My name is Gabe Teninbaum. I'm a professor who teaches people how to analyze legal problems and to resolve them by leveraging technology.

Popular TV as a Tool for Thinking about the Future of Technology, Law, & Society

Fans of the TV show, Black Mirror, include everyone from Stephen King to Wired Magazine.

The fanbase also includes a group of lawyers and technologists interested in what the show can teach us about the future: a professor working at the intersection of law/tech/innovation (me), an MIT Computational Law researcher (Dazza Greenwood), other friends at the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, as well as a rotating cast of legal tech leaders who keep up a regular patter of 140-character conversation about the show on Twitter.

If you haven’t seen it on Netflix, Black Mirror is a speculative fiction show that explores the consequences of the unchecked use of new technologies on society. Think Twilight Zone meets the Consumer Electronics Show. Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, and even a different reality. But, as the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, told a reporter “they’re all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

While Black Mirror is entertaining to sit back and enjoy, it also has the effect on me of bringing my mind back to my day job teaching law. Speaking personally, As I watch, I find myself, over and over, asking: “if the technology in this episode makes our society look like this, how would it interact with existing laws as they currently exist? And how should the legal system adapt to what is happening here?”

Like others in the legal field, I live in a world of hypotheticals. Legal education is built around made-up fact patterns designed to help us analyze gray areas in the law and to sharpen our thinking about policy. When it’s done correctly, with enough repetition, this pattern of thinking becomes our pattern of thought all the time. Because of this, shows like Black Mirror give an amazing amount of grist for the mill of those interested in the intersection of law and society.

It’s not just as a lawyer that I see these issues and noodle on their fixes. As a technologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about the tools we can build to improve lives and connect people to one another. I also consider how they change us, as a community.

So, with that lead in, it seems that shows like Black Mirror, and others of its genre, give us lots to discuss. Consider just one Black Mirror episode, the darkly satirical “Nosedive” (Season 3, Episode 1. Here’s a trailer, and, if you haven’t seen it, here is a summary/analysis of the episode.).

Watching this one episode raises many questions, both for technologists and legal thinkers. From the technology end, one might wonder:

  1. Given the response of those portrayed on Nosedive to this app, how could we re-design a tool like a“Yelp for People” app to connect people, without it becoming a corrosive influence on relationships?
  2. What circumstances make it so that people behave the way portrayed in this episode, and how (or should) we work to change those conditions for the better?
  3. How can we build tools that connect people socially without causing the sort of isolation that Lacie suffered?

From the legal end, here are just a few that I’m still working through:

  1. What does due process look like in a world in which rating equates to access to services? Can opportunities accessible to the public be denied over a low rating?
  2. Does the tort system — through defamation or another cause of action — give some remedy to those unfairly given a low rating? Should it?
  3. How does one balance the right of privacy for those that choose not to participate in this rating system (the episode involves only a few, who live as pariahs) with the rights of others to express themselves by creating an app that constantly rates one another?

For those of us (like me) not creative enough to write our own speculative fiction, responding to legal and technological issues in others’ work is a great start.

So what should we do?

We should all get together and talk about these issues…and a show like Black Mirror makes for a good starting point to do so.

And the we doesn’t just mean lawyers or law professors. Having lawyers, alone, just talk it out isn’t the right way to do this. Students of technology should participate in the same discussions: when tech companies adopt the slogan “move fast and break things,” it should be predictable that some of them will get big and, well, things will get broken (like, for example, when their algorithm spreads fake news and undermines election results).

Having legal futurists working with technologists when it comes to anticipating and responding to problems is a win for the techies, the lawyers, and society as a whole. And, according to the theory of social physics, creating groups with diverse membership promotes the spread of good ideas.

So, let’s get together. We’ll watch an episode of Black Mirror (though other shows that hit some of the same chords, like Humans or Westworld, would also work), then let’s talk about it. We can do this as an “alpha” test for those interested. If it’s a positive experience and well-received, it’ll be easy enough to repeat on a larger scale. If it’s not, at least there was the chance to get together and talk about a great show.

Interested in participating? I’m proud to be collaborating with the group at the MIT Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Lab, and we’d like to invite you to join us. Please keep an eye out here (the blog) for specifics.

You bring your ideas, we’ll supply the popcorn. We’ll all watch, then talk. It’ll be fun. Who’s in?