The year is 2020.
A digital, “underground,” decentralized, censorship-resistant “truth or dare” style app-based game is all the rage.
Players and watchers, in peer-to-peer fashion, host the game from their devices, so there’s no single point of failure. In other words, no matter how crazy or dangerous the game becomes, it can’t be stopped or shut down.
Watchers pay a fee to recommend and vote on dares that the players must complete for a reward. If they complete the series of dares they’re given, they win big. If they don’t, they lose everything. (Kind of like Who Wants to be a Millionaire.)
If anyone — watcher or player — snitches on the game to the authorities, they end up getting their entire lives hacked. Bank, identity, social life, all wiped clean.
The authorities, from top to bottom, are powerless to stop it. The more they try to shut it down, the more powerful it becomes. (See: Streisand Effect.)
At the end of this story, the game becomes so dangerous that lives are in danger and a few players have become enslaved by the game.
If you haven’t seen it, that’s the storyline of the 2016 movie Nerve. And whether those who produced it are aware or not, they’re essentially talking about a TOR and blockchain-based app.
The movie could be interpreted as a cautionary tale about unregulated and unstoppable high-tech. (Spoiler alert: Although, we must point out, the heroes in the movie were not government authorities.)
Another movie, Dope, which came out in 2015, touches on elements of the Drug War and how bitcoin and the Dark Web are disrupting traditional drug activity in inner cities. (Yeah, it’s happening.)
The main characters get caught between gangs and are forced to sell drugs in order to compensate one side. Or else.
And rather than selling it on the streets (too dangerous) or at a music festival (equally risky), they turn to their friend, Sherwood, a conspiracy theorist, stoner and hacker, to teach them the ways of the Dark Web.
The only loose end in the movie, maybe on purpose, was a law enforcement officer attempting to track the dealers. And, in the end, whether deliberate or not, Dope painted him as largely irrelevant to the story.
In both movies, then, government officials played a very small role. When they made the rare appearance, they were mostly construed as powerless and baffled.
Which, from our perspective, despite them being cautionary tales, is, frankly, refreshing.
Because, in truth, we can’t think of how government regulation or meddling (in its current violent form) would’ve made these situations better. And it’s often the case that when government does impose its will (through the institutionalization of violence), it only tends to make the situation worse.
This theme has popped up in another place in pop culture recently. This time on Netflix in the series Black Mirror.
Black Mirror, though, operates from a different timeline. It’s a cautionary tale of the flip-side, when the surveillance state gets its way.
To explain, we invite Brittany Hunter of Generation Opportunity to the show to talk about Black Mirror’s message — and why it’s one which, despite dangers of the alternate realities of Dope and Nerve, shouldn’t go unheeded.
The Surveillance State Seen Through a “Black Mirror”
The Netflix series, Black Mirror, has garnered a great deal of attention recently for its Twilight Zone feel which leaves many viewers both slightly disturbed and intrigued. Complete with the same bizarre plot twists that Twilight Zone provided to older generations, some of the episodes of Black Mirror are rather shocking, to say the least.
However, while shock value definitely seems to be a primary goal of the series, each episode has deep underlying themes which often include a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to government intervention in a technology-driven world.
“Hated in the Nation,” [spoiler warning] is one of the most compelling, albeit deeply unsettling, episodes currently streaming on Netflix. Set in the not-so-distant future, the episode focuses on a society where social media and cutting-edge technology dominate daily life. Much like the present day, these modern conveniences are used to spread gossip and hate more often than news or information.
The story begins as a team of investigators is left scrambling to solve a series of similarly bizarre murders which keep occurring every 24 hours. While each murder is equally as peculiar as the next, the only aspect each of the victims has in common is that each has recently been the target of extreme social media criticism after committing acts regarded as socially unfavorable.
Whether it was a tasteless comment made about a disabled individual or an inappropriate picture that outraged the masses, as soon as these victims are marked with the “death to” hashtag on social media, they end up dead within 24 hours.
As the murders continue, the investigators begin noticing a common occurrence at each crime scene: bees.
In this futuristic world, bees have become extinct and have been replaced with robotic bees which are programmed to function just as real bees would. The creators of these bees are cleared from any suspicion after it is discovered that the bees have been hacked by an unknown perpetrator who has programmed the bees to attack and kill whoever receives the most #deathto tweets within a 24-hour period.
However, the real twist comes when the audience discovers that this hacking was only made possible because of enhanced government surveillance.
In response to growing threats both from its citizens and abroad, this fictional government mandated that all technology be built with a “back door,” giving the state access to any and all electronic devices, robot bees included.
A Dark Reflection
If this sounds strangely familiar it is because it is exactly what our own United States government has been doing over the last several years. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now painfully aware of the government’s overreach in the technological sector, including its demand that technology be built with a backdoor available for its own personal use.
However, as the episode perfectly demonstrates, once you allow backdoors to be placed in electronics, you make those devices vulnerable to hackers whose motives may be even worse than the government itself.
As it turns out, a young hacker committed to making a social statement about society’s obsession with public shaming, has hacked hundreds of thousands of bees which are triggered by the hashtag and then used to attack and kill.
However, the plot as escalates when, instead of attacking those who are the target of public shame the bees are used to attack and kill every individual who has engaged in social media shaming, which results in mass deaths across the country.
At the end of the episode, the government is left lamenting what has happened, and wondering if, perhaps its surveillance state was responsible for the deaths of its citizenry.
While we may not have robotic bees attacking Twitter trolls in real life, this fictional demonstration of government overreach is not so farfetched. As our government continues to expand its surveillance state, many Americans are left wondering if we are in fact, less safe as a result.
[Ed. note: This article originally appeared on the Foundation for Economic Education’s website right here at this link.]
Contributor, Generation Opportunity
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