Spoiler Alerts! This post is my analysis of two Black Mirror shows, available on Netflix. Written by Charlie Brooker.
Black Mirror is about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.
I’m testing my analysis skills, writing about the context and bigger picture that we see in the episodes. The analysis here is general. I’d like to look at future episodes using particular systems approaches that are suitable for the situation.
Voyeuristic punishment for an evil crime. The perpetrator is punished in the same way, over and over while being watched by members of the public for their enjoyment.
At the end of each punishment day the perpetrator is given a cocktail of drugs, and appears to forget what she has done. She then re-lives the day again not realising what is going on, finally being made aware of her crime in front of an audience there to witness the event.
Apparently she was an accomplice to the torture and killing of a child, and went along with her partner, for reasons not explained.
A plus, ‘+’ on the arrow means that an increase or decrease in one leads to a similar increase or decrease in the other. A minus, ‘-‘ on the arrow means an increase leads to a decrease, and a decrease leads o an increase. I hope this makes sense.
White Bear shows the reoccurring punishment of someone who seemed to have no knowledge of the crime, or who and where she was. Her memory is erased by those punishing her, to make the punishment worse.
This was the purpose of the system, to cause the greatest amount of pain to someone guilty of a crime, and to have a theatre of punishment where people could pay to spectate and be part of the punishment. There was not an end to the punishment, although when it stopped attracting paying customers it may close, or if a more profitable punishment theatre opportunity arose it may be replaced.
If it lost popularity, and there was no one to be punished, then would the entertainment stop? Would hatred of a criminal be whipped up in the media to keep the entertainment going? A fake crime could be created, and actors used so that money can be made?
It wasn’t clear who was profiting financially from the punishment, or how the made sure that they always had a crime that it was profitable to punish? The people attending the punishment were enjoying seeing someone punished.
The woman being punished started each day not knowing who she was. Crimes are often contextual. People can do evil things if they are in the wrong environment, and manipulated with propaganda or controlled. From standing by while bad things happen to people who have been dehumanized by propaganda, to taking part in crimes without committing them (Eichmann) through to planning and committing crimes.
If someones identity is deliberately removed, they do not know who are where they are and have no context for their life, are they the same person who committed the crime? Without the context of their childhood, their experiences, and the influence of other people, someones life take a different path.
Removing someones knowledge about themselves and what they have done seems a cruel punishment designed to inflict pain on the person guilty of the crime, forcing them to relive (via videos and narrative) the situations that led to the crime, were another totally different outcome could have emerged in a different context. They learned of the crime they had committed but not the context that led up to it.
White Bear was a punishment whose occurrence is never-ending, while profitable for the organisation running it, provides continual suffering, with no end in sight.
Nosedive is about living in a society where human interactions are rated, as can posted videos and photos. There is single 1-5 star scale, and each transaction goes towards someones total, from getting good service at a café, to cutting someone up in traffic, to a pleasant but insincere conversation in a lift.
Access to housing, jobs, and services including some medical services is dependent on your rating. There is a single rating for everything reducing the variety of life to a single 1-5 scale. This simplification massively reduces complexity, and allows for simple judgements, analysis and action. Automation of access to services, events and jobs makes life in many ways quite fair (a conclusion from David Graebers Utopia of Rules).
The program mainly has “good-looking thin people” on it with high ratings and good jobs. People with lower ratings are seen doing more menial jobs. Rating are affected by things like being on the wrong side of a relationship breakup, leading to someone losing their job. – Their ‘friends’ could help their rating, but would risk being down voted by their peers – The interactions seem quite naïve given the Machiavellian power and influence struggles that would become a part of this society.
In this world there is a massive reduction in variety. Judging people by 1 metric. It seems to have made people 1 dimensional in their interactions, with an emphasis on getting good feedback. There are feedback loops here – people who give 5 stars expect to get 5 back and complain if not. There is deeper thought – and it’s acknowledged that everything is about ratings, but this is expressed under duress, so any discussion of this is clearly dangerous.
When people accidentally bump into each other then the person responsible gets down rated to lose points. In reality though blame is not so straightforward. People rarely admit to being wrong while driving for example, so these interactions must be lose / lose for both parties. The developing story is about how someone falls from a high to low rating rapidly by simply being annoyed in an understandable human way.
There are at least 2 types of people in Nosedive, and different types of relationships.
- There are those who care about ratings and whose relationships are about improving their ratings average. Getting rated highly by a higher individual is a goal, but can reflect badly on the higher rated person, and interactions are all about being rated highly.
- There are those who don’t care about ratings. We only meet one of these people, who does appear to have a job, and was, once, highly rated.
- Relationships can be not usually rated – like close friends and siblings. Conversations here can be much more real and deeper, but can still be rated.
There are interesting parts of the show where there are discussions with experts who will help people improve their rating – there is clearly a formulae about the network graph of your interactions, and if you’re rated by service workers, family, or people with lots of connections there are different weights applied. It’s not clear if these experts work for the company who does the ratings, or are independent. Or most likely some hybrid of independent with insider information.
It’s not clear who runs the rating software, or who implements the rules. The rules have a deep influence on how the society runs – what is valued and how conversation flows. I think it’s fair to say that saying you’re not OK, need help, or have done something wrong is not going to be rated well. Yet the society still appears to function. With certain jobs, houses and products only available to highly ranked people want to be rated highly.
Similar systems already exist for Facebook, where algorithms decide who sees your posts. More popular people and posts get more exposure. People often post in a way they hope to be popular, rather than be, say, true or real. And discounts are already available if you like a businesses page, and then use that business. Facebook has apologised for experimenting with users emotions already. There are many ways this could be used and misused, however as a human feedback mechanism there is no time for reflection. The feedback may be done quickly by Dr Steve Peters Chimp part off the brain, which is unlikely to react thoughtfully.
Would an alternative system appear? Would there be places where you could interact with people in mean and nasty ways? Would someone sell you this service? (of course they would:-).
Would there be parts of society with no ratings? Would this even be legal? Could you buy ratings, with cash or sex rather than fake niceness?
A real ‘nasty’ exchange does occur in a police cell at the end of the show, with a cathartic exchange of insults between people with nothing to lose, which, although authentic is still chimp talk.