Famed writer and creator of one of the most popular dystopian anthology series in history, Charlie Brooker, spoke at length about his own experiments with OpenAI’s ChatGPT during his SXSW Sydney keynote speech, in addition to the profound influence – and similarities – Black Mirror has had in the real world.
I’ve spent most days this week walking abound the International Convention Centre for the first ever SXSW held here in Sydney, dipping into talks such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from the innovative and exciting worlds of tech, music, screen and sports, and have been greatly surprised by the sheer volume of people wandering the halls and filling the ICC’s many function rooms.
Growing up in London I watched a lot of British television, and knew of Charlie Brooker, iconic TV personality and Black Mirror creator, during his early career working with Channel 4 on shows as Dead Set – which received a handful of elated woos from the at-capacity SXSW crowd – and his many satirical BBC series that reflected on the week in television.
I figured Brooker would undoubtedly garner a lot of interest from visitors to the inaugural SXSW event through the success of Netflix’s Black Mirror, and so I arrived an hour before he was set to take his place on stage for his keynote interview in the ICC’s Pyrmont Theatre.
I was staggered to see thousands of people already clambering into the sectioned-off area reserved for keenos like me to queue ahead of time; but in hindsight, it’s unsurprising given the show’s unprecedented global success over the last decade and its continued relevance and shared similaritoes with our own experiences with tech and AI.
Now into its sixth season, Black Mirror has panned 27 episodes and one interactive film, earning Emmys and BAFTAs for outstanding television since it first debuted in 2011.
The original premise, as recalled by host Julia Zemiro, was: “If technology is a drug and it does feel like a drug, then precisely are the side effects? This area between delight and discomfort is where Black Mirror is set, and the black mirror of the title is the one you find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand. The cold shiny screen of every TV and the monitor and the smartphone.”
For Charlie Brooker, his disillusionment with everyone’s seemingly manufactured happiness was the initial spark that launched Black Mirror; seeing people using tech in their everyday lives where they’re always happy “haunted” Brooker, he revealed, and reminded him of the “the footage they show the old guy in films just before they euthanise him.”
It was this initial discomfort with seeing the positives of emerging tech presented without any of the inevitable side effects that encouraged Brooker to lean into the storm and develop the premise of the celebrated show.
“When you get a company that offers a service to replicate dead people as an AI chatbot, well, that’s not going to help people grieve is it? In our particular episode of that, it doesn’t turn out well. Things like that upset me.”
“I don’t conceive of the show as a warning; I’m not the Unabomber. I’m not trying to say ‘smash up every computer you see!’ But I am, generally, often, outling some downside.”
Episodes such as The Entire History of You, which explores a world where a piece of technology embedded in the human eye that can record, save and replay memories, which inevitably leads to the demise of the central characters and their relationship, said Brooker, shouldn’t serve as a warning against the advancements in tech, but should probably be considered.
“There was a thing called The Pendant; somebody’s come up with a thing that records everything you do and hangs around your neck like a constant court stenographer. And we did an episode that had memory recording stuff.”
It was a hellish presentation of the tech that would ultimately serve as a useful tool in the beginning, or even a fun gimmick that you can play around with in the beginning, as Brooker considers ChatGPT, is that it ultimately becomes an issue in the flawed hands of humanity.
“Equally you can see why people would want that, because it would be useful,” Brooker continued. “But unfortunately, the one side-effect of having a device hanging around your neck or lodged into your eyes, recording everything you say or do, 24 hours a day, the world becomes a living f***ing nightmare!”
For Brooker, it must become an alarming case study of how fictitious scenarios he’s brought to life on screen can inadvertently become blurred with a shared reality. But I think that’s also where the mass appeal of Black Mirror stems from; the scariest episodes are always the ones that seem so objectively possible; the ones that can exist in our everyday… something only heightened in the modern age of AI.
“I’m scared by the thought of weaponised fake footage being used as misinformation,” Brooker remarked. “Because we’re already in a period where we’re dividing ourselves into groups where people are choosing their own version of facts.”
“How the hell are we going to solve the problems we face if we can’t agree on what reality is, or what the truth is? The fact that we could be under attack even more than it is at the moment is terrifying. So, that scares me.”
As a writer, Brooker admitted he had played around with ChatGPT out of fear of being replaced; something I’m sure we’ve all struggled with over the last year as this technology learns and improves.
“I worry about it [AI] as a writer; I can see its value as a tool like a conversational Google throwing ideas at it… Well, not throwing ideas at it, throwing questions at it. Like, ‘What would a Victorian chimney sweep have for breakfast? and that sort of thing. ‘Tell it to me in the style of Paul McCartney.’ But the notion is, it can’t really generate original content of its own.”
“One of the first things I did when I tried out ChatGPT was said, ‘Go on give me an outline for a Black Mirror story,'” Brooker confessed. “I didn’t get it to write the script. And as it’s coming through in the first couple of sentences you feel a cold spike of fear, like animal terror. Like I’m being f***ing replaced. Sod it, I’m not even going to see what it does, I’m gonna jump out the f***ing window.”
“Then as it carries on you go, ‘Oh this is boring. I was frightened a second ago, now I’m bored because this is so derivative. It’s trying to tell me what it thinks a Black Mirror idea is, rather than it actually coming up with a new one; it’s emulating something.”
It’s refreshing to hear Brooker recall his initial experience with the OpenAI Chatbot, putting questions and prompts to it just to see what it does, and by doing so, almost trivialising its inherent efficacy. He likens the experience to two children meticulously balanced on top of each other and concealed under a large overcoat attempting to get into an R-rated movie; it’s just an imitation.
“It’s Hoovered up every description of every Black Mirror episode, presumably from Wikipedia and other things that people have written, and it’s just sort of vomiting that back at me. It’s pretending to be something it isn’t really capable of being.”
SXSW Sydney is the first time the world-famous festival is held outside out Austin, Texas and runs until 22 October 2023.