Among the TV series I have watched, the British series “Black Mirror” is probably one of the most shocking, thought-provoking, and creative. Filmed in 2011, for some people it might seem unreasonable to write a review on a show released five years ago. But I believe in some cases, such backtracking is not only useful, but topical and necessary—and “Black Mirror” is this kind of case. The problems it shows and discusses are a scourge of the world we live in nowadays, even though the show depicts them in a somewhat grotesque and exaggerated way, and getting people to think about current social wrongs. With all this in mind, I decided to review one of my favorite episodes of “Black Mirror”—the second one, titled “15 Million Merits,” directed by Euros Lyn (each episode was filmed by a different director).
Have you ever thought of western society as a global reality show, each participant chasing the ghost of ephemeral success? A show, in which people are not appreciated and valued, but rather evaluated and judged based on their external parameters or talents? A show, in which one person out of a million gets it all, while others are doomed to go through the same monotonous routine year after year, without a single blink of hope? A show where a chosen few decide the fate of the majority, and no one ever questions this way of things?
“15 Million Merits” shows the world what precisely embodies the described model. The whole world is a huge gym, where people endlessly pedal exercise bikes. They live in separate rooms; each of them is a cell constructed of wall-size TV screens, constantly showing silly comedy shows or commercials. People interact and communicate with each other mostly via the Internet, using virtual avatars; live communication occurs seldom, and only in gym zones (and still, the majority prefers to stare at the screens installed in the front of their exercise bikes that display the same comedies and commercials). The society is segregated by appearance: people with excessive weight are considered inferior, and have to serve those who are more fit. In their turn, fit people have to exercise a lot, because this is their only hope to change their lives for the better.
How? There are two reasons. The first one is credits. Credits are earned by simply pedaling exercise bikes, and are needed to buy food, skip constant annoying commercials (which you cannot mute or ignore—if you try to, a thunderous alarm signal turns on, and continues until you return to watching the commercial), buy new clothes and accessories for virtual avatars, and so on. Even squeezing toothpaste from a tube costs credits. But most importantly, credits are needed to buy a ticket allowing a citizen to participate in a talent show: the winner, chosen by three judges, no longer needs to exercise, and becomes rich, famous, and privileged.
This is the slave world everyone agrees with.
Bing, the main character, has inherited 15 million credits after his brother’s death—the exact sum of credits needed to purchase the golden ticket. Without knowing what to spend them on, he lives day after day, until he accidentally hears a woman named Abi sing in a bathroom. Bing realizes her singing is the truest, purest thing he ever encountered in this pitiful world, and offers all his money to her, so that she could participate in the show, break free, and bring at least a bit of happiness and beauty into it. Abi agrees. Bing sees her performance on the show, and she actually wins the contest… only to be told that society does not need singers at the moment. Instead, Abi is offered to become a porn actress; the choice the jury forces her to make is cruel—either this, or pedaling exercise bikes for the rest of her life.
Abi accepts the offer.
Broken down, Bing returns to his cell. Driven by anger and bitterness, he exercises twice as more than before, and spends almost nothing; he also learns how to dance, in order to perform on the show. Finally, Bing saves another 15 million credits, buys another ticket, and gets on the show—but before he enters the stage, he hides a shard of glass in his sleeve. After his performance, while the jury is pleasantly surprised with the expression of his dance, Bing, threatening himself with the shard, demands the judges and the audience (consisting of virtual avatars) to hear him out, otherwise he will kill himself on air.
Bing delivers a desperate, emotional, and sincere speech accusing the world order… and receives an offer to become an anchor for a new show. A show that would criticize the society and exploit Bing’s sincerity and despair. The alternative is the same as in Abi’s case.
The episode ends with another speech of Bing that people in the gym watch on their TVs. Bing still has the glass shard pointed against his neck, and his eyes still emanate anxiety and anger, but after the show comes to an end, we see that Bing broadcasts from a luxurious apartment. He carefully puts the shard in a special box, drinks a glass of orange juice, and looks outside the window of his new home.
The questions and problems “15 Million Merits” raises are obvious, yet too complex to name them directly. Through the grotesque and hyperbole, the director not only managed to create a horribly alike parody to the world we currently live in, but also to show how media, the entertainment industry, and routine, multiplied by silent connivance and consumerist mentality, can grind people’s dreams, hopes, dignity, self-esteem, and turn them into a product that other people will forget the next day they consume it. To me, this episode of “Black Mirror” is a warning about what can become of western society if people keep mindlessly accepting everything that corporations, governments, and entertainment industries feed them.
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Black Mirror: Fifteen Million MeritsPosted by on October 31, 2014
A British TV show, Black Mirror, presents an alternative approach to speculative design. The episode called “Fifteen Million Merits” (see youtube link at the end of post) happens in a possible future, where a reality TV show that we know mimics life, becomes life itself. In this future, citizens sustain their living by riding fixed bicycles to generate power in order to maintain the entertainment show they watch and live in. In exchange for the distance and time they ride, they receive currency. Entertainment is taken to the extreme and instead of being a moment of rest of our labor it becomes the labor and the motive to work. There is no boundary between play and obligation, sustaining and enjoying life.
In this scenario the technology also scales. Video games are so developed that they substitute real objects for virtual ones, defining every aspect of the citizen’s experience. The artificial apparently substitutes the human, by making predictions of their behavior and inducing it. Physical possessions are restricted, and you experience your entire through a screen on a bicycle. This is a brave new world of a post-physical reality. Representation is strictly virtual. In our present reality, we work to maintain the same system. Entertainment and pop culture are what motivates us and the artificial has already started to measure and mold our behavior. Our money is used as fuel and feedback loops that enhances the traps and lock-ins that we’ve created over time. The virtual has become part of our reality, presenting our current social and technological trends to the extreme.
This episode is packed with speculations based off of cultural criticisms of today. That what we find fascinating now is turned on its head into what defines us in this episode’s future. Here, the physical is the lowest form of being and the virtual rules at the top. The way this society functions is by using exercise bikes to power their entertainment. It’s a world beyond our concerns on energy and we’ve come to rely on ourselves for a source of power. The citizen’s only purpose in this reality is to power for entertainment. Everything leads up to a show called Hot Shots (like an America’s Got Talent), where you can win your chance to fame and free yourself from the the physical labor of the bicycle. We’ve been reduced down to popular talent show for meaning. There is no learning, no free information, no authentic expressions. The citizens save their funds to buy virtual goods, which in a way addresses today’s concerns about creating physical wastes. These are not solutions to today’s challenges. These are simply virtual illusions of what can be. Still, there is still value in fiction (we can say that speculative design in galeries fit in this concept), because it enhances what is most important in reality: it is through our relation with the artificial that we understand our humanity. What comes out of that, our interpretation of it, and our actions after that is what matters.
While presenting a speculation of the future, Black Mirror inserts skewed vignettes of our current realities. In the midst of hypertechnology, we see moments where it breaks down, fails, or humans manage to override it. The system still glitches as they do today, reminding us of the mechanisms that run it. For example, the food dispenser gets jammed, and the character has to hack it in order to receive his food. Or when he is presented with all of the advertisements, and he puts on his headphones instead to block out the noise. It situates our relationship to technology—that even though our relationships have changed, we are still human. A machine is still a machine, and we can still override it if we choose to do so (to some degree).
This episode also brings Jaron Lanier’s concept of “lock-in” to technology center stage. Aside from the citizen’s complete dependence on their powering bicycles, their entire reality is also locked in a virtual world. The main character threatens to kill himself live on the entertainment show Hot Shots as a protest, but instead was persuaded to become a star on their media channel. He was promised a better life, without physical labor, where he can sit and enjoy the outdoors. He agrees and gets his freedom away from the bicycle, but instead of leaving the system, he is just perpetuating it by becoming an entertainer in their virtual world. His fellow citizens are cycling to power his programming. In the end, you see him in a beautiful house, looking at a large “window” of a virtual forest. The critique here is that even when we think we are disrupting or breaking a system we are only perpetuating it. It might seem different but it is still in the same context, circling within the same reality. The paradox, or example, in this episode is that even when we see the enslaving side of entertainment shows and its vicious cycles, the show Black Mirror itself is very appealing entertainment. So we as audience might become more critical about the ideas revealed, but in reality, we are still watching and perpetuating the ideas criticized in the episode itself.
To bring this back to a design context, Black Mirror is a work of speculative design. It presents an alternate reality that breaks down our understanding of the world and rebuilds an uncanny alternative. As explained by Dunne & Raby, design seems a great tool as a “way to create spaces for discussion and debate about how alternative ways of being inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely”. However Black Mirror, unlike their work, is presented to a mass audience, through a channel grounded in mass culture instead of a gallery. Because galleries have a specific audience, the access of work inside is limited to an elite, so the first impact stays within that context and takes time to reverberate/resonate to the rest of society. The positive point about speculative work such as Black Mirror and other popular media is to widen access to the masses. It presents experimental design without the elite context of “art”. There is no pressure as an audience to critically reflect. But that is exactly the trade off. In a gallery setting, the viewer is pressured to think critically. As a form of entertainment, you are free to walk away with a more shallow satisfaction.