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Black Mirror Pedagogy: Dystopian Stories for Technoskeptical Imaginations

Abstract

New technologies are introduced into people’s lives today at a rate unprecedented in human history. The benefits of technologies and the onslaught of corporate messaging can result in a pervasive techno-optimism that leaves people unaware of the downsides or collateral effects of technologies until harms are already done. With the show Black Mirror as muse, we open by imagining the story of Oya, a first-year college student unwittingly trapped by educational “innovations.” After reviewing examples of technological resistance from antiquity to Black women scholars today, we then propose two activities educators can employ to engage students’ technoskeptical imagining. First, we developed a MadLib activity that employs play as a means to creatively speculate about technologies. Second, we offer a fill-in-the-blank creative writing activity that builds on the MadLib activity while providing more flexibility in crafting their own dystopian stories. We hope this approach and these activities can work toward protecting those who are most vulnerable to the harms of technologies.

Introduction

Meet Oya, a first-year college student at a new venture-capital-backed school located on the campus of Alvara College, a traditional liberal arts college. Oya is not a typical undergraduate student; they have been targeted by Petra Capital’s recruitment team to supplement the traditional demographics of the college’s student body. As part of The Alvara Personalized Experience (TAPE), they live in a dormitory specifically built for students enrolled in this special recruitment strategy.

The door opens and a 30-year-old woman begins to move in and unpack her things just as Oya settles into their dorm room on the first day. Oya learns that their new roommate, Barbara, is an important component of TAPE. Barbara is Oya’s assigned success guardian. In this role, Barbara will observe and document everything Oya does and everywhere they go. Barbara will offer suggestions to Oya about what they can do to improve their college experience, including recommendations about diet, sleep, study habits, time management, and even social opportunities on campus. Oya does not have to follow these prompts, but Barbara will report Oya’s choices to their professors and the financial aid office.

Oya’s story is fictional and may seem outlandish. The idea of a personalized college experience enhanced by a “success guardian” following a young undergraduate student to monitor and report their every action may seem absurdly intrusive and disruptive. However, many schools have deployed surveillance technologies that perform similar functions in the name of student success. Surveillance activities that would feel invasive and even creepy if conducted in person were popularized and normalized by Google and Facebook (Zuboff 2019), and these practices increasingly creep into “smart” technologies (i.e., Internet of Things) and educational technologies. The expanding tentacles of surveillance have only tightened their grip since so many institutions and people were pushed online during the COVID-19 pandemic. As students, workers, and educators become further habituated to these digital systems, it is harder for them to critically evaluate the risks and harms that can come from such “personalization.”

While tech creators make techno-utopian promises about what educational technologies can deliver, legislators and regulators have done little to protect people against their negative effects. Policy and legal reforms around the collection of student data have been proposed—and in some cases already implemented—but as Caines and Glass (2019, 94–95) warned, “While laws and internal policies are critical, they take time to develop, and in that time new models and practices come forward to bypass proposed and existing regulations.” Users of these technologies—including teachers and students—are often left to fend for themselves. Few people will read and interpret Terms of Service (ToS) that are often written to obfuscate more than inform (see, e.g., Lindh and Nolin 2016). Few users of new technologies will research collateral effects. Simply put, the cards are stacked against us.

As a result, educators need pedagogical approaches, tools, and assessments to work alongside students in making decisions about technologies in their individual, civic, and educational lives. In this paper, we discuss the development of two educational activities that use dystopian fiction as a device for helping students develop technoskeptical imaginations.

History

Contemplating and confronting ethical issues around technologies is not new. Humans have long resisted new technologies which they believe impinge on their values, livelihoods, or very lives. Plato wrote of the god Thamus, who evaluated technologies and rejected writing as a technology that would result in a “conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom” (Postman 1992, 4). The Luddites of nineteenth-century England rejected textile machinery that threatened their craft (Jones 2013). The science fiction genre has long speculated on the possible harms of technologies, and the recent Black Mirror show has offered particularly vivid visions of technological dystopia (Conley and Burroughs 2020; Fiesler 2018). The critique of technologies is not reserved solely to the world of science fiction, but has been taken up by academics as well. For instance, nearly a half-century ago, Bunge (1975) coined the term technoethics in his call for technologists to be more aware of the social implications of their inventions.

The field of technoethics also has a more embodied tradition, grounded in the work of Black feminist scholars who have challenged algorithms of oppression (Noble 2018), discriminatory design (Benjamin 2019), and biased facial recognition (Buolamwini and Gebru 2018) that amplify and sustain anti-Black racism and sexism in society. Amrute (2019) challenged top-down models of technoethics by calling for attunements that attend to techno-affects, centering the bodies and knowledge of those most vulnerable to—or targeted by—technological harm.

An embodied technoethics perspective is particularly critical for our authorship team of four white scholars working from the relative comfort of academic spaces. We acknowledge that we must recognize how our intersectional positionalities in a sexist, racist, classist, and ableist society require us to listen to, and support, those who may face the disproportionate negative impacts of technologies. Technologies in education, as well as the educational practices surrounding their integration, often uphold whiteness and perpetuate structural injustices (Heath and Segal 2021). How can educators help students see the ways technologies extend, amplify, or create social problems?

As Geraldine Forsberg (2017, 232) argued, “Questions can help break the power that technologies have over us. Questions can help us critique the technological bluffs that are being communicated through advertisements, political and scientific discourse and education.” Building on the work already done in the field, three authors of this paper (Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet 2019) proposed technoethical questions that educational technology scholars and practitioners could use to investigate and interrogate technologies with students:

  • Was this technology designed ethically and is it used ethically?
  • Are laws that apply to our use of this technology just?
  • Does this technology afford or constrain democracy and justice for all people and groups?
  • Are the ways the developers profit from this technology ethical?
  • What are unintended and unobvious problems to which this technology might contribute?
  • In what ways does this technology afford and constrain learning opportunities about technologies?

In the past two years, in collaboration with students in our classes, we have conducted technoethical audits of Google’s suite of apps (Krutka, Smits, and Willhelm 2021), and of educators’ use of Google Classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic (Gleason and Heath 2021). In response to reading the public accounts of this research, Autumm Caines adapted the tool into an online format to help faculty conduct self-directed technoethical audits of educational technologies.

Through sharing our experiences in conducting these technoethical audits, our authorship team eventually agreed that asking these technoethical questions of students did not always generate the deep, critical thinking about technologies we sought. These uneven results may partially be attributed to the techno-optimism (Postman 1992) and techno-solutionism (Papert 1988) that are pervasive in the U.S. We therefore sought out other approaches that could challenge students and teachers to confront such narratives of technological progress.

Dystopian Storytelling about Technology

Building on our technoethical questions and with Black Mirror as our muse, we sought to identify activities that might more readily spur students’ technoskeptical imaginations. The show Black Mirror is a “sci-fi anthology series [that] explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide” (Netflix n.d.). Episodes address technoethical topics in digital censorship, virtual reality gaming, and artificially intelligent toys, among others. In societies where technology is often equated with progress (Benjamin 2019; Jones 2013; Krutka 2018; Postman 1992), Black Mirror disrupts such narratives and creates space to question how technology should be limited or even banned.

Educators have drawn inspiration from Black Mirror, and dystopian fiction more broadly, to develop educational approaches and activities. For instance, Emanuelle Burton, Judy Goldsmith, and Nicholas Mattei (2018) responded to the difficulties of teaching ethics in computer science curriculum by using science fiction as a powerful pedagogical tool. Casey Fiesler (2018) detailed her use of Black Mirror to help college students “think through different possibilities” for technology in the future. Episodes served as launching points for her students to engage in “creative speculation” about ethical issues that arose from the plots of the shows and consider existing or possible laws (Feisler 2018). The Screening Surveillance project (2019) from the Surveillance Studies Center “is a short film series that uses near future fiction storytelling based on research to highlight potential social and privacy issues that arise as a result of big data surveillance.” sava saheli singh, who conceptualized and produced the series, partnered with educators on multiple occasions to incorporate the work of dystopian fiction with the intention of addressing contemporary technoethical issues. From the perspective of the 2040s, Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert, and Anne Bruch (2020, 77) imagined “a kind of social science fiction to speculate on how technology will have been used in schools, and what this means for how future student-subjects will have been addressed in the future past of the 2020s.” This type of imagining played out malignant alternative futures for educational technologies where students would be “smooth users,” “digital nomads,” or ecological humans embedded in “collective agency.”

Here we describe two activities designed for education students, but adaptable for others, that encourage technoskeptical imagination around technologies in general and edtech specifically. This scholarly experiment has proved promising in our initial exploratory teaching.

MadLibs Activity

Building on the work from Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet (2019) to consider how to encourage educators to consider technoethical questions, we incorporate a construct of play to inspire technoskeptical imagining. Although technoskeptical thinking can be rewarding, continued consideration of systemic inequities and injustices can be emotionally draining. Play can be a powerful means to disrupt power hierarchies, challenge authority, and encourage agency, particularly for youth whose intersecting identities are marginalized (Yoon 2021).

Through this playful lens, we created a dystopian MadLibs activity (see Table 1). MadLibs is a two-person children’s word game that was traditionally produced in hard copy books and employed a phrasal template. The phrasal template is a story with several missing words that are defined grammatically or descriptively. For instance, a blank (i.e., missing word) could be labeled as needing a verb, noun, or even type of plant to complete the sentence. One player reads out loud the label of the blank and the second player (who cannot see the context of the story) provides answers. These answers are plugged into the story, which results in a funny, amusing, and often absurd tale.

In adapting MadLibs as an educational warm-up activity to spark technoskeptical imaginations, we embraced the notion of absurdity. In preparation, we wrote out the frame of a dystopian story with missing details. However, instead of missing grammatical items, we left blank the specifics of a company or technology, as well as the functions of the technology. We designed the MadLibs activity to be delivered during a synchronous instructional session when the blanks could be crowdsourced from students. The instructor needs to plan for activities in which students can participate for a few minutes while a facilitator plugs the crowdsourced elements into the dystopian story, accounting for verb tense and grammatical flow, and then reads the story aloud to students.

Although the story is written with a more serious and dystopian plot, the final story still contains elements of absurdity, because students did not know the narrative context when they chose the missing elements. The reading of the final, somewhat farcical story can be met with amusement. This levity can then be followed by a more serious discussion where students interrogate connections between the MadLibs story and their lived experiences with technology. As a result, the MadLibs activity is a warm-up to the Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity where students engage in writing dystopian fiction.

MadLibs Play

Company =

Company slogan =

Group with institutional power (plural) =

Think of what the technology does generally, not just for you, when thinking of these three functions:

Function #1 of technology (beginning with verb ending in “ing”) =

Function #2 of technology (beginning with present tense verb) =

Function #3 of technology (beginning with present tense verb) =

After many controversies where citizens have accused us of doublespeak, [COMPANY] wants to remind you of our mission: [COMPANY SLOGAN]. Some people say that profits get in the way of our mission to make the world a better place. Many critics have called our product a weapon of oppression. Do not listen to these un-American troublemakers who are only jealous of our immense success!

These critics claim that [GROUP WITH INSTITUTIONAL POWER] will use our product to harm those under their control by [FUNCTION #1 OF TECH]. Some critics even say they feel intimidated by the ability of the technology to [FUNCTION #2 OF TECH]. But aren’t [GROUP WITH POWER] also just trying to make the world a better place? Meanwhile, the jealous critics claim that [GROUP WITH POWER] are using the technology to [FUNCTION #3 OF TECH] and that is causing social problems. But come on! Let the free market decide! If people did not love [COMPANY], then we would not be enjoying such incredible success. Technology is progress, and progress is good!

Table 1. MadLibs play.

Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing Activity

After completing the MadLibs activity, students are prompted to deepen their technoskeptical imagining by creating and writing their own dystopian fiction. Offering participants a prompt, particularly those in a one-off workshop, can provide provocation for the beginning of a story. To scaffold the activity, we created another phrasal template as part of the design of a Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity. This activity is facilitated through a series of Google Docs that all students or participants are able to edit directly. The Fill-in-the-Blank activity can be completed individually or in small groups. Like the MadLibs activity, parts of the dystopian story are missing; however, unlike the MadLibs activity, students can see the entire frame of the story. Missing elements, again, are not grammatical in nature but are instead elements of the story such as the “name of technology/company” and “group with power/group without power.” We recommend students be given free rein in this activity. That is, the use of a phrasal template does not have to be required; rather, it is provided as a prompt as needed. After completing their stories, students are asked to evaluate the narrative they wrote using the analytical tool developed by Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet (2019). We envision that this Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity could also be conducted asynchronously, where students would sit with the prompt (or develop their own) over the course of a longer period of time.

Dystopian Storytelling Activity

Welcome to this semi-true technology dystopia storytelling activity. Dystopia storytelling can help us to imagine some of the harms that technology can bring while at the same time making it okay for us to embellish a little. If you have watched or read any speculative or science fiction you know it is best when there are some elements of the truth to it – think about your favorite episodes of the show Black Mirror.

Below we have started you off with a dystopian fiction prompt with some elements missing – you will find these missing elements in all caps in the brackets. The idea is for you to replace these items as prompted with items of your own devising – which might be true but also could just come from your imagination. For instance you could replace [TECHNOLOGY] with Facebook, social media, Zoom, or even a toaster but you should stick with that and try to make the story make sense as you continue to write. Feel free to search for technology company websites and steal their own rhetoric and the way that they talk about themselves for things like the motto or stated intention. If you don’t like the story arc feel free to even change the text – make this story your own.

One note – depending on the technology you choose the name of the tech may be the same as the name of the company ie. Zoom or Facebook – or it could differ for instance Google is actually owned by Alphabet. Again, make this story your own and if little details bog you down just write them out.

Many people today use [TECHNOLOGY] to [EXPLAIN WHAT TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS PEOPLE TO DO]. It has become very popular and many humans use [TECHNOLOGY]. [COMPANY] even explains that [THE COMPANY MOTTO OR STATED INTENTION]. However, we have come from the future to tell you [TECHNOLOGY] is not a tool, but a weapon intended to hurt people!

We have learned that [GROUP WITH POWER] is using [TECHNOLOGY] to harm [A VULNERABLE GROUP] by [EXPLAIN HOW A GROUP WITH POWER IS USING THE TECHNOLOGY TO HARM A VULNERABLE GROUP]. Beyond these obviously intentional harms, [TECHNOLOGY] is even causing collateral damage that is worsening [NAME SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY OR HARM] by [EXPLAIN HOW IT IS MAKING THAT SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY OR HARM WORSE].

If the use of this technology continues then this could lead to the long-term destruction of [EXPLAIN WHAT COULD BE PERMANENTLY DESTROYED]. [COMPANY] is even trying to trick people into thinking they’re changing their ways by pushing for legislation that [DESCRIBE LAWS THAT ALLOW FOR CONTINUED ABUSE BUT GIVE THE APPEARANCE OF MAKING CHANGE].

And it is all about profits for [COMPANY]! We discovered that they are making money by [EXPLAIN HOW THE COMPANY PROFITS FROM THEIR WEAPON]. They’re also exploiting [NAME GROUP THAT IS EXPLOITED SUCH AS WORKERS OR USERS] by [IDENTIFY ACTION THAT OF TECHNOLOGY THAT CAUSES HARM], and harming the environment by [EXPLAIN HARMS TO ENVIRONMENT]. The consequences are widespread! We hope you can stop the evil use of [TECHNOLOGY] before it’s too late!

Table 2. Dystopian storytelling activity.

Next Steps

Revisiting Oya, envision a scenario in which their experience did not include a human success guardian but instead the surveillance technologies to which many students are already subjected. How might Oya’s situation have been different if they had practiced developing their technoskeptical imagining? Armed with the ability to imagine something more than utopian rhetoric, Oya sees the harmful outcomes that could result from surveillance technologies. Oya is then prepared to ask questions and look for ways to democratize the technology, rather than letting it control them. They ask the stakeholders (e.g., student services offices, professors) issuing the technology to also imagine negative consequences. Oya also takes the time to read critiques of the company from technology journalists and digital rights activists to better understand their context, purpose, and profit models. They talk with classmates and family members back home, and Oya writes about technoethical concerns to inform a larger audience about risks and dangers. Finally, Oya organizes a local chapter of a digital rights group so they are better equipped to challenge multinational technology corporations and their own school.

Evaluating technology from an ethical perspective is difficult. Corporate sales pitches are ubiquitous. For many of us, our livelihoods depend on our use of such tools. We must therefore reflect on our own lived experiences and those of the people around us. Potential harms often lie beneath the surface. Embracing technoskeptical imagination and creative power can offer a step towards enabling students to better protect themselves in their use of technological tools. If educators aim to stop harms in the present, and mitigate risks in the future, we might raise technoethical consciousness through dystopian storytelling.

References

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Caines, Autumm, and Erin Glass. 2019. “Education before Regulation: Empowering Students to Question Their Data Privacy.” EDUCAUSE Review, October 14. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2019/10/education-before-regulation-empowering-students-to-question-their-data-privacy.

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Heath, Marie K., and Pamela Segal. 2021. “What Pre-Service Teacher Technology Integration Conceals and Reveals: ‘Colorblind’ Technology in Schools.” Computers & Education 170 (September): article 104225. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2021.104225.

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About the Authors

Daniel G. Krutka (he/him/his) is a human, probably too tethered to his smartphone, but human nonetheless. He is a former high school teacher and his current job is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of North Texas. He researches intersections of technology, democracy, and social studies. You can listen to him host educators and researchers on the Visions of Education podcast (VisionsOfEd.com) or amplify his retweets at @dankrutka.

Autumm Caines (she/her/hers) is an instructional designer at the University of Michigan—Dearborn. Autumm’s scholarly and research interests include blended/hybrid and online learning, open education, digital literacy/citizenship with a focus on equity and access, and online community development. This blend of interests has led to a concern about mounting ethical issues in educational technology and recently publications and presentations on topics concerning educational surveillance, student data collection, and remote proctoring. Autumm has taught honors students at a small liberal arts colleges as well as traditional students, working professionals, and veterans at a regional public university. More at autumm.org.

Marie K. Heath (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Loyola University Maryland. Prior to her work in higher education, Marie taught high school social studies in Baltimore County Public Schools. Her work in public schools informs her commitment to education that promotes a robust and multi-racial democracy through liberatory education. Marie’s research focuses on the intersection of education, civic engagement, and technology to foster social change. Her scholarship interrogates educational technology, confronts White supremacy, and advocates for teacher activism.

K. Bret Staudt Willet (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies at Florida State University. Bret’s research investigates self-directed learning through social media. He has several ongoing projects related to this research area. First, he examines networked learning in online communities, such as those hosted by Twitter and Reddit. Second, he studies how new teachers expand their professional support systems during their induction transition. Third, he explores the connections between informal learning and invisible labor. Learn more on his website, bretsw.com.




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