Guest Post by FJ Contreras: What Can We Steal From “Fifteen Million Credits,” Episode 2 of Black Mirror?

Friends, FJ Contreras is an interesting gentleman.  Please check out Mexican Driving, his cultural criticism/writing craft blog.  You will also find some of his work at Hades United.  Mr. Contreras is a writer and scholar and you would do well to follow him at @mexicandriving.

Today, Mr. Contreras gives us a look at what we can learn from “Fifteen Million Credits,” a beautiful episode of Black Mirror, a BBC anthology science fiction show.  If you have not yet checked it out on Netflix, I advise you to do so soon.

Distance.

When truth is delivered unadorned, not only can it be deemed an attack, but it also makes an enemy of the messenger. The shades of the dismissal might vary in tone, but in the best of cases, the audience will judge it in bad taste, as in, Who in the hell does he think he is? It’s understandable. People don’t like to carve time out of their busy schedules to get punched in the ego. For this reason, science fiction allows writers to create a space between the criticism they want to exercise and the audience. See, by visiting a world far, far away, audiences get to feel like they’re evaluating the standards of a new reality, whereas in fact they’re judging their own.

But the distance created is a mere façade, because in no story, regardless of how weird, the elements in play belong to another world. That’s impossible. Wally the robot is a story about love, isolation and the dangers of consumerism–human love, isolation, and consumerism, that is. Even if we could think like a dolphin, a cat, or an alien, we only care about what’s human. In Star Wars, for example, when Darth Vader goes to war, notice how the militarized drag of the Empire marches down against the multicultural and colorful rebellion. The British Empire vs. America, perhaps? The rigid establishment from post-WWII America vs. the counterculture phenomenon of the 60s and the 70s? In one of the funniest bits of the opening bar scene from Episode IV, all sorts of aliens listen to jazz and fool around as they get drunk. It’s funny because they look ridiculous, but so do people when inebriated. If we were to find our escapades onscreen as everybody laughs, the humiliation would override our ability to reflect upon our vices.

And jazz, really? Jazz is not even in the Top 10 musical styles that will make it to 2050, much less transcend into a dystopian era.

The world of “Fifteen Million Merits,” on the surface, seems to be another planet, another time. Here, people never leave the building they inhabit. They sleep in cubbyholes, and every wall, even the ceiling, is a TV screen. The programming is controlled by a faceless entity, and it offers a number of lowbrow shows, which range from singing competitions, to fat people being humiliated, to pornography. Everyday activities are constantly interrupted by the same advertisements, which are unavoidable, because the act of shutting one’s eyes forces the screens to freeze, an alarm to blare, and the threats of a stiff penalty to flash. Everyone must cycle on stationary bikes that power the building. The more they cycle, the more merits they earn. This world is somber and monotonous, so there’s not much to spend those merits on, except for an apple or a sugary treat, which ironically, is transformed into the energy used to cycle. However, every person has an avatar which grants them a second life. These avatars live online and get to attend the singing competitions, where they cheer and vote. The avatars can also be clothed and accessorized for a price, of course, and that’s where those merits go. There’s another way out, and that is to spend 15,000,000 merits for a chance to sing/dance on TV. If picked, the next step is to face a panel of three self-involved judges, and then to sing/dance. Only the best one, of course, can become a star. The good ones are offered the choice between going back to the bike, or a reduced role in one of the other second-tier shows, or if pretty enough, in pornography.

How is this distance turned into a pungent social critique?

  • The references to American Idol and other reality shows are evident. They reveal our desire a) to stand out, b) to be admired by a shitload of people, c) to receive better privileges than the rest, and d) to flaunt those privileges. Or worse, e) to cheer for those egotistical idiots.
  • In our world, education is the way for the lower and middle classes to climb out of the bike, but in this episode there’s no middle ground. You’re either a star or a follower. This is not a crazy notion, as the middle class in some of the few first-world countries is thinning out. Politically speaking, the center is disappearing as well.
  • Clearly, the personalities we have created through social media demand most of our time. And have you noticed how much time people spend on their phones, even when surrounded by their closest friends? In order to be cool, these versions of ourselves, these avatars, need to be groomed carefully and often.
  • There’s a risk that we’ll be enslaved if we keep giving so much of our liberties and personal information to this monstrous corporations. As they continue to absorb each other, Leviathan will defeat the rest and will become more powerful than governments themselves. With no competition, the remaining monster will have no need to serve its citizens with variety and authenticity. So imagine what it’ll be like to be forced to watch the same four commercials all day and all night. It would be like watching Hulu–wait a minute…
  • Now imagine life is either Coke, Diet Coke, or Cherry Coke. That means we’d be working for that brand. Also, we’d be returning them their money, as their products are the only ones available. You don’t want Coke because it slowly dissolves the lining in your stomach? Drink Dasani water, made by Coke. You don’t like it because it’s brown, wormy, and gives you diarrhea? Sorry. That’s all there is, so drink your fucking Coke.
  • The warnings are not hard to read: large corporations today, as the grow, raise their prices, decrease customer support, push product through ubiquitous marketing campaigns, and create a dog-eat-dog environment for their employees. The more they expand over the globe, the more they control the public’s choices. If I say sports, the first thing that comes to mind is ESPN. As much as I don’t like ESPN, I can’t get the brand out of my head. Where else can I go if the quality and coverage of the competition’s product pales in comparison?
  • I write what I find interesting and important, not what I think people will like. But what if I were coerced to reverse my strategy? What if James Joyce, instead of writing Ulysses, had no other option but to produce Fifty Shades Of Grey? What if the doctor begins to prescribe the medication patients want and not the one they need? What if artists paint what most people want to see, and musicians sing what the majority want to hear? In other words, what if we live as trend-setters and trend-followers and not as pioneers and innovators? Would we find that world plentiful? The irony is that if we were to live in the latter, we wouldn’t have the ability to tell the difference. Thus, it is thanks to science fiction and the distance it creates between its reality and ours that we can evaluate how close we are to the despotic terrors of “Fifteen Million Merits.”

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