Black Mirror: Nosedive

There is a difference between appreciating a work of art and liking it. It’s a hard one for many of us; made harder still by a cultural tendency to reduce all value judgments to expressions of preference, or opinion. De gustibus non est disputandum but not everything is merely a matter of personal taste.

I recall, however many years ago, complaining to a friend about a film, because I found that I could not identify, or even empathize, with any of the characters. In response, he simply asked: “Why do you think you should need to be able to do that?” – This was a crucial moment for me, in terms of my own ability to appreciate film and the like. I ultimately opened to a space where it did, in fact, become largely irrelevant. I’ve come to think that it is beside the point – art is not about giving me stories I can relate to; it is about pushing the boundaries of my own experience, and opening me up to the ‘Other’.

I don’t imagine everyone has made that sort of turn – in fact, in my experience, it seems like few have – and I don’t mention it in the hopes of getting everyone else to do so, so much as because this distinction between what one likes and what is good, or meaningful, is of particular relevance to my assessment of Nosedive.

There is nothing about the world we are presented with here that I find appealing, and I don’t much care for our protagonist, Lacie. The titular nosedive is in no way necessary to get me to view this as a dystopia; I’m there from the beginning. This is, frankly, a vision of the world that makes me want to vomit. Thus, I find this to be a hard hour of television to watch (though Cherry Jones’ performance as Susan provides a breath of fresh air).

But that does not mean there is nothing of interest here to think about; on the contrary. Nosedive presents the possibility of a near-future reality that is startlingly plausible. My antipathy may indeed stem from how close to home it hits, and my gripes about the world we inhabit.

Fundamentally, the premise of the episode is just an extension of things such as Facebook likes, Yelp reviews, and Uber ratings to every aspect of human life. It is basically a world where the Meow Meow Beenz app from Community’s “App Development and Condiments” took off, and took over.

We are confronted with this from the moment our friend Lacie hits the screen; her phone is constantly in her hand, rating everyone from those she passes while out for a jog, to the barista who gives her a latte. Something like the zed-eye technology clearly seems to be in play, as her eyes digitally recognize the faces of others in a way that ties into this rating system, but the focus here is on the latter itself.

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It is at this point that I would normally try to articulate what it is about the technology in question that might seem appealing, but I can’t do it with this one. I suppose there might be some thought about such ratings having a positive effect on social interactions, or something like that. Perhaps there is justification for Uber ratings, and one could start there as a touchstone. This is information about the quality of drivers, and passengers, that could be useful, I suppose. Writ large, the idea would be that information pertaining to the experiences of others with regard to someone could help one in making decisions about interactions with that someone.

1) Does rating others get at what it is supposed to, or just create a new social dynamic, where worries about the rating creating a feedback loop affect the rating itself? Is it possible for such a system to operate honestly, or in good faith?

The practical effects of this rating program become more and more apparent as the episode proceeds. Lacie needs to improve her rating to a 4.5 to get into the apartment complex she wants, and finds the invitation from an old “friend” to be her bridesmaid the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Naomi, or, “Nay-Nay” as Lacie so annoyingly calls her, has a high-four rating, as do the guests to her wedding. So, it presents a great opportunity for Lacie to improve her score by giving a good speech, since high ratings from those with high ratings have more impact than a high rating from someone with a low rating would, of course.

Naomi is insufferable, as is Lacie when she talks to her, and, ironically, it seems to be this that leads Lacie’s driver to the airport to give her a bad review. This knocks her below 4.2, which becomes important when she discovers her flight has been canceled and needs to be 4.2 or above to book another one.

If you have never had a flight canceled on you, I struggle to find the words to express the kind of rage that can create. And if they tell you the soonest they can get you to the place you are trying to go is later than you need to be there, well, this is a time I can empathize with Lacie. And if this idea of not being able to fly for this reason seems like far out science fiction to you, take a look at China.

She gets mad, and gets security called on her. They dock her a point – temporarily at least – and put her on plan where each rating counts double for the next 24 hours. The people standing around look at her, and rate her negatively. Thus begins the nosedive.

She goes to rent a car, but can only get an old crappy one because of her rating. It gets close to running out of battery, so she pulls into a charging station only to find that her old clunker isn’t compatible with their outlets. They didn’t give her an adapter. So, she waits around for a bit, before taking to the road to hitchhike. Her rating continues to plummet.

It would seem that having a high rating predisposes others to view one positively, whereas a low rating tends to do the opposite. If others don’t like you, I am primed to feel that I should agree. There is the possibility of the kind of feedback loop that plays into Lacie’s downward spiral.

2) To what extent is our tendency to want to agree with others – to fit in with others – inherently problematic?

Ultimately, Lacie gets a ride from a woman named Susan, who drives a truck for a company that is apparently called “U Schlep.” She has a 1.4 rating, which makes Lacie a bit suspicious, but Susan explains that after her husband died of cancer, she stopped giving a shit. She speaks her mind and is presented as an exemplar of authenticity. How exactly she is able to navigate in this world is not thoroughly explored (apparently the fine folks at U Schlep don’t care about the ratings system), but the point of her character in the narrative is clear. After presenting us with a world saturated by social ratings, Susan comes across as the most likable character in the episode because she is genuine, but also kind. She serves as a reminder that the social reputation of a person is not always a reliable guide in terms of assessing them. Certainly there would be people with low ratings in this world deserving of them, but Susan is just someone who has decided not to play the game.

That this is presented as possible might be seen as an indication of Black Mirror becoming more optimistic in its latter seasons, though the overall message of “Nosedive” is anything but hopeful. At least there is apparently some space for escape. Though, if all episodes show occur in the same universe at different points in time, one would guess that this state of affairs would be prior to that of White Christmas or Fifteen Million Merits.

Susan can’t take Lacie all of the way, and so drops her at rest stop, to find another ride for the remainder of the journey to Naomi’s wedding. She also gifts Lacie with a thermos of booze, because Susan is awesome.

Lacie overhears some young women in the bathroom talking about going to a Sea of Tranquility convention in the area of her destination, and so pretends to also be headed there to snag a ride. Of course, these young women are fully engaged in cosplay while Lacie isn’t; her attempts to fit in are strained at best.

It is while riding with this group that Lacie receives a call from Naomi telling her not to come to the wedding. Lacie’s rating has fallen to a 2.6, and Naomi can’t have that. The facade of wanting her to come because they were old friends comes crashing down. It’s a numbers game. Having an old friend with a lower, but respectable, rating would have been good optics, but Lacie has fallen too far as she has struggled to get to the wedding.

Thus, her facade also begins to crumble. She tells the convention kids she doesn’t know anything about their stupid show, and loses that ride. She manages to borrow the ATV of a guy she runs into, though, and proceeds to crash the wedding at which she is no longer welcome. After she first crashes the ATV, falls in the mud, and breaks into the compound that only allows entry to those who are 3.8 or higher (no exceptions).

Her desperation is palpable in these scenes. Giving her speech at the wedding was supposed to boost her to a 4.5, so that she could get that apartment she wants. Now, having fallen so far, she sees it as her only opportunity to make up all of that ground. She has been practicing the speech, but of course, when she crashes the wedding and starts trying to give it, things do not go well. She is dirty, disheveled, and unwelcome. Thus, the low ratings begin to flow.

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She ends up ranting about how, if she spent her life looking up to Naomi, that means Naomi was always looking down on her – with a smile, though! It’s a mix of the speech she planned, and rage she cannot keep down any longer.  Lacie has a breakdown, and it is in the midst of this, with her mascara smudged down her face, that she finally seems like a human being to be empathized with. Naomi fucked Greg (whoever that is), but the shallowness of this world has led Lacie to deny or ignore that for years. The highly rated get a pass. Somehow their sins roll right off the pristine surface of their social approbation.

The episode ends with Lacie in prison, yelling profanities and insults across the divide at another inmate, but this feels like a moment of release, and joy, rather than despair. They may be incarcerated, but are free from the world structured by the point system.

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Perhaps there is a point here to be thought about in relation to trolling and those darker aspects of the internet. On the one hand, social media may present us with well-staged pictures of lattes and cookies, but on the other it gives us hateful comments and inchoate expressions of rage.

Let us not forget, or ignore, the pleasure taken by the troll. It is a pleasure taken by getting a rise out of others – to offend for the sake of offending. Thus, to take offense is to feed the troll. But, as much as we might strive to rid the internet of these tendencies, Nosedive presents us with a world that has largely done precisely that. The troll depends on a certain level of anonymity; a certain distance from others that is not available in “real life.” By making social media and this ratings system pervade “real life” the troll could be eliminated. But at what cost?

Everything plays at a level of superficiality, if one is constantly thinking about what others will think before one is willing to think for oneself. We get mediocrity, and shallowness. We become alienated, not just from others but from ourselves, as the image of the self becomes more important than its depth.

These are problems that we already face, in the age of social media. Nosedive simply makes them extreme. So, I can’t find a neutral point of view about this one, I’m afraid, though I do not think the episode is neutral itself, either. The message is clear: be like Susan.


 

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