‘Black Mirror’ Creator Charlie Brooker on China’s ‘Social Credit’ System and the Rise of Trump
The brains behind the techno-dystopian sci-fi series, whose third season is now airing on Netflix, opens up about how the episode “Nosedive” is coming true in China and much more.
Just this week, news reports out of Beijing, China—or Chy-na, if you’re Donald Trump—painted a grim portrait of the country’s future: that the Chinese government, in their infinite wisdom, are in the process of constructing an elaborate “social credit” system to rate each citizen’s trustworthiness.
Right now, eight companies are issuing these “social credit” scores to people as part of a series of state-backed trial runs—including Sesame Credit, the financial arm of Chinese web shopping giant Alibaba, which boasts 400 millions users, as well as Baihe, China’s premier matchmaking service, that will endorse high-ranking customers on its site—with the aim of making the system mandatory in four years.
“By 2020, everyone in China will be enrolled in a vast national database that compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distills it into a single number ranking each citizen,” reported BBC News.
This ranking will subsequently affect each person’s social mobility—for example, punishments for low social credit ratings may include not being able to travel freely abroad or be provided first-class accommodations; getting denied loans; and being barred from sending your children to the finest schools. It is, simply put, Orwellian.
And, as many keen-eyed viewers have pointed out, the system bears a striking resemblance to that in “Nosedive,” the first episode in Black Mirror’s critically acclaimed third season.
The episode centers on Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard), a woman who lives in a future society where everyone is given a ranking out of five stars, and every interaction is rated on smartphones. Lacie is a 4.2, and needs to up her approval rating to a 4.5 in order to move into a fancy new apartment complex. As luck would have it, she’s given the opportunity to up her score when Naomi (Alice Eve), a beautiful old friend (and an enviable 4.8) invites her to be the maid of honor at her wedding. With many high-ranking people in attendance, Lacie believes that if she knocks her wedding speech out of the park, she’ll get the boost she needs.
“I did see that!” exclaims Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror who’s credited with writing (or co-writing) every episode of the show. “They’re going to do the system from ‘Nosedive’ for citizens! It’s incredibly sinister. Am I right in thinking that your ranking is affected by your friends, so if you hang with the wrong crowd, your social ranking will go down? Wow. It’s completely mental.”
Brooker’s series has become television’s Magic 8 Ball, with many of its Twilight Zone-esque high-tech plots becoming a reality—the most notorious of these, of course, being “The National Anthem,” wherein Britain’s prime minister is blackmailed into fucking a pig on live television. The episode first aired in December 2011 and nearly four years later, in September 2015, a new book alleged that then Prime Minister David Cameron had inserted his penis into the mouth of a dead pig as part of an initiation rite whilst attending the University of Oxford. And like the China-“Nosedive” parallels, nobody was more surprised than Brooker. “I promise you we didn’t sell the idea to the Chinese government!” he laughs. “That was not our intention. It was quite trippy, though. I’m kind of getting used to it, because it seems like it’s quite often that there are things that are in the stories that come true. The David Cameron one was the most bracing and still the most unexpected. Right before that, I was reading an article that was listing things that have come true in Black Mirror and they went, well, we’ll just pass over ‘The National Anthem’ episode because obviously that’s not going to happen, and then the next day the rumor breaks about Cameron.”
In a September interview with The Daily Beast, Brooker predicted that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. “Hello, we just went through Brexit! Of course Trump’s going to win,” he said, adding that he found the prospect “fucking terrifying.” But now that Trump is dwindling in the polls, thanks in large part to the release of a disgusting tape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, followed by 11 women (and counting) accusing him of sexual assault or harassment, he’s sort of changing his tune.
“I thought he would, at that point! I still wouldn’t rule it out,” says Brooker. “When I said that it was the day after Hillary’s stumble [due to walking pneumonia], and Trump was coming back in the polls. You can’t rule it out, though. There are two main candidates, and he could still win. It could still happen.”
The former TV presenter and Guardian columnist also sees similarities between the rise of Trump and his 2013 Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment,” which saw a blue cartoon bear named Waldo (operated by a male comic via performance capture) nearly win a political election due to his no-bullshit approach.
“There’s an anti-political movement that’s risen up around the globe and you’re seeing these vibrant, almost cult figures rising up all over the place. Waldo himself was kind of based on Boris Johnson, who’s a quasi Trump with crazy hair who’s fucking up the country,” says Brooker. “He’s one of the guys who was backing Brexit and the morning when he found out it won and he was actually going to have to go through with this shit, he was put in a photo looking like he was going to fucking shatter his breakfast table; like he’d been given a turd for Christmas.”He shakes his head. “Boris was a character who made appearances on comedy panel shows in the U.K. and became a ‘lovable pet oaf’ to a lot of the population, and that meant he was immune to criticism, in many ways. What people are craving is a sense of authenticity, and we got so used to identikit politicians parroting the same sound bites, so people are thirsting for something else. You have characters like Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., who is like the Belle and Sebastian of politics, and a certain subset of people really love him. So it’s something that’s happening across the political spectrum and around the world. It worries me.”
The self-effacing Brooker, a delightfully witty man in person, also seems to view these recent political developments as a form of karmic retribution for his mocking colorless politicians in columns and on various TV programs over the years.
“I’ve done topical comedy shows in the U.K. and we relentlessly took the piss out of all sorts of identikit politicians, and I now think, whoops, am I partially responsible for fucking things up?” he offers, chuckling. “I miss boring! It’s our curse, isn’t it? May you live in interesting times. I worry that we do.”