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Psychology : Applied

When Status Anxiety is No Longer Just in Your Head: a review of Black Mirror’s Nosedive

We would like to believe, just like all those flowered memes flying across Twitter and Instagram, that it doesn’t matter what other people think of us. However, the fact of the matter is that for most of us, it really does matter. We feel that it shouldn’t, and philosophically it shouldn’t – but we all know it does. So, if it weren’t burdensome enough to struggle with our own constant desire to compare ourselves to others – what happens when that status anxiety becomes concrete?

Many will be familiar with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series which aims to reach just slightly into the future – it could be the day after tomorrow – to share with us the logical conclusion of the trajectory we are currently on in relation to our technology. Sparing us the dystopian sci-fi presumptions of something like The Terminator, Brooker’s work instead shows us something that not only could happen – but something that feels like it’s really on the verge of happening already. The first episode of the long awaited series three, Nosedive currently playing on Netflix, does just this.


Recently in this very blog I wrote about “the will to share” as normal psychological motivation that social media turns into a compulsion. [Spoilers follow] In Nosedive this compulsion is taken another step further in that it becomes rather literal; in Brooker’s world we are not only compelled to share in order to be a respected member of society, but we are compelled to rate those shares in a digital economy of recognition in which the individual becomes a product of social consumption.

Our protagonist, Lacie Pound, lives in a world in which a smile is always required and a bright disposition compulsory lest one gives the wrong impression and gets rated badly. The flat white may indeed be terrible, but Lacie cannot risk a low rating from the barista if she wants to get a preferred rate on a luxury flat – for “4.5’s and up”. In a world where everyone is rated on a five start system – each vote counts.

Already in the last days of 2016, individual and businesses reputations can be lost in an instant with a bad review. Business owners have described presence on TripAdvisor, for instance, as “emotionally draining”. The veracity of TripAdvisor reviews has been called to question, there have been reports that some negative reviews have been blocked by AirBnB, and reviews on Rate my Professor may only be skin deep (as a rule, hot professors score better).

In short, while the consequences of our ratings may be very real, what these rat ings are based on, may not me.

In the world of Nosedive the lean towards the “happy life” as promoted through the distorted lens of Facebook or Instagram becomes real life. However, while Facebook can be turned off, the pinched smile required to come across as pleasant isn’t so easily turned upside-down. Being pleasant in the lift with an unloved co-worker has never been easy, but when she’s a 4.8 and you’re a 4.3, getting on her bad side can have dire consequences – so better be nice! The rub, however, is that saccharine sweetness isn’t always appreciated either. As Lacie learns from her reputation consultant, best to deploy her happiness with authenticity. Lacie’s world is regulated by a flick of the wrist and finger – a rating gesture that serves to elevate or demote.

But what is authenticity if it doesn’t include the darker emotions? What is authenticity if it doesn’t express necessary conflict? In Lacie’s world (and more and more in our own) “authenticity” is often only acceptable if it’s nice. But if everyone is nice, where does all the rage go? Freud famously warned about the “return of the repressed” – that which we refuse to recognise will come and bite us in the rear.  For Jung, the emotions that go into our individual and collective shadows will, if we don’t acknowledge and accept them, burst through the surface to great effect. The disturbing rise of Donald Trump is testament for this. For his supporters, it is his capacity to unashamedly speak for the collective shadow is what they find attractive.

In Nosedive Charlie Brooker deftly takes us into a world just around the corner where the pressures of keeping everything nice reach a breaking point. Lacie’s downward spiral operates in a similar way to low self-esteem. When someone thinks they are no good, they are likely to unconsciously invite circumstances that prove that conclusion to themselves. For example, if you feel that you will fail at a job interview, you are likely to perform badly, and scupper your chances even before you begin.

In Lacie’s world, this is reified. A low ranking means she’s unable to board her flight to her “friend’s” wedding that will offer her more points if she impresses in her wedding speech. Her “nice smile” attitude begins to break down, and a cascade of events bring her ranking down further until she’s practically a pariah. Her encounter with Susan, an easy-going truck driver with a very low rank enlightens her somewhat. Susan’s easy going attitude to life is refreshing – after all, there’s no recovery from a ranking of 1.4 – so why bother? How liberating. It’s no accident that Susan offers Lacie an “emergency escape hatch” – alcohol in a thermos. Alcohol is the great leveller – reducing inhibitions enabling people to say what they really want to say “in vino veritas” which, alongside her exhaustion, enables Lacie to really go for it and disentangle herself from the constraints of near-future politesse.

In many therapeutic traditions, getting anger off of your chest is a curative experience. This is because we can experience relief when we share feelings that we feel aren’t welcome. In Nosedive’s final scene we are treated to an exchange of insults that clearly release tension. Though the two encaged characters have relinquished all attachments to “being nice” – this conversation may just be the most honest one we witness during the show. It’s humourous too. For Freud, jokes and humour are a civilised way of expressing aggression. In the world of Nosedive once the “civilised” social convention has been lost – it’s the plain faced “authentic” aggression that makes us laugh – because it’s a relief from all the relentless pleasantry.

Brooker continues to remind us of the dangers inherent in our current socially mediated world. The more we “lean out” – the less likely we are to look in – and without looking in, we are lost.



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