‘Black Mirror’ Study Guide: Fifteen Million Merits

This episode: what advertising may look like in the future, technology’s ability to make us forget what is real, and our corrupt entertainment values.

‘Black Mirror’ is a satirical anthology series that examines the dark aspects of modern society, particularly as it relates to our relationship with technology. Each standalone episode presents a picture of a world that’s futuristic, yet believable; cool, yet horrifying. Each of these study guides will touch on some of the themes the episode explores.

The Future of Advertising

Anybody who uses the internet will most likely agree that advertising is one of the most annoying things about the internet. And they’re getting worse, they’re getting more invasive, and we are kind of the reason why. Because we’ve trained ourselves to ignore certain areas of a webpage, and invented ad-blockers, advertisers have been forced to escalate. We ignore ads on the side of the page, so they place them in-text. We scroll past video ads, so they — with the help of social media platforms whose lifeline is advertising — make videos autoplay.

Fast forward to the future and advertising may look like what we see in “Fifteen Million Merits.” Advertising takes up more and more surface area. The ads are all video (something we’re getting very close to already, with the “pivot to video”), and they autoplay based on what you’re feeling or thinking. They’re always listening and always watching (i.e., digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home). In this future, however, you’re welcome to mute/skip ads. For a price. And because the currency in this future is all digital, you barely feel the loss.

Something Real

“Fifteen Million Merits” follows Bing (Daniel Kaluuya). He’s an every-man who’s grown tired of life’s monotony, as a result of technology. The technology is no longer cool. And it has become so pervasive that it’s inescapable. Technology has enslaved us. It’s made people care about things that don’t physically exist, such as how many “merits” (which is the digital currency in Bing’s world and an analogy to our world’s “Followers”) they have. It enrages him, because he cares for none of it. He wants something real.

“All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves is buying shit.”

He finds that something real in Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay). Abi makes him feel, she makes him care, she makes him feel like he’s living. None of which technology can do for him anymore. “Wraith Babes” aren’t real. Abi is. So he uses the 15,000,000 merits he’s slowly accumulated to try to free Abi from the black hole that is their life. It’s worth it to him, even if it means he has to stay, because in the end, he’ll have the comfort of knowing that it was all real.

Our Corrupt Entertainment Values

“And fuck you all, for taking the one thing I ever came close to anything real about anything, for oozing around it and crushing it into a bone, into a joke, one more ugly joke in a kingdom of millions and then fuck you. Fuck you for happening. Fuck you for me, for us, for everyone, fuck you.

That’s an excerpt from Bing’s epic speech after Abi is taken from him by the judges of Hot Shot, a fictional American Idol-type show that give the talented a way out of their mundane life. They did something worse than take her away, actually; they turn her in a “Wraith Babe”; they took her authenticity, innocence, and light; they corrupt her.

She’s objectified, and harassed, publically, on stage, all while the audience cheers. Black Mirror tells fictional stories, but they’re all grounded in truth. Look no further than Black Mirror’s medium: television. Do you watch “reality” TV shows like The Bacherlor and laugh when someone is humiliated? Does it make you feel happy? Why do you think that is? One explanation is that technology makes it so that the people whose suffering we revel in are just distant people on a screen. Black Mirror points the finger at us.

‘Black Mirror’ Study Guide: The Entire History of You

‘Black Mirror’ Study Guide: Fifteen Million Merits was originally published in The Zeitgeist on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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