Black mirror & scenario thinking

FreedomLab’s research team frequently organises scenario sessions for the purpose of thinking outside of the status quo and to uncover societal dynamics, which under normal circumstances are not easy to spot. Here, we usually take an extreme future event as a starting point to flesh out a scenario. These events could either be social, political, economic, technological or environmental in nature, with issues ranging from “What would happen if the Netherlands suddenly have to take in 2 million refugees?” to “What would happen if all of our private online data was suddenly public?”.

Now, as a complementary approach we want to experiment with using sci-fi tv-series and movies to provide us with these scenarios. The advantage here is that script writers have already fleshed out a well-researched hypothetical situation, encompassing an extreme event, consequences, rules and internal coherence, something which in our sessions has always taken quite some effort. At the same time, these stories leave enough room for our own extrapolations, analogies and analyses.

Our first experiment was applied to the episode ‘Man against fire’ from the newly released third season of Black mirror, a series which focuses on the dark side of technology. In short, the story revolves around a soldier and his military squadron, who are fighting so-called cockroaches, monstrous creatures that appear to be a threat to humans. We also come to know that these soldiers have a brain interface called MASS which allows them to use an augmented reality system to receive mission critical information and operate drones. As the story continues we come to the grim discovery that MASS is deceiving the soldiers by projecting the monstrous appearance on top of people that do not seem to meet the genetic and physical requirements of a totalitarian government. In the end, our protagonist unsuccessfully rebels against his own superiors, forcing him to undergo a ‘system reboot’.

Interestingly, our subsequent analysis mostly lead to finding analogies within our history and current society. For example, the mobilisation of citizens through misinformation (“did fake news contribute to Trump’s election win?”), the deceiving and de-empathising effect of interfaces (“do we kill easier when using military drones? Do we know that we train Google’s AI when we input search queries?”), the dehumanisation of social groups (“Are we also guilty of demonising the opponent with our election rhetoric for the benefit of political power?”)  and the philosophical consequences of memory loss. As with our scenario sessions, this episode does not so much show us a future world with new issues, but is flagging dynamics that are already happening in our current world through means of exaggeration. In the future, we could extend our exercise with additional questions like: “what are other consequences of the premise?” or “how likely is the scenario, and how would it come about in our world?” Furthermore, we could also use the production’s premise as an inspiration for creating our own premise. So, besides being a good source of procrastination, these forms of entertainment also function as a powerful tool to kick-start your own scenario thinking sessions.