Our daughter is a huge fan of the Netflix original series Black Mirror. The weekend we visited her, we set up a projector outside in the chilly January air and watched several episodes around a bonfire, with the image projected onto a sheet that covered a storage shed. It worked surprisingly well.
Black Mirror is a weird series, no question. Each story has to do with some aspect of technology. The society is sometimes futuristic or it’s like where we live now, but enhanced by some aspect of technology. Different characters for each episode, but there’s usually some underlying connection among them.
One of my favorites is from season 3, an episode called Nosedive. From Wikipedia’s summary: In a society where one’s social rating with others greatly influences one’s life, a woman tries to improve her own rating to afford an ideal apartment by giving an appealing speech at her best friend’s wedding. This summary really doesn’t do the episode justice.
The social rating is done through your smart phone and special contacts you wear. Any interaction you have with someone else – a waiter in a restaurant, some random person you bump into on the street, a co-worker, lover, boss – is rated from 1 to 5. Thanks to your contacts, you can see another person’s name and rating when you look at him or her.
In this society, the happier you are – even if it’s phony happiness – will usually win you a bunch of good stars from others. If you’ve got 4.5 stars and above, you’re entitled to special perks – discounts on car rentals, the best seats on airlines, stellar credit that enables you to get into the best apartments and jobs.
Without that 4.5 rating, you’re less than perfect, those perks are denied you, and you’re always striving to increase your rating and, thus, improve your life. In some ways, it’s a lot like Instagram – post the pasta dish you had for dinner, a cute picture of your dog, and people out there in rating land people give you between 1 to 5 stars and your social standing either rises or plummets. Get engaged to a 4.8 and wow, the 5 stars pour in.
Yeah, it sounds ridiculous and the hilarious story line really underscores that absurdity. But the bigger picture is unsettling. Take a look at the Amazon review process for books. Love the book? Give it a 5 star. Hate it? 1 star. Somewhere in between? Then it gets a 2, 3, or 4.
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, for instance, has over 1500 reviews in the first 5 days since it was published and a star rating of 4.6 Impressive. In the Nosedive world, he would be getting all the perks. (Wolff’s book, as of Jan 17, is the bestselling book worldwide in any genre, has been bought for 7 figures for a TV movie, and has sold to 32 countries. Definitely 5 stars in my book!)
IMDB is the same way. Take a look at Rotten Tomato ratings for movies.
When you buy a product online, you later receive an email asking you to rate your experience. Sometimes, the rating system runs from 1-10, sometimes from 1 to 5, just like the world in Nosedive.
In this world, the social rating system also bears eerie similarities to Instagram. How many likes can you get on your most recent post? How many followers do you have? Or, take Twitter. Obama has 97.4 million followers. Trump has 43.8 million (but don’t tell him Obama has more!) Oprah has 41,091,818. Here’s the top list.
By the end of this episode, the woman’s rating has plunged from a 4.2 to a lousy 1.something, her life is in tatters, and she ends up in jail, where she is suddenly free to express herself emotionally. She’s not happy and neither is the guy in the cell across from her. The episode ends with the two of them shouting insults at each other.
In many ways, we seem to be living in this absurdity now, addicted to our cell phones, those mini-computers we carry around in our pockets and handbags, rating our experiences with books, movies, purchases. Will we soon be rating each other?