This is our first Media Review post and is about Season 1 Episode 2 of Netflix’s Black Mirror. To be clear, this is not a review of the storyline, cinematography, character choices or anything like that, but is instead a review exclusively of the technology within the episode. The episode, called ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ was aired on the 11th of December 2011, airing on Channel 4 before Netflix got the rights for the series after the second season. Of course, we recommend you watch the episode as there will obviously be spoilers.
The namesake of the episode, merits are the currency of the episode, with fifteen million merits being the entry price to a talent show integral to the plot. The currency is gained by working what looks like an exercise bike and is spent on a multitude of things. The named purchases within the episode are for talent show entry tickets, food, toiletries, skipping advertisements and customising a person’s digital avatar or apartment. Of course, there are other things for purchase not mentioned and it’d be reasonable to assume the currency isn’t exclusive to the settings actually seen.
This technology already exists to certain degrees. Given that the episode was aired in 2011 and the most popular cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was invented only in 2009, the merits may have been created as a cryptocurrency. What’s more likely is that the idea was based upon digital banks like PayPal, which had become quite popular. For a modern viewer, however, the currency in fifteen million merits looks identical to a cryptocurrency so it’s reasonable to assume that’s what would actually be used. Based on the fact that a song in the episode, ‘Anyone who knows what love is’, by Irma Thomas, was released in 1964 and is supposedly passed on for three generations of grown women, the timeline for this episode would be a good way into the 21st century or later. By this point, a wide-scale digital currency, or cryptocurrency, could be established and widely adopted, making this technology reasonable for the episode.
Gesture controls and screens
One other interesting concept integral to the setting of the episode is the magnitude of screens, which are controlled by gestures. These screens cover all the walls of the people’s apartments and are in front of the pedal machines for entertainment. They are also controlled exclusively by gestures, such as swiping left to right, swiping away, pinching and beckoning forward. The screens are also capable of detecting the viewer’s position and whether or not they are actually looking.
This seems fairly possible. Already there are far better screens than those in fifteen million merits with no signs of stopping. As for gesture controls, mobile phones have had this for a while and it has been used in more complex scenarios such as 3D design. Furthermore, object detection is also a big emerging technology already being used in photo improvements and autonomous driving, both of which are done by artificial intelligence. It seems likely that the integration of these three things would become cheap enough to be commonplace within one or two decades, so there is no problem here.
Pedalling for power
One less reasonable idea from the episode is that of the pedalling. The episode explains the pedalling as generating power and has a shot of multiple rooms of people pedalling. Elsewhere in the episode, it has characters state that millions of people are pedalling to power things, in that case it was stage spotlights. This pedalling is the main way in which the characters gain merits.
Now, of course, pedal machines can generate power but there is just so much wrong with this. For a start, the energy you would get out of pedalling will always be less than the energy you had to put in. This is a problem given that all the food is allegedly artificial or lab-grown, which generally requires electrical energy to produce. This gets even worse when you realise that every person who is pedalling is watching and interacting with a screen the whole time. It gets even worse as every person who pedals is also shown to have all-screen apartments that are on all the time the person is awake. It does not matter how efficient you could make each of these processes but physics essentially dictates that this will never work, even at the theoretical maximum efficiency. There are just so many better ways to generate and store power that this episode would have practically 0% of happening.
Whilst all the technologies and uses in fifteen million merits are technically possible, the scenario in the episode would be so stupid that it won’t ever happen. There would be no good reason to cover everything in screens, remove all physical controls and create a scenario where people have to pedal to generate energy and earn money. Practically every way heard of would be more efficient than this system so there is no way in which it would happen.