A Black Mirror to Technology04/01/2012
Spoiler Alert: Black Mirror is a new series created by Charlie Brooker, described as “tap[ping] into our contemporary unease about the modern world”. The trilogy of hour long episodes are perceptive, dark, frightening; even touching at times. Despite the series having the genre of black comedy ascribed to it, I very rarely laughed.
There is a potentially endless amount I could say about the series as a whole, but it was the second episode “15 million merits” that really caught my attention. Even within that episode I’ve been spoilt for choice on what themes I should delve further into, so I’ll actually be producing a couple of posts on the subject. The first, the one you’re reading, will look at Brooker’s depiction of the close relationship between technology and consumerism in the distopian world he (along with his co-writer Konnie Huq) creates.
The episode envisions a seemingly distant future where the plebeian members of society spend their days creating electricity through the kinetic energy of riding exercise bikes. There are no windows, no plants and there is very little “real” food; but monitors, speakers and other electronic devices are in abundance. The community is linked together very much like a social network – you can communicate with your neighbours through the network, presenting as a “Dopple” (a 3D avatar) which will even attend shows on your behalf. Beyond necessities such as food and toothpaste, all consumerism in the episode appears to consist solely of digital items; in the form of games, apps entertainment and accessories for your Dopple.
One of the most disquieting elements of this dystopia is that all of the technology conceptualised here already exists; in many cases it is widely available in some form. The game-like stimulus to exercise and earn points borrows strongly from the Wii Fit, and emulates the startup Fitocracy. All electronic interfaces in the show use motion based controls very much like Kinect for the XBox 360. Purchases of digital curios already happen frequently on Facebook and inside MMORPG such as World of Warcraft – not to mention the wholly electronic apps, ebooks and music paid for every second on the web. We put on and interact with incorporeal live concerts through streaming audio, video and games like Second Life. Although this world is ostensibly far removed from our own, as Brooker notes; “[this is] the way we might be living in 10 minutes time if we’re clumsy”.
The way advertising integrates with this technological world manages to be both insipid and overpowering. Ads follow you wherever you go; swamping the walls of your bedroom, appearing in the middle of your workout, even popping up in the bathroom mirror. They are targeted to your interests and past purchases, with no context of public or private spaces (the porn channel ‘Wraith Babes’ advertise to the central character in public, welcoming him with “hey regular user!”). Most importantly, they have no concept of personal privacy.
A highly noxious ‘feature’ of these adverts is that they are mandatory – should you wish to skip them, you must pay to do so. Even closing your eyes during the adverts will cause them to pause, setting off loud alarms until you resume viewing.
We’ve all experienced ad supported products, we interact with them every day. Facebook. Twitter. Youtube. Any Google product you have ever used. We get our Ryan Air flights cheaper because of the print ads on the overhead lockers. Even your journey to work through London Underground will reveal a new poster at every turn.
In “15 Million Merits” you are automatically ‘opted in’; what you pay for is your own privacy. This isn’t actually far off our own reality; almost all free services on the web make their income through your time, and your data. To escape this kind of intrusion, you must pay for more private accounts.
Ironically, the inhabitants of the Black Mirror world spend all day powering the monitors and speakers that seem to have little purpose other than to convince them to spend the credits they’ve earned producing that energy. Perhaps this is the hidden comedy of ’15 Million Merits’; where we all perpetually cycle towards an ever moving target of capitalist achievement.This entry was posted in Technology, TV. Bookmark the permalink.