Season three of the science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” has finally arrived on Netflix. Previous seasons explored our relationship to technology, specifically how evolving technologies might have a frightening impact on our lives. Season three, by and large, continues this trend. When storytelling is at its best it not only entertains, but also teaches us something about ourselves. “Black Mirror” attempts to look into a nebulous future and point out potential pitfalls. Like the seafaring maps of centuries past, the series outlines areas of uncharted territory and warns the viewer, fellow travelers on the road to the future, to tread lightly because here there be monsters.
Each episode tells a self-contained story with its own message or moral lesson. Within the coming digital pages, we’ll ponder the gospel of series to see if we can learn anything that might direct us more safely along our way.
Episode One: “Nosedive”
Season three’s premiere episode presents a world dominated by a social media culture gone mad. Via handheld phones and optical implants, individuals are thrust into an augmented reality with an interface that can be described only as the lovechild between multiple real world social media platforms, with the glossy mundane documentation of Instagram and the rating system of Reddit. People document their every action and rate every interaction in real time on a scale of one to five stars. Those ratings have an impact by way of increasing or decreasing the user’s personal score.
The episode follows Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) a 4.2 with dreams of a better life. When faced with finding a new place to live, Lacie must drive her score above 4.5 in order to take advantage of the perks and discounts offered only to “prime influencers.”
The pursuit of five-star ratings dominates every aspect of her life, this is illustrated in the way she maniacally practices her smile and laugh in the mirror, or the way she meticulously removes a bite from a cookie (without swallowing) and photographs it alongside her latte art, before taking a sip and realizing she hates it. Any real world experience takes a back seat to the illusion of a happy life online. Pleasure comes not from positive experiences, but from the attention garnered by others at the documentation of those experiences.
It's easy to see the message this episode is stabbing at. Social media platforms have been around long enough for studies to have been performed and the results, at least in some respects, are troubling. One study, performed in 2012 by Anxiety UK, found that roughly half of social media users had experienced behavioral changes they perceived as negative as a result of using social media. They specifically cited feeling less confident when they compared their achievements against those of their friends and peers. This feeling has been attributed to the tendency we all have to only document our best moments online.
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” - Steven Furtick
We’re not likely to post a photo of the bad times, but we certainly will when they’re good. Ask yourself if you’ve ever moved dirty laundry out of the frame in order to provide the illusion of a clean home, or taken a photo from a particular angle because it presents you or your circumstance in a more favorable light. We’ve all done it, but we have a tendency to forget that and as a result we compare our real lives, with all its flaws, to the cleaned up, photoshopped, highlight reel presented by our peers.
Like the fashion magazines we’re now beginning to decry, we’re all holding our lives to an unrealistic standard of beauty, and we’re suffering for it.
The world that “Nosedive” presents is one where we’re not the only ones holding ourselves to this unrealistic standard, our peers are as well. And to makes matters worse their opinions of those false lives have real world consequences. If Lacie can’t convince those around her to vote her to a 4.5 she won’t be able to afford the apartment she’s just signed a lease for. These socio-economic consequences are enough to lend weight and conflict to her story without taking into account the psychological impact of constant scrutiny.
In this sort of economic climate, the worth of a person is determined not by how much they contribute to society but by how much we like them in a completely abstract way. This sort of thing is not at all a fictional construct. For evidence of that we need look no further than the recent presidential town-hall debate. Before the event aired, Ken Bone was an ordinary man, after that debate he was famous. No one can pinpoint exactly why that is. Our collective consciousness didn’t grab onto the rest of the participants in the same way, but something about Bone, something completely abstract, was plucked up. Overnight he went from six Twitter followers to tens of thousands and was being interviewed live on late-night television. Along with notoriety came an offer of a one-hundred-thousand-dollar contract to do adult films. It may not be a Nike endorsement, but it’s sufficient to illustrate the point. Conversely, almost as quickly, Bone’s online history was dug up and questionable content was unearthed. He became everyone’s favorite fake uncle, then, just as fast he became everyone’s creepy uncle. Who Ken Bone is, what he said, whether or not any of the internet’s collective reactions were warranted, none of that really matters. What matters is that we’re moving into a society where your life can be quickly altered by abstract notions held by strangers.
The online service, Klout, offers a more tempered version of the same phenomenon. Users can link their social media platforms to a Klout account which then plugs your information into their algorithm and gives you a score based on engagement. Likes, comments, shares, retweets, all of this becomes digital currency that determines your online worth. Companies have been known to offer perks, discounts, even free merchandise to high scoring users. The assumption being that those users hold digital sway and a bump to first class on an airplane, a hotel suite, or a free bag of dog food, might translate into online engagement that will be healthy for the brand. Companies have even been known to consult Klout when making hiring decisions. In a contest between two equally qualified applicants, why not choose the one who holds sway over a bigger piece of the digital pie?
These are the emerging realities of the world we’re building. As technology blurs the line between the physical world and the digital one, our relationships to each other will have to evolve. The things you do online may become as, if not more, important than the things you do in real life. Success may become dependent on weaving a successful narrative.