“Nosedive” was the first episode of the third season of the dark science-fiction anthology series Black Mirror and it was released on October 21, 2016. This particular episode, like most of the rest of the series, is social satire in the context of modern technology. Let me explain how.
The growing pessimism associated with modern technology and the fears that derive from it are deeply rooted in society’s lack of self-awareness, which is a proposition I’ll strive to explore here.
In his interview with Der Spiegel, German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes the statement that all our “relationships have become merely technical ones” (1966).
This sentiment is embedded in the fictional, dystopic universe of “Nosedive”, where the characters forge interpersonal relationships, evaluate socioeconomic structures, and navigate the course of their daily lives by the same attributes that apply to social media interaction. Every individual rates others on a one-to-five scale incessantly, which creates a fluctuating rating system that defines the position of everyone in the social strata of their world. Those with higher ratings of 4.0 and above enjoy the highest privileges of society, whilst the ones on the lower end suffer disregard and exclusion.
While such social categorization sounds systematic, or as though it were an effective tool crunching out calculations for social assessments within a split second, it is anything but that. Lacie is a young woman whose life is constantly preoccupied with this rating system like those around her, and at the beginning of the episode she sits at the enviable rating of 4.2. In her world, pretentiousness brings high acclaim, yet authenticity brings disdain. One of her own obsessions is to win the attentions of her estranged childhood friend Naomi and her highly sought-after social circle. However, Naomi and her cohort’s shallow personalities have very little to meaningfully offer Lacie.
In fact, their presence in her life becomes the catalyst of her mental breakdown and eventual social decline. On the other hand, Lacie is highly dismissive of two low-rating characters — her own brother and a truck driver she meets on the road — and she is oblivious to the genuine care, insight, and human connection they provide her with. Failing to distinguish between the two, this flawed social system never truly accomplishes its one central task — to determine the worth of a person in society. This system, much like social media in our own lives, becomes not a tool, but merely a reflection of humans’ distorted perceptions of each other. It appears that technology has not grasped the essence of humanity, and vice versa.
In fact, Trevor Thwaites asks a related question, which is that in “contemporary society, can we imagine that the technologies master us, the user?”
Therefore, in the “Nosedive” universe, did technology engineer its way into humanity so as to weed out the nonconformist few that railed against the oppressive nature of the society they inhabited?
This rating system becomes particularly complex yet futile when characters do attempt to understand its essence and manipulate it accordingly, but all in vain. In the midst of making efforts to escalate her social standing, Lacie experiences a bizarre encounter in her workplace elevator with a woman who has a rating of 4.6. In a plea to receive a 5-star rating from her, Lacie presents an ostentatiously charming demeanour. The woman keeps up the performative politeness herself until Lacie rates her five stars, but she does not return the favor. While this works to reemphasize the fickleness of Lacie’s world, it also shows how enigmatic this kind of technicity can be. Lacie is not rewarded in what appeared to be a calculated attempt at mastering the expectations of this technicity, but instead she was stumped with an unexpected complication. If there was any algorithmic basis to the social rating system of Lacie’s world, it might have been possible for her character to engineer her way into a higher status. However, her failure in fathoming the unpredictable nature of the system’s technicity leaves little power in her hands to affect the outcome of her actions.
In her desire to purchase a high-end lifestyle apartment that requires a much higher rating, she makes a series of unfortunate decisions that gradually dwindle her points. Eventually, she is completely ostracized from society, and finds herself in what appears to be a kind of isolated prison cell. In the interview, Spiegel posits that in a technologized society, everything is functioning, people are taken care of, and one can live in a state of prosperity.
To this, Heidegger presents the counterargument that people “do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us] — the uprooting of man is already here” (1966).
In a case less severe than atomic bombs but nevertheless socially significant, such is the predicament upon people in the world of “Nosedive”. Technology in Lacie’s world was supposed to create a framework to organize social relationships, but the system’s result was the fragmentation of its users into the elite, the marginalized, and the in-betweeners.
It is feasible to argue that it is precisely “Nosedive”, and largely Black Mirror’s ability to simultaneously embrace the vast potentialities of technology whilst also impressing upon the viewers its unforeseen perils. The self-awareness and social consciousness that stem from art like the Black Mirror series, particularly the “Nosedive” episode, might be a viable if not entirely attainable method of truly understanding these technological traps that have led us to socially isolated states long before the adoption of our physical/social distancing practices during the COVID-19 global pandemic.