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silverspawn


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  • 153 weeks
    Dystopias in Black Mirror

    (Black Mirror is a series consisting of self-contained 1-hour long episodes that usually contain a science fiction element. It’s on Netflix and it’s very good.)

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Oct
7th
2018

Dystopias in Black Mirror · 10:34pm Oct 7th, 2018

(Black Mirror is a series consisting of self-contained 1-hour long episodes that usually contain a science fiction element. It’s on Netflix and it’s very good.)

Wikipedia describes Fifteen Million Merits (that’s the episode with the bikes) as a “science fiction dystopia”. Men against fire, that’s the dud of the show, the episode with the roaches, is “set in a future with dystopian and post-apocalyptic elements”. White Bear (the memory-reset one) is a “dystopian episode”. Metalhead and the Waldo Moment aren’t directly called dystopia in the intro, but it is implied at least by some other people.

There are two episodes depicting dystopias in Black Mirror. They are not among the above.

Humans, in general, are empathic creatures. Most humans are made to feel uncomfortable if they see a person they like suffer. Unfortunately, empathy is a highly flawed system: it doesn’t apply if the person harmed is part of the outgroup (that’s how public executions could persist in the middle ages), and it is scope-insensitive. If you ask one group how much they’d be willing to pay to save one starving child, and another how much they’d be willing to pay to save five starving children, the first group will respond with higher amounts. If you ask one group how much they’d be willing to pay to safe 10000 birds, and one how much they’d be willing to pay to save 100000 birds, you get barely distinguishable answers. It’s not that empathy scales non-linearly, which I would already call a bug, it’s that it doesn’t scale at all.

Black Mirror is the best demonstration of how this this fact could be catastrophic that I’ve ever seen. In the show’s finale Black Museum (spoilers inc), there is a person who is to be executed on the electric chair after being convicted of some crime. Someone else creates a conscious (!) copy of him, whom he keeps in a virtual prison in a museum. People who visit can pull a lever which replays the execution, meaning that the conscious person suffers through 12 seconds of electricity frying his brain once again. This happens several times per day.

If that was all, it would be on par with the worst kind of torture that has actually occurred throughout history. But it gets worse; much, much worse. After pulling the lever, the visitors may take a souvenir. That is another conscious copy of the prisoner who is in the same state – of electricity frying his brain – but not just for 12 seconds. The copy is in that state permanently. The following statement is literally true: every person who took home a souvenir has committed an ethical crime greater than anything anyone has done throughout human history, up until a few decades ago.

The most frightening thing about the episode is the total disregard for the ethical monstrosity from every single character. Perhaps one person in ten thousand is in a mental state damaged enough to physically torture another person if they had to do it personally. Perhaps one in a hundred thousand would do it over a year. But normal people can take home a souvenir. Many of them might feel bad for a convicted criminal who was beaten up if they talked to him or her for an hour, but they can commit a crime a hundred thousand times as bad as beating someone to death without shedding a tear. Even the person who set up the museum, who has single-handedly caused more suffering than every medieval tyrant, torturer, arsonist, and sadist who ever lived taken together, is not portrayed as evil. At the end of the episode he is being killed by the ‘protagonist’, but she kills him for revenge, not for noble reasons or even for justice. She ends the suffering of the original copy of the convicted felon – who is her father – then takes with her a souvenir of the person in charge...

An in a world where people can watch Fifteen Million Merits, where the worst thing that happens is people being fed degenerate entertainment, and Black Museum, by far the most horrible future or just setting in general I have ever seen anyone think up, with the exception of the Christian Hell – in a world where they can watch both episodes and call the first one a dystopia – in such a world, the horrors of Black Museum begin to feel plausible. It is not evil people that’s the problem. It’s the stupidity of empathy.

(relevant)

The other dystopia featured by Black Mirror is White Christmas. In this world, humanity has also figured out how to create conscious intelligent digital copies of humans, and they have used this to sell rich people their personal assistants: a digital clone with all of your memories who knows your preferences perfectly is the perfect person to manage your schedule, turn on music if you want to, do your toast, etc. Alternatively, if a suspected criminal won’t talk, create a copy of him and get the copy to talk. This episode is not quite as horrible as Black Museum just because no-one is shown to inflict pain on the digital copies, but they can speed up the rate at which subjective time progresses for said copies relative to the objective time, and they are not above leaving them on for a subjective 10000 years, trapped in a room. After all, the person has committed a crime...

The good news, and this is actually good news, is that I suspect that in the event/worlds where we make this kind of technology publicly available before human nature or society has dramatically changed, humanity probably goes extinct pretty quickly. If a not-particularly-important guy has the technology to create intelligent conscious people at his whim, then plenty of people should have the opportunity to do something that destroys humanity. it’s much easier to cause extinction than to prevent it.

Really, this just demonstrates that a good future cannot be a liberal democracy. If we look back over the history of humanity in thousand years, we should see democracies as this thing that briefly popped up and then vanished. We need something like a benevolent god, one powerful AI that takes a decisive advantage and prevents everyone else from also getting there, or from causing extinction or suffering in other ways. Humans are too stupid to be left in charge.

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