Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 1: "Nosedive" and Meaningful Encounters

SPOILER WARNING: For this and the next five entries, I will be talking at length and in depth about season 3 of Black Mirror. If you haven't seen it and don't want to be spoiled, please wait until you've watched to read on.

Sometimes I fall stupidly behind on the things I love. Video games, TV shows, sleep... Black Mirror. I was well aware that a third season was available on Netflix, but the awareness that I'd binge it all in two or three days and depress the hell out of myself kept me away for a bit, until such time as I could deal myself out an episode a day.

Well. I binged it all in two or there days and depressed the hell out of myself, but I'm better now. So it's time to begin my six-part journey into why people keep missing the point.

Missed Point 1: "Ha ha, it's like those Instagram-obsessed people."

Ha ha! Oh, boy! So glad I'm not like them! Thank God I'm not one of those flat-lay coffee-art beach-selfie woke-up-like-this Insta addicts. Oh gosh, it was nice watching an episode about how they're all going to crash and burn.

No, kids. No. Just. No.

Note the setting of "Nosedive": this is a world where, for reasons we aren't privy to, rated social interaction has become an inherent part of society. We do see people who are clearly putting all their hours into it, but that's understandable. Because your rating has become tied to absolutely everything. And that's a product of a lot more than people just wanting to look good to strangers.

This means even people who don't want to use it sort of have to, at least a little. And there's plenty of proof that societal pressure has led to a belief that only bad people have low ratings -- meaning that even if you don't buy into it, you probably still have to do the bare minimum. So, depending on the person, ratings could affect quality of life. It's just a matter of how you do it. More on that later.

Missed Point 2: "China's about to do this."

Yes, it's true. China has been looking at a "Social Credit System" since about 2014 that could affect life as deeply as it does the people in "Nosedive."

But it's important to remember that the possibility of the tech in Black Mirror existing is secondary (or lower) to the point being made. The tech is metaphorical, either for something we already have or what we've turned an existing advance into. 

Musing on the plausibility of Black Mirror tech and how far we are from having it misses a very big issue: we're already there. Anything you see happening in this show already happens to some degree. We aren't smugly counting down the years to when people are going to get that stupid: we're being shown where we already are.

It's in the title.

Where should we be looking, then?


As I've says always and forever and everywhere, the genre of giant robot anime is a giant metaphor for technology is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It simply is. What it does relies on the morals of the person wielding it. Similarly, technology cannot make you become something you never had a tendency toward; it can only amplify a tendency already in you.

The running theme of the entire series is technology exposing truths: about us to ourselves, about others to us, about us to others, about the world in general. It is not about tech implanting us with strange new tendencies. If anything, the "villains" of the pieces tend to be humans, with technology unwillingly complicit.

For a better read of "Nosedive," we have to address the behavior that the technology amplifies: pointless social climbing, dishonest networking, and elitism.

Pointless Social Climbing

Lacie and the people of "Nosedive" at least have a one-up on us when it comes to their social climbing ways: they can get actual tangible results. Being up in the lofty 4.8s genuinely alters your quality of life, with effects on your standard of living and your overall health and safety. Granted, our primary eyeful is at the loftier tiers for whom a fall from four stars to one would actually be genuinely alienating.

We see one, two, and three stars throughout the episode, though. And there's something very interesting about their presence: they aren't suffering. Black Mirror is unafraid to show poverty and illness and all the worst things that can happen to a person in dire straits. But our window on Lacie's world never gives us the impression that a drop in stars will actually kill her.

If this was a story they wanted to tell, they could have told that story. They could have shown us a world where a one-star Lacie genuinely had to fight for her life. But she was never truly in danger. The ending is even uplifting in its own way.

So in Lacie's world, social climbing isn't entirely pointless, but it isn't life-threatening not to. I mean, unless you put a down payment on a house you can't afford if your rating isn't perfect by tomorrow.

Her efforts, though, are eerily similar to those of people who are pursuing social climbing for... well... ends that will bring them nothing. For the sake of knowing and being seen with The Right People. It happens a lot. And frankly, the harder you work in your own field, the more you'll have people who Lacie you left and right on the daily.

Funnily, Lacie's situation almost seems to be what her real-world counterparts expect a well-climbed social ladder will give them: attractive and well-considered peers, social and financial advantages, and generally a Very Pretty Life. But it doesn't work that way. And the harder you fight for it, the more obvious you become.

Dishonest Networking

Speaking of being obvious. The world of "Nosedive" makes it very easy to flip through someone's feed and see what they've just done, what they prize, what they're hoping to do. Which allows Lacie to hold friendly -- but ultimately meaningless -- conversations with anyone she encounters.

This... already exists. Look at your one well-known friend on social media. You have one. Everyone has one somewhere. Look at the people who try to get close with them, who try to "know" them, and look how so many of them dig deep into their photos or work to imitate something that person's done recently to fake an interest. Even if you only see it from afar, there's a sort of vicarious embarrassment for the person trying too hard.

Dishonest networking does work on some people, it's true. But as Lacie's consultant said in the episode, the harder you try, the more readily someone can sniff out the bullshit. 

People who engage in this sort of behavior do get their name passed around a lot, it's true... as someone to avoid. It becomes apparent fairly quickly by just how hard they're working to slip casually into conversations. And a lot of that is the desire not just to win the person over, but to be seen with that person in conversation. So even if they fail to make the connection, others have seen them chatting with the person in a way that seems personal and thus could be construed as a friendship.

One of the most eye-opening moments of the episode was Lacie's receipt of a low rating from a lower-tier employee. His reasoning? "It wasn't a meaningful encounter." In the moment, she has to accept that a good act will never replace genuine humanity. And, too, that not every encounter has to be meaningful. Sometimes you will buy your soda and go.


If humans can find a reason to rank each other, they can find a reason to hate each other. And humans can always find a reason to rank each other.

The idea that we aren't already as elitist as the 4s of "Nosedive" is one of the more laughable misconceptions of the whole situation. We already judge based on clothes. Jobs. Money. Neighborhood. Taste in TV shows. All the app of Black Mirror does is put numbers to it to make it more official.

Too, it puts into numbers the use of deliberate "ballot box stuffing" as revenge -- a theme we see revisited later in the series with "Hated in the Nation," but dealt with far differently. Think on two points in the episode. The first is when Lacie discovers a coworker isn't all right to be talked to after an in-office breakup. The second is Lacie's own temporary ratings dock after dropping F-bombs at an airport.

Let it register for a moment that a concerted effort by a group of angry coworkers could have the same effect on a person's life in this scenario as a punitive action taken by a security guard. And then step back from "there but for the grace of God" because we've got nearly that level of power already.

On the one hand, Internet communication has allowed for the exposure of many criminals and unsavory types. On the other, people working hard enough as a group can endanger the well-being, social standing, or safety of someone simply because they don't like them.

With elitism and spite side by side... it's really not all that far off to see a person's life as they know it drastically altered simply because someone with a phone doesn't like them.

What's The Lesson?

The oddly positive ending might lead people to believe that happiness can only be found by throwing out our smartphones and insulting everyone around us. (Speaking of things people are already doing.) But that discounts a lot of the story's subtlety.

In the 21st century, many of us work in fields where a web presence and networking via social media are essential. The idea that it should be done away with completely falls into that old trap of assuming it is the technology that is at fault, rather than our use thereof.

Infusing the technology with a degree of integrity requires integrity from within. Humane interactions both online and offline, that are reliant upon honesty rather than trying to create The Perfect Impression. A greater understanding of equality in interactions, and moving away from the idea that people will like us or else. And, most of all, the courage to present our best selves to the world.

If your best and happiest self really is flat-lays and flat whites on Instagram, then it's what you should be doing. But it's far less effort, and far more productive, to present your happiness and your pride rather than what will get you the stars. Because honestly, the old high school bully who's now doing yoga in a beach house can't actually make your life any better with her friendship.

Coming Friday: "Playtest" and the allure of bespoke fear.


Want to see more of my work, get exclusive content, and help me help others pursue their creativity? Become a patron! Gifts include behind-the-scenes looks at my work, monthly fiction you won't find anywhere else, and personal writing consultations. Thanks for your support!