Before we get into Fifteen Million Merits, let’s first flashback to the year the episode was released. 2011.
In 2011, eCommerce entered its adolescents with $194.3 billion in worldwide sales, compared to $4.9 trillion in 2021. Amazon only had 56,200 full-time employees globally compared to the 1,608,000 as of 2022.
Metaverse and cryptocurrency, however, were way in their infancy. At the start of 2011, BitCoin was on par with the US dollar for the first time. Ten years later, at its highest point, one BitCoin was worth $64,400 USD.
The metaverse was still science fiction, as the main reference to the concept in 2011 was the novel Ready Player One.
American Idol was entering its 10th season, and the hit singing competition show was fading out of relevance and facing stiffer competition as The Voice was released that year.
In 2011, YouTube allowed everyone the ability to monetize their videos with ads and had no worries about the impending ad-pocalypse.
The exercise equipment company, Peloton didn’t exist yet. And the latest Internet trends were planking and first-world problem memes.
Now that we’re refreshed on the state of the world in 2011, we can get into Black Mirror episode two of season one: Fifteen Million Merits.
Did the episode age well? Are the themes still relevant? Did any predictions in the show come true? If not, is it still plausible? Let’s find out.
The Absurdity of Making Money
Making money and powering the society that we live in is an endless cycle. Fifteen Million Merits begins with the workers engaged in this absurd way of life. Surrounded by screens, whether he’s working, relaxing, or seeking pleasure, the protagonist, Bing questions his purpose. Wealthy because of an inheritance from his late brother, he recognizes all the traps in his fake reality.
Games, pornography, and unhealthy food, these vices still lure us now. App developers, game makers, content creators, and marketers have learned to abuse our addiction to the screens. Whenever we make an online purchase, we must resist being upsold by an algorithm that understands what we want. Every day we pay for our subscriptions to skip ads, putting a price on our impatience.
What’s the point of staying in shape, practicing art, and earning money when nothing is real? Money means freedom, but what do you buy to get this freedom?
Bing didn’t care about his merits until he met Abi. He convinces her to enter the Hot Shot competition and buys the expensive ticket for her to enter. He finally feels he has invested in something worthwhile. And even though he subsequently loses her to the corrupt world of adult entertainment, he saves up to have his own time with the judges. He now has something to say.
Today we are hustling, making money, and growing followers to impress some invisible judges, but what’s the end goal? Who are we doing this for? Are we helping people? Are we sharing an important message?
When Bing returns to the stage and confronts the judges. He blames them for taking the only real thing he had. Everything else was fake fodder. This is a reminder today, as we spend money dressing up avatars on the Internet to take a moment and question why people want us to do this. Who is benefiting from this? And is there a reason for this distraction?
The powerful will try to relate with us; they will use our needs, desires, fears, and even disobedience against us. There is always a carrot dangling in front of our faces, whether it’s money, followers, or approval, but the question remains: Where is this carrot guiding us?
A New Version of Reality
Many have already taken a step into the virtual world by creating avatars on social media, in the metaverse, or on other digital platforms.
When we create an avatar, we brand ourselves. We’re no longer a number on the screen. We get to be goofy characters or have funny names. While we can choose how we appear, we still can’t control how the world perceives us.
Perhaps the approach is not to be so different. We should still look like ourselves and hold onto what we know is real. If we are riding a bike, we shouldn’t be so detached; we should make the experience feel as authentic as possible.
Digital exercises can perhaps keep us tethered to reality while acting like a bridge into the virtual world. We’ve seen major innovations in this industry over the past decade, from the early days of Wii Sports to pricy home workout equipment today, such as a Tonal fitness mirror or Peloton bike.
While exercising will always require our bodies, many activities will not, and those are the ones that will bring us deeper into virtual reality. Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert in 2020 drew over 12 million gamers. It’s not unusual for people now to go to live events exclusively in the digital world.
Fully immersive virtual reality is becoming a norm. To connect the physical world with the virtual one, we will likely start with self-contained rooms where people can interact with screens around them, similar to the characters’ rooms. Arcade-style VR games are popping up all over big cities. Other entertainment and community venues, from art galleries to restaurants, are adding immersive experiences to their offerings. Take, for example, the Silicon Valley restaurant, iChina, and its futuristic dining experience.
We fear the virtual world would make us less human, but, as humans, we often try to escape our dreary reality.
When Bing is convincing Abi to audition for Hot Shot, she speaks of how cheesy reality can be and how wanting more is cheesy. Ignorance is bliss, and those in power want to keep us happy and distracted. We can’t help feeling a little jealous of the guy enjoying all the idiotic shows while riding his bike beside Bing. He successfully escaped reality and found contentment. In a way, it must be nice to live without that existential dread.
Today we are more conflicted than ever. We question the reality of the news, money, and even people thanks to deepfakes. How is all this dulling our senses? At this time, it’s the virtual world that seems cheesy. Spending too much time there is not typical. But since Facebook changed its name to Meta, a crazy amount of money has been dumped into metaverse technology. And while the technology is still finding its footing, we wonder which company will come out in front? When will remote workers be forced to adopt this tool? If that happens, will we be able to go back, or will we find ourselves too reliant on the virtual world, questioning the value of the physical one? What will become of us when our avatars are the ones having all the experiences?
The Lure of Fame
In a world where competition is stiff, we tell ourselves a story: we can do it. We are special. We are dedicated. Others have done it in the past, so why not us? Others have saved up, starved, and taken a chance on themselves, and we can do it too. But there’s a concept called survivorship bias, where we only hear success stories. How many have failed and never got a chance to warn others before their voices were drowned out?
Like art, podcasting, publishing, athletics, and many other pursuits, the world of Fifteen Million Merits is ultra-competitive. Gatekeepers control everything on the screens, giving them full command of the culture.
When a trend hits its saturation point, the gatekeepers drive up another. After all, there isn’t room for everyone to be a star in the same genre. We see much the same today in the TikTok generation, where everyone feels they can be famous. The reality is that there is only so much room for dancers and singers. If you’re not on the top tier, you’ll need to find a niche or a gimmick.
In Abi’s naive and vulnerable state, drugged with compliance and feeling the rush of attention, she gets caught up, manipulated, and then agrees to do things she didn’t intend. No one is immune to those pressures and temptations, especially not after all they’ve fought, risked, and spent getting to that spot.
The encouragement of the world can come from a sinister place. Consider all the Internet influencers who started as gamers, models, actors, or fitness coaches, who then opened an OnlyFans account to leverage a fanbase willing to pay for more. No shame, but know that some choices cannot be reversed and shouldn’t be made with hasty thinking.
The number 15 in the title is so appropriate. The saying is that, in life, everyone will get 15 minutes of fame. How we capitalize on those 15 minutes will define us. In an age where attention is gold, and everyone is rushing to go viral and become famous in an instant, we all have the opportunity to grow a fanbase and leverage our uniqueness into bigger careers. That is if we don’t run out of time, have others copy us, fail to innovate, and fade into obscurity first.
In the final act, Bing gives a dark and hilarious performance, turning his suicidal persona into a motivational speaker. Holding himself hostage allowed him to stand out and his unconventional approach made it marketable. He gets attention. He gets to escape his current reality and enter a new one. But is it all worth it, or is it the continuation of an endless cycle?
Fifteen Million Merits’s satirical depiction of how we are trying to escape our current reality and the Sisyphean grind of capitalism is extremely relevant today. More and more jobs are starting to feel meaningless. The rise of quit quitting in 2022, shows us that our relationship with success and money has changed significantly.
The idea that one person can stand out among millions is as absurd as humans pedaling to distract themselves from the bars of their cages. However, it also speaks to the power of the collective. While one person biking can barely power a lightbulb, a group biking will be able to power a community. Whether you’re unique or not, it doesn’t really matter. The reality is that we have to work together.
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