Archive for April, 2018

Powering the Distraction Engine: Black Mirror, Slavery, and the Abstraction of Power

April 15, 2018


The British television show Black Mirror often envisions a dystopian future, mostly surrounding our impending and pernicious relationships with technology. The series’ second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” is often received in this same way: a critique of smartphone culture, social media avatars, and social isolation. These critiques seem to miss the underlying relationship that the episode’s characters have with energy production and consumption, however, as they neglect an ecocritical approach. Ecocriticism, the interdisciplinary study of storytelling and environmentalism, has taken on narratives that reveal much about the energy culture from which cultural stories emerge. Such stories reach beyond the historical canon of literature, and certainly beyond our contemporary relationship with energy in the twenty-first century. “Fifteen Million Merits” inherits the nineteenth and early twentieth century tradition of “energy slaves,” using sources of electrical power – human beings – to reinforce social power structures. These social power structures are abstracted from the lives of the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits,” rendered invisible until the episode’s protagonist suffers a grave injustice. Once the power structures become visible to the protagonist, “Fifteen Million Merits” becomes a tale about how power can destroy relationships, societies, even one’s own identity and convictions. Black Mirror suggests that our problematic relationships to contemporary energy sources won’t be solved by a technological panacea. Such a future might, in fact, be worse.

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes place in an enclosed facility that houses hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) people. The characters in the story wake up each day and head towards endless rows of stationary exercise bikes. Each meter travelled on the bike translates to a “merit” (i.e. currency) that can be redeemed for resources within the facility: toothpaste, water, food, etc. These merits are predominantly used in the consumption of digital entertainment, however, as each character is locked into cramped, isolated bedrooms each night. These bedrooms feature all four walls entirely covered with digital screens, almost in an Orwellian manner, and these screens forcibly advertise to the residents of the rooms. To skip these mandatory advertisements requires a substantial cost, something to the effect of 10,000 merits – more than a day’s work. Thus, unless someone is willing to be mindlessly subjected to ads for crude digital entertainment, they are virtually trapped on the exercise bikes forever.

It is relatively unclear where energy comes from in the episode’s beginning, but the showrunner Charlie Brooker’s notes reveal a post-petroculture that still inherits metaphors from past non-renewable energy resources. The first instance of petroculture in the screenplay describes Bing’s toothpaste dispenser in his bedroom. Brooker writes, “Using a wall-mounted mini-pump, like a miniature petrol pump nozzle, he dispenses a small amount of bright green toothpaste onto a brush.” The question for Brooker would be whether this description should be taken as a mere artistic flair, or whether he was commentating on the collective unconscious of a post-petroculture in this episode. As evidenced by a description further in the episode, Brooker’s answer would assuredly be the latter. For the next instance is equally petrol-centric, towards the end of the episode, when Bing is saving up merits. In the process, Bing becomes extremely frugal with his expenditures. This frugality is best captured when Brooker writes, “Bing keeps an eye on the screen — he’s trying to stop the nozzle at a nice round number, like someone filling a car with petrol trying to stop on an even figure.” Again, this nozzle is explicitly described in terms of petrol and energy consumption. The merits stand in for Bing’s reckoning with his own relationship to the culture of excessive energy production and consumption. To complicate this relationship further, the episode never once mentions fossil fuels. Energy seems to come from somewhere else: the bikes.

The exercise bikes in “Fifteen Million Merits” often appear as set pieces that facilitate character proximity, representing how hard it is to remain isolated while exercising in a public space like a gym. Characters can of course stop riding these bikes, but will be relegated to a lower class almost immediately. Overweight people, in the episode, are downgraded from the bikes to become “Lemons,” or yellow-dressed custodians for the (relatively speaking) middle-class bikers. Those who don’t participate in energy culture are doomed to be crushed by its powerful machine. Thus, the plot unfolds in a way that, despite intense character motivations to accumulate enough merits to escape this labor-demanding facility, reinforces the hierarchies of power throughout the society in which they find themselves. One way to escape the facility is to earn fifteen million merits, which buys a “golden ticket” to join a game show not altogether unlike America’s Got Talent. Escape is not guaranteed, however, even if they pay into the system. One can infer the motivations of those in power based on the ubiquity of these stationary bikes: these bikes generate electricity, and the human power required to generate these bikes is too valuable to allow people emancipation.

The digital interface of the exercise bikes in Black Mirror serves to obscure, render “opaque to ordinary perception,” the mechanisms by which characters enslave themselves to endless hours on the bikes (Shannon 312). The bikes feature digital technology integrated into each unit that functions in a lot of ways like social media. This digital technology becomes important for questions of energy’s and power’s (in)visibility, and why the inevitable reveal of power at the episode’s climax is so devastating for Bing’s character. Laurie Shannon writes of how “Western culture has transitioned to forms of energy whose origins are opaque to ordinary perception, whose material workings are comprehended only by specialists, and whose business operations are shielded and securitized” (312). Only the “specialists,” or those who are in charge of the facility in which the episode’s protagonists find themselves, have a deep understanding of how these bikes work, how the factory works, why this mode of energy generation is the way humanity – or, “Western culture” – has transitioned into this unorthodox and labor-intensive mode of producing power. When characters are motivated to investigate and challenge their relationship to the system, their dissent is squashed by the system itself.

Throughout the course of the episode, energy remains implicit within the factory. As we’ve seen, for the majority of “Fifteen Million Merits,” energy is rendered invisible and somewhat magical to the characters. By virtue of the episode’s sophisticated technology, and how seamlessly it is integrated into the characters’ lives, it seems like this facility has moved beyond crude, non-renewable forms of energy like fossil fuels. But to see this technological advancement as a kind of moral advancement would be too simple a reading, neglecting the power structures that demand human bodies to be used as capital. As Bob Johnson recounts in his history of energy slaves in the 20th century, “Fossil fuels did not replace human labor, they displaced it by rendering physical exploitation less visible to the privileged” (974). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” human labor has been displaced entirely from the eyes of those in power; the countless lives spent entirely on the exercise bikes is one indication; the mindless digital “dopples” (avatars) from the episode reinforce how futile the characters’ efforts are; and the relegation of the laboring class of bikers to this facility is a way of masking a kind of human slavery from who are later to be revealed as the upper, privileged classes.

The relationship between energy-producing bikes and the larger facility trapping these people finally becomes visible in the episode’s culminating tragic scene, in which Bing loses his merits to the arbitrary whims of the privileged class, represented by three obdurate judges. These judges listen to a song by the young woman Abi, for whom Bing has bought the golden ticket, but they don’t hear her beautiful voice. Rather, they crudely offer her a career in Judge Wraith’s porn industry with the tempting offer, “You’ll never have to pedal again, not one minute. We could really work with you.” Abi resists this dehumanizing remark, but Judge Hope persists:

“Who do you think’s powering that spotlight? […] Millions of people, that’s who. All out there right now, putting in an honest day on the bike, giving back to the world, while you stand in the light they’re generating and dither. And you know what? They would give anything, do anything to be where you are now, to have what you have.”

At this point in the episode, the energy-producing role of these exercise bikes can no longer be ignored. One key phrase that indicates that these bikes are explicitly acting as electrical generators is the idea of “giving back to the world.” Their efforts, their “honest day on the bike,” somehow give back, notably in the form of “generating” power, as indicated by Judge Hope’s first question: these people, everyone in the facility, are powering those spotlights. (Who knows what else they’re powering?)

Energy’s presence, revealed as the invisible heart of this episode’s factory, shapeshifts into what Imre Szeman calls “an absence inescapably present through negation” (324). This “absence” borrows from in Jean-Paul Sartre’s mode of “nothingness.” Nothingness, in Sartre’s conception, is a present lack, something you’re looking for but don’t see mise en scene. As Szeman relates to Black Mirror, then, this absence – this nothingness – becomes a “gap,” one which arises out of “the apparent epistemic inability or unwillingness to name our energy ontologies, one consequence of which is the yawning space between belief and action, knowledge and agency” (324). The ignorance of self-circumstance displayed by the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits” plays to the upper-class’ advantage. It’s within the scope of interests for the (absent) nameless people in charge of this episode’s facility to keep people in the dark, on the bike. In not being able to name their own “energy ontologies,” they aren’t equipped to stand up to the unfair conditions in which they find themselves. But, as will be seen in the episode’s cynical conclusion, it’s not unthinkable to imagine an akrasiatic response to the revelation of energy’s dark role in these characters lives: that “we know where we stand with respect to energy, but we do nothing about it” (Szeman 324). Or, returning to Sartre’s terminology, our epistemic inability leads to “inaction and bad faith” (Szeman 324).

Our historical relationship to energy anticipates this perverse relationship between the people and energy bikes in Black Mirror. Returning to Bob Johnson’s 2016 essay, “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy,” he traces the pejorative terms from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that referred to the first “energy slaves” (955). Energy slaves were considered to be “any labor-saving device that could convert energy into the functional equivalent of a laboring body,” and emerged as a remedy to household labor (956). Energy slaves, replacing human slaves, perform(ed) “ideological work on behalf of modernity’s privileged classes” (956). In this light, the characters of “Fifteen Million Merits” perform as energy slaves: they convert energy from the toils of a laboring human body; they reinforce the ideological agenda and do the work of the upper, privileged classes (e.g. the Judges). The most these characters receive as compensation is a made-up digital currency: merits. The energy slaves of Black Mirror are “obedient and docile,” given all their technological distractions (Johnson 960). As long as there’s something new to pedal for, Johnson suggests, the characters will remain on the bikes, subjected to the abstract power structures in which they find themselves embedded.

Though “Fifteen Million Merits” begins in medias res, the visual context of this episode suggests that these energy slaves may have “submitted to being ‘shackled,’ and ‘obeyed,’” their enslavement due to economic pressures (Johnson 960). As with Johnson’s historical energy slaves, the characters of Black Mirror “go to ‘sleep’ when ordered to do so” (960): their digital cubicle rooms artificially mimic sunrise and sunset, and are monitored by the anonymous powers that run this facility. The energy slaves are responsible for powering the very system that enslaves them. As the episode suggests, it would be impossible for any single person (energy slave) to throw off their shackles (bikes) and overthrow the system that oppresses them. But why the universal complacency? Greg Singh offers a convincing explanation, warning that the energy slaves of “Fifteen Million Merits” are in, what he calls,

a permanent waking-sleep, a zombification of sorts that is seductive precisely because it shuts off so much of the relentless affect felt through the pressures of supermodernity. This disconnection is desirable in the first place because the affect alerts us to the alienated state to which we may succumb at any moment, through the always-on relationships we have with and through technology – the very last thing that many would wish to be reminded of (127).

The fact that the facility in this Black Mirror episode is always on means an enormous demand of energy needed to keep the place running. These imposed “always-on relationships” alienate the characters within, who have hopes of eventually escaping, thus renewing the cycle (pardon the pun) of their lives being spent on energy bikes.

A final consideration about human relationships to energy arises out of Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrialized Societies, when he writes of how, over the course of centuries, humanity’s “increasingly utilitarian frame of mind led them to begin treating other human beings as tools” (27). With the rise of energy-capturing and energy-reliant tools, writes Heinberg, sources and systems of energy have consolidated and allocated energy distribution to non-local places (27). Further, the growing complexity of human societies has lead to hyper-specialization within individual “technological-economic ‘ecosystem[s]’” (27). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” for instance, each corridor of exercise bikes serves as a microcosm of both familiarity and social currency. Each character can feel better about themselves when another out-of-shape, overweight person is kicked off the bike, bound to become a “lemon.” Dominance is established by characters like Dustin, throughout the episode, as they mindlessly buy into the internal dominance hierarchies within the facility. Dustin thinks that he can treat others contemptibly simply because he’s “put his time in on the bike.” In the same way, historical sources of energy have formed these “ecosystems” that Heinberg describes, rendering a kind of meritocratic contempt for the unsuccessful society to be treated as subhuman. Heinberg claims that we use tools to “adapt ourselves” to a variety of habitats,” which function like “prosthetic devices” (25). In this instance, the compulsory exercise and energy generation on the bikes is a way of demonstrating human adaptation; people don’t wield tools, tools wield people. By this conception, the oppressive relationships between human and bike in this episode becomes a kind of “prosthetic device,” allowing rapport and social cache to develop with the hopes of working hard enough to retire the bike for good.

Over the course of the episode’s second arc, Bing furiously works towards achieving fifteen million merits once more. This time, his efforts are not for Abi, but rather for himself. Rage, resentment, and bitterness have consumed Bing’s heart since the atrocious conscription of Abi into the pornographic Wraith Babes channel. The episode frames a montage of Bing now getting up impossibly early, cycling far more than anyone else, climbing back high with a newfound determination. He endures watching all the adverts, even the porn ones. He miserly monitors his spending, ensuring he uses only one merit for toothpaste. He waits for the vending machines to jam up so he can fish the food out for himself. He waits for people to leave their scraps behind before snatching them up greedily. Eventually, weary from merciless determination and effort, Bing reaches 15,000,000. He stops, gets off the bike. Now, with enough merits, Bing purchases another Hot Shots ticket, and slips a shard of glass into his waistband, along with the used Cuppliance from Abi’s visit. Bing fakes a dance routine, sneaking past the guards, concealing the shard of glass. On stage at last, Bing raises this shard of glass to his throat and, shaking, delivers an impassioned speech, the highlights of which are worth reproducing here at length:

“It’s not people, you don’t see people up here […] Real pain, real viciousness: that we can take. Stick a fat man up a pole and we’ll laugh ourselves feral because we’ve earned the right. We’ve done saddletime and he’s slacking, the scum, so ha ha ha at him. We’ll happily meld with the sheer callous madness of it because we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves; buying shit. ‘I have a dream’? […] We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful? You couldn’t. Cos it’d break us. We’re too numb for it; our minds would choke.”

Embedded in Bing’s captivating and extemporaneous rant is a fusion of the ideas of energy and power that have been explored here. Putting in the “saddletime,” according to Bing, is a way of justifying the status quo. For inside this facility, the status quo is social stratification, enslavement, and the worst parts of consumerist capitalism – all perpetuated by bike pedals.

Bing doesn’t have access to the outside world; these ideas are all raw, his own. But his psychological insight rings in harmony with the ideas of energy and power reinforcing each other. The production of energy in this bike-bound society is what allows any of them to have their own lives; the maintenance of their lives allows corrupt power structures to end up controlling them. Bing, and perhaps many others, recognizes this fusion when he concludes his ardent monologue:

“We’ve grown inside this machine, breathed its air too long. There’s only so much wonder we can bear. That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions — and only then when it’s been augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights to stare into while we ride, day in, day out: going where? Powering what? Powering the whole distraction engine. All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and FUCK YOU.”

Bing – impassioned, tired, adrenaline burnt out – goes silent. The hall goes silent. Stunned but composed, dignity on public display, the unexpected occurs. Shockingly, Judge Hope offers Bing a 30 minute show twice a week where he’s encouraged to “perform” like this again, this “gimmick” of ranting with a shard to his throat.

This moment of truth for Bing’s character toes the line of what Tim Jordan describes as “culture jamming.” For Jordan, culture jamming is “an attempt to reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or be someone” (102). Culture jamming bears particular relevance to ecocriticism and its relationship to viral marketing, attempting to stop or change a particular politically salient conversation and shed light on otherwise obscured or silenced issues (e.g. the BP oil spill). In Black Mirror, Bing is conscripted into the very “distraction engine” that has kept him on the bike, that took away his brother, that took away Abi. His protest has succeeded and, when presented with this prisoner’s dilemma, his resolve comes into question.

Bing’s reaction can be usefully described in Eleftheria Lekakis’ article on the relationship between climate change activism, culture jamming, and what she describes as “the logic of appropriation” (312). For Lekakis, forms of “discursive political consumerism” tend to recycle themselves (e.g. the Truth campaign against the tobacco industry). Culture jamming, seen through the logic of appropriation, “appears to be a modality of creative activism creative activism that both asserts the power of consumer politics and contests the commercialization of social change” (312). Protest and resistance can quickly be appropriated by those in power, however. For, at this point in “Fifteen Million Merits,” it appears that Bing has won. He has made his point, left the world speechless, and perhaps generated true activism within the episode’s facility. Black Mirror offers a darker conclusion. Instead, offered with a life off the bike, offered bigger living quarters, merit-free amenities, Bing caves into power. The culture jamming has been reinscribed, rebranded, and, as Bing’s rant points out, repackaged, into the culture.

The episode doesn’t entirely wrap up Bing’s complicit relationship with the power structure that has enslaved him and so many others. Rather, the episode provides small snippets that suggest, amongst other things, that nothing has changed for the people inside the system, still toiling away on the bikes. Kai, a young man who has biked in Bing’s corridor throughout the episode, is seen at the end of the episode to be purchasing a “Bing Shard” for his dopple. Bing’s enraged rant, seen by everyone, has evidently become part of a fashion trend. It’s now cool, edgy even, to tack on this little sign of rebellion to one’s dopple. Of course, this shard doesn’t actually get anyone off the bikes. Implied in Bing’s absence is the fact that the powers that be won’t let another incident like Bing to be aired for all to see. Rather, the episode concludes in Bing’s newly expanded apartment. We see Bing’s new show end, and watch him carefully rest his shard of glass perspex in a velvet case. This “gimmick” has indeed become a gimmick. Bing has bought into the machine that he sought freedom from. And it seems that the amenities have coerced him into complacency: he drinks from a chilled carafe of orange juice, stretches out over the wide apartment, and saunters over to the windows on the other side of his apartment. But these windows are deceptive. The episode’s script reads, “And he stands before an immense window overlooking a beautiful green forest, resplendent beneath deep blue skies.” And yet, clearly, this immense window is just another series of digital screens. It looks real, but the viewer gets the ominous sense that even this newly found freedom from the energy bikes is its own kind of imprisonment. The power structures, momentarily rendered visible by Bing’s righteous indignation, are once again obscured, made invisible by the dominant culture.

“Fifteen Million Merits” presents the kind of future that most technocratic thinkers denounce as far behind societal progress. It’s thought that technological advancements will bring about a more fair, equal society that provides energy access to all who seek it. This attitude is also borne out of the sorts of intersectionality that Ecocriticism adheres to; it’s thought that paying attention to how issues of social justice overlap with environmental and energy issues will be enough to solve the problem. Black Mirror suggests something more bleak: as long as there are dominant modes in control of energy and energy production, as long as we are mindlessly enslaved to our digital lives at the expense of our real ones, these problems of energy, social power, and social justice will only compound in their pernicious consequences. Individual efforts, like Bing’s, to subvert the dominant modes of discourse and power, will be squashed by the strength of the system itself. Collective efforts, virtually impossible within the world of “Fifteen Million Merits,” are also doomed to fail because of social complicity and political apathy. Culture jamming, in this instance, is doomed to be conscripted into the very culture itself.

If “Fifteen Million Merits” teaches anything, it’s that optimistic vignettes of the future fail to seriously engage with the all-pervasive forces of entrenched capitalism and unregulated technological development. As technology increases in scope and scale, so too will inequality increase. If we don’t stare this brutal fact in the face now, far before any such energy bike-driven dystopia comes into being, then the future might look something not altogether unlike the Black Mirror hellscape. “Fifteen Million Merits” mordantly critiques the picturesque mirages of the future, not out of some kind of sadism (although that too, at times), but out of an authentic need to think about these questions now. Even better, Black Mirror insists, start thinking about them yesterday.

Works Cited

Heinberg, Richard. The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. New Society Publishers, 2008.

Johnson, Bob. “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy.” American Quarterly, vol. 68 no. 4, 2016, pp. 955-979.

Jordan, Tim. Activism! Direct action, hacktivism and the future of society. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Eleftheria J. Lekakis. “Culture jamming and Brandalism for the environment: The logic of appropriation.” Popular Communication, vol. 15, no. 4, 2017, pp. 311-327.

Shannon, Laurie. “Greasy Citizens and Tallow-Catches: Early Modern Equivocations on Fuel.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 2, 2011, pp. 311-313.

Singh, Greg. “Recognition and the Image of Mastery as Themes in Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011–Present): An Eco-Jungian Approach to ‘Always-On’ Culture.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 120-132.

Szeman, Imre. “Literature and Energy Futures.” PMLA, vol. 126, no.2, 2011, pp. 323-325.