Rashida Jones and Mike Schur are best known for building one of the happiest fictional workplaces in television history: Schur created Parks and Recreation and Jones starred in it as Leslie Knope's best friend, Ann Perkins. So they might not seem like an obvious choice to bring a dystopian world to life. But they're die-hard fans of the British anthology series Black Mirror, which has been dubbed a Twilight Zone for the digital age, and jumped at the chance to put their own comedic spin on the dark show.
They wrote "Nosedive," the second episode of the third season of Black Mirror premiering on Netflix Friday, based on an idea by series creator Charlie Brooker. The episode takes place in a world where every picture, post and real-life interaction is ranked by online friends. The higher your ranking, the more perks you accrue: nicer cars, better apartments. But drop too low, and you can't enter your workplace, let alone a country club. Each person's ranking hovers above their head, visible to others thanks to a sort of high-tech contact lens. Protagonist Lacie, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, becomes obsessed with her number.
Jones and Schur spoke to TIME about creating a new world and their complicated relationships with technology.
TIME: Black Mirror always feels close to home, like it could happen in just a few years or now. How do you create a dystopia that feels grounded in reality?
Schur: I don’t think of it as the near future, I think of it as a parallel present. We’re basically already there. People are deriving a sense of value from social media statistics, and it’s obviously a very dangerous thing to do. It colors the way that we look at everyone from presidential candidates to friends to anybody.
That, to me, is the best science fiction. It’s the kind that doesn't take place in the year 17,000 on a distant planet, it takes things that exist right now and turns them one degree to the left or right to shine a light on the way we’re interacting with each other as people.
TIME: I watched this and thought, "I should never go on Twitter again in my life." What was the response to the screening at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Jones: For me, it was incredibly personal. In this episode, you participate in the system or you’re off the grid. There’s no opting out. So I think for me it was a reminder that I still have a choice because sometimes I don’t feel like I have a choice as either a public person or a private person.
Schur: I was very curious to see if and when people would laugh. Once they understood what was happening, people laughed at every single interaction with the technology. And a lot of it was recognition laughter, which is a very specific thing. It was the laughter of people going, “Oh God I didn’t know that anyone else did the same thing I do.” It indicated to me that Charlie’s vision for the story was right on the money because you could tell that people were thinking, “Charlie has peered into my soul."
Jones: Right, it felt like this sort of collective shame. But also relief: “Oh, someone else does that too. I'm not the only one.”
TIME: The part that got me was Lacie taking a bite out of the cookie, spitting it out and then taking the picture of the cookie. Just sitting around restaurants all the time where people spend more time taking pictures of their food than eating it.
Schur: Yeah, the inherent falseness of your life when you’re doing that. Every aspect of your life has to be perfectly orchestrated and composed and captured and put in amber and displayed for everybody. Everyone is living publicly all the time and yet the public image that we’re presenting to the world is rarely purely honest and straightforward.
TIME: There are studies that show being on Facebook makes people depressed because they get anxious and upset that their lives aren’t like that.
Schur: Of course. What’s happened now is that everyone is living the same lie that we’ve known about for a long time with regards to the way women appear in magazines. Women have been sold a certain standard of beauty through magazines for decades. And that image is utterly distorted by Photoshop, and it causes a lot of people to feel inadequate or sad about how they look.
And now what’s happening is it’s gone beyond body image issues for one gender. It’s now all image issues for both genders. Every aspect of everyone’s life is being constantly measured against other people's and you can’t help but feel that you don’t measure up—with Instagram photos, the number of Twitter followers you have, the number of likes you get on one post.
Even though you know intellectually when you're looking at a picture of a famous model that that photo is the result of editing, you’re still staring at it. The same is true of people like Donald Trump who have millions of Twitter followers who are bots. I know they're fake, but it still bothers me. So there’s a difference between the intellectual reactions that we have when we see things like that and what happens in our souls and our hearts and our guts.
TIME: A lot of Black Mirror episodes touch on this idea that the devices aren't the problem, they only reveal and enhance how terrible we can be as people. Do you feel that's true of social media today?
Jones: Yeah, I wonder does Twitter actually make people more horrible to each other or we already have that possibility, and it just enhances it. It seems like a symbiotic dance to me.
Schur: I don’t think it turns anybody evil. I do think people who have certain tendencies, whether they be good or evil, will always find devices or computer programs or whatever that will help them magnify their natural inclination. Louie C.K. did a joke about this awhile ago, about how in the old days you could go up to some playground and say, “You’re fat” or “You’re ugly,” and the person would start crying and you’d have this instant reaction of “I feel bad that I said that.” The difference in technology, obviously, is that you don’t see that reaction. You type something, you walk away. So I do think there’s a problem in that regard with all of this stuff that you can avoid learning the effect that your words or actions have on other people if you choose to.