“Who do you think is powering that spotlight?”: Social mobility and resistance in Black Mirror‘s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’

By Ivy Roberts.

You live in a technological fishbowl. Your life is ruled by television screens. The walls of your room are painted in technicolor pixels. During the day, you pedal on your stationary bike while watching screens. At night, the screens watch over you as you sleep, simulating the sun setting and then rising on a new day to see you return to the bike, going nowhere. 

If this doesn’t sound like the most asphyxiating future to you, then you have become too accustomed to the daily grind. Such a live-work environment is depicted in the second episode of the first season of the sci-fi television series, Black Mirror: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (2011). In this dystopian future, the class structure of society is strictly hierarchical. The three classes even wear clothing denoting their social rank. Social mobility is possible, but only via a strictly monitored ‘merit-based’ system. Everyone dreams of becoming famous. So, what’s at stake here? Nothing less than our individual autonomy. 

In this essay, I will expand upon the world depicted in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. By comparing it to earlier dystopias, I venture to understand what makes ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ unique to the 21st century economy. How does the episode illuminate the gig economy and the gamification of work, as it was emerging in the early 2010s?  ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ provides us with a richly layered portrait of work-life in the 21st century digital economy. Its themes of technology, labor, dissent, simulation, surveillance, and commodification stand out against a dystopian backdrop. Furthermore, historical examples of labor in film-literature can shed light on the work-life environment depicted in the episode. In a cross-media analysis with Metropolis (1927) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), I ask how ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (2011) stands out as a uniquely 21st century speculative SF that forecasts the nature of work, class, and resistance in the near future. 

Bing sits in his room, contemplating his doppel
Bing at home

Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) lives an ascetic existence. Bing’s not interested in buying stuff: “It’s confetti,” he says. He and his peers aren’t allowed to possess actual objects anyway, but Bing is also uninterested in the avatar customisations that the others crave. By day, he pedals on a stationary bike at the gym, earning ‘merits,’ something resembling points or credits in a gaming system. By night, in his room, Bing is bombarded with television commercials and reality TV. It costs him merits to skip a commercial, or to mute the sound. Occasionally he plays a First Person Shooter, or watches porn. This, it would seem, is his daily grind. He is one of the middle class of citizens in this futuristic dystopia, the ones who don grey sweats and eke out a living on the bikes.

Below Bing’s class are the “Lemons,” so-called for their yellow uniforms, who do the cleaning work. They are derided, especially by Bing’s cycling buddy Dustin, who yells at and mocks them at every opportunity. They are associated with laziness. The upper class consists of the wealthy, the famous, and the talented, who star in the several reality TV shows that air in this terrible future. 

Rows of cyclists on stationary bikes, all staring at screens. In the background, a leaderboard can be glimpsed. Two cleaners in yellow uniforms move down the central aisle
Bing at work / play

Then Bing meets Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay). He first notices her because of her voice. She seems innocent and authentic to him — everything the world he survives in is not. He immediately forms an affection for her. He gifts her fifteen million merits, almost the entire balance of his e-wallet, for the cost of a ticket to appear on the talent show Hot Shots, a version of the UK’s X-Factor. She dreams of escaping the guy and achieving fame and fortune. But the judges decide that her looks outweigh her singing talent; the only offer they give her is to appear on Wraith Babes, a pornography show. Under enormous pressure from the judges and crowd, and under the influence of the milky drug “Cuppliance” that all contestants are forced to sip, Abi hesitantly accepts. Says the judge: “It is that — or the bike!” 

Three judges on a panel, and behind them, a vast audience of virtual doppels
Hot Shots

Bing is devastated. He devotes himself to earning another fifteen million merits to get on the show himself. He turns up early to the stationary bike. He scrounges left-overs. He is even thrifty buying toothpaste. It doesn’t take him much time to do it, and in the meantime he also practices some dance moves. Forced to watch an exploitative scene where Abi performs a sex act, Bing punches the wall screen with such force it shatters. He takes the glass shard onto Hot Shots, holding it to his neck in threat of suicide, and performs a brilliant rant:

Fake fodder is all we can stomach […] All we know is fake fodder and buying shit […] Show us something free and new and beautiful. You couldn’t, because it’d break us […] That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever you dole it out in meager portions and only then it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through 10,000 pre-assigned filters til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights while we ride day in, day out. Going where? Powering what?

Much to Bing’s surprise, the judges love his speech. Judge Hope (Rupert Everett) loves it so much that he gives Bing his own time slot. The coda shows Bing in a luxury apartment, broadcasting his acerbic social commentary twice a week. He holds the shard to his throat for the camera  — his personal brand? Now, at least, he can possess things: glassware, a penguin statue reminiscent of Abi’s origami, decorative flowers. Now he’s got a view of the natural world outside his windows. But whether or not that is also computer generated imagery remains unclear.

Bing holds a large shard of broken glass to his throat
Bing on Hot Shots

In some ways, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is a satire of class hierarchy that could be applied to many different times and places. Everyone could work to overthrow the hierarchy, except they are too divided. The lower and middle classes hate each other. The media which everyone is forced to consume confirms their prejudices. For example, the yellow-garbed workers are cast as the villains in the FPS game that Bing plays. The hierarchy is linked tightly with the live-work situation. Furthermore, individuals are isolated from each other by the promise of social mobility. They are taught to compete. One of the worst places depicted in the whole episode is the Hot Shots green room, where the waiting performers all rehearse their individual acts in a cacophony, rather than talking to each other.

However, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is also very much of its time. It takes a number of new technological and social developments, and explores how these might reinforce class hierarchy. One example is the transformation of finance and payments. In 2011, contactless payments technology was very new. The merits of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ function as a kind of money, and express anxieties about the future of personal finance.

Another technology which informs the episode is Virtual Reality (or Augmented Reality). Although no headsets are worn, screens are everywhere in a way which blends the physical and the virtual. For example, Abi’s and Bing’s avatars (“doppels,” presumably short for “dopplegangers”) can appear in each other’s rooms. 

Abi lies in a cell-like room, whose walls are all screens. Her backdrop appears to be penguins on ice floes. Bing's doppel is shown on the screens, alongside a glowing golden ticket.
Bing’s doppel in Abi’s room, as he gifts her the Hot Shots ticket

In this way, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ explores the replacement of real nature by virtual nature. Although there is little exposition about how society got this way, several facts can be presumed. Tiny elevators take the cyclists from their living cubicles to the gym and back. So do they live in vast, windowless skyscrapers? Bing and Abi also take these elevators to the theater where Hot Shots is filmed. Bing’s luxury apartment is probably just on another floor. It would seem that their entire society survives in one massive structure. In this artificial space, there’s no access to the sky, no encounters with plants and animals, no wide open spaces to move through. The live-work environment that we are presented with appears to be one self-contained media-world where nature is only simulated.

Even the apples that they snack on come from vending machines, dispensed in paper wrappers. “They are probably grown in petri dishes,” says one of the cyclists. From the apple wrappers, Abi folds origami, a rare vestige of creativity and hope in an otherwise bleak existence. They are not allowed to have physical possessions (“detritus”), and Abi hints that her origami creations are taken from her within a day’s time. Such confiscations also imply how powerless they are, with their lives controlled and managed by the hierarchical class structure. 

As well as a kind of VR / AR technology, gesture recognition is widely used. Instead of using controllers to interact with the screens, the workers / players simply wave their hands in the air. This kind of interface has been hyped as feeling immersive and natural, but ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ shows us another side. Because of the gesture interface, nothing stands between Bing and the endless stream of trashy and degrading media. Moreover, there is nothing for him to unplug, break, tinker with or hack. Just as he is sealed off from nature, so he is sealed off from the underlying infrastructure that creates his media universe.

Bing slouches in bed, miming holding a rifle. We can see the barrel of the virtual gun on the screen
Bing playing a First Person Shooter

Data surveillance is another important theme. Bing’s every move is tracked.  If there are cameras to see when Bing averts his eyes from a mandatory viewing of a commercial for Wraith Babes, they aren’t in the screen. His “cubelike” existence traps him among screens, always watched in the absence of obvious cameras (Vacker and Espelie 157). When he tries to cover his eyes, the media system knows and bombards him with a loud warning to resume watching. Another telling example of mass surveillance in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is indicated in Bing’s identity as it appears when he auditions for Hot Shots: “Cycle 6-324.” An easy detail to overlook, it harkens back to such precedents as Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Lucas’ THX1138 (1971). Dystopian societies identify their people as numbers, stripping them of identity and making everyday life appear mechanistic. 

Another kind of technology the episode explores is the smart home and the smart city, and the way these technologies can be used to imprison and control. Who is really in power here? Because we’re provided with a mise-en-scène, but not too much narrative exposition, questions need to be asked: Is Bing’s lifestyle the norm in this day and age? Are there any alternatives options to watching reality TV and exercising? Does Bing have a choice whether or not to ride that bike? Does anyone go outside? Are there jobs other than cleaners, cyclists, celebrities, production crews, and media moguls (the judges) — if not, who restocks the vending machines, who builds the bikes, and who brews the Cuppliance? These questions remain unanswered and, frankly, unasked in this fishbowl of a short film. 

But they leave the possibility that no one is really in charge. Early in the episode, we see what happens when a cyclist falls behind on his targets (in this case, because he is sick). The next day, his bike does not let him log in. No cop or soldier escorts him away. He simply has no choice but to do as the system instructs him, and begin a new life as a “Lemon.” 

The public faces of power are the judges on the reality TV show that offers contestants a chance at social mobility — fame and wealth. Bing seems to believe they hold the real power. But are they merely publicly visible figureheads? The entire structure of society suggests that the powers-that-be may be television producers hiding in control rooms off-camera. On the other hand, perhaps there are no television producers. Or perhaps they do exist, but they are also trapped in the system. 

In fact, it could be the system of merits, screens and apps, which enforces the class hierarchy all by itself. Indeed, understood in a different sense, the “power” that we should be concerned about is the effort that the workers are exerting. It’s suggested that the stationary bikes power the spotlights on the Hot Shots stage. Towards the beginning of the episode, a voiceover narration to a Hot Shots ad suggests that the bikes generate the electricity that run the lights in these vast interior spaces. But it’s just as likely that the workers are stuck in a feedback loop, generating power for the screens that they watch in order to entertain themselves while pedaling. The likelihood of this would simply highlight the irrationality of a capitalist system. Co-writer Konnie Huq chimes in: “I had often thought gyms should be powered by the exercise equipment in them, so they could be self-sufficient. In the same way that TVs could be powered by the people watching them as they exercised” (Brooker and Jones 32, 46). But this scenario can also be read allegorically; viewers “power” the spotlight in that they act as willing subjects to the spectacle.

An elevator. A close up of Abi's face. Bing and another worker are blurrily visible behind her
Abi and Bing

As the first episode of Black Mirror to have been written, and the script on which the showrunners launched their campaign, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ has received quite a bit of scholarly attention (Brooker and Jones 12). It might be argued that the episode, more so than the first episode of the series, establishes the series’ tone, mood, and aesthetic (Vacker and Espelie 151). Mark Johnson analyzes the episode through the lens of governmentality in ‘“Fifteen Million Merits”: Gamification, Spectacle, and Neoliberal Aspiration’ (2019). Similarly, Kate Kennelley uses the framework of Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses to make sense of the power dynamics in this society. More broadly, Chris Byron analyzes the episode through a Marxist lens in Black Mirror and Philosophy (2020). In another anthology, Black Mirror and Critical Theory (2018), Angela Cirucci discusses gender politics in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. Taking a slightly different route, the appearance of simulation in the episode has received critical attention through the work of Jean Baudrillard in essays by Keith Moser (2016) and Manel Jimenez-Morales and Marta Lopera-Marmol (2018). But one thing that critics agree on is that ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, despite its interest in new technology, is part of a much longer dystopian tradition. In the remainder of this essay, I will compare two earlier dystopias, beginning with the classic film Metropolis (1927). 

On Metropolis (1927)

If you’re unfamiliar with Metropolis, here’s the gist of it. Feder, the city’s wunderkind, falls madly in love with Maria at first sight. She’s a good samaritan and an advocate for workers and children. But when she’s kidnapped by the evil Rotwang, he uses her image to bring his robot to life. The false Maria then causes a storm in the city, inciting a worker’s strike-cum-riot. The true Maria escapes the clutches of Rotwand and reunites with Feder. Together, they quell the riot and bring the city of Metropolis back to equilibrium. Granted, this is a vast oversimplification. 

A comparison may be drawn between the underclass of laborers in Metropolis and the class of cyclists in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. Metropolis can be read as a Marxist text (Elseasser 60-3). In its portrayal of class struggle and mobility (or lack thereof), Metropolis provides us with rich examples of doubling (doppelgangers) and revolution (resistance). So, how does the representation of class struggle differ between Metropolis and ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, and what consequences does that have for the possibility of resistance?

Still from Metropolis - two gates, two queues of uniformed workers
Metropolis: The Workers

Let’s first consider the depiction of class throughout the film. The opening sequence of the film beautifully demonstrates the strict social hierarchy in Metropolis. Classes are demarcated in space. On the one hand, you have the upper class: the wealthy, the privileged. We are shown men of noble blood who spend their days in leisure: playing sports and games, and frolicking in decadent gardens. On the other hand, we see a class of workers who shuffle to work in the underbelly of the city, struggling to survive harsh working conditions: exaggerated temperatures, gruelling schedules, soul-sucking tasks. One well-known image depicts a man frantically moving the dials of a clock to meet the timing of indicator lights. The factory appears to be organised according to contemporary ideas of scientific management, or ‘Taylorism,’ in which short, repetitive tasks were sharply demarcated in the effort to make work quick and simple. 

A gaudily dressed group in a garden; there is a fountain and a peacock
Metropolis: The Wealthy

One thing that is striking in these representations is the presence of exercise. The wealthy practice exercise as sport and game; the poor workers endure gruelling labor as a hardship. The upper class perform exercise as a form of leisure, practicing what appear to be Olympic-like games in a grand stadium. The workers, by contrast, perform labor out of necessity. Similarly, in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, the middle class workers ride stationary bicycles as their form of labor. But Black Mirror adds an important detail here that complicates the effect of worker strife: gamification (cf. Johnson; Johnson and Woodcock). 

The middle class workers of Black Mirror are incentivised to perform labor that is blended with leisure. We see instances of gamification throughout the episode. The leaderboard, for instance, suggests that Bing, Abi, and the other cyclists are competing to get the highest daily merit score. But in reality, there can be no winner in such a system. Riding on stationary bikes and watching reality TV needs to be understood as a form of labor, even if it is gamified by means of merits, a leaderboard, social media, and the option to watch reality TV or play video games as you pedal. 

It should be mentioned that exercise has a long history of association with labor and strife. According to Daniel Lieberman, “exercise” should be understood as a form of work rather than a leisure activity. Lieberman points out that, historically:

treadmills are recent innovations whose origins had nothing to do with health and fitness. Treadmill-like devices were first used by the Romans to turn winches and lift heavy objects, and then modified in 1818 by the Victorian inventor William Cubitt to punish prisoners and prevent idleness. For more than a century, English convicts (among them Oscar Wilde) were condemned to trudge for hours a day on enormous steplike treadmills (xiii).

Paying someone to sit on a stationary bike is labor because exercise is something many of us will consider work at best, and painful drudgery at worst. Bing’s cycling neighbor Dustin does appear to take real pleasure in the trashy entertainment. By contrast, Bing cringes at many sights that Wraith Babes and Botherguts show him. The irony here is that reality TV is meant to be enjoyable; in this Black Mirror universe, it serves as punishment. However, even though Dustin is better adapted to this dystopia, he is not content either. He is a vindictive, misogynist bully, prone to angry outbursts, and playing the victim. Besides, even if gamification gives workers like Dustin some variety and relief, it is also gamification that controls them and keeps the class hierarchy in place. In the words of Scolari, “‘Fifteen Million Merits’ shows how an audio/visual product originally created for free-time popular entertainment transforms itself into a full-time Foucauldian and hypercompetitive ‘media jail’” (203). 

Second, let’s look at the depiction of the workers. Metropolis famously portrays the shift change: the march of laborers into the under-city. As in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, the lower classes are separated from nature. In this opening scene of Metropolis, we see how the upper class citizens have access to gardens and daylight. In juxtaposition, the lower class workers are sequestered underground in dirty chambers and factories. We find a similar situation in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. Here, we find the common icon of the elevator. In Metropolis, the workers cram into the lift to travel from their home environment to the work environment in the depths of the city. In ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, we also see elevators — similarly cramped but only large enough to hold five or six individuals. This sense of cramping alongside the absence of crowds will resurface later in other identifying factors in the episode. 

The cyclists in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ are equally separated from nature: no windows. Their environment surrounded by screens indicates that they are only allowed to see simulations of the real: an animated rooster wakes Bing at daybreak; a vending machine indicates that Bing can buy pieces of fruit by showing him animated versions of it. The apple drops out of the automated machine packaged in plastic and paper wrapping. When Bing makes it to stardom we finally see him in a spacious apartment with a grand view of a forest. It goes to show that the upper classes, in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ as in Metropolis, enjoy the privilege of access to nature. But this privilege remains limited. Celebrities like Selma and Bing can enjoy the view, yet they cannot walk in the forest (if it even is a real forest). 

Bing silhouetted against three windows or panels, looking out over a vast forested landscape
Bing enjoys the view

Another commonality can be found in the costuming. The Metropolis workers wear dark uniforms; the cyclists wear generic grey sweats. This detail is very telling of their class in that, when the lucky ones make it to the Hot Shots waiting room, everyone appears to be wearing a uniform: dull grey denoting their class. The cyclists cannot own possessions (Brooker and Jones 32). Achieving popularity on Hot Shots means that they can choose what to wear. As we hear Selma say, she likes gold. Making it to the next level — stardom — means that she can express herself in the form of adornments. In both cases, the grey jumpsuits and the dark uniforms connote conformity and lack of individuation. 

In contrast to Metropolis, however, the cyclists in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ enjoy a semblance of individuality. Everyone in this society has their own avatar, or doppel, with which they identify in the virtual environment of reality TV and social media. They save up to buy their doppel a new haircut or some new shoes; they are given means to participate and express their individuality. However, this is merely an illusion. These acts do not equate to meaningful freedom. The vastness of the economy is mostly hidden from the cyclists (cf. Cirucci xi); most days Bing only encounters the same few people. But who knows how many floors host gyms? If a worker could see the vast labor force they are part of, they might understand how trivial and petty their acts of self-expression are. In reality, they live in a vast prison. Rising in social status supposedly brings further individuation. Fame: everyone will know your name. But ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ suggests that the choices for the upper classes may be just as trivial as those for the middle classes. In contrast, the workers in Metropolis understand their anonymity because they march in masses. This fact is visualized in the shift change depicted at the beginning of the film. 

Another distinctive commonality between Metropolis and ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is the appearance of doppelgangers. In Metropolis, they manifest in the doubling so familiar to Lang’s German Expressionism. The double functions to express the duality of self and society, whereas in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ the doppel is raised to the level of idolatry. The cyclists cannot possess things, but they can dress their doppels. An odd shift occurs here; from the depiction of polarized good and evil in Metropolis we witness the fracturing of identities and commodified vanities in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. 

Finally, what can be said of the differences in the depiction of resistance in these two examples? In both, the act of resistance is stifled, but in very different ways. In Metropolis, the workers’ strike that occurs in the second half of the film is brought on by a masquerade. The false Maria, egged on by Federsen and Rotwang, initiates the riot. Finally, Feder and the true Maria quell the uprising and bring peace back to the city. Ultimately, the resistance of the workers is portrayed as imbalance while the act of mediation across classes is viewed as virtuous. Equilibrium must be sought. 

Both Metropolis and ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ play off the analogy of hope to perpetuate the myth of social mobility. In the end, the true Maria resurfaces to reaffirm her message of reconciliation. Similarly, Bing’s rant reaffirms his individuality. But in a cruel twist of fate, his message loses any authenticity as it has become commodified in the form of a reality television show (Brooker and Jones 45). Says Brooker, “you realize he’s just swapped one treadmill for another” (Brooker and Jones 46). 

On Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four could quite possibly be the most recognizable dystopia in literature-film. In the novel, Orwell writes of the repressive social system of Oceania. Winston wants to resist, but doesn’t exactly know how to. He works for the Ministry of Truth, redacting the news and replacing it with information that aligns with the agenda of Big Brother. The one outlet that he does have is writing in his journal. That’s the only way he can have independent thoughts of his own. Winston becomes acquainted with the loosely-knit resistance, and meets Julia. Through her he experiences brief glimpses of nature and what’s associated with it: bodily pleasure. But their affair goes terribly wrong when it is revealed that Big Brother has been watching them the whole time. The Thought Police take Winston and Julia into custody, and they are tortured to the brink of their sanity. Eventually, O’Brien (Winston’s torturer) convinces him that 2+2 does indeed equal 5. The act of resistance in Nineteen Eighty-Four is met with an unequal matching of force and bodily harm. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, resistance is futile because Big Brother has distorted reason to such an extent that individual thought is not only unnecessary — it is anathema.

Winston sits in a corner writing in his journal. Nearby a telescreen looms.
1984 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Several elements within the mise-en-scènes of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ and Nineteen Eighty-Four bear resemblance. For one, both highlight the role of screens in place of windows. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, screens are surveillance surfaces. Big Brother is watching. Winston retreats to his alcove, away from Big Brother’s prying eyes, in order to perform his act of resistance — writing in a journal. This is analogous to the role that screens play in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. The social media in this universe is engineered to know, or to see, when a viewer is not watching. Just like the screen in Winston’s room, Bing’s wall screens cannot be turned off. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, even if Big Brother is not quite what he seems, there is still an external totalitarian state keeping watch on the individual. In ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, the situation is less clear. Are there powerful individuals pulling the strings behind the scenes? Or is everyone trapped inside the same system of surveillance and social media, one that has taken on a life of its own? 

A woman in a mostly unbuttoned shirt against a vast, grassy landscape
Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four

Moveover, these examples “look” nothing alike. Aesthetically, Nineteen Eighty-Four leaves the reader (or viewer, in the case of the 1984 John Hurt film) with a sense that color has been stripped of this world: a visually desaturated mise-en-scène. The built environment is worn, tattered and tatty. Oceania is in ruins like post-war Europe. By contrast, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is painted in technicolor. Although Bing is seldom given much space, everything does look solid, expensive, and clean. The bright colors and high key lighting of Bing’s universe makes it more difficult to resist, because it is meant to appear cheery and welcoming. 

The important role of nature resurfaces in a cross-media analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four and ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. But unlike its representation in Metropolis, nature performs a role in resistance. Winston gains access to natural spaces, rarely accessed by most citizens, through his meeting with Julia. He holds a piece of nature in his hand, but has no context for “coral.” Furthermore, the coral is corrupted by man’s need to preserve it within a plastic casing. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, nature represents resistance, and the possibility of a truth beyond the Ministry of Truth’s inventions. By contrast, in Fifteen Million Merits,’ nature has been co-opted by the class hierarchy. The cyclists live in a technological fishbowl. Windows as screens look out onto simulated environments. In the end, Bing’s new apartment shows that he has ascended to the ranks of stardom in the appearance of large windows looking out over a rich green forest landscape. In this world, nature is a status symbol, saved for an elite who present themselves as hardworking and talented.

‘Fifteen Million Merits’ also upends the depiction of torture as represented in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Nineteen Eighty-four, Winston is subjected to torture, both as punishment for his transgression, and to reprogram him. However, in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, Bing uses self-harm as a form of resistance. Instead of modifying his virtual body with approved purchases, he inflicts violence on his real body. Both texts place emphasis on the body, but in different ways. Orwell situates resistance in the body itself, in the sense of freedom that comes from sharing one’s body with a lover. But in this scenario, the body can also be injured to inflict submission. For Brooker and Jones, the body itself becomes a site of resistance, where one can enact agency through self-harm. 

In terms of resistance, an analogy could be painted between Winston’s act of writing in his journal and Bing’s act of self-harm. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston defies Big Brother through the act of writing, of possessing his own thoughts. Those thoughts can speak against the powers that be; they can be his own. But ultimately, the Thought Police make resistance impossible. Citizens are not allowed to own things and Big Brother is always watching. 

A similar scenario is present in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’; citizens are only allowed to use their merits to purchase digital items, and their behavior is strictly monitored through social media. In both cases, the system stifles any possibility of resistance. Ultimately, Bing’s act of rebellion is an act of self-expression in the same way as Winston’s act of writing. In both cases, self-expression forms the act of resistance. Is it the case that statements of individuality will crumble the system? By expressing our autonomy, can we disrupt the class hierarchy? 

In the world of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, every individual is immersed in a nearly non-stop stream of propaganda to reinforce the hierarchy. When the individual looks deep within themselves for an act of self-expression, what they find is already shaped by such propaganda. Nonetheless, Bing does manage some resistance. In the end, he stands on a pulpit spewing anti-establishment rhetoric while holding a shard of glass to his neck. In this sense, Bing is taking a stand against complacency. Yet such an act of individual self-expression is not enough. Because Bing ultimately colludes with the judges in framing his resistance as some kind of performance art, it nullifies his authentic message. And although he is passionately angry about the way things are, he seems unable to imagine or express a plan of action, or a better future.

This raises the question, in what alternate scenarios might Bing have successfully resisted? Perhaps if Bing had centered Abi, and/or the lower class, rather than just his own experience, his resistance might have been more effective. He also could have involved others, rather than acting alone. Or perhaps his resistance would have had a different outcome if it hadn’t broadcast on reality TV. But because Bing’s existence seems to be part of a media system saturated by the logic of reality TV, no alternate possibility is provided within the Black Mirror.

Bing and Abi side-by-side in an elevator. Bing grins, Abi smiles
Bing and Abi

Strangely enough, the message of resistance in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is articulated in a Nineteen Eighty-Four knock-off: Apple’s “1984” commercial. Drawing inspiration from both Metropolis and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Apple’s “1984” commercial for the Macintosh breeds a philosophy of dissent that is just as paradoxical as the one in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. The commercial, broadcast during the 1984 Super Bowl, depicts a dystopian world similar to that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: a massive audience of look-alike workers dressed in uniform grey jumpsuits watch a giant monitor on which a talking head chants ideological rhetoric. But here, an athletic woman dressed in red shorts and bright white tank top races down the aisle, sledgehammer gripped in hands. She is a symbol of resistance that neither Big Brother nor the Black Mirror could stifle. Yet, ironically, Apple’s “1984” broadcasts a message of resistance that is commodified in the way that Bing’s message becomes commodified. In identifying the runner as a symbol of resistance against a totalitarian oppressor, Apple manages to align its ideal consumer with a message of authenticity and individuality, as opposed to the technological  commodity it is actually selling (the Macintosh computer) (Van Den Berg; Stein). Something similar is going on in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, as Bing attempts to convey an authentic message of resistance while being rolled up into the system of commodification. 

Another worker (called Swift in the screenplay) sits in her room scowling. All around her the virtual crowd are clapping and chanting.
The crowd chant for Bing to accept the offer (with at least one exception)

Bing chooses to demonstrate his individuality in a way that diverges from the script (i.e. singing, dancing). He performs an act of resistance that the audience and judges alike perceive as authentic and original. But in its repetition, Bing becomes a mouthpiece. He aims to be subversive, but in doing so he is accepted and rewarded. He is feeding the viewers a token of their own domination. As Byron puts it, “in a society saturated by commodification, only two options were really available for Bing after the speech: Either he would be deemed detritus, like his lemon coworker, or his resistance would be commodified like a Che Guevara poster” (26-7). So then, where is resistance possible within this system, if at all? And is Black Mirror itself any different from Bing’s show, a supposedly subversive satire that does little or nothing to disrupt the status quo? 

On the Gig Economy

Finally, Bing’s predicament is analogous to the struggle faced by workers in the gig economy. That’s what makes this episode so prescient. A bit of context helps here, also, because ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ appeared in 2011, when the gig economy was just getting onto its feet. Elance, which later became Upwork, appeared as early as 1999, but at first it did not have all the features we today associate with the gamified gig economy. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk arose in 2005, AirBnB followed in 2008, and Uber appeared in 2009. 

Dissent within the gig economy is extremely difficult because we are usually isolated from fellow workers, and we operate under the fiction that we are all hyper-motivated entrepreneurs working “at-will.” Many workers’ legal protections have also been eroded. This situation is similar to the role that gamification plays in Bing’s universe. The cyclists opt-in to social media, to play the game of life, to make a living. Most of them do not recognise their own oppression, but mistake it for freedom.

Even Bing opts in: whether it’s cycling or commercials, Bing participates, despite the absence of direct coercion. Opting out would lose him merits. The gamified system in which he lives emphasises the potential reward — competition against his peers, fame and fortune for the deserving — rather than the penalties. For a time he may even be convinced that he is a free person, doing what he wants. Of course, all truly important freedoms are denied him. 

The commonalities between the gig economy and the live-work environment represented in Fifteen Million Merits’ are vast. Bing’s world, as far as we can see it, is set up to present work as fun, effortless, and virtuous. That is, the nature of work in Bing’s world is obscured through screens and apps (Prassl 5). In ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, as in the gig economy, the workforce is invisible. Stated another way, the relationship between worker and employee is blurred. As Prassl (2018) explains, “the long-standing distinction between employees working for large companies and amateurs engaging in their craft as a hobby had become increasingly blurred” (12). In the episode, all we see is the workout space and Bing’s solitary quarters, both of which are designed as live-work spaces. We are never given a sense that Bing has an employer. Even the sense that he is working at a job is overshadowed by his short-term duties, a symptom of gamification. And of course, when you don’t really have a job, how can you ever quit?

The leaderboard outside the gym, seen in the opening sequence of the episode, establishes the idea that the workers are competing against each other in some sort of game. A similar situation can be found in the gig economy through the gamification of labor (Cherry; Ferrer-Connil; Scharpe; Morschheuser and Hamari; McGonigal). As Prassl points out, in the gig economy, “the real point of rating algorithms is to control workers” (55). It is also worth noting that Bing and his coworkers all appear relatively young; the gig economy is composed mainly of workers under the age of 34 (Ravenelle 10). Yet insofar as ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ portrays a uniquely 21st century economy, it should also be pointed out that the gig economy does not present an entirely new economic configuration. 

The very business model of the gig economy—matching a large supply of on-demand workers with ever waxing and waning demand for work—can be traced back for centuries, cropping up in economies as diverse as Japan and Continental Europe, rural England and major urban areas from New York to Marseille (Prassl 73).

If the state of worker rights and responsibilities has historical precedent, the technological innovations that make the gig economy function are new. Apps and platforms place workers in a new relationship to their employers and each other. 

But the question remains: what is the possibility of resistance from within the gig economy? The gig economy offers the individual the ‘freedom’ to try to attempt to climb socially, but no democratic freedom to change the way the class system works . Moreover, what on the surface is made out to be an entrepreneurial opportunity for free-spirited millennials and Gen Z  turns out to be a rigid and exploitative labor system. For the revolutionary, it may appear that the only choice is to opt-out — to somehow leave the system. But even if you could do that, the others would remain trapped. So should you find a way to resist within the system? But this would be a corruption of resistance in and of itself, because the revolutionary opts-out. Here lies the paradox.

‘Fifteen Million Merits’ reflects ethical concerns about the gig economy. Bing’s world appears to be entirely self-contained in more than one connotation of the phrase. He cannot see outside, that is, not until he achieves stardom; in his upper class flat that we glimpse at the end, he has a view of nature (or perhaps a superior simulation of it). We know no other lifestyle. We are not given any indication that he has a choice as to whether or not to accept or deny the screens’ requests. Or are they more than that? Are they ultimatums?

In either case, we can consider the lifestyle of Bing, et al. as if they lived and worked in the gig economy. The gig economy advertises entrepreneurship while in reality workers are left without the protections that 9-5 workers mostly maintain. By creating a self-contained universe (and economy), ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ makes it seem like Bing has no choice. That is, he has only the choice to accept or reject an app’s request. In fact, by excluding an outside environment, the episode insinuates that this is what life is like now. The all-encompassing quality of this society is what makes the episode so utterly unsettling. But in the real world, such a relationship would be characterised, in an early-21st century view, as just the kind of relationship you might have with a gig economy app. 

Conclusion

In each example, in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (2011), Metropolis (1927), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), we find a stifling mise-en-scène, and polarized relationships between light and dark, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, city and nature. In these depictions, resistance is disallowed because the class structure is both hierarchical and solid. Despite the differences between them, including different uses of technology, all three dystopias divide and degrade the workers, and disguise the real world — hiding invisible structures of labour and power. 

On Hot Shots, says Judge Hope, “Who do you think is powering that spotlight?” Like Black Mirror’s own metaphor of the dark, cracked screen, Hope’s quip sparks an image that makes ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ feel concrete and relevant. In a sense, it matters little to know exactly why Bing and Abi’s class ride stationary bikes. The meaning behind it is made clear in this statement. You are emotionally invested in Hot Shots. Because you watch, you work for it. You sweat over it. Participation becomes labor when it’s mandatory.

‘Fifteen Million Merits’ functions in this way as a critique of a capitalist society that couples demeaning physical labor with a heightened investment in the entertainment industry. Yet when Bing is absorbed into upper classes — rather than the only alternative, martyrdom — the meaning is ambiguous. Yes, he has sold out, and allowed his authenticity to become commodified. But could Bing’s show still stir something among other disaffected workers? Could it give others ideas to respond to, or to rally around? Is Bing’s rant unsuccessful? Not necessarily, if participation is the only route to resistance.

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Ivy Roberts is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in media archaeology, visual culture, and science and technology studies. She teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University (Adjunct Instructor of English and World Studies), the University of Maryland University College (Adjunct Professor of Digital Media), and Southern New Hampshire University (Adjunct Instructor of Interdisciplinary Studies). Her first book, Visions of Electric Media in the Victorian and Machine Ages, based on her dissertation, is published by Amsterdam University Press (2019). Ivy holds a Ph.D. from Virginia Commonwealth University’s interdisciplinary program in Media, Art and Text. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her rat terrier, Elliot.

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