Black Mirror 102, “15 Million Merits”

[Content note: You could read this post and still enjoy watching the episode, but there will be spoilers. Additionally, the show itself is disturbing, though not as much as last week’s.]

Steve Jobs, February 1996 in Wired [pdf]:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

[Interviewer: So Steve Jobs is telling us things are going to continue to get worse.]

They are getting worse! Everybody knows that they’re getting worse! Don’t you think they’re getting worse?

“15 Million Merits” is the utopia we are left with when the optimizations Jobs speaks of above are complete. There are no kids dying of malaria. Everyone on-screen from beginning to end earns at least a middle class lifestyle that meets all their basic needs. Everyone gets plenty of exercise and can laugh while they work. We don’t see people getting cancer. That’s the world you wanted, isn’t it? Eat it.

The first episode of Black Mirror mirrors the first Saw movie. This second episode in turn reminds me of The Matrix, but as Jobs notes, The Matrix was optimistic. You can shoot the bad guys! “15 Million Merits” horrifies you with a utopia that the viewer comes to realize she is already living, and we are the bad guys.

Sure, there are superficial differences between the world of “15 Million Merits” and the one in which we live. And our directors let us soak in those differences for more than five minutes before we finally hear our first line of dialogue. Black Mirror has tremendous confidence in itself and its viewers. It’s teaching us to trust it to make things worth our while.

In the “fiction” of “15 Million Merits”, people work so they can buy stuff they don’t particularly need. If they don’t work, they lose their regular jobs and have to do worse ones. It’s not so bad though. If they do their jobs well, they can buy more stuff. Much of this episode is better described simply as a mirror, not a black mirror.

This episode validated my hopes that the show will dwell on media and our relationship with it. It’s rare that such critiques succeed, but Black Mirror seems up to the task.

Film critiques of media are often terrible and counterproductive. The first Hunger Games movie illustrates the most common failure mode. The goal is ostensibly for the viewer to judge the elites of District 1 for enjoying watching kids kill each other, but the most interesting parts of the movie involves we the audience enjoying watching kids kill each other. We don’t watch in horrific condemnation of the tastes of the District 1 elites; we pull up a chair alongside them and ask what’s the score.

Black Mirror doesn’t let us do this. In “15 Million Merits”, the critiqued content is simultaneously horrible and plausible. We rarely see any of it through eyes other than those of our hero, who regards it as properly empty. Yet these shows barely differ from ours. We are not watching a world constructed to be horrible. It’s a world no more horrible than our own, but with shinier tech.

When our hero tells our heroine that their job causes them to crave junk food, which actually makes them hungrier and need to work more to buy more food, she counters that he can buy a cognitive behavioral therapy program that will help him crave healthier foods. I’m 99% sure I could buy that right now.

Our hero’s fate is somewhat predictable. When he is told that his dissatisfaction is universally shared, he isn’t being lied to. The object of his ire is simply a bigger cog in the same machine, and that machine coopts his rebellion to further its own goals.

The resilience of this world (as with our own) is that the truth cannot disable it. Even when TV tells you TV is bad for you, you’ll nod and say “that’s so right” and queue up the next episode. This irony is not lost on the producers. “15 Million Merits” is a show about a show about how destructive shows are. We recognize this as truth and congratulate ourselves for noticing. But just like the hapless redhead trying on virtual helmets on-screen, our insight cannot free us.

That’s how the BBC knows it can produce a brilliant critique of TV and the media without fear that we will throw away our TVs and not watch their shows anymore. That’s how The Verge can pay one of its writers to write about how much better his life was without the Internet and then ask what we’d like to read next without the slightest hint of self-awareness:

The Verge Read Next

I do wonder how much of the audience is in on the joke that we are the butt of. If you watched Episode 1, you think you were horrified by how the public reacted by watching the Prime Minister do what he did. In reality, you watched the Prime Minister do what he did. Worse, he was made to do it because they knew you’d watch. Yes, I know you think watching people watching someone do something horrible is totally different from actually watching, but the former isn’t really right either, is it? You are watching actors pretend to be horrible so that you can judge them for their imagined-to-be awful tastes. Tod Kelly rightly accuses the man who says “This is history” of rationalization. But what, then, was our excuse? If anything, the actors may be further removed from what is going on than we are. Scripts were written, auditions took place, funding was secured, camera crews were assembled, wardrobes were planned, and film was shot and distributed all because they knew you’d watch. If you saw it, it was made for you. Eat it.

Here’s to the next episode. I, for one, can’t wait.

Addendum: I said you could read this post and still enjoy watching the episode. This does not apply to the comments.
Addendum 2: You can see this episode on Netflix in the US. It’s also on Youtube here.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

15 thoughts on “Black Mirror 102, “15 Million Merits”

  1. This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored.

    So here were my questions.

    1.). Are the bikes actually producing any appreciable amounts of society-powering energy via some sort of technological woo (as the talent show producers imply), or are they simply (mostly) “make-work”, to keep people occupied and exercised in what appears to be a post-scarcity society and give them “credits” to allow them to buy things and keep some semblance of a trade economy? My sense was that it was more the latter, but that’s largely because I can’t imagine any human-powered tech producing enough juice for all those screens.

    2.). We certainly get the sense that the bulk of humanity is living in ultra-dense urban environs – those appear to be bigger, better screens that Bing (heh) is standing in front of at the end, not windows – is this due to the ruin of the natural world, or the complete covering of it, OR is the picture he is viewing of actual live wilderness, perhaps because humanity has retreated to ultra-dense cities to prevent the total ruin of the ecology?

    3.). Is Bing lying about inheriting the credits, just to get Abi to accept it as “free/found money”? My guess is yes, since it is an amount that, while large, can apparently be accrued in a few months, if one is frugal.

    4.). Abi had to know that her outcome of the talent show was a possibility; they kept it from us, so as to maximize the twist/gut-punch, but was she simply completely confident that she was a good enough singer that it would not happen to her? Or on some level, even sans the “compliance” drug, was it an acceptable plan B for her if the singing thing didn’t work out? Given the gray tedium of bike-pedaling all day, maybe a life of well-paid drugged-up pleasure would still seem like a good alternative.

    I did like them emphasizing Bing’s solitude at the end. Yes, he has a nicer/bigger/quieter apartment now, but it’s also far more lonely. At least when he was on the bikes there was the possibility of simple social companionship and camaraderie with his fellow pedalers.

    Also, the funniest/bleakest visual gag had to be “People who liked [apple] also liked [banana]” on the food dispenser.

    More on the song from the episode:

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    • This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored.

      1. My assumption is that at some level, the bikes are necessary to keep everything moving. But much like our own economy, the vast majority of what goes on is not simply to sustain but to produce things to consumer.

      My sense was that it was more the latter, but that’s largely because I can’t imagine any human-powered tech producing enough juice for all those screens.

      I felt like you can’t look at the thermodynamics of this episode too closely. They’ve got all this stuff but no nuclear reactors? Also, how do they get energy to produce food? If it’s the bikers, then you end up with a loop that would entropy pretty quickly. It’s the same problem as with the Matrix: humans are actually a pretty shitty energy source.

      2. I felt the last scene was of Bing looking at a bigger and better screen. I didn’t suspect there might have been anything real about it. This isn’t to say I was right.

      3. Regarding Bing lying, I don’t know. And I’m not sure it matters. What’s important is that Bing is one (perhaps the only one) who sees through how meaningless the credits are. Even if he did earn them himself, him saying that might have been less psychologically honest than regarding them the way he did.
      It’s heartbreaking that he wanted to finally spend them on something “real” and he ended up getting what he got.

      4. Abi had to know that her outcome of the talent show was a possibility

      The way the announcers presented it as an option, it sounded like this was the first time anything like that had been proposed. She seemed to have been as baffled by what they were suggesting as we were.

      Zic characterized what happened in Week 1 as rape, and I think this episode does the same. I mean, they literally handed her a drink named Compliance and made her drink it even though she didn’t want to before “asking” her. Even if she was amenable to the idea before she ever got there, the way that they got her to agree was practically speaking rape.

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      • “They’ve got all this stuff but no nuclear reactors? Also, how do they get energy to produce food? ”

        Yeah, that’s why my suspicion is that the bikes are not society’s real energy source, that’s just what the Powers That Be tell people to keep them pedaling, make them FEEL like they have a stake, and stave off revolution. A guy not pedaling furiously on a bike to get his pay and keep the lights on, is a guy who might otherwise storm the gates.

        I wonder how much of this is Brooker writing about himself and his successes too. If he’s someone who sees himself as an outsider savagely sticking the satirical knife to entertainment and society who (despite all his rage) just keeps getting rewarded with bigger and nicer cages…

        (Another “meta” bit is that “Abi” is apparently an actress from Downton.)

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  2. It struck me that the whole episode did not even have to be on Earth. Coulda been a space ship in deep space, coulda been Mars or Moon colony. There is never, ever something that seems a real view; and even the apt. in the end doesn’t suggest that the windows are looking on a real world one way or the other.

    I kept wondering if there was significance in the choice of penguin for the origami.

    And I also wondered where/how/when there were children. How did all those people get there, in that bunker of gray and screens? The videos they watched themselves were either people in similar bunkers or cartoon characters; the only ‘nature’ was lacking people. The two never met.

    And what did all that biking accomplish? Were they generating electricity? More than needed to power their own screen consumption?

    Finally, again the wish for a more feminist review; she get’s turned into a sex object, with her mouth smeared for obvious assault by someone, sexual degradation as the escape from drudgery. He, on the other hand, get’s angry, and threatens harm to himself, and that’s the BIG new thing; his shard of glass as precious as her lips and breasts. So there’s this recognized need for distraction in this future world where relationships are with the people on the screens, not the bike next to us; where the things we own are virtual, and keeping a piece of origami made from trash is an act of disobedience. But they seem stereotypically male distractions; women and violence; the stereotypical female distractions, the romance novel or chick flick, children, etc. missing.

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    • And Vikram, I love this review; loved that you went to the recursive reflections of we’re creating this today, and not the energy future of tapping the potential of mice in the wheel, which seemed the low-hanging fruit to me. Excellent.

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    • the whole episode did not even have to be on Earth

      I don’t mean to be totally dismissive of the where-are-we question, but to me the answer is right fishing here. The science fiction of this episode is in no way plot relevant.

      I would really be interested in seeing someone attempt a wholly contemporary version of this without any of the technological differences. Just some people working at the plant in Monkton, NY or something. How much would have to change, really?

      here/how/when there were children

      Good question. To me this is a point in favor of some traveling vessel of some kind.

      Were they generating electricity

      That was my interpretation, yeah.

      stereotypical female distractions…missing

      True. The programming we do see is there for us to judge it poorly. The options seem to be the worst of what we have and male-targeted at that.

      Regarding the fate of Abi, she is pretty clearly refrigerated so as to motivate Bing. And it’s not really clear what the purpose was of the other woman who liked Bing was. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you on this for Episode 3.

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      • “here/how/when there were children”

        Given the apparent population density and the ubiquity/public acceptance of porn, my assumption was that reproduction and sex have been nearly completely separated, whether by custom or by law or by technology; most such dystopian fiction would have Bing and Abi spend one night of passionate lovemaking before they escaped (or were ripped apart), but these two spend the night in their own beds, and the most we see happen is some surreptitious hand-holding, IIRC.

        Wherever the kids were (probably in their own set of crèche blocks somewhere, being conditioned to live without natural sunlight or human touch) wasn’t really relevant to the story we were seeing.

        “And it’s not really clear what the purpose was of the other woman who liked Bing was.”

        From a straight plot POV, I agree that her story was pointless. From another POV, she (and the redhead, who may have had a likewise unrequited crush on her, and the boorish jackass) were simply more signifiers that whatever its differences, this world was still ours, its people are us, with the same types of hopes and dreams and fears and flaws; that we weren’t watching a story about Vulcans, IOW.

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      • I think you very much get at why I wondered about the missing children; so many people, so much porn, no actual sex, and no reproduction, except of electricity. There’s the song, too, taught to Abi by her mother; the only representation of something remotely akin to family life; so these people aren’t strangers to it; but somehow weirdly separated from it.

        Reminds me of so much handwringing I heard over putting our smartphones away while at the holiday dinner table and on dates, actually.

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  3. Good review Vik.

    1. In real time qatching the show I was at first very interested in the technical details and backstory of the world our hero lived in. What’s the purpose of the pedaling? Why are they here? Those sorts of things. At some point I realized that the pedaling was just a metaphor as well as the chits-spending opportunities available. And at that point, the technical details (“Can dilithium crystals really power up an engine at zero degrees Kelvin without preheating???”) sorta dropped out.

    2. So … I rather liked the suggestion that life – in one sense – has become a rather pointless endeavor where we ride our bikes merely to pay for stuff we don’t really need for no other purpose than that stuff available and entertaining. A hedonistic distraction, so to speak.

    3. And interestingly, the only way to within the context of the show to extricate oneself from a life of hedonsitic consumption is to become a provider of hedonistic consumption to others. The story of the girl sorta made that point, but the choice of hero puts the exclamation point on it. So the circle is complete, in that sense.

    4. The choices made by the two protagonists were interesting in that light. The women wanted to do A but the market for As was saturated, a fact that was used to leverage her into making a decision she would’ve found otherwise (well, one she did in fact find) morally reprehensible. Yet she chose it. Same with our hero: set out to do A but when presented with his own options chose to do precisely what he found morally reprehensible. So there’ a message about trade-offs and rationality and choices in a consumption defined society.

    5. And given 4), I need to think more about your point that the mirror extends further out in a sorta paradoxical nature to those of us watching the actors in the show. I’d like to think the message of the show isn’t quite as nihilistic as the one you’re implying upthread, but you may be right. We all watched the show, as you say, and I know in my own case I’ve got a long list of stuff queued-up on Netflix. Dammit!

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    • Thanks for the comments!

      Your take on the tech was the same as mine. They created a beautiful world in a way, but none of the technical aspects in my view reward examination. Better to just accept and pay attention to those points they do pound you over the head with.

      the only way to within the context of the show to extricate oneself from a life of hedonsitic consumption is to become a provider of hedonistic consumption to others

      And the most interesting thing to me is that noticing this doesn’t actually change it. It’s not like anyone there can just wake up one morning and say “Hey! Let’s stop doing this instead of just complaining about it!” That’s part of why words of the Simon-Cowell-like character on the show stuck with me. It’s easy to see him as the evil guy controlling everything, but it’s not clear how much control he actually has. He at least says that Bing’s words mean something to him, and even knowing his whole schtick is an act, I kind of believe him.

      Yet she chose it.

      Eh. Not really. There’s a decent amount of screen time that goes between her taking the Compliance drug and her getting hounded into saying “i suppose” by seemingly every last person in her known universe. I don’t really hold her responsible for having made a choice. But I think that’s part of the message too. Their choices can’t really be free.

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  4. This was an AMAZING summary, Vikram. Awesome and enlightening in a way which gets you to have more questions the more you think about it.

    I seem to remember the producer mentioning in an interview that he assumes the bikes aren’t connected to anything other than a counter. I agree with others that it was a surprise to all about the switch from singing to other than singing as a career in that talent show.

    I never thought about the idea that there doesn’t need to be anything out there, and that they could be on a spaceship or destitute planet or whatever.

    Also, note that other than food, they weren’t able to buy anything that was other than virtual — were they? And the cleaners kept taking away even their garbage after a set time period. It has been a week or two though, so I may be forgetting.

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    • Thanks, Roger. I’m really glad Glyph suggested us doing this show. I think this was probably the one I would have had the most to say about too. I don’t envy Tod for having to write up last week’s.

      the bikes aren’t connected to anything other than a counter

      Huh. The Simon-Cowell guy gives the impression that the bikes are powering the lights, but that would seem to favor Glyph’s suggestion that they are just there to give people something to do.

      they weren’t able to buy anything that was other than virtual — were they

      Yes, that was my impression. And “trash” was taken away pretty regularly.

      Of course, even food could perhaps be discounted as a thing. You consume it and thus no longer have it. Each morning has no movement from the prior one.

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      • This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored.

        Yeah, the Simon Cowell guy implies that (he may even believe it – he admits he’s another cog in the machine too, he may not be in on the truth) but I’d be surprised if it was actually true in any meaningful way (the bikes may produce a tiny bit, but the omnipresent touchscreens on every surface alone would eat that up).

        You’ve got a post-scarcity society where the only product people “need” is entertainment – and even that is saturated in certain sectors (they can’t use any more singers, for example). So what do you do to keep all those excess people from either sitting and eating all day and getting fat, or rioting due to boredom?

        Put ’em on bikes, that’s what, and tell them beautiful lies about how it’s their hard work that keeps the lights on.

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      • By the producer, I meant the writer/producer of Black Mirror. It was in a youtube interview. I thought it was one Glyph linked to a few weeks ago, but I could be wrong… I could have clicked on an additional video after the one he linked.

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