Black Mirror’s Third Season Nosedives In The First Episode

Black Mirror used to be the real deal: a television show that brought us clever, scary satire about the brave new dystopic, over-technologized world that we are already living in. It was creepy; it was brutal in its exposure of human frailty in the face of technology’s encroachment on our sense of self and our personal relationships.  We are fast becoming–indeed, we already are–slaves to our technology in ways that are warping our moral and psychological being; we are changing, and not always in ways that are pleasant.

That old Black Mirror is no longer so–at least, if the first episode of the rebooted third season is any indication. (Netflix has made the show its own; six new episodes are on display starting yesterday.) In particular, the show has been ‘Americanized’–in the worst way possible, by being made melodramatic. This has been accomplished by violating one of the cardinal principles of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Season three’s first episode–‘Nosedive‘–takes our current fears about social media and elevates them in the context of a ratings scheme for the offline social world–complete with likes and indexed scores of social likeability based on instant assessments of everyone by everyone as they interact with each other in various social settings. See a person, interact with them, rate them; then, draw on your cumulative indexed score to score social benefits. Or, be locked out of society because your score, your social quotient, the number that reflects how others see you, is too low.

The stuff of nightmares, you’ll agree. Except that ‘Nosedive’ doesn’t pull it off. Its central character, Lacie Pound, a young woman overly anxious about her social ranking, commits to attending a social encounter that will hopefully raise her social quotient, thus enabling her to qualify for a loan discount and a dream apartment; but the journey to that encounter, and her actual presence there, is a catastrophe that has exactly the opposite effect. In the hands of the right director and writer this could have been a devastating tale.

But ‘Nosedive’s makers are not content to let the story and the characters speak for themselves. Instead, they beat us over the head with gratuitous moralizing, largely by inserting two superfluous characters: a brother who seems to exist merely to lecture the young woman about her misguided subscription to current social media fashions, and a kindly old outcast woman–with a low social quotient, natch–who suggests there is more to life than getting the best possible ranking. These characters are irritating and misplaced; they drag the story down, telling us much that only needed to be shown, sonorously droning on about how the show is meant to be understood. It is as if the show’s makers did not trust their viewers to make the kinds of inferences they think we should be making.

The old Black Mirror was austere and grim; its humor was black. This new season’s first episode was confused in tone: almost as if it felt its darkness needed to leavened by some heavy-handed relief. I’ll keep watching for now; perhaps the gloom will return.

Dishwashing: The King Of Procrastination Strategies

Washing the dishes has long held a honorable position in the arsenal of strategies adopted by those who procrastinate. (Sometime in the near future I anticipate Facebook and Twitter conducting some sophisticated data analysis to indicate how many of their users announce it as such.) Indeed, we should elevate this claim to be one of those truths universally acknowledged: if an anxiety-inducing piece of work awaits, well then, so does a pile of dirty dishes in your sink which demand immediate attention. The reasons for why dishwashing has risen to the top of the heap of alternative occupations of time instead of our work are not hard to find.

First, washing the dishes is a virtuous act. Dirt is banished from the kitchen and household; cleanliness is welcomed; salmonella are vanquished; disease and pestilence are expelled. Order is imposed; entropy is resisted, vainly, for just a little while longer. Cleanliness is next to godliness, n’est ce pas?

Second, dishwashing is a physically immersive and thus intensely absorbing act, all the better to dispel paralyzing anxiety with. Faucet flow and water temperature must be adjusted; sponge and soap make contact with dish surfaces; dirt dissolves underneath our fingertips; our hands feel the flow of soapy water over them. Dishes that call for extra scrubbing require intense concentration on the task at hand. Clean dishes must be stacked and arranged carefully; memories of wine glasses broken during this phase especially help concentrate the mind here. These considerations do not apply to those who use a mechanized dishwasher; those poor saps, slaves to technology and automation, have no idea what they are missing out on. (My wife often wonders why I resist buying a dishwasher; besides not trusting their ability to actually clean our dishes, I sense a grave loss would ensue. I would be denied a central strategy for procrastination.)

Third, dishwashing lets us feel we have helped out with house work, sometimes foolishly considered an ignoble calling. We sense our roommates–whether college buddies, fellow city workers, or significant others–will delight in the sight of a sink free of dishes. (These considerations do not apply to those who live alone, of course, but then, they have greater worries on their minds.) We anticipate our partners’ reactions of gratitude and appreciation with some pleasure, which make an excellent contrast with the imagined scorn of those who would read, or otherwise experience, the execrable work we would be engaged in otherwise. The payoffs here are greater; immediate pursuit of this venture seems an eminently sensible move. In this regard, some men might regard their washing the dishes as part of their movement toward a new sort of manhood, one more in tune with the demands of housework, a kind of personal growth which our newly acquired feminist sensibilities would appreciate.

Note: I’m writing this post in an anxiety-induced state, unable to finalize my syllabus for the fall, finish a long-in-the-works essay, resume working on a draft manuscript, pack for a soon-to-be undertaken hike, or do the laundry. I’ve already done the dishes.

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Tim Parks On Writerly Conformity

At The New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks writes of the “general and ever increasing anxious desire to receive positive feedback” on writing:

It is a situation that leads to…an intensification of conformity, people falling over themselves to be approved of….Announce an article…on Facebook and you can count, as the hours go by, how many people have looked at it, clicked on it, liked it, etc….Everything conspires to have us obsessively attached to the world’s response to whatever we do.

Franzen [suggests] that, simply by offering us the chance to check constantly whether people are talking about us, the Internet heightens a fear of losing whatever popularity we may have achieved: “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness….the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”

Is it really possible, then, to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write….Perhaps the best one can ever achieve is a measure of freedom, in line with your personal circumstances….So long as it’s compatible with regular writing, the day job is never to be disdained. A steady income allows you to take risks.

Many of my blog posts here–indeed, a significant percentage–evoke not even a single ‘Like’ on Facebook. They ‘generate’ a few views here–mostly from people who have found them through search engines.  They have, as it were, ‘fallen stillborn from the press.’ This does me little economic or professional damage–but it often does a number on my ego. In that dimension, I sometimes find myself infected with that most damaging of thoughts: Perhaps I should write something people will read?  Like the kind of stuff that people ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ on Facebook or pass around on Twitter? On topics that articles like those were concerned with?

Phew. The temptation is great; the abyss lurks close by, only a step or two away. I’m saved–in the economic and professional sense–by the fact that, as Parks recommends, I have a day job. I do not have to sell myself too much. (I do descend into some groveling when I’m trying to get the word out about pieces that I think, for political reasons, deserve wider circulation.) Moreover, as I have to often remind myself, I always intended this blog as a space in which to ‘stay in touch’ with writing, to tentatively approach some ideas and write them down, to ‘try things out.’ (It also functions as a bit of a diary, a journal, which, when you come to think about it, doesn’t really need any readers.) Perhaps the most positive side-effect of my writing here has been that some of the posts here suggest themselves as starting points for further exploration, and yet others have found themselves–suitably modified–integrated into other works of mine.  Indeed, that fact alone could suggest my blog has been a ‘success.’ Even if this post gets no ‘Likes’ and no RTs.

The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.

 

Don’t Tell Me What You Think of Me

Over at the Anxiety blog at The New York Times Tim Kreider gives voice to a common fear, that of finding out what other people really, really think of us:

I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical and anarchic mind could design would not be on the military or financial sector but simply to simultaneously make every e-mail and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from the universe; the fabric of society would instantly evaporate, every marriage, friendship and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, which is held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will…. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.

Kreider is on the money here, of course. The thought of finding out how others refer to us in our absence, how even those who have most cause to adore us still do not so unreservedly, is enough to fill any reasonable human’s heart with dread. That terror generally finds its grounding both in an overly optimistic assessment of our worth and in an unrealistic desire to not rest content till we have attained a suitably high position in the ranking of the ‘rest.’ As Bertrand Russell noted in opening his chapter on ‘Fear of Public Opinion’ in The Conquest of Happiness:

Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially with whom they live.

As a personally memorable instance of a variant of this behavior, after I received a teaching evaluation in which twenty-four out of twenty-five students answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Would you recommend this instructor to other students?’ I spent a considerable amount of time during my next lecture tormenting myself wondering about the identity of the exception to the rule. (And like Kreider, I’ve read emails not meant for my eyes in which friends of mine have expressed considerably unflattering opinions of me; some of those people are still my friends.)

I have long tried to insulate myself from the disappointment of the discovery that I’m not universally adored and the crushing horror of universal loathing by ceaseless repetition of the mantra that no one quite likes or dislikes me as much as I might imagine. This reminder of the ‘golden mean‘ of public opinion only has limited effectiveness; like the folks I refer to above, I retreat a little too easily into delusional comforts.

Addendum 6/24/2013: A discussion with David Post on Facebook suggests to me that my use of ‘reasonable’ in ‘..any reasonable human’s heart..” is confusing. I’m going to leave it up there but it really should just read ‘..human’s heart..”.