Black Mirror’s big AI episode has the wrong villain

Joan (Annie Murphy) isn’t nearly as awful as a computer that steals lives. | Nick Wall/Netflix

You’re okay, Computer — it’s the corporations that aren’t.

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

The first episode of the season, “Joan Is Awful,” takes on this trend toward automation within the entertainment industry in particular, a concern the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) have been protesting through their ongoing strike, with the Stage Actors’ Guild (SAG-AFTRA) poised to join them. Over the last decade, streamers have tilted industry development and payment standards toward unsustainable volumes of content for watchers and unsustainably low wages for writers. Now industry executives are staking claim to actors’ voices, writers’ stories, and user data for future automated entertainment too. Netflix, the industry-defining streaming service that airs Black Mirror (and outbid the network that originated the series for that right), is one of the biggest targets of the strike — and Black Mirror’s latest season takes aim at the streamer, too.

Black Mirror lobs sideways shots at Netflix in a few episodes, but the target in “Joan Is Awful” is direct and timely; a distinctively red logo-ed service called Streamberry uses a glittering quantum computer to transform a generative AI thought experiment into TV 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 less ready-for-primetime parts) could be contracted as digital puppetry, the show’s usually incisive arrow ultimately misses the heart of the issue. Streamberry’s “Quamputer,” as the AI machine is named, holds the blame for the episode’s disasters, and destroying its magic light show yields a happy ending. In the real AI story, however, the villains are human, not miraculous machinery — which is exactly 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 it’s tech, media, and entertainment industry executives who are choosing a Black Mirror-esque future for us all, not some faceless computer. Any satisfying conclusion to this concern will be the result of human, not technological, transformation.

In “Joan Is Awful,” Joan (Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy) discovers she’s become the main character of the day writ 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 from the actress. Each episode airs shortly after Joan’s real day, turning her secrets into plot points and her screw-ups into laugh lines. As a result, Joan’s life falls apart and she attempts to gain Hayek’s attention so they can leverage the star’s power to shut down the series.

It works, to a point: After Joan makes a disgusting scene that Hayek’s digital version is compelled to repeat, Hayek commands her lawyer to get her out of the Streamberry contract. But the star’s agreement is ironclad (page 39, paragraph 8 includes all acts up to and “beyond defecation”), as are the user terms and conditions that allowed Streamberry to make content out of Joan’s life events in the first place. If this story is a whodunnit, the company’s lawyers and executives have blood on their hands — but they remain offscreen. There’s nothing cutting-edge about a deal with the devil. (In fact, the last episode in the season, “Demon 79,” set in the late 1970s, begins with just that biblical contract.) Black Mirror gets that part right.

Nick Wall/Netflix
At Streamberry’s headquarters, things are not quite as they seem.

When Joan and Salma Hayek arrive at Streamberry headquarters, they find their way into the computer room, where a beautifully Apple-styled and sized “Quamputer,” or quantum computer, is running the show. Joan grabs a handy ax to smash the computer, and turtlenecked Streamberry CEO Mona Javadi (Leila Farzad) begs for mercy for the artificial lives and shows that would evaporate without the machine’s fairy dust. (“We don’t know how it works!” she screams. “It’s basically magic!”) Joan destroys the machine anyway, freeing herself and all 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 conclusion and a human one, in line with the rest of the new season of Black Mirror, which offers the unmistakable impression that Charlie Brooker is as sick of writing about tech’s dark reflection as the rest of us are of living in it.

But what about that Streamberry CEO? What about the system that compelled her to delegate creativity to ones and zeros? In the episode, Javadi tells a cowed reporter that the machine prefers negative storylines to positive ones for higher engagement. But who pressed the button to operationalize that strategy in “Joan Is Awful”? (We know who made an eerily similar choice in the real world: Facebook’s and Twitter’s executives.) Brooker has said that when it comes to AI, “you can’t put the genie back into the bottle.” In “Joan Is Awful,” smashing one glass iBottle seems to fix the problem. Won’t the fictional CEO and others like her rebuild the same tech with the same goals for the same paying customers? AI is made of people. So why are the people in power let off the narrative hook?

In real life, the move toward AI wasn’t triggered by a serendipitous technological discovery like a “Quamputer,” and it hasn’t been deterred by a single point of failure, either. Corporations and research institutions have been working on machine learning and large language models for decades, and the decision to pour more money into AI development is a business one. The bet is that AI will increase productivity, scale markets, and decrease costs enough to justify an estimated $154 billion in 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 escape the controlling “profit motive” powering development. A machine that can generate personalized content for every person on the planet is not magic; it’s what happens when tech advancement meets late-stage capitalism. But Black Mirror’s “Joan Is Awful” is uncharacteristically silent on that distinction.

Of course, Charlie Brooker can’t solve capitalism. A high-budget show paid for and hosted by the second-largest streaming service in the US cannot bring down generative AI or deliver a win to entertainment industry unions. But popular art does play an essential role in the cultural conversation about technology and its all-too-human puppet masters. For over a decade, Black Mirror has been one of our sharpest critics of the dark side of innovation, sparking discussions around technology’s influence on politics, creative industries, personal privacy, and society’s shifting moral lines. Through Black Mirror’s 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 smartphone, tablet, computer, or television, looks in the off position — has even become cultural shorthand for the unsettling sensation 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 profoundly 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 put out the Google Home in 2016.)

Today, AI might be the most pressing industry concern — but not because the singularity is on its way, as many AI thought leaders warn. Murphy, who portrays Joan in “Joan Is Awful,” recently said it “hurts her guts” that “we are alive in a time when people are having to ask and beg for their jobs … not to be replaced by computers.” It’s the begging that’s gut-twisting, not the computers. And it’s the humans hearing those pleas who are turning the knife. That’s a Black Mirror tale if I ever heard one.

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