“Fifteen Million Merits” is the second episode of the widely popular series Black Mirror that sets in stone what the show’s intents are. That is, it depicts an imagined reality based on our increasingly technology-dependent world: “the way we live now, and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Originally aired in 2011, the episode strikes as one of the most relevant ones and hits close to home in our surveillance-capitalistic society, even after a decade.

The story takes place in a dystopian near future that exaggerates fame-driven economy. The general population lives in screen-covered rooms and toils away on indoor bikes to generate power while constantly being bombarded by endless streams of on-screen media. To skip an advertisement, one needs to pay a penalty fee; when squeezing toothpaste, the cost is deducted immediately based on the amount used. This digital currency (merits) that is adjusted in real time and displayed at the corner of every screen blatantly illustrates the core of people’s goals and motivation in this world.

We follow the journey of Bing and Abi, who both end up entering the talent show Hot Shot and discover the shallow nature of celebrities playing roles that generate revenue for media companies. Abi is cast as an erotica star against her dreams of becoming a famous singer, and Bing’s passionate speech criticizing the system is manufactured into an edgy radio show. Although the culture of glorified fame has long been perpetuated by Hollywood, the rise of social media has put a new turn on the landscape of celebrities in the 21st century. With so-called “Instagram influencers” and Youtubers, the opportunity of becoming a star has become much more attainable to the general public. The thinking is that, by posting aesthetic or interesting content, anybody can become famous and rich.

The basis of this fame-based economy lies in ad revenue. Given the digital framework of the Internet that allows limitless exchange of information, media companies aim to create content that people are willing to watch and run that content together with advertisements. In this way, they are able to monetize people’s attention directly. Such aspect of the attention economy is chillingly described in the episode when Bing tries to close his eyes to avoid watching an unsavory advertisement, only to be surrounded by red screens and a high-pitched alarm that ask him to “resume viewing.”

The concept of monetizing people’s attention has become more and more prominent in the decade following the episode. As businesses compete to grab one more moment of our attention with their targeted advertisements, the landscape of social media has evolved accordingly. Every carefully delivered post is designed to ever so slightly manipulate our thoughts or plant a seed in our minds according to the agenda of the third-party institution. Their goal is to capture more of the milliseconds that we spend looking at their content, and in this way, the most “successful” content ends up being the most provocative ones. Ultimately, it is an environment that encourages disinformation and rabbit holes.

 

Sources

Helmer, Sven. “May I Have Your Attention, Please.” Companion of the The Web Conference 2018 on The Web Conference 2018 – WWW ’18, 2018, doi:10.1145/3184558.3191605.

Mark Manson. “In The Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold.” Mark Manson, Mark Manson, 15 Mar. 2021, markmanson.net/attention.

Olthof, Samantha. “Black Mirror: How ’15 Million Merits’ Colorized the Horror of a Fame-Driven Economy.” Film School Rejects, 6 June 2019, filmschoolrejects.com/black-mirror-15-million-merits/.