White Christmas

Black Mirror’s “White Christmas” features two men, Matt and Joe, who introduce three connected mini-stories that take place in a dystopian technological future.

Matt first shares a scene from his night occupation, where he runs an online group that uses “Z-Eyes,” a first person audio/video streaming embedded device, to watch each other have sex with women. Leveraging Z-Eyes, Matt can see and hear through Harry, a side-character, who he coaches to interact with and woo females. The group inevitably gets exposed and Matt’s wife blocks him. “Blocking” is a powerful property of Z-Eyes that blurs reality, making Matt see his wife as a colourless silhouette.

Matt then introduces his day job, a weird operation where an individual, in this case someone named Greta, gets a digital clone of his or herself that is stored in a small egg-shaped device, known as a cookie. The cookie’s role is to perform dozens of extremely mundane tasks in support of the “real person’s” life. Matt’s job is to micromanage this cookie, where he passes down orders and ensures productivity. Greta’s cookie rebels and refuses to do her work. Matt retaliates by changing the speed of time, forcing Greta to experience months of boredom in just a few seconds. Eventually, he pressures her into incessant labor. Joe sees Matt’s job as a form of slavery and expresses his distaste. Matt then begins to learn more about Joe’s past, as Joe recounts stories of how he got blocked by his wife and has been longing to see her ever since. It turns out that this entire episode, all of the exchanges, was an investigative ploy, as Matt collected the testimony he needed for conviction. The irony is that Matt, himself, is effectively imprisoned and stuck on an offender’s list. The scene ends with Joe trapped in a cookie, listening to Christmas music at 1000 years per minute.

This segment has numerous ethical implications, as rapid technological innovation pervades society and raises interesting legal dilemma.

Z-Eyes bridge the gap between personal and public space, unveiling concerns of mass surveillance and privacy invasions. While a component of what seems to be a distant future, Z-Eyes are really an extension of today’s existing technologies. Free tools like Periscope enable users to showcase their live audio and video from anywhere with a stable internet connection. Budding platforms, like Twitch and Instagram, surface these live streams to growing audiences of millions of watchers. Watchers can comment and interface with producers in real-time. There are numerous positive use-cases for this type of material. Live content is uniquely immersive, raw, and interactive. Streamers span a wide variety of verticals, from e-sports to comedy to beauty. Youtube, Instagram, and several other larger players are pouring significant investment into this space. In general, we see more and more forms of entertainment and communication entering this realm of “live-form” content.   

These interactions, though, are already beginning to amplify ethical dilemmas…what type of content should and should not be allowed to be streamed? Facebook Live has received serious criticism for users streaming videos of murders and suicides. For additional support, they have rolled out waves of teams responsible for monitoring content. I would expect more and more platforms to take these types of preventative measures in the future. I think, more broadly, society still needs to put guard rails in place as to guide who, how, and what should be able to be recorded. I am not sure how we come to a consensus, as corporations will likely selfishly exploit these types of technology given consumer demand.

Cultural norms are another major barrier to adoption for accessible, hands-free live streaming devices. A big reason that projects like Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles have been met with little success over the years is that, culturally, wearing cameras over your eyes comes across as a threatening appearance. Though, I believe this will change over time, as individuals are already becoming significantly more comfortable around a camera (like Snapchat Stories). I think that Z-Eyes are an unjust implementation of these technologies, as they enable users to record without notifying other people. I believe that all documented parties should be made aware of the stream via some sort of signal or flashing light. This is at least one step manufacturers can take to ensure their products are met with some level of morality.

Another interesting feature brought up in the episode is the concept of “blocking” other people. In today’s society, we all have access to blocking functionality, but it is only available in the digital world. We can block users from seeing our profiles and sending us messages. For a civilization that relies so heavily on the internet (for pretty much anything), digital blocking is extremely powerful. All in all, I see blocking as a very important feature that restores agency and helps individuals escape scammers and enemies. The problem, prompted throughout the show, is that making “blocking” easy and convenient inevitably leads to overuse and abuse. While less consequential in the digital world, this can be used unfairly in certain edge cases. Much like restraining orders, I think it is critical to consider both sides of any “blocking incident,” as there can be many unintended effects to any such decision.

The final major theme presented via the introduction of Cookies (digital clones) is this philosophical idea of power and control. Is it right to use technological means to trick people into giving you answers? Matt exploits the power of Cookies to get what he wants. In most modern states, it is illegal to begin recording someone’s voice without receiving verbal or written consent. This is an important layer of protection against manipulation and ensures both parties are aware of the context being discussed. While in believe in ascertaining the truth, I see it as only moral and fair for there to be a level surface, such that no individual party begins at a higher ground in any negotiation-setting.

Also published on Medium.