I finally am getting around to examining “Black Mirror,” the British anthology series that explores, sometimes in a science fiction context, ethics issues involving technology. It is a critical hit, and has just had its third season posted on Netflix.
Technology ethics is a dynamic and crucial topic. I sure hope the series is better than the first episode, “National Anthem.”
If you are going to do a series about ethics, knowing something about ethics is mandatory. This episode is so absurd and its resolution so idiotic that it’s barely worth analyzing, No spoiler alert necessary, because I’m only going to reveal what would be in any preview synopsis. The Royal Family’s princess is kidnapped by terrorists—I think that’s a fair description—and they release a video on YouTube in which the terrified young woman announces that she will be executed unless the Prime Minister has live sex with a pig, on all TV networks.
The rest of the episode’s 60 minutes involves the PM’s “ethical dilemma” as social media weighs in and his staff and family apply various kinds of pressure. I wouldn’t waste an Ethics Quiz on this alleged “dilemma.”
It is idiotic. The first rule of ethics hypotheticals is that they have to be plausible in some context, and the ethics problem presented has to be one with multiple competing options. This fails on all counts. It is unethical for any nation to comply with terrorist demands and extortion, unless the choice is between national annihilation and something less final. No responsible nation would pay ransom for the release of a hostage—well, maybe the current U.S. government, but it is neither ethical nor responsible—because it would encourage more and worse terrorism threats.The episode wants to make a statement about the power of social media, but this situation would and should never get within social media’s influence, and no competent government would allow it to do so.
The demand in “National Anthem” is worse than ransom, arguably more costly, and opens up a slippery slope so steep and dangerous that any fool should be able to see that it cannot be considered. Next time, make the PM have sex with his daughter, or…well, you think about it. There is no ethical dilemma here, in any realistic context. The answer is no, never, and even if they subject the Princess to a slow salami slicer and mail her to Buckingham Palace in 700 manila envelopes, it is still never.
Verdict: Bad hypothetical, bad ethics, bad episode.
Cute pig though.