Before we determine whether the events in Nosedive can happen, let’s look back to when this episode was released: October 21, 2016.
2016 was the year our smartphones completely took over our lives. The rise of Pokemon Go during the summer was a key piece of evidence. In a matter of weeks, people worldwide were wandering around staring at their phones. Some even ventured into dangerous neighborhoods and private priorities to catch them all and ended up losing their lives.
Disappearing videos were also growing in popularity. Snapchat had a big year in 2016, with one in five Americans engaging with the platform. Gaining adoption from an older audience, Snapchat proved that ephemeral content was not only for kids.
Across the Internet, the rabbit holes for obscure, hateful, and extreme content dropped deeper and deeper, creating echo chambers for conspiracy theories. While we were suspicious that algorithms and foreign influence might be involved, we didn’t know Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were using data harvested from the social network to fuel political unrest leading to Donald Trump becoming president and the UK leaving the European Union.
In 2016, the physical world had many problems: political tensions, soaring debt, school shootings, and Samsung phone explosions. Technology companies were making our attention span shorter and our insatiable hunger for attention more vital. And while we may not be able to afford a house in the physical world, at least we could find comfort in a digital one… But slowly that realm was corroding. And there was no rewind button—no eject—we had fallen too deep.
As we longed for a simpler time, our nostalgia was left exposed. And money-hungry executives happily used it against us by selling uninspired remakes and clothing with old logos.
That was where the zeitgeist was in 2016. Technology was pushing us forward while we were looking back longingly. We wanted to be heroes and victims. Masters and influencers. Stars and black holes. And with that, let’s look at Black Mirror season 3, episode 1: Nosedive.
In this post, I will explore three themes of the episode and discuss whether such events or concepts have taken place in some form in the last few years and if they haven’t, whether or not they’re still plausible.
Without further ado, let’s jump into it.
Social Credit Score
In the world of Nosedive, the residents don’t live such different lives from ours. Their hopes and desires are much the same. And we too need to be approved in order to get them. In order to buy a house, start a business, get into a college, or find a job we need to have our credits evaluated.
The story follows a young professional, Lacie, who wants to purchase her own property. But to do so, she needs to increase her rating—which is directly linked to her socioeconomic status—from 4.2 to 4.5.
I remember watching this episode in 2016 and feeling uneasy about the idea of reviewing people. Since then, I’ve signed up for apps such as Uber and Airbnb, so the concept of giving someone a score on a device has all gotten familiar even though it’s still uncomfortable. If it meets expectations, I’m giving it a 5-star. I don’t want to be a critic for everything I do.
Most consumers have a credit score, an objective number that predicts credit risk and informed financial institutions to lend them money or not. A credit score takes account of indisputable aspects of our financial habits, such as how regularly we pay off our bills, how many accounts we own, and how much available credit we use. For example, you’d need a credit score of 680 or over to get a mortgage.
Additionally, there are academic scores, which most of us had suffered through when embarking on our educational pursuits. The grade point average determines whether we qualify for one institution over another. For example, you’ll need a GPA of 4.18 or over to get into Harvard.
However, the eeriest real-life scenario relating to this episode is the Social Credit Score that may or may not be implemented in China.
In 2013, the government of Rongcheng, China, a city with half a million people, implemented a social credit score. Each person began with a rating of 1,000 to start, and good and bad deeds would lower or increase that number.
During this experiment, citizens lost points for spreading harmful information, with one citizen losing 950 points in three weeks for distributing letters online about a medical dispute. Of course, the government decides what’s considered harmful. That’s the main argument for the social credit score: it’s to help enforce existing laws. But when the laws can be twisted, social credit scores become scary and Orwellian. The authorities no longer need to listen to criticism—because criticism is harmful.
Criticizing the government could theoretically lower your rating and rank you as someone who had gone to prison or been bankrupt. This penalization will disqualify you from getting a loan, buying a car, or even traveling abroad. Like in Nosedive, there isn’t a reliable appeal process either. Lacie could beg the authority at the airport all she wants, but whatever the law feels is necessary, it does.
The whole system falls apart when the power goes to those with no qualms about abusing the ratings. That is why any good review platform will have impartial moderators. Otherwise, those with a higher rank can create loyalists by rewarding good behaviors while oppressing those they deem threats or disobedient.
Boosting Social Status
Social media has given us another obsession with numbers: the amount of likes, follows, and comments. We put a numerical value on everything we do. These metrics can give us a hit of dopamine or bum us out, but they can also now greatly influence our income. You don’t even need to be an influencer. Amazon sellers need good reviews, and podcasters need five stars. It’s too competitive. There is just no way to survive without it. And because of that vulnerability, the power can be abused.
One of my favorite parts in this episode was when Lacie goes to this analytics consultant, and he walks her through all her data. As a marketer, this is all too relatable. How many times have I charted the result of a successful campaign? Or reviewed why a piece of content didn’t appeal to an audience?
In this social media world, we all have to be personal brands. We treat ourselves like a business. Like a restaurant on Yelp or an app in the App Store, we need to monitor our influence, measure our performance, and increase our exposure. We need a communication team, a public relations team, and a growth team. If we miss a beat, we can expose ourselves to bad press. We need to know which side to stand on, like when Lacie had to pick sides between coworkers. To avoid being ostracized—or, as we say these days, getting canceled—she needs to join the mob.
We are an investment, a stock trending up and down. Overall we want to go up. We want to stay relevant and increase in value. Marketing is important because it’s how businesses gain positive exposure and present their offerings to the world. When everyone is a content creator, getting married is a media production, a big marketing campaign. Weddings are like the Oscars or the Olympics. It’s where you can really increase your reach and up your score.
While Naomi carefully curated her wedding to maintain her rank, Lacie wanted to leverage the wedding to boost her score. The stakes increased since the wedding would include many high-rated individuals whose scores were inherently worth more. By interacting with them at such a grand event, she’d get the spike in ratings she needed to reach her goals.
When people are only measured by their scores, we get a homogenized world where every action is driven by numbers. This is a dangerous way of living. It creates a constant sense of discontentment. There is always a higher number, and we will always want more. We’d want to upgrade everything. Nothing is ever enough. Not our home. Not our followers. Not our friends. Not our lovers. Not our jobs. We will be stuck on what experts call the hedonic treadmill, where whatever happiness we get from money, accolade, or status would feel nice at first but won’t ever be enough. Eventually, we will return to our default level, wanting more.
Another theme of this episode was how Lacie had to be constantly on. She had to present herself in a certain way because the world was a stage. From the posts she published on social media to her interactions with service people, she had to maintain a pleasant persona.
At the start of the pandemic, everyone was locked down, and the only way to see our friends and work was through video calls. Every day we had to sit in front of a camera and put on a show. Being so disconnected from body language, social cues, and physical energy, we needed to channel Meryl Streep so that our viewers—our friends, families, clients, and coworkers—would perceive how we were feeling. Not everyone wants to be an “influencer,” but our ability to perform for the camera is critical if we want to succeed in this new game.
When it comes to increasing a score, it is very much a game. And games are strategic. There is nothing authentic about someone trying to win a game. You don’t reveal your plan to your enemies. Every interaction becomes a move upon a chessboard. This idea was nicely illustrated when Naomi announced that she didn’t invite Lacie because of the kindness of her heart. She didn’t consider her a true friend but rather a deliberate play to earn sympathy points.
We are living in a Photoshopped magazine cover where everything is carefully composed. That’s why seeing our features superimposed into advertising is so dangerous. We are easily manipulated. And few approaches are more effective than appealing to our ego, creating urgency, and evoking our fear of missing out, aka FOMO.
Once we can envision the status we desire, it’s terrifying to lose it. This marketing approach is not so different from trying on clothes, test driving a car, or using 3D AR software to furnish a room. By engaging with it, we’re more likely to purchase. It’s the visualization that drove Lacie to extremes. The holographic images of her beautiful new kitchen with a lover at her side became her north star or a vision board.
While we always want more, we also fear losing what we have. That’s why nostalgia is so powerful. Nostalgia can bring us back to an even ground, a simpler time. When we were children we were all equals, the closest we were to authentic, or so it seemed.
The homely Mr. Rags was a representation of the innocent days before the betrayal, before the days when points mattered. Nostalgia reminds us of a time when we were ourselves, not whatever number represents us now: the ratings, the funds in our bank, or the number of friends at our party.
Wise words constantly remind us to have empathy for others because we don’t know what someone else is going through. However, when we see someone desperately trying to regain footing in front of a crowd—like a celebrity caught in hot water—we can say, “Wow. Glad that’s not me up there”—and enjoy the show.
In an unempathetic world, where everyone is keeping scores the same way Google keeps track of everything we search, we will guard how we truly feel, live in incognito mode, and fake it.
During these past several years, I, like Lacie, just wanted to express my anger, sadness, and frustration. I wanted to be a child and scream. However, as an adult, screaming is not allowed. I cannot scream outside because I’d get arrested. I cannot scream in my home because the neighbors would freak out. There are only a few places for us urbanites to go to express these emotions. We can escape from the city and find a place of our own. Or we could join a protest and start a riot.
Nosedive encapsulates what Black Mirror is all about. A dark reflection of our current existence. Watching this episode feels as satisfying as peeling off a layer of sunburnt skin. The fun is over, the damage is done, we recovered, we are still alive, and even though we know the consequences when the next sunny day comes, we still go outside again to play the game.
So the question remains, can the events in Nosedive happen? My friend, count all the numbers associated with your life. All the followers you have, all the scores the government and financial institutions designate, and all the hours you spend pursuing your virtual goals. At any point, those numbers can drop to zero. And it’ll be devastating.
The event of this episode is happening. Now, how can we stop it from taking over every facet of our lives? How can we still express our feelings without damaging our reputation? How do we be ourselves without exposing our vulnerabilities? I offer no solution except this, besides all the scores the world keeps, maintain an inner scorecard. You get to rate yourself as well. Give yourself a good score. Why not?
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