Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Second Black Mirror Rant

I feel like I'm missing something.  Like I'm not part of this group, this group that sees a valid point in 15 Million Merits, the second episode of Black Mirror.  Maybe I'm just part of the ignorant masses.  Or, maybe not, since I make a point of avoiding X-Factor and similar programs.  Perhaps that earns me some street cred.

AlarumAlarumAlarum Spoiler Warning for 15 Million Merits.  Spoilers be here.  If you don't want to be spoiled, scroll up and click the linky or the little x.  AlarumAlarumAlarum.

15 Million Merits describes a more claustrophobic version of the world portrayed in Ben Elton's Blind Faith. The main character, Bing,lives in a tiny room, surrounded by screens.  Every time he looks at them, they show him something.  Adverts pop up periodically, and he must either sit through them, or pay to skip them.  If he averts his eyes, the image moves with him.  If he covers his eyes or otherwise blocks his vision, the screen pauses the advert and blasts an alarm at him until he looks at it.

The currency in this world is merits, which is earned by time spent cycling on static bicycles.  It is implied that the cycling creates the electricity used in this world.  When someone becomes too fat to cycle, they are downgraded to cleaning staff.

Most people spend their money on the little avatars which represent themselves onscreen, buying them accessories.  15,000,000 Merits can buy you a ticket to appear on Hot Shots, an X-Factor rip-off.  So this episode is a mash-up of Blind Faith and Chart Throb, then.

Let me say, right now, that I am not a fan of X-Factor and similar programs.  They use a number of techniques (which Brooker himself partially illustrates in this excellent video) in order to tell a story, normally one which has been drafted out far earlier than the average viewer might expect.  Chart Throb, which is one of my favourite books (as you can see in my shiny GoodReads sidebar!) describes the process of these kinds of "reality" tv talent shows in more depth.  There's a lot to be said, from the way that people are encouraged to describe themselves in certain ways, which are used to hang them with later, to the specific way that the vote is controlled by editing characters from week to week.  The program is cruel, which is why I refuse to watch it.

None of this was really dealt with in 15 Million Merits, which I found disappointing.  There is a brief moment where a character is ordered to make a specific sound-bite, but this is done with so little subtlety that you don't really make the connection that this is what happens in reality, that people are badgered, flattered, and cajoled into saying specific sentences for reality TV sound-bites. 

Bing, the aforementioned main character of the show hears a girl singing in the toilets.  He thinks her voice is beautiful.  Actually, it's mediocre, which may be a subtlety made point; X-Factor has never, ever, been about talent, and it's probable that Bing can only tell the difference between 'awful' and 'passable', if that show is all he's ever known.  It's also likely that her looks affected his opinion, as they do for later characters.

So, Bing buys this girl, Abi, a ticket to appear on the show (he inherited the merits from his brother, but couldn't find "anything real" to spend them on).  When she gets on stage, she is told, bluntly, that her voice is okay, but no one wants singers; they want her to appear in pornography, as one of Wraith's Girls, Wraith being one of the judges.

There's a bit of theme-naming with the judges, incidentally.  Wraith, Charity, and Hope.  Wraith is essentially a modern Hugh Hefner, without the latters boyish charm, and "good-clean-fun" ideals.  He and the other judges discuss Abi's body in explicit detail, and treat her as a piece of meat.  She is told not to worry about the shame - she'll be drugged out of her mind.  Already drugged before going on stage, Abi agrees.  Later, Bing is forced to watch an advert of her new program, as he no longer has the merits to skip it.

This drives him to earn another 15 million merits, appear on the show himself, and use a piece of glass to threaten to kill himself on stage if they don't let him rant.  Since he has inherited the idiot ball from last week's show, he hasn't actually planned what to say, and rants almost incoherently about the total lack of reality.  He does make a good point, within the norms of this world.

The judges then offer him a biweekly half hour slot in which to rant.  Bing accepts, and spends the rest of his life in a slightly bigger screen cage, as another part of the media landscape.

The problem I have with this episode is that it's simply too far removed from reality.  In Blind Faith, which portrayed a similar, through less technologically advanced, society, Ben Elton specifically explained events which had formed this society.  He'd taken our world, tweaked it satirically just a little, then let it run, creating the world in which his story takes place.  It seemed plausible.  It seemed like it was populated with people who could exist.

This doesn't.  The difference is that the writers, Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq, have given it too much.  It's too extreme.  Too out there.  So, it loses value as any kind of morality tale because it simply doesn't apply.

This world is nowhere near as homogeneous as their world.  The way our technology is going is to cut us off from each other, though we still have time to change it.  More and more sites are using filters to show us the things we're already interested in, locking us in a prison of our own opinions.  Again, this is not extreme at present, and plenty of sites don't do this - compare facebook and twitter, for instance.  Facebook edits your newsfeed to things it thinks you want to see, based on previous actions (including clicking a 'like' button - how about getting an 'important' button on there as well, as Eli Pariser suggests in The Filter Bubble?).

In contrast to this, everything we see in Bing's world is samey.  Not just for him - for everyone around him.  There are clearly disagreements and different personality types, but everyone is shown and accepts the same content, with minimal personalisation, considering the level of technology shown.

My point is, I guess, that we are not all the same.  We're not a mass of ignorant X-Factor lovers who blindly follow the media gods, and nor do we all agree that a tribe of those people will someday take over and put us in screen cages.  This program isn't making a real point - it's making an exaggeration of a point with occasional real bits put in.  The objectification  of women, for instance, was dealt with well, and subtly enough to make people really think, and, hopefully connect with their own lives.  The idea that greater technology will lock us all indoors forever isn't real.  It's too removed.  It's too fictitious to have the impact that I think Brooker and Huq were going for.

That said, there is a layer of meta-reality going on.  Konnie Huq presented Xtra Factor, and this show was produced by a subsidiary of Endemol, the producers of Big Brother.

Just to add; if anyone feels like asking 'why do you watch it if you hate it so much?' please notice that I have not expressed hatred.  Even if I had, my blog, my time, my decision.

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