Digitized Performativity: The Virtualization of Power with Social Capital as Currency [Black Mirror s03e01]

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”-Einstein 

The Preamble:

For the past ten years or so, the apocalyptic sensitivity in me ruminated, discretely – as if not to to disrupt the wonder – over the added and subtracted layers of social reality subsequent to our collective embrace of social technology. This, I will admit, is still a delicate topic, as we are (arguably) agentic subjects…to some extent- and not all of us are experiencing subtle, iterative and discerning shifts in the dynamics of social interaction. Yet there is still value, albeit conspiratorial value, in speculating on these shifts and contextualizing them in our unfixed and malleable moral matrices.

Making the Familiar Strange

The third season of the cyberthriller anthology series, Black Mirror, was released in it’s totality yesterday (October 21/2016). Finally, after months of pushing this show on people, Vice (well, Motherboard) is starting to write think-pieces on this show, so maybe the sell will be easier now.

Black Mirror manages to explicate the nuances of techno-dystopia in the various ways they can be imagined – each centred on a specific terror latent in our subconscious, dismissed and negotiated into oblivion by our socially regulatory insertion of the superego. The horror, however, lives in the deviated social experience of realities, as it appears in the details – what’s disrupted and what’s missing. Familiar values, modes of being, iterations of language and experiences of emotion are met with the unhinging of a new possibility for reality itself, producing a representation of what we can imagine but are often careful not to. The expression of familiar hierarchies, more explicit in their culturally altered (or dimensionally altered)  representation, make it easy to recognize this future, and place your active awareness into it – compare it to current systems of value to analyze the differences and examine the parallels.

(heads up: yes, there will be spoilers.)

Rule by the Social: Mechanized, Systematized and Coercive Power

Operating at the social level, power circulates through hierarchal, stratification of classes. In this episode, power, circulates as an abstracted, digitized rating scale of, measuring and communicating social status. Rigid borders between classes ossify as numerical distinction. The scale, I assume going from 1-5 divides subjects by rating along a hierarchal delineation of social likability (yes – essentially “likes” as power). Subjects can increase their rating through strategic identity regulation, impression management and story arch consultation – I’ll get more into that later. What more is that subjects can also buy their way into improved existence through this system – they can enter various improved but exclusive realities, accessible only by raising one’s rating. For example, the protagonist, a 4.2, obsesses over her social rating, managed by system of digital evaluation that is embedded in the everyday interactions between individuals. Our protagonist views a home, featuring a projection of her within the reality her consciousness would then enter into, but she is told she will only be considered if she is a 4.5.

I will try to avoid summarizing the episode because 1.) I will do so poorly and 2.) the following ideas may be interesting, but far less sense if you have not seen the episode. However, there is some summary needed to reach the more conceptual elements. This rating scale, socially engineered and expressed meritocracy, circumvents the more implicit ways we police behaviour. The app exists as an amalgamation of various digitized rating scales we voluntarily participate in today. Only this condensed and reimagined version is far more integrated and essential to the order of society and regulation of it’s subjects. As individual worth hangs in the balance of your every move, self management becomes a survival mechanisms – self-representation and social maneuvers become a central expression of your ambition, value, role and direction. The integration of digitized social capital and the system of power operating through the reality reflected in this digitization of self, stifles the fluency of social behaviour. Conversation is carried out as fragmented and strategic scripts, steeped in self-awareness and negotiating power moment-to-moment. Implementing an opportunity to rate one another following each social interaction, prompts performance anxiety, and self-alienation. And yet, the program that mediates this reality, demanding acknowledgment of pervasive class borders, simultaneously operates to as a means to enhance the existence, and rating, of those who successfully gather ‘likes’.

Expanding Capital

Part of what is so compelling about this digitized economy of social likeness is the expansion of influence to realms outside of what we traditionally consider modes of ‘wealth’. As you probably know, philosopher and sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu proposed a theory of class distinction centred on the formation of classed aesthetic preferences and the various ‘capital’s that are expressed in these preferences. In this simulated dystopian reality, social capital triumphs as it is mobilized as the single variable active in the digitized class structure (rankings). This, I would argue, is an attempt to exaggerate and examine our tendency to naturalize and categorize power as it exists in beauty, manipulation, and the brutish, organic order of what evolutionary psychology might speculate as human nature or naturalized hierarchy. Power and status condense into a single future-determining factor. Meritocracy is reduced to psychosocial experience and reflection and the ability to win approval. The folding of capital into identity – the ability to gain ‘likes’ or positive reviews, demonstrates something our own social reality inches towards yet refuses to name.

Integration and Domination of the ‘Like’ Economy

The central plot follows that the protagonist wishes to enter this next reality but needs a 4.5 status rating to be allowed to purchase it, so she decides to win the attention of her former best friend, a woman higher-ranking than herself. After months of dolling out 5 star ratings to her estranged friend, she finally gets her attention and they ‘reconnect’ – a strange facetime-equse scene where the friend sporadically jumps in and our of seemingly scripted social performances and winds up asking the protagonist to give a speech as the maid-of-honour at her wedding (after not speaking for presumably decades). The protagonist accepts, seeing it as an opportunity to gain the influence of 4.5s and higher to increase her own score to then be able to afford her next existence. This, all outlined by what I will call her digital self consultant – a advisor on the ‘arch’ of her story who strategizes for ways she can improve her social standing based on predictions drawn from a systematized documentation of her narrative. This negotiation of status, as the protagonist obsessively practices her speech to gain the social approval of wedding guests in order to raise her score, perhaps draws out an exaggerated way in which relationships are reduced to their slightest form: a means to attain social capital. The only difference is that here, status is digitized and inscribed in public-consciousness as a representation of intrinsic individual worth. The social hierarchy is engraved in the mind of the social economy and it is expressed on a mechanical and explicit level. Here, interaction is rated and the subject is categorized based on a comprehensive yet abstract system of “likes” used to police behaviour and maintain subjugation to the illusion of escape through merit.

When You Fuck Up You … Reset?

When you fuck up, when you mess up small talk in the elevator or bump into a stranger on the sidewalk, you will inevitably lose points – and the responsibilities yours entirely. Therefore, the system, constantly in flux, produces ranking changes both negative and positive that are dependent entirely on the subject. This dimension of self-management, built into high stakes impression management and digital representation signifies a cultural trend already on it’s way towards normalization. You are the product of your own coherence and conformity – your failings are the result of failure to achieve both. In strategizing with her digital self consultant, the protagonist is told that in 16 months she could potentially reach a rating of 4.5 unless she encounters an episode of “public humiliation”, presumably the most deleterious setback, the ultimate cost and the most critical event to avoid. In this regard, it could be interpreted that in addition, and tied to social status, social order is also a currency. Interruptions of behavioural norms are costly, they subject you to all levels of condemnation, first on behalf of the public with disapproval that threatens status, and second with agents of authority, like the police.

In a scene when everything begins to fall apart, in an airport, of course, the police are called to intervene as the protagonist is accused of “intimidation and profanity” – technically criminalizing expression on the relational and verbal level. I would argue, aside from being essentially ‘thought crimes,’  these accusations represent a policing of performance as well. The officer demotes her a full ranking point as a punitive measure for 24 hours. He auctions her to avoid negative interactions until the 24 hours has ended. This leads us to question what happens when the number falls below 1 and how easy is is for behavioural norms and social order to act as mechanisms that determine the outcomes of experience. How quickly can limitations to acceptance marginalize the individual – how powerful are implicit/explicit modes of policing of behaviour in dictating individual reality. With almost no notice, the protagonist falls from a 4.1 to a 3.1 by simply missing her plane and saying ‘fuck’ to the attendant at the flight desk. And yet, suddenly her possibilities have changed, her future seems dim and her status is suddenly peripheral. The borders between classes ossify as law. Later, we see certain geographic locations closed off for those 3.8 and below, guarded by enforcement officers.

Ranking as Signifier

All of this is to signify the exclusive nature embedded in our class systems. The borders are difficult to breach and the mystification of it all is alluring. Our competitive systems of power involve the underpinnings of psychosocial warfare – class warfare. This digitized incarceration of consciousness sets limits on the ability to relate and participate naturally in the social world. Language throughout the episode, moves in familiar and iterative ways. The scripts are almost entirely the same, but what we choose to leave unsaid – or choose to allude to in various ways, is instead substituted for a rating. The rating articulates the creative ways we interpolate personal social status/condition into dialogue. When we are describing the woes of life or the accomplishments of the self we are approximating a similiar intention, just with an absent signifier. Acting as the signifier for a complex yet simplified representation of self as relation to others, the ranking solidifies the self as a computation semblance of value.

Abrupt Close:

It’s 2:30am and I’m worried none of this is coherent. (1800 words later and it finally struck me that this may be the case.) My sleep-debt is already edging towards unrepairable. Read Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’ if you get the chance. Goodnight.

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-1-13-51-pm<—- Me 😦



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