Black Mirror’s big AI episode has the wrong villain

Black Mirror's big AI episode has the wrong villain

Black mirrorTV’s best tech-dystopian anthology series, is back with a sixth season, just in time for a new wave of horrific real-world concerns: crypto crashes, data breaches, and most pressingly, a horde of capitalists frothing to the mouth to replace human labor with generative AI.



The first episode of the season, Joan Is Awful, takes on this trend towards automation within the entertainment industry in particular, a concern the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has protested through their ongoing strike, with the Stage Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) ready to join them. Over the past decade, streamers have tilted industry development and payment standards towards unsustainable volumes of content for viewers and unsustainable wages for writers. Now industry executives are reclaiming actor voices, writer stories and user data for future automated entertainment as well. Netflix, the streaming service that defines the broadcast industry Black mirror (and surpassed the network that originated the series for that right), is one of the strike’s biggest targets and Black mirrorThe latest season of Star Wars also takes aim at the streamer.

Black mirror throws shots sideways on Netflix in a few episodes, but the target in Joan Is Awful is direct and timely; a distinctively red-logoed service called Streamberry uses a glittering quantum computer to turn a generative AI thought experiment into television programming, ruining lives along the way. But while the episode does a humorously vivid (and star-studded) job of imagining a future where anyone’s life could become IP for prestige TV, and any actor’s face (and parts less prime time-ready) might be contracted like digital puppets, the show’s usually hard-hitting arrow ultimately missing the point. Streamberry’s Quamputer, as the AI ​​machine is called, is responsible for the episode’s disasters, and the destruction of his magical light show yields a happy ending. In the true story of AI, however, the villains are humans, not miracle machines, which is why so many writers and actors are counting on collective action to make a difference.

The episode, written by Black mirror creator Charlie Brooker sidesteps the fact that his tech, media and entertainment executives who are choosing a Black mirror-esque future for all of us, not a faceless computer. Any satisfactory conclusion to this concern will be the result of human, not technological, transformation.

In Joan is terrible, Joan (Schitts Creeks Annie Murphy) finds she has become the star of the day written large: Streamberry has created a show based on her life, starring an AI-generated Salma Hayek (played by the real Hayek), whose likeness the company has contracted by the actress. Each episode airs shortly after Joan’s real day, turning her secrets into plot points and her bullshit into laughter. Joan’s life falls apart as a result, and she tries to get Hayek’s attention so they can harness star power to close out the series.

It works, up to a point: After Joan makes a disgusting scene that the digital version of Hayek is forced to repeat, Hayek orders his lawyer to get her out of her contract with Streamberry. But the deal with the stars is iron-clad (page 39, paragraph 8 includes all acts up to and beyond defecation), as are the user terms and conditions that allowed Streamberry to create content from events in Joan’s life in the first place. If this story is a whodunit, the lawyers and company executives have blood on their hands but stay off the screen. There’s nothing edgy about a deal with the devil. (Indeed, the last episode of the season, Demon 79, set in the late 1970s, begins with that very Biblical contract.) Black mirror gets that part right.

At Streamberry HQ, things aren’t quite what they seem.

Nick Wall/Netflix

When Joan and Salma Hayek arrive at Streamberry headquarters, they find their way into the computer room, where an Apple-sized and styled Quamputer, or quantum computer, is running the show. Joan grabs a handy ax to smash the computer, and high-necked Streamberry CEO Mona Javadi (Leila Farzad) begs for mercy for the artificial lives and spectacles she would evaporate without the machines’ pixie dust. (We don’t know how that works! She screams. It’s basically magic!) Joan destroys the machine anyway, freeing herself and all of the generated Joans contained within.

Skipping a couple of twists, the episode ends with Joan in a new job and a new life, content to figure out how to be the protagonist of a much smaller story. It’s a hopeful and humane conclusion, in keeping with the rest of the new season of Black mirrorwhich gives the unmistakable impression that Charlie Brooker is as sick of writing about the dark reflection of technology as the rest of us are of living in it.

But what about that Streamberry CEO? And the system that forced her to delegate creativity to ones and zeros? In the episode, Javadi tells a cowed reporter that the machine prefers negative storylines over positive ones for more engagement. But who pushed the button to operationalize that strategy in Joan Is Awful? (We know who made an eerily similar choice in the real world: Facebook and Twitter executives.) Brooker said when it comes to AI, you can’t put the genius back in the bottle. In Joan Is Awful, breaking a glass iBottle seems to fix the problem. Won’t the imaginary CEO and others like her rebuild the same technology with the same goals for the same paying customers? Artificial intelligence is made up of people. So why are people in power let loose from the narrative hook?

In real life, the shift to artificial intelligence wasn’t triggered by a serendipitous technological breakthrough like a Quamputer, nor was it deterred by a single point of failure. Companies and research institutions have been working on machine learning and large language models for decades, and the decision to invest more money in AI development is a business decision. The bet is that AI will boost productivity, scale markets and reduce costs enough to justify an estimated $154 billion global spending on AI by the end of 2023. Prominent AI researcher Timnit Gebru has called the current AI craze a gold rush and argued that the industry needs better regulation to get out of control of the profiteering that fuels development. A machine that can generate personalized content for every person on the planet isn’t magic; it is what happens when technological progress meets late-stage capitalism. But Black mirrors Joan Is Awful is uncharacteristically silent on this distinction.

Obviously Charlie Brooker cannot solve capitalism. A big-budget show paid for and hosted by the second-largest streaming service in the United States can’t bring down generative AI or deliver a win to the entertainment industry unions. But folk art plays an essential role in the cultural conversation about technology and its all-too-human puppeteers. For over a decade, Black mirror has been one of our sharpest critics of the dark side of innovation, sparking discussions of technology’s influence on politics, the creative industries, personal privacy and the shifting moral lines of society. Through Black mirrorWith sensitively drawn portraits of people and relationships trapped in crises of faith, the show’s title, a reference to the way a screen, be it a smartphone, tablet, computer or television, appears in the off position has become even a cultural shorthand for the uncanny feeling of living in a future not quite designed for the more complex realities of the human condition.

Since the show first aired in 2011, the tech industry has only grown in power and influence, as companies embed technology even more deeply into our culture and economy. (For context, Uber launched in 2011, Zoom in 2012, Doordash in 2013. Apple released the iPad in 2015, and Google launched Google Home in 2016.)

Today, AI may be the industry’s most pressing concern, but not because the singularity is on the way, as many AI thought leaders warn. Murphy, who plays Joan on Joan Is Awful, recently said that she hurts that we’re alive in an age where people have to ask and beg for their jobs… lest they be replaced by computers. It’s begging that makes guts twist, not computers. And it’s the humans who hear those pleas that are turning the knife. She is a Black mirror fairy tale if I ever heard one.

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