Black Mirror: Good TV, bad policy?

I love Black Mirror in the way I love long-distance running: I’m not sure why I’m doing it, the experience is usually painful, but when it’s over I’m usually glad I did it. Sometimes I even learn something.

Black Mirror is a British television show, now on Netflix, that functions as a cautionary tale to show how new technology is almost always a bad idea (though a couple episodes are more utopian).

It’s the only show people are unable to binge watch. It’s also the most ethically interesting show on television right now. When I taught an undergraduate ethics course last summer, Black Mirror came up in every class. It covers key topics such as death, punishment, privacy, artificial intelligence, dating, and even robotic bees.

One of my research interests is the ethics of emerging technologies, especially genome editing. In the past decade, scientists have made substantial breakthroughs in editing organisms. The technology is now much more accurate and significantly cheaper, making possible what was once purely science fiction.

In humans, gene editing may lead to cures for a variety of diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. In plants and insects, scientists can do things as mundane as engineering apples so they don’t brown, or potentially eradicate malaria by editing the genes of mosquitoes.

So far, Black Mirror has not done an episode on gene editing, but long-time viewers can imagine how such an episode would go:

CRISPR, one of the new gene editing techniques, is used to mutate animals for biological warfare. It all started with such good intentions though — the researchers only intended to cure diseases!

From Brave New World to Gattaca, we’re fascinated with dystopian art. But entertaining art isn’t good ethics. Our fear of new technologies is often the fault of status quo bias, a default to stick to the way things are. Psychologists have shown that this bias is everywhere.

This bias can explain why we’re so worried about new technologies: They deviate from the status quo, often with dramatic effect. It also explains how we tend to adjust to the technology over time.

When in vitro fertilization (IVF) first became available, many bioethicists and the general public believed that we had once and for all gone too far. But now, almost 40 years to the date since the first “test-tube baby,” many do not think IVF is an ethical issue (though there are issues related to it, such as access and who should pay for it). Few of the fears people had came true.

The problem with the status quo is we often don’t perceive how lives are affected. This is a mistake. Consider an analogy: If I prevent safe, effective medicine from reaching a village, the result is that people suffer who otherwise wouldn’t have. I have harmed them and have therefore acted wrongly. Similarly, if we prevent safe, effective technologies from being developed or used, people suffer who otherwise wouldn’t have.

Of course, we need to ensure technology is actually safe and effective – the risks of moving too quickly are real – but we often overlook the harms of the status quo. Doing nothing is risky too.

With any new technology, it’s tempting to think of the worst-possible outcome and conclude that the risks aren’t worth the benefits. This is the result of taking Black Mirror too seriously. Gene editing gives us the possibility to improve the lives of millions of people in ways previously unimaginable.

-By Eric Mathison, Ph.D., clinical ethics fellow in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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