Note: It is awkward to write about Black Mirror (now on Netflix). The first episode is among the crassest most desultory bits of film I've seen. I don't recommend it. I recommend skipping it, actually. But the series isn't serialized. Each 60 minute show is a self contained work of short fiction. But the second episode was one of the best things I've watched in a long time. I'm writing about the second episode (15 Million Merits), and it is impossible to write about without spoiling. So this piece assumes you've seen it. You can find it on Netflix or in its entirety on YouTube:
Fifteen Million Merits is a sweet, innocent story of two young people trying to find something real and substantial in a world reduced to simulacrum. And it keeps that light, almost cartoonish tone until the moment Lady Cybil (er. Abi) sings her earnest, movingly imperfect ballad on the talent show…and is swiftly offered a lucrative place in the burgeoning porn industry.
The powers enslave Abi, distilling and commodifying her beauty into something salable and sad and thin. The episode could have ended there. It would have fit the tone of the series, and the theme.
But no. The narrative counters with a montage, as the protagonist sets out on a rescue mission of sorts. Bing, is motivated, we suppose, either by love or by justice or by some other noble sentiment we do not bother to define precisely, but cheer. This redemption narrative sets up the actual, more devastating reveal.
While we can easily imagine the commodification of physical beauty, we did not suspect justice or love might be quite so vulnerable.
But the three judges are very good at their jobs. They immediately see what we could not.
Outrage is a commodity. Anger creates celebrity. The story argues that the moral distinction between the pornographer and the prophet is fuzzy, both are profitable diversions, stimulating our nervous systems to provide ‘bait’ for our indentured labors.
Just like beauty, which starts out pure and real, then distilled and monetized by a ‘service industry’ for its neural signals, the stirrings of justice can be redirected to create desired brain states. The denunciation of diversion becomes diversion.
Outrage is so often about us. It is about our desire to feel justified, righteous, wise, to transcend the rabble to be more than the mindless masses, to assuage the guilt of the violence we are part of but powerless to subvert. Outrage is a desired (and addictive) brain state. It is an arousal, an appetite. And like other forms of arousal, an industry springs up to meet the demand…and…cha ching.
That’s how we get Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, John Oliver, Sean Hannity, Rachel Madow, Glen Beck, et al. and yes, even Jon Stewart, when most of us find their worlds cartoonish and barren and flat, without the topography of nuance or the ecological heterogeneity of generosity for the other.
More importantly, outrage is easy. It tears down the makings of others. Breaking is easy. Making is hard. Crafting beauty or value that survives the onslaught of outrage, that persists beyond distillation of appetites, that rings true (because it is) or makes sense of our swift brief lives or tangibly serves the human experience (of particular humans) is the mandate.
In my work and art and preaching, I long to be more maker than breaker. I’d like to be good enough at these things to eschew the nervous system subsidy of commodified outrage, offering an alternative that ‘rings true’ that is constructed more of hope and joy and generosity than self justifying anger.
This post was written to the Dawes Pandora Station.
Footnote on the final scene
Here's a spoiling summary: "A British princess is taken hostage and the only demand for her safe return is for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig on live television. Public sentiment drives him to do it. A year later, it seems he's a hero, but his marriage is destroyed." There, you are up to date. You can start with episode 2. Incidentally, this was very clever and artfully made, it was just felt like it was intentionally trying to ‘cross lines’ – shocking for shock's effect that underestimated me as a viewer. The other three we have watched have been brutal and devastating, but have not made that mistake.
Unrelated, to the essay: The final scene shows him looking out a big window to a rain forest vista. The popular position on the internet seems to be, ‘the outside isn’t real, it’s just an upgrade on the simulacrum.’ I have an unlikely alternate hypothesis. I think ordering society into an economy of energy production and consumption of electrons, made society sustainable. This little dystopia was the way we ‘saved the planet.’ It might have been a televised illusion, but what if an isolated world of self generated entertainment and sustenance is the only way the rest of the world heals. We inflict violence on each other in our own little ecosystem, to restore the rest of it. This would add another level of moral complexity to the story, sacrificing humanity (so to speak) to save the rest of the biosphere.
And then there’s the penguin statue, which is a metaphor for the conversion both Abi and Bing experienced. Bing 'upgrades,' his penguin totem converting something ephemeral but real into something sustaining, reproducible, and false. Grasping at the ephemeral, and destroying it in the attempt to generalize it, and sustain it.
‘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.
“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.