Black Mirror and Netflix’s hedonic treadmill

Black Mirror seems to point out the potential dangers of nascent technologies, which promise to improve our lives while robbing us of some fundamental aspect of humanity. But, as yet another thumbnail on Netflix’s infinite carousel of time-wasting distraction, does on-demand ‘content’ have the power to wake us from our technological stupor?

TL;DR: I wish I could stop watching television.

Warning: contains spoilers.

Brooker’s speculum of horror

The title of Charlie Brooker’s techno-chiller anthology series references the many screens that vie for the attention of 21st-century inhabitants of the Western world (at least, those who aren’t totally destitute). As Brooker said in an interview, when we’ve finished consuming our content, and the screen goes dark, we’re left staring at our own reflection in an eerie black looking glass. An apt title for a show which, in each episode, investigates the intrusion of technology into new spheres of human activity, and shows how the need for more convenience, for more immersive entertainment, for greater connection to our fellow human beings, for greater control over our own mortality, can lead to unpredictable outcomes, and even the loss of the humanity which we set out to augment.  Your reflection in a black mirror is a distortion. It may be physiologically correct, but it lacks warmth and colour.

Brooker’s title, like the series itself, also emphasises the neutrality of technology – the black mirror has no agency, it can only reflect our desires, our dreams, our fears – while simultaneously nodding at its tendency to obfuscate, rather than clarify, our understanding of ourselves. Marshall McLuhan looked at technology as an extension of our bodies – the lens extends the capability of the eye, the hammer the capability of the hand, the telephone the capabilities of voice and ear – but what we choose to do with our augmented senses is up to us. We may not like what we see when we turn our enhanced vision back upon ourselves.

I have a pet theory that the title also references the Philip K Dick novel A Scanner Darkly – a nightmarish tale of identity set in a near-future high-tech surveillance state – which itself references a verse in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians in the King James Bible:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV

The word translated here as glass has also been translated as ‘mirror’ and shares its ambiguity of meaning with the Latin word specularium (or, in English, speculum).

“All the prophets gazed through a speculum that does not shine, while Moses our teacher gazed through a speculum that shines.”

Babylonian Talmud

Perhaps the title is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the prophetic pretensions of the show, and also an admission that the prophecies are unlikely to come true. The future itself is a black mirror – what lies behind the glass remains unknowable, while predictions are mere reflections of present-day dreams, desires and fears.

Black Mirror’s treadmills of despair

Here’s a definition of the hedonic treadmill from Investopedia:

The tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

This hedonic adaptation, or reversion to a baseline level of happiness regardless of the events that occur in one’s life – good or bad – is an observation from positive psychology that has significant empirical evidence to back it up.  And yet, as consumers in a capitalist economy, the notion that changes to our material circumstances can profoundly change our levels of well-being pours forth relentlessly from every screen and surface capable of carrying an advertisement. If hedonic adaptation theory holds water, consumerism is a conspiracy against the human.

The hedomic treadmill is illustrated in the Black Mirror episode Nosedive (series 3, episode 1). The protagonist, Lacie, lives in a society where your status is measured by a simple star rating. Every time you interact with another human, you get to rate each other via an app, and the agglomerated ratings from all your interactions decides what kind of job you can have, and where you get to live. Lacie, who has cultivated a scrupulously polite and enthusiastic public persona, has a very good rating at the beginning of the episode, but is obsessed with increasing her social status so she can live in a better apartment and get off with better looking people. Her obsession drives her to take ever more extreme measures to get what she wants, to the point where her unhinged behaviour results in her losing all her social capital. By the end of the episode she’s hit rock bottom but, trading foul-mouthed insults with a fellow down and out, glimpses the freedom she’s gained by getting off the hedonic treadmill.

The show is, is some ways, the mirror image of an earlier episode, Fifteen Million Merits. The protagonist of this episode, Bing, like Lacie in Nosedive, lives in a society dominated by consumption but, unlike Lacie, Bing recognises that he’s on an hedonic treadmill. Because he’s literally on a treadmill – the people in his social class ride exercise bikes to earn enough merits to elevate themselves to a higher social strata via reality TV talent contests. At the beginning of his story, Bing has essentially rejected the idea of getting ahead. He does the bare minimum and uses his inherited wealth to bypass the pop-up adverts that plague his evening’s entertainment, delivered from screens which cover all the walls of his tiny apartment. Then he falls in love, buys a golden ticket for his girlfriend, watches her fail in the most humiliating way possible, and stages a kamikaze one-man rebellion. But, when it comes to the crunch, instead of abandoning the quest for a better life, with bigger living quarters and a real window, Bing takes society’s bribe for maintaining the status quo. (His other option is death, so it’s kind of fair enough.) He is left with a crushing sense of unease.

I think there’s a lot to like about both of these episodes, and Black Mirror more generally. I like how these episodes show, in sharp relief, the never-ending slog which consumer capitalism demands of its worker-consumers, shuffling from one hard-earned distraction to the next in a vain attempt to experience the joy and fulfilment which the alienating nature of their work denies them. I like how they make us ask ourselves whether the game is worth the candle.

This is no doubt the show’s intent. It’s overtly a satire. But context is everything. Can a satire about modern media and technological panaceas have any teeth when delivered by the world’s largest and most aggressive on-demand streaming service?

Netflix’s carousels of control

I’m glad there’s no way to total up the many hours I’ve spent scrolling through Netflix’s content, looking for the one perfect piece of entertainment. Lingering over a title here, a description there, sometimes even viewing the first few minutes of a prospective watch before abandoning it as not quite right, and resuming the search for that something better that’s just a few scrolls away. If there’s a better visual metaphor for the hedonic treadmill to be extracted from my life, I can’t think of it.

The design of the Netflix app encourages this behaviour. The seemingly endless carousels and the countless, ostensibly spontaneous categories under which content is displayed (‘Binge-Worthy TV Drama’, ‘Critically-Acclaimed Movies’) are meant to give the impression that Netflix’s catalogue is infinitely large, and obscure the fact that their selection is actually pretty limited. The completely opaque algorithm for deciding what might be of interest to a user dooms them to scrolling through carousel after carousel of already watched and never-considered titles in the hope that something of interest will randomly pop up.  It also ensures that you never see the same sequence of titles in the same order in any two visits, so you’re unlikely to notice when content disappears from the service (unless you were in the middle of watching it).

If the goal of the Netflix user is to find and watch content which appeals to them, and the goal of Netflix is to help its users achieve that goal, then the app’s user interface is horribly broken. But, given that the valuation of Netflix Inc. has increased from $300 million when it went public in 2002 to over $100 billion today, that can’t be right.  You can’t keep signing up ever greater numbers of paying subscribers, and keep them subscribed, with a broken app. To understand the game Netflix is really playing, we need to take a detour through the brain’s limbic system.

In the 1950s, the pioneering behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner noticed some strange behaviour among rats which had learned to push a lever to receive food. Rats that received a random reward on each lever push would push that lever more than their peers who received a consistent reward. The brain’s limbic system releases a burst of pleasurable dopamine upon receipt of a reward. The more unexpected that reward is, the more dopamine is released. Presumably this helps us mammals remember the locations and actions which lead to favourable outcomes (i.e. those which increased our chances of survival, like finding food or making an ally). The rats in Skinner’s lab had  formed an unbreakable causal link between pushing the lever and getting a big reward, which made them keep pushing even after the food stopped coming. It’s precisely this quirk of the brain’s structure that keeps people pumping coins into slot machines and which is exploited by makers of products, services and games like Candy Crush to keep people hooked.

If you don’t believe that the Facebooks, Googles and Apples of the world are deliberately tampering with your neurotransmitters to keep you coming back, take a look at the Hook Model as purveyed by Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The book’s blurb describes the model as “a four-step process embedded into the products of many successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior.” The four-steps, presented in the context of Netflix, are as follows:

  1. Trigger – this can be internal (“What am I going to watch this evening?”) or external (“Oh my god, have you seen Stranger Things yet?”)
  2. Action – scrolling, clicking, watching.
  3. Variable reward – sometimes you don’t get much for starting up the app. Other times, you find that The Cloverfield Paradox has just been added with no warning at all.
  4. Investment – creating lists, teaching the algorithm to make better suggestions.

As Eyal says, it’s the variable nature of the rewards that hack into the limbic system’s pattern-recognition processes:

Introducing variability multiplies the effect [of dopamine surge], creating a frenzied hunting state, activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.

Not knowing what you’re going to find when you open up the Netflix app, or how much scrolling it will take you find something you want to watch, or how good that something will be once you find it, isn’t a flaw in the design. It is the design. Your brain floods with dopamine every time you open the app in anticipation of finding the next Stranger Things, regardless of whether you find it or not. By a quirk of evolution acting on brain structure and neurochemistry, hunting through Netflix is pleasurable, even if it’s not rewarding.

Getting off the treadmill

Too see how the hook model and the hedonic treadmill relate to each other, we should take another look at Nosedive. In that episode Lacie lives with her brother Ryan who, unlike her (and more like Bing at the beginning of Fifteen Million Merits) isn’t all that bothered about improving his lot in life. His three-point-something rating is stable and satisfactory because he spends most of his time playing online games with a community of like-minded people. Most of his social interactions therefore bring consistent, predictable rewards (ratings). Lacie, on the other hand, is fully immersed in the world of commerce and work. Her interactions with neighbours, customer service representatives, colleagues and bosses are much more variable and unpredictable, which surely sends her limbic system into overdrive and keeps her playing the game.

Could it be then that, through design or accident (or accidental design), consumer capitalism makes use of the hook model to keep consumers on an endless treadmill of work and consumption? In a world where working harder seldom corresponds to greater economic rewards, and where your next big purchase could turn out to be as great as an iPhone 6 or as poor as an iPhone X, the variable and unpredictable nature of rewards sends you into a “frenzied hunting state”, activating your wants and desires and powering your hedonic treadmill to ever-higher speeds. You’re convinced that the promotion at work, the better phone, the bigger house, the fancier kitchen will lead to happiness not because every such move in the past made you briefly happier (before you returned to your baseline level of happiness) but exactly because most of them didn’t. The mammal is pre-programmed to favour short-term pleasure over long-term self-improvement, probably because for most of our evolutionary history where the next meal was going to come from was the overriding concern. In a society of abundance, but where the economy is driven by false scarcity, the same brain chemistry leads us to seek happiness via external rewards rather than through transformation of the self.

Luckily, the brain didn’t evolve a limbic system and then call it a day. Human beings are capable of transcending the urges programmed into the older parts of their brains (at least in the long term) and of altering their levels of baseline happiness. But, unfortunately for those of us who are heavily invested in the immediate gratifications of consumer capitalism, that means embarking upon a mission to find meaning in life beyond increasing material wealth and social status and, unfortunately for me, it means watching a lot less Netflix.

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