Reflections From a Black Mirror: S1 E2 “Fifteen Million Merits” (Netflix)

Reflections From a Black Mirror (Netflix)

That art is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. I would strongly recommend you check out his page (it is truly full of amazing, Charlie Brooker himself has been pushing Billy's work as well).

Anyway, Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

My last "Reflection" was the episode "Shut Up And Dance"

A House Divided Against Itself

Fifteen Million Merits is a story about a young man named Bing (Daniel Kaluuya).

Bing is living a very specific and apparently largely predetermined life in a dystopic society (he spends most of his life pedaling a stationary bike).

Humans, in this society, have to work every day (peddling stationary bicycles) in order to pay for food, lodging (in a room made of four wall-screens that consistently beam content), and a mandatory level of paid participation in official online marketing content (more on this later - in this society, you have to pay a fee to NOT see a certain amount of content).

The hardest part of figuring out "15 Million Merits" is trying to understand why the bicycler's (the 99%) continue to participate in the system.

The vast majority of humans in this society appear to be stuck pedaling bicycles, but it is clear that other "classes" exist beyond the stationary bicycles. We also learn that the amount of "merits" a human generates through their incessant peddling could allow them to participate in a lottery for opportunities to advance from one social class to another.

In other words, the system is set-up to coopt the participation of the "have-nots" by offering them an opportunity at advancement with enough "hard work."To be more specific, if any particular bicycler "saves" up "15 million merits" (a very sizeable amount) they can purchase a ticket to enter themselves (or someone else) into an ongoing American Idol-style television talent show (a lottery in a sense).

If the public watching (and appearing on screen as avatars) and the judges agree, the performer can move from peddling to some undefined "better" life (what constitutes better is in play here as well).

Lotteries like this (or your local lottery) are a very real form of cooptation in our own world. Cooptation being the ability of governments to enlist its citizens, even when working against their own interests, in willingly maintaining, participating in, and in perpetuating the dominant social structure.

President Abraham Lincoln famously said this in a speech in 1858:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Governments and other dominant systems frequently have taken his advice to work hard to divide opposition movements from within using access to the media (Police/BLM), access and dissemination of information gathered through surveillance (Black Panther Party, Native American resistance), or even lotteries (American Poor). 

The best example of cooptation that I have seen dramatized was the so-called "Architect Scene" from the otherwise disappointing movie, "The Matrix Reloaded."

In the movie, the architect (an intelligent program who designed and maintains the design of the Matrix) explains to Neo (the protagonist) that the mythology of "The One" (a savior) has been used by The Matrix for thousands of years to co-opt all of the revolutionary impulses of humans (who are reduced to bodies/batteries outside of the Matrix much like Bing is generating energy in 15 million merits)..

In other words, the intelligent programs (running the Matrix) would create a new savior anytime human resistance started to bubble up and then use that savior to direct those revolutionary impulses towards revolutionary failure and impotence.  

Using the "hero narrative" as a tool to co-opt resistance is often at the core of effective fascism. 

Heroes and Karl Marx

The Communist Manifesto
By Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

So, Bing inherited a ton of merits when his Brother passed away, which allows him to take it easy on his bike (he can dismiss more content and pay the fees in his room) but he doesn't seem very motivated to use his merits to try out for the big show until he gets hit by the lightning bolt of love for a girl named Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay).

Bing hears Abi singing in the bathroom and persuades her to enter, as a singer, in the big ongoing competition (the aforementioned show called "Hot Shots").

He cashes in his merits and purchases a ticket for her to appear on Hot Shots. 

She appears on Hot Shots (after being accelerated through the room full of hopefuls because she is attractive), sings, and does very well, despite the rude and sexualized and sexist comments of members of the judging panel (who are made to look like an X-Factor or American Idol panel).  But after deliberation, the panel doesn't offer her a signing contract. 

Instead, because she is attractive, the panel offers her a job appearing as one of the sex workers in the state-sponsored pornography feed business force-fed to all of the bicyclists (remember that people are forced to watch a certain amount of content and have to pay to dismiss content. In fact, if they try to close their eyes while mandatory content plays, a repetitive alarm sound repeats until the person opens their eyes again).

She begins to cry but is encouraged to consider how much better her life will be and after minutes of enthusiastic clapping and crowd approval from all of the avatars,  she relents and agrees to become a video porn star.

I would be surprised if this wasn't a reference to Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto:

"It [cash payment] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – free trade.  In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

And please do not get this twisted, I am NOT a Communist. However, there is a massive difference between Marx and Engels critique of the ethics of capitalism and what the Soviet Union turned Communism into.

I myself am generally a capitalist, but I refuse to engage in stupid straw-person debates.

If you believe that Lenin and Stalin actually had the best interests of workers in mind believe the conventional wisdom on Karl Marx writings. Truth is, at the base of Marx is the idea that workers should matter more than the mere maximization of profit or that workers should at least be allowed to decide the ratios (share ownership in the means of production).

Anyway, Abi, despite having clearly zero desire to be a sex-worker, values cash payment enough to accept becoming a cog in the machine of oppression because she thinks (after a lifetime of conditioning) that freedom lies in progress rather than in dignity.

I have suggested many times before that Black Mirror uses future technologies and dystopia to create distance between ourselves and what are really metaphorical reflections of ourselves and Western culture NOW. 

15 million merits can clearly be read as a Marxist critique of Western notions of the American Dream (if you work hard enough in America, you can succeed). Obviously, what this episode calls into question is what we allow "success" to be defined as and what "success" the system generates or makes available to us (watch the Kardashians on the E channel if you need more insight into what I mean).

If you live in a world where you will do what you least want to do in order to achieve better access to things and places, maybe what is desired (what constitutes success) has become a worthless and empty vessel (like confederate money or David Duke campaign posters). 

It seems very clear to me that "15 Million Merits" is making the argument that what modern capitalism generates as "success" is either material comfort provided at the cost of being exploited for the pleasure of others or being provided with the means to enjoy (and almost bask in) the exploitation of others.

This one thread that ties virtually every Black Mirror episode together is that almost everything capitalism manufactures as "success" either turns into pain for the bearer or into the ability to take surplus enjoyment in watching the suffering of others. 

In other words, what I think Brooker might be saying is that what we often call "success" is really both participating in propaganda and also participation in the exploitation of ourselves and participation in taking enjoyment in the exploitation of others. 

The Failure of Half-Measures

After seeing the woman he loves (and physical love seems also unavailable in this society which has reduced intimacy only to porn and talking between or during shifts on the bicycles) accept becoming a porn star rather than return to the world of the bikes (him), Bing has a bit of a breakdown. 

Bing has no more merits (he used them all on her), so he can't stop the porn from playing on the screens in his room and ultimately has to see Abi in "action" which results in him attempting to break the monitor walls of his room. When the glass of one of the walls cracks he takes and hides a sliver of the glass and quickly calms down (seems to come up with a plan). 

He recommits to building up his credits and starts practicing a dance routine to take his own chance on "Hot Shots." Eventually, he builds up his credits enough to purchase a ticket for himself and appears on the show. He does his dance routine (which goes really well), pulls out the shard of glass, and threatens to kill himself on the air if he is not allowed to speak

I suspect because they feel denying his speech would call into question the fairness of the system, they allow him to speak and Bing gives a very effective critique of the unfairness of the social structure. 

The judges wait for a few seconds, and then offer Bing a job doing a show where he would be paid to give new weekly rants, all while holding a shard of glass to his neck, on the main feed channel (commodifying and emasculating revolution a la the Architect scene).  

Bing chooses to take the deal (showing that Bing was no different than Abi) and we see him in his new, much larger, but still sterile and lonely room take solace in a much better wall display (1080 P, 4D?).

This reminds me of the classic scene in the brilliant movie Network when Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) confronts Howard Beale (Peter Finch) with the "Hot Shots" panel representing Jensen.

This is a very dark ending to a very dark (and I will say again underrated) episode.

Bing is a success, in his sterile room, watching a gigantic CGI waterfall in high def.

I fully think that 15 Million Merits is a metaphor for the way we live our lives and what we value in Modern Western Capitalist societies today (and not a cautionary note about technology). There is not much difference between going to a tough job day after day chasing the gold watch then there is sitting on a bike for the same amount of time. 

There is not much difference between Abi and the Kardashians or a young Britney Spears (not meant as an insult).

There is not much difference between the audience and judges of "Hot Shot" and how the poor, suffering, or socially shunned are treated on social media today.

Soylent Green is People and reflection in the Black Mirror is ours.

A Quick Disagreement With Mr. Brooker


So, Mr. Charlie Brooker (writer, show creator, and showrunner) did a pretty amazingly transparent interview with the folks at the Entertainment Weekly Blog.

I found one of his many answers, regarding the "Shut Up And Dance" episode particularly shocking, here is the exchange:

Q: "How does the twist that the protagonist was looking at child porn change the story’s impact? Should we feel better?"

A: "It’s ambiguous, isn’t it? Your empathy for him drains away. You look at him fresh. And it’s not to condone what the hackers have done. They’ve been toying with people like a cat toys with its prey. But it puts a new spin on the logic of what they’re doing. It complicates things more than a little."

I don't think this is ambiguous at all, nor should it be, both the "protagonist" and the hackers are horribly wrong.

Kenny (Alex Lawther) is wrong for watching underage porn and deserves punishment.

The Trolls are wrong for taking the law into their own hands.

They are also wrong for exploiting Kenny's unethical behavior, for profiting from it, and for distributing it like it as porn itself (and finally for trying to wash their hands by turning Kenny et al in).

And, the public is wrong for consuming and enjoying Kenny's pain and the murder he commits and for consuming it for pleasure.

Not ambiguous, everyone is wrong.

There is also one other "TRULY" bizarre moment in the "Shut Up And Dance" part of this interview. The interviewer, James Hibberd, asks (and this is dated three days ago):

"What’s great, and horrifying, about this, is there’s no sci-fi element here. This could, in theory, happen right now."

James Hibberd, are you serious?

You knew that you were going to interview Charlie Brooker and you don't even do the research to find out that the exact same scam is happening all over the place in TRW since the airing of the episode?

I actually know someone who was hit in a version of this scam recently.

Wouldn't it have been much more interesting if you had asked how he feels about people taking his phishing scam and using it to hurt people IRT? Or about the ethical responsibilities of authorship? 

I am not trying to say that he is responsible as much as suggesting that it might have been a great time to hear what CB thinks about ethical responsibility and art.

Okay, that is it for 15 Million Merits.

What do you think 15 Million Merits is about?

Who was wrong in "Shut Up And Dance" and why?

Let me know what you think, leave a comment!

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