Black Mirror is an anthology series that explores the relationship between humanity and technology. Each episode takes us to a near-future world that often demonstrates the disturbing potential of today’s innovations. Season four includes the episode “Metalhead,” in which our anxieties regarding intelligent, autonomous drones is examined. The premise is simple; the protagonist must escape an AI controlled, dog-shaped drone that seems intent on killing every human it comes across in a post-apocalyptic world.
There’s far more to the story than this outline, and, insofar as Metalhead can be seen as a meaningful cultural artefact, its significance is in its subtler details. On the surface, it could be argued that Metalhead isn’t particularly unique. Fear of AI has haunted our cultural imagination for decades. Why analyze yet another manifestation of this trope? However, the particular way that it’s depicted in this episode has relatively novel elements, little quirks that speak to contemporary concerns about specific technologies in our modern lives
One of the important plot elements of Metalhead is how different characters manoeuvre through their environments. The world they exist in is almost technologically identical to ours, just a little more advanced. Computer systems are slightly more integrated into everyday objects. However, in this story these advancements are of little benefit to the human characters and a significant advantage to the drones. In one scene, a human character struggles to hack into a car to make an escape. He anxiously tries inputting passwords he’s written down on his notepad to start the car, eventually succeeding. Unfortunately, it’s too late. The drone catches up with him, kills him, and then takes over the car. This ability to interface with the car is what allows the drone to catch up with the protagonist. In a later scene, the drone gains entrance to a compound wherein the protagonist is hiding by connecting to a gate’s electronics, effortlessly opening it. In both cases, the episode makes a point of the chasm between human and machine, between user and tool. Whereas the drone seamlessly commandeers electronics to its ends, the human characters struggle to communicate with their devices. Their struggle is inherent in their humanity, in their inability to directly interface with technology.
These plot points allude to an underlying fear that we seem to have; what if the technology we’ve irrevocably woven through our everyday lives actually poses a threat to us? This technology by and large seems as innocuous as it is ubiquitous. It is our Roombas, thermostats, remote car keys, and all the other smart devices that make modernity so relentlessly convenient. Each individual smart device is, taken by itself, relatively dumb and limited in its capacities. That makes our domination of them feel more totalized, making them benign. We might fear HAL from “2001 a Space Odyssey,” but could we ever fear our smart fridge? Yet what Metalhead does is that it takes these technologies and congeals them into a potentially hostile mass. These devices, though inert in themselves, become dangerous by their membership within a network, by their de facto allegiance to the murderous drone, and by the repurposing of our conveniences for our demise.
It’s unsettling, and it speaks to a contemporary concern about whether we should trust the integration and connectivity pushed by today’s techno-utopians. Is it healthy for us to rely on technology in such a pervasive, all-encompassing way? Though we don’t have to worry about murderous autonomous drones just yet, we nonetheless have substantive reasons to justify our concerns. The most obvious example would be the hacking of cars and electronic home assistants. In both of those cases, our tools of convenience turn against us to harm or surveil. The possibility of this kind of hacking justifies our feelings of unease about the growing presence of these tools in our lives. Beyond that there is the interesting case of the Mirai virus. Launched in 2016, the virus hacked into countless “Internet of Things” devices, devices with integrated smart electronics, like those listed before. It used these devices to construct a formidable botnet, through which it launched distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. The interesting thing about the Mirai virus is that it forces one to reconsider how computerized the minutiae of life has become and the vulnerabilities inherent in this. There is a growing, subtle but discernible loss of trust in these objects. As much as technology is touted as an extension of ourselves, it never can be.
Black Mirror is an intelligent series, one that stakes itself in exploring our apprehensions about technology and modernity. Given its large budget and limited number of episodes, it’s unlikely that anything in it is accidental. Metalhead, as a piece of art, is both a product of, and commentary on, our uneasy relationship with this brave new world of integrated technology. While there are other cultural commentaries like it, none seem to take the problem and connect it so emphatically to the question of personal safety, survival, and brute violence. It efficiently shows us a world made hostile by banalities turned against us and tells us to take heed.
Photo: Maxine Peake in Black Mirror (2017) by David Slade via IMDB
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.