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The response to the recent fashion for “poverty porn” says a lot about the strange ideas many of us seem to have, regarding how we’d deal with real poverty if we were ever in serious financial trouble.

We seem to think that, if times were tight, we’d be able to tighten our belts for a while, live sensible and sparsely, and ride it out. It’d just take a bit of budgeting and deliberate frugality, which it feels we’d be able to handle if we had to, if we were really tested. We’d knuckle down, we’d scrimp, we’d save. We wouldn’t waste our time and valuable resources on fripperies like a “flatscreen TV” – a fancy gadget modern enough to bewilder many tabloid journalists with its exoticism, but known to the rest of us as “a TV” and which can retail new for like £70 nowadays. But even that seems needlessly lavish, if you’re so poor that it’s a matter of survival. We’d cut back on anything so frivolous as entertainment then, and only spend money on what we truly needed.

We may not all be as deluded on this score as Iain Duncan Smith, but it’s still a prevalent attitude.

After all, we all have money problems to some degree or another. Which means it’s all too easy to sorta kinda picture ourselves in that kind of situation, and imagine how motivated we’d be to find some way out of it. The looming dread of poverty would surely be a powerful motivator that we – not being feckless scroungers and layabouts – would be inspired to leap into action, and work hard and diligently, and make our own independent way in the world. Naturally we’d respond that way, just as naturally as the world would inevitably reward our hard work by making sure we regained our financial security if we just kept at it for long enough.

Good lord it’s such obvious bollocks though. I mean, if you pay any attention to the amount of money people with bills to pay throw away on stuff that’s not strictly necessary but provides them with some kind of happiness or comfort, or if you learn anything about the psychological effects of being in constantly dire financial straits, or if you’ve spent any time actually living in that kind of world, not just on a two-week sight-seeing trip there with a paid-off house and a career in politics and/or media to come home to at the end of it all.

I’ve never lived in the kind of world where the demands and threats of destitution are constantly grinding you down, and anyone in an even slightly higher income bracket or social class can be safely assumed to be looking down on you and holding you at least partly responsible for your predicaments, and Channel 4 are making documentaries to show millions of people what scum you are, and where a nation will turn against you simply for wanting to enjoy an easy, accessible, low-cost way to distract yourself from worrying if the gas is going to be cut off this week and watch some moving picture of a world that doesn’t suck for a while. And I feel fortunate that I haven’t. The idea that the financial situation of the least well-off benefits claimants in this country is enviable is completely alien to me.

How shit does someone’s life have to be before you stop resenting them getting any help from anyone? Christ, let people have their flatscreen TVs. What the hell do you want from them?

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Charlie Brooker’s newspaper columns and often bleakly satirical TV spots are among the most valuable and entertaining cultural commentaries to be found in the UK.

But recently he’s had another stab at writing proper drama. After watching two episodes of his dystopian-allegory-warning-thing Black Mirror, I’m guiltily hoping he goes back to what he’s really very good at.

His prose and sarcastic voiceover narratives demonstrate an enviably wry and nimble turn of phrase (“Come, friendly asteroids, and fall on Earth” was one I particularly enjoyed). But as much as he’s mastered the extraction of witty and withering one-liners from the darkness and depravity of the world, when he tries to stretch a point over an hour and a half it starts to seem rather thin.

In the second episode of Black Mirror, our protagonist is one of countless drably-clothed victims of some sort of authoritarian regime, and spends most of his time on a bicycle machine, providing the electricity that powers the world. The only other regular locations of his daily life seem to be a crowded elevator taking him to and from the cycle room, and an only slightly less cramped personal room, containing nothing more than a bed a few square feet of floor, and with television monitors making up every inch of wall and ceiling space.

Cycling earns him merits, which he spends on things like food, toothpaste, and brief reprieves from the string of loud and flashy advertisements that blare almost constantly from every screen. The only products we ever see him being encouraged to consume are a reality show clearly serving as a stand-in for The X-Factor, and pornography.

The message, such as it is, is not unfamiliar. What will happen if we get too enrapt by all this lowest-common-denominator passive consumption, and forget to think? The society of this episode (titled Fifteen Million Merits) has been entirely restructured around keeping the masses dumb and compliant, and providing them with ample mindless distractions to quell any thoughts of questioning the status quo. It’s so on-the-nose it’ll punch you in the sinuses, and Kirsty rattled off half a dozen books and films of which it was very clearly derivative without pausing to draw breath. But at least it does conjure the sense of abject turpitude it seeks to inspire, and if its ideas have been repeated often, it’s because they’re not unworthy of continued examination.

The problem lies in the shallowness of the show’s analysis of our inevitable moral and intellectual decline. The connection between society’s sexual obsessions and misogyny, our fixation with carefully manipulated and manipulative reality TV, and a decline in our capacity for (and interest in) complex thought, is made abundantly clear. But countless other important and intriguing social factors are glossed over or ignored. Surely there must be more going on, for us to have reached such a nightmarish scenario beyond the fever dreams of Huxley, than that we became too emotionally invested in some wannabe singers with tear-jerking personal histories. It starts to feel like the level of critique is dumbed down almost as far as the society we’re supposed to be thinking about.

One aspect of the world that was given less blatant emphasis was the avatars, or “doppels”, which people use to represent themselves when appearing on-screen or in a virtual world – a fairly minor extrapolation of an idea popular with a number of computer game systems today. The doppels are also customisable, and the drones are encouraged by their invisible overlords to spend merits upgrading their virtual characters with virtual accessories. Here, too, the parallel with current trends is not exactly opaque.

But the show’s examination of this phenomenon goes no further than to hurl contempt at the very notion of these unreal goods being a worthwhile form of consumption – and, dangerously, it does nothing to abnegate the spreading of that contempt to the consumers themselves. It doesn’t go any further than pointing at these forms of behaviour and labelling them as stupid, deplorable, reprehensible, and dehumanising. The people who act this way are either equally reprehensible and inhuman themselves, or (the more charitable alternative that we’re offered) they’re unthinking sheep who’ve been manipulated into ignorance of their own pointlessness. Which isn’t just an appropriately grim view of humanity’s possible future; it’s a dehumanisingly ungenerous assessment of humanity itself.

We’ve learned some fascinating things about ourselves and our brains, which relate to what we find entertaining, and the types of rewards we find enticing. What some games or advertising companies choose to do with these facts about human psychology may seem sinister, but they can also be used to improve ourselves. Will we, in the end, opt for self-improvement over low-brow gimmicks that push our pleasure buttons with all the casual ease of an addiction?

I don’t know. It’s a question worth asking, and an answer worth worrying about. But in the world of Black Mirror, there’s not much to suggest that the general mass of humanity are complex bundles of conflicting motivations and interests. It looks more like we’re a homogeneous crowd, doomed to irrelevance by our own flaws and our lack of interest in counteracting them. And it feels cynical in exactly the way Charlie Brooker is usually so good at destroying.

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