[Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series that examines a different concept every episode and attempts to showcase a near-future in which technology has taken over our lives. Each episode stands alone as a story. This post is about Nosedive, the first episode in the show’s third season.]
In Nosedive, we are introduced to a society that functions on a point-based rating system. Everyone is embedded with a contact lens type device (an advanced Google Glass maybe?) and they continuously rate anyone they encounter. The person you smile at as you cross the road, the one who stands with you in the lift, the cashier who rings up your purchase; their details and social media feed appear instantaneously on your newsfeed, and you can give them anywhere between one and five stars. The average of all such ratings becomes your score, which then becomes a kind of currency to move up in society. People with higher scores get more perks – access to better living spaces and sophisticated country clubs for instance.
Lacie Pound, whom we follow in this story, is determined to improve herself. She practices her smile in the mirror before stepping out, she works hard at being nice to everyone she meets, she observes those with higher scores and learns what works and what doesn’t (cute cat videos come in handy). She posts updates as she works out, as she sips her hot beverage and bites into her free cookie, she wears pastel coloured clothes that make her appear pleasant, she is constantly on edge as she gets herself to be more likeable every waking minute.
She is at 4.2 now, but as her advisor points out to her, her five star ratings mostly come from service industry professionals and her close circle. She needs at least 4.5 to get a twenty percent discount on a new home she’s been looking at. Right around this time, she is invited to a former friend’s (Naomi, 4.8) wedding, the guest list to which consists almost solely of premium users (4.7s at least). Lacie is asked to be the maid of honour and speak at this wedding, which seems to her to be the perfect opportunity to help her climb up the social ladder. Things begin to go wrong even before she leaves for the wedding.
Lacie lives with her younger brother, who is content being a 3.7. He calls her out on her behaviour. This is someone you used to hate, he reminds her. It doesn’t matter though. She is still intent on preparing a speech that will get her five stars from a room full of popular people. As she argues with her brother and prepares to leave, the taxi driver (waiting outside, but not very patiently) gives her one star for having made him wait, bringing down her score. She reaches the airport to find out her flight has been cancelled; she loses it a bit and uses a few expletives, bringing her score down some more. The security officer knocks off a whole point (temporarily) and warns her that all ratings for the next twenty four hours will have twice the negative impact – she is on double damage mode (3.1 now). She then rents a car – there is a separate line for those with 3.8 and above – and when the car runs out of charge, she finds out she wasn’t given an adaptor to charge it with. As she loses her calm in the face of every new setback, the frustration threatens to bubble out of her.
Lacie is soon spiraling out of control, she stops caring for anyone who won’t help her rating go up. She erupts in anger, only to backtrack immediately – but her score has already registered the effects. Someone saw her kicking her car in moment of weakness, someone else saw her walking on the road in the middle of the night and decided she was an unsavoury character, or they are just put off by her for no reason.
The episode suggests that the aspirational five-star life is just an eerie place which has perfected the arts of plastic smiles and fake affection. People who question this system and/or try to express a modicum of true emotion are treated as aberrations – their ratings drop very low and they are left to face the consequences of their actions. They do look happier, but it appears as though they do not have much in terms of material possessions or status in society. However, there is only one technology platform that rules everyone’s lives – we have to take this as one of the default settings of this society because that is how it is presented to us.
The actress playing Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) is perfect. She projects a fierce longing for validation and is almost manic in her efforts to reach the pinnacle of what she considers happiness. She is broken, lonely, and terrified – and so are most others – but they are too busy pretending. She makes us sense her fear as she loses the remaining bits of self-worth. Her aggressive brand of cheerfulness is both pitiable and despicable. Her anxiety mounts as people dislike her. She lets us feel her humiliation as strangers rate her poorly. She wants something that has always been elusive (Contentment? Popularity? Fame? Happiness?), and this is the only way she knows how. But the harder she tries, the more excluded she feels.
This is a scary episode not because of what could happen, but because this is already happening. More and more people want to project only their best selves online – the vacations at picturesque locations, the perfect partner, the honeymoons with a photographer tagging along, the interesting food they want to be seen eating, the intellectual articles they want to be seen reading. It doesn’t escape me that as I write this, I am wondering why a pretty girl’s picture of a half-eaten plate of food would receive 200 likes while also checking if anyone’s left a comment on my blog. The incongruity cannot be ignored.
Nosedive may be fictitious, but the dystopian future is now.
Black Mirror is available on Netflix.