Oct 22, 2016

Black Mirror: Nosedive

For someone like me (a technophile with contrarian traditionalist tendencies), Black Mirror is high-grade catnip. The catnippiness starts with the title card, which starts with a "content loading" symbol that is either indicative of the start of the show or a technical problem with your stream. The title card ends with an aggressively high-pitched tone that results in the glass "shattering" (here it is on video; the effect is better experienced than described).

I've watched the first two seasons, the christmas special, and am halfway through the third season that just dropped on Friday. The genius of each episode is that almost everything is exactly the same as our present day, except for a slight tweak along one axis (15 Million Merits and White Christmas are exceptions, admittedly). But that slight tweak sets the entire world askew.

"Nosedive" is my favorite episode of Season 3 so far. I like it because the slight tweak is very slight indeed: residents of the pleasant pastel-themed society are heavy users of an Instagram-like app, with which users can rate all their social interactions on a 1- to 5-star scale. These ratings are compiled into an aggregate point rating for each user, and people care a lot about their aggregate ratings.

The protagonist of "Nosedive" is a bright-eyed woman who's very bought in to the ratings game (she's a 4.2; an entire world of peaks & prestige opens up if she can just get to 4.5). As the title suggests, things don't go so well. But in another way, things go really well – she breaks out of the system, out of her head, finds some of the authentic experience she was striving towards.

The scary part about the "Nosedive" tweak is that no new technology needs to be invented or propagated in order for pastel-world to exist. Everybody already has a smartphone. Millions of people are already avid social network users. And because of the on-demand economy, people are growing used to assessing trivial interactions on a scale of 1 to 5. All that has to happen to bring about pastel-world is Facebook deciding to roll out a 5-star rating system that produces aggregate user scores, and for everyone to buy in. Pastel-world isn't 15 minutes in our future, it's just the universe next door.

I'm unsettled by thought experiments like this because they challenge my sense of this world's normalcy. Would our world seem like a social media dystopia to the residents of a universe a couple doors down? No reason why it shouldn't. There's so much preening and self-censorship in our society. Social media sites and smartphones didn't create such phenomena, but they have enabled them.

There's a fair amount of irony in writing a public post about such concerns. This blog is part of my social persona – in addition to the simple joy of writing, posting yields (a modicum of) social standing. But I don't think the way to deal with irony is trying to comport oneself in a way such that no accusation of hypocrisy ever holds water. I think the thing to do is swallow the bitter charge head on, and focus on the authentic pleasures of what you're doing as much as possible.

After all, Charlie Brooker gets prestige and profit from creating Black Mirror, a television show that reacts against our current media consumption habits. But this doesn't mean Charlie Brooker ought not to have created the show. It's a richer world with Black Mirror in it, even if its existence is hypocritical.

[rereads: 1, edits: tightened up the prose, written while listening to Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Vol 2 which is the perfect sort of music for this sort of thing]