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We need to talk about that ‘Black Mirror’ episode with the architect

A negligent autonomous pizza van becomes a metaphor for smart cities everywhere

Architect Mia Nolan leaves her neat modernist box to venture into the big messy city.

The new season of Black Mirror is out, meaning viewers have six new terrifying techno-dystopias to keep them up at night. The Netflix series always taps into our most neurotic anxieties about the future—remember the one with the electric vehicle charging station that required the newest adapter to fuel up?—but there’s one episode in particular that turns the idea of the smart city on its head.

The protagonist of “Crocodile” is architect Mia Nolan, an architect who designs and inhabits structures worthy of publication in Dwell. That’s her, in fact, on a cover of Dwell that’s framed in the home office of a stunning steel-and-glass modern home she shares with her husband and son.

No spoilers follow, but watch the teaser firsts for some background, if you’re so inclined.

Mia’s presented as a celebrated designer, and when she goes to a nearby city to speak at something called the Future Living Forum—which we know doesn’t take place in the present day because the three headlining speakers are all women—she’s introduced as “one of the most innovative architects of her generation,” and “not just an architect of buildings but of communities.”

However, it should not surprise you that Mia has a dark secret. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

The plot really hinges upon a seemingly small detail Mia witnesses from the window of her hotel when she’s in the city for her speaking engagement. She looks outside and sees a pedestrian being struck by an autonomous pizza delivery vehicle.

As we soon learn, the victim is a musician who can no longer tour due to a broken arm, so it’s the idea of Shazia, the claims adjuster from Realm Insurance, to build a bigger case against the negligent Fences Pizza. “They’ve been in the press claiming their driverless fleet has a good record.”

Shazia then pulls out a device—what she calls a “corroborator”—that uses sensory prompts to somehow stitch together a witness’s memories so anyone can watch them on a tiny portable television screen. “Police things, aren’t they?” asks the musician. “Not since last year,” says Shazia, hinting that this is some kind of next-generation body camera that’s now widely available to the public.

By this point, even if you haven’t seen it, you might guess where the episode is going, as each witness tags a new detail in their recollections that eventually sends Shazia out to Mia’s home looking for a break in the case.

There was one serendipitous detail producers hadn’t planned on that made the story that much more believable. As they began to shoot the downtown scenes, Reykjavik was hit with historic snowfall. “It was the most snow in Reykjavik in 70 years,” says Karl Sigurdarson of TRUENORTH, which handled production services for the episode. (In fact, “Crocodile” was shot entirely in Iceland in the winter, which offers a bleaker-than-usual backdrop for the episode.)

About two feet of snow fell overnight, which greatly complicated transportation issues for the production—and also influenced the script, with characters describing “heavy snow” in their memories. The sensors that help autonomous vehicles drive on city streets have trouble in the snow, so it offered an excellent explanation for the crash—and also a reason why the van’s onboard camera was “not working.”

But it’s notable that the only reason Shazia needs to go out collecting memories at all is because the sidewalk security camera that should have captured the pizza van crash had been vandalized. “By some kids, I’m guessing,” says Shazia. “Paint poured right in the right place.”

Crimes are caught on private security cameras all the time, and a city outfitted with a network of recording devices explicitly for surveillance is not much of a stretch from the types of sensor-laden streets being proposed for one of the many smart cities currently being built from scratch. Lawsuits which involve negligent robots might simply mean corroborating the footage from one camera against another (provided they’re both working).

But anyone who wants to build a case against humans doesn’t need a memory-slurping device. Our own handheld devices already track our locations and listen to our conversations, whether or not they actually “hear” or “see” what we do.

At the beginning of the story, Mia practices her speech to the Future Living Forum in the sleek, well-appointed bathroom of her house. “It’s hard to imagine a bright future, but we can—and we must,” she says. “It’s the only way that we can build a better tomorrow.” Interestingly, even though Mia designs cities for people, she chooses to live and work in isolation—her home is on a remote landscape 50 miles outside the city. She doesn’t seem to participate in the great urban future that she’s responsible for shaping.

Maybe she knows the dark side of that urban future.

Maybe she knows that, as an architect, she can only do so much to improve the physical environment. It’s the developers and deployers of the killer apps—truly a killer app, in this case—which will make and remake the rules of the city.

It appears this future is closer to reality than we thought: Yesterday, at CES, Pizza Hut unveiled its own driverless pizza van. The company plans to use it on US streets by 2020.