S1E2: Fifteen Million Merits

Recap

The episode is set in a somewhat-distant future. Society is in a self-contained building with many levels, and the entire structure – civilization itself – is powered by people riding exercise bikes paralleled by a gaming-type environment. Riders earn “Merits” for their work. The main protagonist, Bing, inherits 15 million credits from his deceased brother and that gives him some privileges in the system, but he gives away those Merits to a woman named Abi after hearing her sing and deciding her voice was the most real thing he’s known in a world that is virtual and fake. Abi is able to use the credits to buy a ticket to compete on Hot Shot, a reality TV show akin to X-Factor that is a ticket out of this dystopian cage if the contestant shows talent. Abi is judged not good enough but is offered a spot in the society’s porn industry, which she accepts after drug inducement. Enraged, Bing works hard to save 15 million credits so he can go on the show himself, and once there he threatens to kill himself by holding a glass shard to his neck while ranting about the evils of the heartless system they live in, one where people see each other as objects and not for their humanity. Instead of being chastened, the Hot Shot judges offer him his own show to rant as he pleases, as if his outrage was a type of entertainment, and Bing takes the deal. The episode ends with him in a much different environment than the cramped, tv-for-walls cell he once was confined to, as the camera zooms out as he sips fresh orange juice and looking at lush green fields for (presumably) the first time in his life.

Themes

  1. Reality TV as life: Orwell wrote in 1984 about how the masses are controlled by distraction, by outrage, by spectacle. In this environment, Hot Shot is one example of how the masses are kept from thinking about their plight because there is always someone to make fun of and judge, someone who “has it worse” than you. The point of Hot Shot is to offer some small chance of hoping to escape while offering those who cannot compete or who fail some means of catharsis in the system. Think of the audience, attending as avatar, goading Abi into her life of porn. Think of this world like a deluge of Likes on Facebook or Hearts on Instagram, how we create moments of meaning that serve as distractions from larger problems.
  2. Slavery to digital environments: The society depicted here is blinking, flashing, always on and utterly depressing. Bing can’t get away from the constant stream of content coming at him. Even off-bike, his room is made up of walls of TV screens. This is particularly harrowing after Abi takes the deal on Hot Shot and, out of credits, he is unable to ignore videos of her doing porn. What makes it interesting is that Bing sells out at the end of the episode and escaped that world. He becomes slave to a different type of system, one that makes him pretend to be outraged, but it is an open question as to whether it was worth it. Did he upgrade his life by escaping that world?
  3. Gameified living as distraction: One interesting take on this world they live in is that everything is attached to a game to encourage participants onward. When citizens cycle, they see virtual selves on screen and can change the settings. They can spend (oh, let’s say “waste”) Merits on things like avatar or clothing upgrades for their character. They can spend Merits to avoid ads as well. This has a lot of parallels to how social media has been gameified to keep you engrossed – think about apps that reward you for coming back or spending small sums to upgrade characters. They are there to distract you from the time passing, but they also in part make you give back some of what you earn.

JOUR 325 says ….

Questions

  1. Did anyone “win” by the end of the episode?
  2. Why would a society en masse accept the terms of this arrangement, that they are forced to serve in this way when it appears that the outside world is perfectly lush and healthy?
  3. Explain Bing’s choice. He could have stayed true to himself but did not. What do you think his calculation was? Was it a cynical choice or truly in his own best interests?
  4. What real-world parallels can you draw between the society Bing and Abi navigated and our own built-in forms of self-slavery, if any? What present technologies could this episode be commenting on?
  5. By the end, Bing became a different type of slave. Who was he beholden to after his choice compared to before?
  6. Discuss the parallels to modern society in which outrage is a form of amusement and entertainment. Does it serve a purpose for the oppressor, in this case?
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