Black Mirror is a UK original TV series which accentuates a dramatization of technology and how it can diminish the purity of life. As an individual, we control our own appearance, what we eat, what we spend our money on, etc.
However, these decisions may be represented as distractions to avoid attention to larger problems. Through the rapidly increasing digital age, a sense of realness has been evaporating, as this virtual world emphasizes. Black Mirror Episode two, “Fifteen Million Merits”, capitalizes an evolution of a digital atmosphere which juxtaposes authenticity, while further mocking consumerism and the ranking of individuals based on wealth.
A high-tech world is represented in this episode where you live in a small cube and run on an exercising bike in order to produce merits which are equivalent to money. These merits can be used to purchase toothpaste, food, skip advertisements which pop up on your digital screen in your cube, etc. The episode focuses primarily on one individual named Bing, who illustrates a routine and robotic lifestyle. However, a romantic spark is insinuated as a newcomer arrives named Abi Khan. His interest in her is underlined as he listens to her sing and he suggests that she should try out for Hot Shots, which is ultimately like X Factor. Fifteen million merits, inherited from his brother, were gifted to Abi by Bing, in order to purchase a ticket for the talent show. As Abi sings her heart out, the judges take a drastic turn and offer Abi a position in an erotic channel because singing is viewed as overrated and they want something different. This signifies how sexuality is being normalized on television and how innocence can be easily devoured. Before her performance, Abi drank a compliance drink which enforced her to submit into agreeing for the degrading position.
Thus, Bing blames himself for urging Abi to achieve a life greater than his own and drowns in a black hole of despair. When an advertisement in his cube shows up for the erotic channel Abi was now a part of, he could not skip it because he did not have enough merits left. This triggers a violent outrage as he thrashes against the digital screen which ends up shattering. As he picks up a shard of glass, he contemplates committing suicide. Bing then snaps out of his daze and comes up with an idea to try out for the talent show and runs on his bike to achieve another fifteen million merits in order to purchase a ticket on Hot Shots for himself. His performance on the show starts out as a dancing routine but then he whips out the shard of glass from before and threatens to kill himself on stage if the judges did not let him speak. As the judges complied with his request, Bing goes on a rant about how unfair the system is and how there is no more sense of realness. He lashes out at the judges for knowing how corrupt the system is but they help feed it by taking people who try out for the talent show and use them as pawns. After his rant, one of the judges offers Bing a stream on his channel where Bing could rant about the system all he wants. Bing agrees and is given a larger space to live in which has windows to where he can look outside, far better than his closed off cube.
Through a semiotics lens, which analyzes symbols for a deeper meaning, it is established that the system controls a certain class of people. Lack of control from this class of people is due to contentment with distractions. These distractions include advertisements which symbolize how we are forced to digest materialistic matters. Furthermore, people are separated in class depending on how much wealth they have or if they are a celebrity. The lower class consists of obese individuals who do not have the strength to run on bikes to gain merits; therefore, they are forced to acquire jobs as a janitor and are constantly humiliated and viewed as less of a being.
The fact that they are viewed as second-class citizens because of their weight signifies the concept of body shaming and heightens the expectations of beauty standards in society. Another perception of expectations in society is given in an example when an individual asks another person if he should change the hair on his avatar, as she declines to state that it was “a bit much”, it is emphasized how we are constantly relying too much on what other people think of us. Moreover, consumerism is taunted as a phase that never progresses and results in a never ending cycle.
Additionally, becoming a celebrity is what is advertised constantly to the dystopian society. The advertisements entice one to become a celebrity so they never have to ride a bike again, paralleling with the idea that celebrities do not have to do any hard work in order to achieve an immense amount of wealth. Consequently heightening the prospect that many people in this digital age are thriving to achieve a higher status for the wealth, status, and fame.
The lighting in the show is mainly a low monotone atmosphere which heavily diverges from the brightness and colorful vibe from the digital screens in the cubes and in front of the bikes. Though the vividness from brightness is thought to be cheery, it is instead viewed as an intensity which is ultimately overpowering. The very fact that everyone lives in a small cube illuminates a suffocating feeling as an urge to go outside and breathe fresh air is craved. There is a lack of fresh produce as the only food everyone eats is emitted out of a vending machine with a digital screen. Hence, the justification for a lack of realness in the community due to distractions with technological advances.
Visually in the show, the artificiality of relying on technology is taken to an extreme to demonstrate how genuine matters are becoming rare. The only real human connection Bing had was his romantic spark with Abi, which was taken away from him. In the episode, the warm and hearty interactions between Bing and Abi contrasts with the cold and emotionless lifestyle emphasized in this world. As Bing makes a stand against the system with his abrupt rant on everything that was wrong with this way of living, it is demonstrated how taking a stand against what is unjust is possible.
As a viewer, we are entranced by his unfiltered anger which juxtaposes against his usual quiet persona. Accordingly, one can take control of a matter if enough determination is conjured. However, as Bing accepts a slot on the judge’s channel, he has implemented himself under someone else’s control. Thus, a lack of control is suggested; however, it is pictured that Bing is content with his decision as deep down he knows how corrupt the system is and knowledge of this matter is enough for him. Power plays its role in this process as well with the idea that Bing’s lack of power resulted in his inability to overturn an entire system.
The visual rhetoric behind the episode contributes to a critique of control and power. Due to consumerism, we are often distracted from the realness of problems and maintaining genuine relationships. Running on the bikes symbolizes how it is powering a lot of merits and wealth, but lacks actual substance like feelings and emotions. Furthermore, becoming extremely wealthy does not succeed to happiness, as it is stressed that human relations do. In conclusion, a semiotics lens provides a magnification for a deeper understanding of universal matters, such as the advancement of technology and how it affects society.