Tags: society

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Nosediving

Nosedive is the first episode of season three of Black Mirror.

It’s fairly light-hearted by the standards of Black Mirror, but all the more chilling for that. It depicts a dysutopia where people rate one another for points that unlock preferential treatment. It’s like a twisted version of the whuffie from Cory Doctorow’s Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. Cory himself points out that reputation economies are a terrible idea.

Nosedive has become a handy shortcut for pointing to the dangers of social media (in the same way that Minority Report was a handy shortcut for gestural interfaces and Her is a handy shortcut for voice interfaces).

“Social media is bad, m’kay?” is an understandable but, I think, fairly shallow reading of Nosedive. The problem isn’t with the apps, it’s with the system. A world in which we desperately need to keep our score up if we want to have any hope of advancing? That’s a nightmare scenario.

The thing is …that system exists today. Credit scores are literally a means of applying a numeric value to human beings.

Nosedive depicts a world where your score determines which seats you get in a restaurant, or which model of car you can rent. Meanwhile, in our world, your score determines whether or not you can get a mortgage.

Nosedive depicts a world in which you know your own score. Meanwhile, in our world, good luck with that:

It is very difficult for a consumer to know in advance whether they have a high enough credit score to be accepted for credit with a given lender. This situation is due to the complexity and structure of credit scoring, which differs from one lender to another.

Lenders need not reveal their credit score head, nor need they reveal the minimum credit score required for the applicant to be accepted. Owing only to this lack of information to the consumer, it is impossible for him or her to know in advance if they will pass a lender’s credit scoring requirements.

Black Mirror has a good track record of exposing what’s unsavoury about our current time and place. On the surface, Nosedive seems to be an exposé on the dangers of going to far with the presentation of self in everyday life. Scratch a little deeper though, and it reveals an even more uncomfortable truth: that we’re living in a world driven by systems even worse than what’s depicted in this dystopia.

How about this for a nightmare scenario:

Two years ago Douglas Rushkoff had an unpleasant encounter outside his Brooklyn home. Taking out the rubbish on Christmas Eve, he was mugged — held at knife-point by an assailant who took his money, his phone and his bank cards. Shaken, he went back indoors and sent an email to his local residents’ group to warn them about what had happened.

“I got two emails back within the hour,” he says. “Not from people asking if I was OK, but complaining that I’d posted the exact spot where the mugging had taken place — because it might adversely affect their property values.”

100 words 073

The future Earth we see in Interstellar is a post-apocalyptic society. The population of the planet has been reduced to just a fraction of its current level. There have been wars and food shortages. And now the planet is dying and the human race is on its way out.

But instead of showing a dog-eat-dog battle for survival in the wasteland, we see people just getting on. It goes against the conventional wisdom that presupposes that if our Hobbesian Leviathian of civilisation were to be destroyed, our lives would inevitably revert to being nasty, brutish and short.

Moral panic

Thanks to Tom’s always excellent linkage, I came across an excellent in-depth article by Brenda Brathwaite called The Myth of the Media Myth, all about the perception of videogames by non-gamers. The research was prompted by a dinner conversation that highlighted the typical reactions:

It happens the same way every time: People listen and then they say what they’ve been feeling. Videogames are not good for you. Videogames are a waste of time. They isolate children. Kids never go outside to play. They just sit there and stare at the TV all day.

The tone of the opinions reminded me of the Daily Mail attitude to social networking sites. The resonances were so strong that I decided to conduct a quick experiment using my hacky little text substitution script. Here are the terms I swapped:

OriginalSubstitution
videogamesocial networking site
gamingsocial networking
game designerweb designer
gamewebsite
playsurf
GTAFacebook

Because the original article is paginated, I ran the print version through the transmogrifier. Please excuse any annoying print dialogue boxes. Here’s the final result.

The results are amusing, even accurate.The original article begins:

There are six of us around the table, and the conversation turns to what I do for a living, also known as “my field of study” in academia. “I’m a game designer and a professor,” I say. The dinner had been arranged by a third party in order to connect academics from various institutions for networking purposes.

“You mean videogames?” one of the teachers asks. It’s said with the same professional and courteous tone that one might reserve for asking, “Did you pass gas?”

“Videogames, yes,” I answer. “I’ve been doing it over 20 years now.” Really without any effort at all, I launch into a little love manifesto of sorts, talking about how much I enjoy being a game designer, how wonderful it is to make games, all kinds of games.

After substiitution:

There are six of us around the table, and the conversation turns to what I do for a living, also known as “my field of study” in academia. “I’m a web designer and a professor,” I say. The dinner had been arranged by a third party in order to connect academics from various institutions for networking purposes.

“You mean social networking sites?” one of the teachers asks. It’s said with the same professional and courteous tone that one might reserve for asking, “Did you pass gas?”

“social networking sites, yes,” I answer. “I’ve been doing it over 20 years now.” Really without any effort at all, I launch into a little love manifesto of sorts, talking about how much I enjoy being a web designer, how wonderful it is to make websites, all kinds of websites.

The comments from interviewees also hold up. Before:

One friend complained about GTA, admitted she’d never played the game and then offered this: “If you really are interested in deep psychoanalysis… the truth of my disdain for games is from a negative relationship — [a former boyfriend] would play for hours, upon hours, upon hours. Maybe I felt neglected, ignored and disrespected.”

After:

One friend complained about Facebook, admitted she’d never surfed the website and then offered this: “If you really are interested in deep psychoanalysis… the truth of my disdain for websites is from a negative relationship — [a former boyfriend] would surf for hours, upon hours, upon hours. Maybe I felt neglected, ignored and disrespected.”

Even the analysis of the language offers parallels. Original:

“I haven’t found this kind of attitude about games per se. But in my version of your dinner party anecdote, I start with ‘I make games,’ not ‘I make videogames,’ and I’ve never had a response like the one you describe. This leads me to wonder if the very term ‘videogames’ is the problem meme.”

Substitution:

“I haven’t found this kind of attitude about websites per se. But in my version of your dinner party anecdote, I start with ‘I make websites,’ not ‘I make social networking sites,’ and I’ve never had a response like the one you describe. This leads me to wonder if the very term ‘social networking sites’ is the problem meme.”

But most telling of all are the quotes in the closing passages that haven’t been changed one jot from the original:

“If I had a choice, I would want to include these distrustful folks in finding solutions. I would prefer it if they understood. I would prefer it if they could see the long sequence of events that is going to address their fears and create the medium they will inevitably love and participate in, whether they expect to or not. What’s sad is that their ideological, ignorant, hostile, one-dimensional attitudes oversimplify one of the most beautiful problems in human history.”