The new season of the near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror has recently dropped on Netflix, and I’m here to make the case for why lawyers (and business types) should care about the tech-infused dystopias that often feature in the series.

Science fiction has become an increasingly important way of envisaging possible futures and some scholars (including myself) now make use of science fiction when considering legal issues relating to technology.

Two law academics at the City University of New York have even created a course titled The Law of Black Mirror as a tool to analyze contemporary legal and policy issues arising from emerging technologies.

I am far from alone in seeing value in a sci-fi approach to professional practice.

According to historian and futurist, Yuval Noah Harari, “science fiction is the most important genre”. Technological advancements might make it increasingly important for lawyers: sci-fi can foster an anticipatory style of thinking that, when combined with traditional black letter lawyering, could benefit their clients.

A more open-minded form of Black Mirror lawyering that considers hypotheticals about near future technologies and possible legal responses to them could prove highly useful in a time of rapid technological change. Some clients, particularly those developing tech products, might want to know not just what the law is now, but also where it could be headed.

This of course requires lawyers to monitor actual technological developments: sci-fi can help them extrapolate to envisage possible emerging issues. By drawing on their knowledge of existing law and the factors shaping legal responses, they are better equipped to also identify possible directions of legal change.

From sci-fi to commercial reality and beyond

Formerly a commercial litigator in a global law firm, I now teach and research law, and practice sci-fi storytelling on the side. My latest story, Vulcan, envisages a form of brain implant that would have a big and perhaps troubling impact on our lives. (If you want to know more, read the story!)

An earlier 2008 version was more clearly science fiction. Along with others, I am particularly interested in imagining a close connection between brains and computers. One of the many notable examples of neurotech sci-fi is the Ghost in the Shell, a cyberpunk media franchise that envisaged a futuristic ecosystem of human, cyborgs and robots, in which criminals hack into neurotechnological devices or commit internet crimes using them.

This was imagined well before Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company, Neuralink began to excite venture capitalists leading them to invest in the emerging technology, and before weird brain-computer interface scenarios (e.g. brain-drone racing competitions) that erstwhile could only be imagined, became a reality. It also predates a man with a brain-implant using neurotechnology to connect his brain in a more direct way to social media, and well before Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates investment in the company that produced the technology.

This particular sci-fi franchise also preceded calls for new mental manipulation offences that might cover brain-hacking, actual legal responses to neurotech such as Chile’s constitutional change, or elsewhere the beginnings of legal responses such as the recent Information Commissioner Office report in the UK, another from their Regulatory Horizon Council and the more recent prioritisation of neurotech by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Sci-fi is now becoming realised in the world with legal ripples, and it doesn’t seem quite so fictional.

The business case for sci-fi storytelling

Law firms with an eye to the future might well note that military organisations, including the US Marine Corps and the Australian Defence College, now draw on sci-fi in order to gain a better picture of the possible competitive environment they may face in years to come. Indeed, earlier this year the UK’s Ministry of Defence published their new collection of sci-fi stories.

In the corporate world, Samsung, Pepsi, and Visa also draw inspiration from fiction. Writers are hired to create rich future narratives in a variety of media – known as ‘corporate visioning’ for the purposes of thinking through specific product issues. The ultimate aim is to facilitate better thought-out plans for the future in light of both threats and opportunities in a changing world.

Recent developments in AI have alerted lawyers that the environment in which they compete is changing. I want to suggest to my colleagues that their future-oriented thinking might be enhanced with the aid of sci-fi. I invite them to envisage future legal and commercial environments they could encounter.

Perhaps lawyers can go further and creatively make a virtue of the capacity to imagine the direst outcomes, and thereby help to avert them for their own firms and their clients.

If your lawyer says she needs time off to watch the latest Netflix sci-fi show or even to write a short story, you might find a benefit from having a more rested and imaginative problem-solver or even better, a problem-averter.

Image: generated in Midjourney by Anderson Chang using a paid plan within their Terms of Service

Dr Allan McCay is the Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute of Criminology and Academic Fellow at the University of Sydney Law School. He is the author of a world first report on Neurotechnology, law and the legal profession, an analysis of brain-computer interfaces and other forms of neurotechnology.

Related content