Dang, this episode made me uncomfortable.
At the beginning I thought it was really cool, your own huge screen in your bedroom and a clean bathroom – what more could you need? Well, I shook that impression off quite quickly, when I suddenly felt overcome by feelings of extreme loneliness. This guy, Bing, didn’t look happy doing what he was doing. He seemed downright miserable. It was then that I had to remind myself that this was a dystopic vision of the future.
Fifteen Million Merits is set in the (not too?) distant future, in which the “everyday Joe” is forced into a life of slavery by riding exercise bikes day in day out in order to power the world’s energy.
“Merits” and their own virtual world distracts the bikers from their misery. Each person has their own avatar which they use to connect to one another virtually. By riding the bikes they earn Merits which enables them to make purchases for their avatar (e.g. new clothing and/or accessories), skip ads they are otherwise forced to watch or to buy a ticket to the talent show, Hot Shot, the means to escape your mundane life on the peddles.
I was quickly whisked back to high school literature classes in which we studied 1984 by George Orwell. I think Brooker’s Fifteen Million Merits hit home a little harder since it felt like a much nearer future… something I could relate to a lot more, while Orwell’s tale feels further away and a bit (for lack of a better word) unrealistic.
The episode has a lot to say about a number of societal issues, such as reality television shows, virtual identity and our addiction to digital media.
Watching the Hot Shot scenes absolutely terrified me, because it already seemed like the present. It was so lifeless and so meaningless, the judges were just spewing (pretty much) the same crap we’re used to hearing on reality talent shows today. When one judge said something, the audience immediately followed suit and started screaming manically in support, regardless of what was being suggested. It reminded me of the tweens of today who follow boy bands and scream their lungs out, fervently defending them from public scrutiny. The similarities were downright frightening.
Virtual identity was another striking theme as these people cared so much more about their virtual selves than their physical selves. Their physical selves were these repetitive drones, doomed to a life of slavery while their virtual selves got to enjoy the distractions of television. It terrified me how some characters were SO immersed in their digital “realities”, how important that new virtual hat was, or how hard they would have to work to be able to afford some other virtual upgrade that did nothing to improve their physical existence. Uniqueness is constructed the appearance of the avatar. What’s more daunting is that this is eerily close to our reality today.
How often have we heard of the fear of technology taking over our lives? I, for one, just ignored my mother telling me something while typing this at my laptop. Many of us are so consumed with achieving the perfect “Insta” shots, so many likes on Facebook and just to be noticed online. It’s a factor of our lives that has left a rather profound impression on our brains, the similarities to this episode had me dumbfounded. Is this the kind of world we’re really headed towards? Are the struggles of the real world so painful that we need to use our virtual identities as a distraction to constantly rely upon? The only “real” thing Bing ever claimed to felt was his short-lived attraction to Abi, until she was whisked away by Hot Shot. This was accentuated through the minimal dialogue, the first time we hear Bing speak is when he interacts with Abi for the first time.
There is; in my book, always a light at the end of the tunnel at least. What made me feel that little less miserable in this episode was the fact that Bing was still allowed to speak out about his feelings, he couldn’t suppress his emotions and he wouldn’t let these judges or their sheepish audience silence him. He had to have his voice heard, and he ended up living his life doing just that. However, I suppose it was to very little effect, as the bikers would only watch him for a distraction, not so much a re-education.
By the end of Fifteen Million Merits, I felt a huge sense of despair. Not only for our future, but for the present, too. There’s so much wrong with the world and people harnessing the power of technology for all the wrong reasons– it’s a thought I struggle to shake off. The closing scene with Bing looking out to a virtual depiction of a “view” was so depressing, it made me feel as though there is no hope. This is where society is headed, I concluded in my head, a time will come when there is no distinction between the “real” world and the virtual world, because our real lives will be redundant.
Once the episode was over and I snapped myself back into present-day reality, I realised that no matter what the innovative invention, whether it be technological or whatever, people will use it for bad as well as good. While it is very possible that much of Fifteen Million Merits is an exaggeration of the present, I’d like to think that there are enough of us “goodies” using technology for the right reasons. I don’t want to think of all of us as mindless sheep.
I suppose the warning here is to go out and live in the real world as often as you are living online… after all, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life on the peddles.