Monday, January 8, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Hang the DJ" and the 99.8% Match

SPOILER WARNING: As with all my other Black Mirror pieces, this blog post talks in depth about the episode in question. Please do not read on if you haven't seen the episode and are concerned about spoilers.

The reality of match apps is that they don't actually improve the results -- they just widen the net. And if you found the love of your life on a dating app, trust me, that's not a knock against you. Again... it's widening the net. You found them because you looked somewhere you might not, not because the app actually plumbed your psyches any deeper than a few dates would have.

And yet every single innovator of every single new dating system swears they've found The Way to make sure you find The One. Checking the "important things" and such. That said, none of them really does. Whereas The System -- the real System -- of "Hang the DJ" tests to exhaustion the one most important thing in any relationship: how willing the couple is to make it work.

Romeo vs. Juliet

Arguing over whether the romance of Romeo & Juliet is two immature children making a horrible decision or a much deeper story or a potential jumping-off point for an adorable gay sitcom is for the Shakespeare scholars to answer. What it does show, regardless of value, is how two people in love cope in a situation in which their love is at risk.

This, unfortunately for anyone who pursues romance on a dating app (or even via a more traditional service), is the one thing that even the strongest expert/salesman/commercial face can't claim to scan for. Because they can't. Or because they don't think to.

Similar interests, similar career trajectories, and (bare minimum) a place of equilibrium on the subjects of politics and religion are important, yes. But relationships are tested when thrown into flux: when one is dishonest, when both are bored, when an outside influence rocks the boat. None of those things can be planned for via a questionnaire, partly because many of us will subconsciously put what we wish we'd do in dire straits, and partly because the intersection of those reactions is what counts.

The System of "Hang the DJ" is weird, unpleasant, but ultimately quite helpful. "What would you do if you fell in love and suddenly the world conspired to make it impossible to do anything about it?" "Would broadly accepted statutes or systems keep you apart, or would you rebel against them?" "How well do you handle uncertainty?"

And, most important of all: "What happens between the two of you during a falling-out?"

There's nothing that answers those questions better and more accurately than experience. And with one life to live and a million feelings to shred, a rapid-fire check of how likely you and a potential partner are to not absolutely destroy each other in a dating scenario is a bit of a nice dream.

The Built-In Safety

There is, if a bit of Fridge Brilliance is applied, even more to the System than just predicting to within a fraction of a percent if you'll fare well together with someone. Simply based upon the nature of its simulation, it also confirms that both parties are willing not to trust it.

99.8% sounds like an extremely favorable rate. They're odds I'd take on just about anything. But it's not 100%. Does this mean The System shouldn't be trusted at all? Nah. It's done its homework. We watched it do its homework.

But look at what the simulation was: an entire society relying on The System to choose their matches, with the Good End being them deciding not to listen to it and to go their own way. This presents us with two very important pieces of information about the relationship between Amy and Frank. One, as established before, they are almost entirely likely to work through any problems, between them or in the outside world, that may threaten their relationship.

But two -- and potentially most importantly -- they are willing to abandon a near-foolproof system if it doesn't work for them.

That is, sadly, one of the most important parts of relationships. If it's not working, it doesn't matter how "perfect" or "meant to be" it was. And something as intricate and deeply researched as The System is likely to be trusted implicitly by its users. Which is bad. There are very few things in this life that deserve our implicit trust.

We have a very, very good match in Amy and Frank. They're both flawed, but work through their flaws. They're willing to take huge risks to maintain their relationship. And, should that 0.2% disparity prevail in their real-world relationship, they will both have the strength to say "screw the infallible system" and err on the side of happiness rather than destroy themselves and each other to cling to what they're told is "right."

But I Have One More Question...

What about our digital duplicates?

Now, this is a question outside of my main read. Because in order for that read to serve its purpose, we have to take it for what it is, and accept that these tiny slices of people's lives are collated into a dating app. And it's made fairly clear from the outset that these are not full copies of our subjects. They have no previous memories of life outside the app. They live unquestioningly (at first) in a world where you don't work, go to school, or pursue self-improvement. They have only two tasks in their little lives: date, or wait to date. (Hell, we don't even have any indication of whether they're living through the offscreen time spans or if they're just being conveniently time skipped -- what we see may be all there is.)

Even in a dystopian world where an infallible System picks our mates, that's oddly laser-focused. There is A Restaurant. A Mall. A Park. Despite the detail of their situation, the whole thing is very bare-bones for a real-world living situation of any type.

So are we dealing with an entire copy of Frank and an entire copy of Amy? No. They have no previous memories. But they're copy enough that they can stand in for Amy and Frank in unfamiliar scenarios. And Black Mirror has, several times since "Be Right Back" (and already this season in "USS Callister"), begged our empathy for AI.

In this Mirrorverse or Brookerverse or whatever, sentient duplicates have already been established as deserving of our care and empathy, as much as their source. And according to Brooker himself, when each couple's simulation is over, their "world ends." We do see the Franks and Amys of the app ascending up into the circle of data, which is a far kinder visual than we might get otherwise. So it seems that there was an awareness of our previous encounters with AIs in Black Mirror and how to potentially make their "end" seem a little less cold.

But I am left with a pair of questions...

One. What is the mindset of the company who created the app? Are they aware of the sentience of the AI and consider it a small price for each of the 2,000 little lives to pay? Or are they not as clued in to the lives of the characters as the audience is.

And two -- how much of the app's functionality is known to the users? And would Frank, Amy, and other clients still use the app if they knew that each scan required 2,000 digital people to spend the equivalent of several years going through emotional trauma?

Would you?

What Are the Lessons?

1. True love can be influenced by many things, but a functional relationship relies heavily on both parties' ability to work through their problems.

2. A healthy relationship entails not only love and trust, but also the ability to end it if it is not serving its purpose.

3. It's well past time for all of us to remember how good "Panic" by The Smiths is.


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