, C. (2018). “7 Real Technologies That Season 4 of Black Mirror Has Ruined For me,” Techco. Tech Startup News, Events & Resources. https://tech.co/real-technology-season-4-black-mirror-2018-01.

Debord, G. (1967). La Société du spectacle. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard.

Dickson, G. R. (1975). Plausibility in Science Fiction. In R. Bretnor (Ed.), Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow (pp. 164-172). Baltimore: Penguin.

Dinello, D. (2005). Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ferrari, A., Coenen, C. & Grunwald, A. (2012). Visions and Ethics in Current Discourse on Human Enhancement. NanoEthics, 6(3), pp. 215-229.

Grunwald, A. (2009). Vision Assessment Supporting the Governance of Knowledge – The Case of Futuristic Nanotechnology. In G. Bechmann, V. Gorokhov & N. Stehr (Eds.), The Social Integration of Science. Institutional and Epistemological Aspects of the Transformation of Knowledge in Modern Society (pp. 147-170). Berlin: Sigma.

Guston, D.H. (2014). Understanding ‘anticipatory governance.’ Social Studies of Science, 44(2), pp. 218-242.

Jasanoff, S. (2004). Science and citizenship: a new synergy. Science and Public Policy, 31(2), pp. 90-94.

Kitchin, R. & Kneale, J. (2001). Science fiction or future fact? Exploring imaginative geographies of the new millennium. Progress in Human Geography, 25(1), pp. 19-35.

Konrad, K. E., van Lente, H., Groves, C. & Selin, C. (2016). Performing and Governing the Future in Science and Technology. In U. Felt, R. Fouché, C. A. Miller & L. Smith-Doerr (Eds.), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Fourth Edition (pp. 465-493). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Merrie, A., Keys, P., Metian, M. & Österblom, H. (2018). Radical ocean futures-scenario development using science fiction prototyping. Futures, 95, pp. 22-32.

Miller, R. (2018). Introduction. Future Literacy: transforming the future. In R. Miller (Ed.), Transforming the Future. Anticipation in the 21st century (pp. 1-12), New York: Routledge.

Rip, A. (2018). Futures of Science and Technology in Society. Wiesbaden: Springer.

Sarewitz, D., Pielke, R.A. & Byerly, R. (Eds.) (2000). Prediction: Science, Decision Making, and the Future of Nature, Washington, DC: Island Press.

Schwarz, J.O. (2014). The ‘Narrative Turn’ in developing foresight: Assessing how cultural products can assist organizations in detecting trends. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 90, pp. 510-513.

Selin, C. (2008). The sociology of the future: tracing stories of technology and time. Sociology Compass, 2(6), pp. 1878-1895.

Selin, C. (2011). Negotiating Plausibility: Intervening in the Future of Nanotechnology. Science and Engineering Ethics, 17(4), pp. 723-737.

Stilgoe, J., Owen, R. & Macnaghten, P. (2013). Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy, 42(9), pp. 1568-1580.

van Lente, H., Spitters, C. & Peine, A. (2013). Comparing technological hype cycles: Towards a theory. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 80(8), pp. 1615-1628.

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., Redman, C. & Mills, S.B. (2011). Moving Forward on Competence in Sustainability Research and Problem Solving. Environment, 53(2), pp. 3-13.

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