Before we review White Christmas, you may have noticed that we didn’t review White Bear or the Waldo Moment. This was due to a lack of relevant technology, but we can squeeze that in quickly here. Firstly, the mind-wiping technology in White Bear is plausible, but the precision in the episode would probably be a good number of years away. As for the Waldo Moment, the technology in this is actually considered fairly dated now, with more advanced systems like those in the Xbox Kinect being mainstream.
Coming back to White Christmas, the episode was first aired on the 16th of December 2014, ideal for a Christmas-themed episode. This was the season finale and the last episode produced under Channel 4. The rough plot, as given by the description on Netflix, is as follows: “Three interconnected tales of technology run amok during the Christmas season are told by two men at a remote outpost in a frozen wilderness.” This description isn’t entirely accurate, as you discover when you watch the episode, but the illusion is essential to the plot. In terms of technology, the main ideas are the ‘Z-eyes’ and the ‘Cookie’. We will take an in-depth look at both.
Z-eyes were featured in the first and third story. The Z-eyes are essentially implants that interact with the visual and aural sensations in the brain. This is very similar to the ‘Grain’ seen in ‘The Entire History of You’, which is in the first season. Unlike the Grain, the Z-eyes are not removable and do not store any memory. They are similar in that both are undetectable when in use except by the small token-sized remote controller. The main features shown in the episode are call, messages, music, photo, search, block, map and magnify. Of course, most of these things exist in smartphones today, but not all are obviously possible.
- Photo: This feature is interesting as it is not actually demonstrated in the episode. Given that there was no visible camera, this means that the camera was either embedded in the eye or the optical nerve. Biologically speaking, a physical camera should be visible, but at the same time, a neural sensor and interface would be a lot harder. This does suggest the Z-eyes have some storage capacity, but clearly not on the same level as the Grain. Though the Z-eyes function a bit differently, they could theoretically be achieved with a microcircuit implant or a neural lace, and would, of course, be possible if you uploaded your brain.
- Magnify: Unlike a basic sensory recorder, this function seemingly alters the ability of the eye itself. This is used in the episode when one of the main characters, Joe, zoomed in on what he thought was his daughter. In this scene, the quality of the footage remained the same, suggesting that the magnify feature wasn’t just enlarging a cropped version of what Joe was seeing. What could be happening, and what would make sense in terms of physics would be a real-time artificial enhancement of the image or a new cornea (biological lens in the eye) that was more accurate.
- Search: Another feature not seen in the episode is the search function. This would only be possible with a stable enough data connection and then injecting a false image into the brain via the optical nerve. Thankfully, the internet part is solvable with communication satellites and the optical part would already be developed as part of the Z-eyes, with a neural lace or implant working perfectly fine.
As the most thought-provoking and central idea of the episode, the block feature is quite distinctive. It can be activated by any person and enforced on any person. By default, it lasts for only an hour but can be set indefinitely. Furthermore, if it gets a legal backing it also prevents the blocked person from interacting with your children. As for how it works, the people affected in the two-way block are blurred out and cannot be understood, being little more than silhouettes. The government can also put someone on a list, which means they are blocked by everyone and appear as a red silhouette instead of the usual pale grey and white.
Presumably, this is done by the Z-eyes themselves, which would be entirely possible as a software feature. What is more of a question is whether or not such a complete block of a person should be allowed. It would be quite right to point out that this is how social media works, but at the same time, social media is not run by democracies. Whatever the outcome is, human rights would need to have a lot of redefining for blocks like this to be allowed, especially enforced blocks on everyone.
White Christmas’ other technology is the ‘Cookie’ system. In short, the Cookie is a small spherical device that is implanted into the head for two weeks and at the end has an almost exact copy of the user, described as ‘shadowing’ in the episode. The cookie perceives itself as the consciousness of the person but is technically an AI imitation of an uploaded brain. The Cookie is not too dissimilar from the AI software version of the character Ash in Be Right Back, except for the fact that the original person is still alive.
The service, provided by the fictional company ‘Smartelligence’, is intended as a personal assistant for a woman called Greta, except for it knowing exactly how you like things. It is placed in an egg-shaped container with one blue LED. The Cookie version of the person can be given a simulated body and console and has the perceived capabilities of the real person, but with no sleep, excretion or other bodily fluids. The simulated copy then controls a smart home, with access to camera feeds, the toaster, coffee machine, appointments schedule, house controls, music and everything else you could expect from a personal assistant device.
Other than a personal assistant, the Cookie was also demonstrated being used to get a confession from a criminal. A Cookie taken from Joe is put in a simulated room at Christmas time and time is simulated at fast forward to make Joe think he has been there for five years. Matt, the other main character, enters into this simulated world, presumably with virtual reality allowing him to see what Joe sees and software tricking the Joe Cookie. After a confession is extracted from the Joe Cookie, the Cookie is then set to a speed of 1000 years per second for Christmas.
The technology in White Christmas certainly seems possible, and whilst it isn’t technically the same as uploading your brain, the difference isn’t noticeable. As for the ethical question, I personally think the uses seen in the episode are about as immoral as you can get. The idea of ‘cognitive entrapment’ is truly terrifying, and if the speed stated in the episode was truly experienced, it would be the equivalent of over a million years. Sadly, it doesn’t seem likely that the governments of the world will catch on to this idea and the likelihood of the abuse of such technology is very likely.