This is not a recap, but plot spoilers for the season premiere of Black Mirror abound. Consider yourself warned.
If a news event occurs and it isn’t in your Facebook newsfeed, did it really happen? What about a personal milestone? If two people get married or have a kid and it isn’t displayed on Facebook, did the milestone really happen?
Here at Versions, when we talk about being inside Facebook’s vision for the future, we usually do so in the context of the company’s heavy investment in virtual reality. But in its season premiere, Black Mirror takes that idea quite literally.
“Nosedive” imagines what it would be like to live inside Facebook’s newsfeed—or at least in a world explicitly and completely governed by the ranking algorithm of a Facebook-like social network. There’s some augmented reality stuff as well, but that is just an interface used to express the basic structure of society. “Nosedive” is less about the Google Glass or Snapchat vision of augmented reality than it is the idea of being wholly embedded in those brands’ basic understanding of reality.
Let us now pause for a brief plot summary. Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives in a world where every interaction is graded out of five. Not all ratings are created equal; stars from influencers change your rating more than stars from schlubs. And these ratings count for just about everything: you need a high enough rating to rent a car, get a job, or enter certain communities. In our case, Lacie needs to boost her rating to receive a reduced price on a home in a “complete living community.” And she needs to do it quickly or she’ll lose the deposit she put on the house. This is the sort of perverted incentive that leads someone to try and give an elaborate speech at the wedding of an old friend who happens to be a 4.7 and is inviting plenty of big deals to her wedding. What, as every Black Mirror episode seems to ask, could possibly go wrong?
None of this is really a new idea. Credit scores can be gamed and used for social control—the already are. More recently, China has proposed culling through online data of its citizens to create a topline score. As ever, Black Mirror’s main innovation is following these ideas through—or down, as it were—to their logical conclusions.
The lesson from credit scores, which predate social networks, is basically the same as that of “Nosedive:” You get what you measure. Make education all about tests and teachers will teach to those tests. Make university admissions all about publicly listed criteria and parents will structure their kids’ lives accordingly. None of these systems are open or hugely accountable. It’s hard to prove them wrong in any traditional sense. When you make the whole of society about a single score, what do you think will happen? That, incidentally, is why “Nosedive” is eerily reminiscent of Cathy O’Neil’s recent—and excellent—book, Weapons of Math Destruction. Here, for instance, is her comparison between sports analytics and the ones by which most of society lives:
The difference is this: Basketball teams are managing individuals, each one potentially worth millions of dollars. Their analytics engines are crucial to their competitive advantage, and they are hungry for data. Without constant feedback, their systems grow outdated and dumb. The companies hiring minimum-wage workers, by contrast, act as if they are managing herds. They slash expenses by replacing human resources professionals with machines, and those machines filter large populations into more manageable groups. Unless something goes haywire in the workforce – an outbreak of kleptomania, say, or plummeting productivity – the company has little reason to tweak the filtering model. It’s doing its job – even if it misses out on potential stars. The company may be satisfied with the status quo, but the victims of its automatic systems suffer.
That is, of course, the problem in “Nosedive.” Whoever is structuring this society is happy enough with the results, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of suffering. More to the point, there’s nothing the victims can do: no number they can call; no alternate scoring scheme they can suggest. Submission is the logical endpoint of this world.
We cannot yet know if “Nosedive” continues the Black Mirror tradition of predicting the near future. But this episode nonetheless has a timely resonance because a solution to its central problem was offered by Bengt Holmström, one of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. [Note: The economic prize is not actually a Nobel Prize in the traditional sense.] Holmström and his co-laureate, Oliver Hart, were recognized for a series of innovations in contract theory, which, as the name suggests, is about the making of contracts. That may not sound like the workings of a social network, but bear with me. One of Holmström’s more interesting ideas is that there are times when the most precise incentive structure is not actually desirable. Some tasks can be precisely measured and others cannot. If you are an employer who wants their employees to do multiple tasks, you need a structure that accounts for this reality. That may sound obvious, but through his work on the “revelation principle” Holmström provided the mathematical foundation for solving this problem when designing contracts.
The problem in “Nosedive” is awfully similar to that Holmström seeks to address: Some qualities are easily measured and the rest are heavily discounted. It’s not that they don’t exist—characters allude to more humane qualities—but if you can’t count them it’s not clear what value they have. This, incidentally, is also the problem with the Facebook newsfeed: it prioritizes the sorts of emotions and ideas that can be easily measured. It is not life itself, but a mathematical expression of emotional life. “Nosedive” is a macro-version of that expression. This is a society that has been made to live solely by the measurable when more fuzziness is needed. Facebook’s newsfeed, with its ideological reinforcement and unconquerable clickbait, is tolerable because it’s one facet of your life; what happens when it’s everywhere?
What do we augment when we augment reality? It’s unlikely that the better qualities of society will be played up. Indeed, the extent to which “Nosedive” feels removed from your lived experience depends on your social position. As O’Neil points out in Weapons of Math Destruction, the privileged tend to be judged on softer qualities whereas the poor tend to be measured by unaccountable algorithms. That is also an implication of Holmström’s work: White-collar fields tend to have bonus and salary structures that are vague enough to capture a variety of phenomena whereas what is traditionally thought of as blue-collar labour tends to be measured purely on deliverables. We are all the poorer for a world that measures everything in that way, but you didn’t really need “Nosedive” to tell you that, did you?