Commentary: Ed Lordan–How Are TV Shows Like Westworld and Black Mirror Depicting our Technological Future?

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[Ilexx/Dreamstime.com] Artificial intelligence refers to human-like intelligence in a computer system, allowing it to perceive, plan, reason, communicate, and learn like humans.
For decades, television has depicted the future in scenarios that range from dismal to idealistic. Such cartoons as The Jetsons and Futurama approach the future with light-hearted jokes, while such sci-fi classics as Star Trek and Dr. Who use the future to comment on the present. All seem to be crammed with the imagery of powerful robots, fantastic transportation, and, of course, sleek silver clothing.The latest television depictions of the future include Black Mirror and Westworld. Critics consider Black Mirror to be the modern equivalent of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone: a disturbing series of stand-alone vignettes that explore everything from technogadgets to quirky relationships. Westworld explores unchecked human behavior in a world full of pseudo-human robots.

Themes of Ethics and Technology

Both programs use future scenarios to examine ethical issues and human conduct, whether it’s with robots or other humans, or within the individuals themselves. Robots, in particular, present an entire set of ethical issues. Their portrayal creates fertile ground for ethical explorations: are they subservient (slaves and servants), equal (substitutes to meet the physical and emotional needs of humans), or superior (artificial intelligence systems, out-of-control human creations, menacing enforcers, etc.)?. Some of the relationships among robots and humans are static and some are evolutionary, but each presents a perspective on human values and how those values play out in terms of conduct. In other words, ethics.

The “what if” component of future-based television also presents exceptional opportunities to test ethical positions in ways that traditional scenarios cannot. “When does a robot become human?” is, in fact, a version of the core question “What is it to be human?”

“What would you do if you could commit crimes without consequence?” becomes an alternative analysis of personal and social responsibility separate from the legal system.

What happens when robots begin to think for themselves, or to attain consciousness? Should a robot be treated the same as any other piece of equipment, or does it require some additional level of respect from human beings? What about when the robot’s thinking and conduct become more similar to, or even indistinguishable from, the human it is interacting with?

The future presented on television is not all that far off from the way we live our lives today. We verbally command our television to record our favorite show, ask Siri to make dinner plans, and instruct Echo and Alexa to control the lights in our homes. Our GPS apps tell which way to steer our cars, although control of the vehicles themselves may soon be turned over to driverless automobiles. Ultimately, though, technology is a collection of tools, and we are responsible for how we use them. Westworld and Black Mirror feature robots, but the real focus of the stories is always on the people—what they value, how they think, how they act. These shows don’t just explore the potential of technology, they also examine the potential of human beings. Is their depiction of technology and how we use it as part of our everyday lives optimistic or pessimistic?

About the Author

Dr. Edward J. Lordan is a professor of communication studies at West Chester University, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and an Advisory Board Member for ABC-CLIO’s Pop Culture Universe database. He has a bachelor’s degree from West Chester University, a master’s degree from Temple University, and a doctorate from the Newhouse School At Syracuse University. Lordan has taught courses in communication theory, public relations, advertising, political communication and media history for two decades at five different universities. He has published more than two dozen papers in academic publications as well as three books: Essentials of Public Relations Management (Burnham, Inc. Publishers), Politics, Ink: How American Editorial Cartoonists Skewer Politicians, From King George III to George Dubya (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), and The Case for Combat: How Presidents Persuade Americans To Go To War (Praeger), which traces the history of presidential war rhetoric in America.

 

Lordan, Edward J. “How Tv Depicts the Future of Ethics and Technology.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas, ABC-CLIO, 2018, popculture.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2136045. Accessed 3 May 2018.

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