The National Anthem
The first episode of Black Mirror was misunderstood by many. Played straight, with the only hint of humour being the preposterous decision the Prime Minister has to make, it was taken as drama by those who weren’t paying attention. The episode showed the Armed Response unit’s shoulder-mounted cameras as an example of how much technology has permeated all aspects of society. But with politicians watching the feedback from these cameras, we could have been watching a UK version of 24. That worked well in the context of the show, but the inclusion of people taking and sending photos from their phones seemed forced and had little purpose except to fit the tech theme.
15 Million Merits
In this world citizens need points to live (the ‘merits’ of the title). These points can be accrued by pedalling an electricity-providing exercise bike. People are constantly surrounded by screens, and can lose points if they skip ads that play on them, taking gamifaction to a horrible extreme. Life alternates between pedalling away for hours and watching ads and TV shows in screen-adorned rooms. Bing has saved 15 million merits but doesn’t know what to use them on.
The real-life comparisons are obvious: the everyday hamster-wheeling of working life, saving money but finding nothing meaningful to buy with it, a life surrounded by screens and entertainment, society’s obsession with ‘reality’ shows.
We’re a society where technology is advancing faster than our ability to adjust to it. In Merits, people spend their income on adorning their ‘doppels’, their virtual avatar (think Nintendo’s Miis). The world we see here revolves around acquiring currency, with little in real items to spend it on. Bing wants something that isn’t virtual.
The ending, sadly, was unoriginal, with Bing kowtowing to the Hot Shots judges, his ethics not strong enough to escape the gravitational pull of stardom and freedom from the bikes.
Merits suffered from the same problem that plagued the other two episodes. The look of the show is very cold and clinical. This makes thematic sense but makes empathy with the characters difficult. There was no warmth to contrast with the harsh steel of the show’s look. This affected my enjoyment of all episodes, but particularly here.
The Entire History of You
Despite looking like it would be the least interesting of all three episodes, History was the best of the series. Toby Kebbel’s performance got stronger throughout, lending the episode more humanity than the previous two.
In contrast to Merits futurism, History’s world is ours with one important addition: people have a built-in memory system. Everything you see is recorded and indexed. Memories can be deleted, but you have to opt to do so; by default everything is stored. It’s a discomforting idea, that every lie you tell, every exaggeration or mistaken comment, is recorded on video, waiting to be retrieved to expose you. This is Google Mind, an inescapable record of every mistake you ever made. How you would act if everyone around you was a walking CCTV camera?
Liam, Toby Kebbel’s character, senses that his wife finds another man attractive. A common emotion I imagine. In the real world, this feeling would probably die on the vine in most cases, with no evidence to point either way. But here, Liam can replay video evidence of his wife’s interaction. And if she’s lying here, she could be lying about other things; one way or another there will be video proof. Liam’s distrust overwhelms him and he’s left alone, struggling to come to terms with his wife’s deceit. He decides that ignorance is bliss and removes his memory system.
Something that fascinated me about the Matrix films was the idea of the red and blue pills. Take one, and be exposed to the harsh truth of existence. Take the other and return to ‘normal’, mundane, yet manageable life, and be unaware of its artificiality. Films like Pi and Shutter Island also take on this subject. If the real world leads to pain and torment, why not look for an option? The Entire History of You succeeds in examining this idea.