Black Mirror, the Netflix series now in its fourth season, makes an indelible impression on the soft parts of the brain. Season 3, episode 1, in particular, is perfect TV programming for the Digital Age. Vox calls the “Nosedive” episode a social media nightmare dressed like a pastel daydream.
The episode imagines a world where Instagram-friendly perfection reigns, with disastrous consequences. The main character, Lacie, like everyone around her conducts herself according to the points system. When you manage to please people, your score goes higher. When you fail to please people your score falls. In this dystopia, your aggregate score isn’t just an ego boost, it determines access to services.
I highly recommend watching “Nosedive.” We are already captives of our screens and therefore we are controlled to a degree by our impulses and by corporate and political forces that are not always plainly evident. Digital media, like traditional media, can be a means for implementing a system of control. By owning a particular point of view—true or untrue—the media owner helps shapes the story and imparts meaning.
In a totalitarian state, the draconian nature of media’s role is even more dangerous. According to Wired, people in China are living the “Nosedive” reality, today:
In China, the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”
Forget all about, “smile on your brother.” It’s time to report on your brother, sister, coworker, and neighbor.
How long before the American government wants to implement a social scoring system like China’s? Some would argue that we have it now thanks to Facebook. One thing is for sure, we do already have a credit score that determines what kind of car you drive and what kind of home you live in. Adding a social scoring system to existing points-based awards programs would allow good citizens to downgrade people like me, who point to societal problems and fixate on the solutions. What an ingenious and insidious way to further isolate dissidents, activists, artists, and intellectuals.
The man is no joke. But the man can be beaten. You’re in control of your screen time and how you use it. For some, it’s important to turn off location tracking, disable cookies, and keep privacy settings on Facebook or Instagram tight. For those who actively court a wider audience via digital channels, keeping privacy on lockdown isn’t as important. I’d argue that all users of digital media platforms can benefit from a periodic detox and digital media check-ups. If the way you use Facebook today makes you anxious or sad, delete your account. If you have to fend off trolls on Twitter, report them, block them, and keep doing what you need to do.
On an individual level, we can lift our heads up toward the sky and sun and moon. The default position with neck craned and eyes strained is embarrassingly poor form. Let’s ask more of ourselves and each other. Let’s look each other in the eye and speak honestly. It’s not too late and you’re not the only one who longs for phone calls from friends and family, instead of an email or text. Short bursts of writing are lazy. Step up and write a handwritten letter and send it in the mail. The receiver will be surprised and pleased that you took the time.