15 Million Merits and The Inoculation Effect
Bing reminds me of Sisyphus — that doomed figure from ancient Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to endlessly push a weighty rock up a mountain without purpose or reward. For Camus, the plight of Sisyphus is emblematic of the human condition, which he characterized as Absurd. That is, in a universe devoid of rhyme or reason human existence becomes absurd, and, if we confront this absurdity, life is inherently tragic — tragic because consciousness of our plight, which is a consciousness of the futility of existence, removes the possibility of hope and redemption.
In the dystopian world of ‘15 Million Merits’, Bing is compelled to pedal an exercise bike every single day — it’s his Sisyphean rock. Presumably, Bing and his cohorts function as energy sources that power their planet. They are trapped within a world ruled by habit; they accumulate ‘merits’ through their physical labor, but also accrue points through their consumption of a endless torrent of low brow television shows (talent contests, reality TV and pornography). These TV shows are not mere distractions from the drudgery of incessantly pedaling the exercise bikes; they are ideological mechanisms that reinforce a false promise, for the only way to get off the bike is to become a contestant on one of the dire transmissions. Bing recognizes his bleak, absurd situation, and longs for some kind of authentic experience in a world dominated by simulacra. He longs for truth, passion, and reality. Bing thinks he may have discovered these qualities in the character of his fellow worker, Abi, a beautiful woman with an absorbing singing voice. Bing sacrifices his ‘merits’ so Abi can audition for Hot Shot — obviously a parody of popular singing contest shows like American Idol or The Voice. Abi gets on the show, and while the judges acknowledge her prowess as a singer, they feel they have too many singers, and coerce Abi into joining the cast of Wraith Babes, a pornographic reality TV show. Disgusted, and disappointed by this unfortunate outcome, Bing rebels. He works hard to accrue enough merits to appear on Hot Shots himself. Once on the show, he defies convention by threatening to kill himself on live television unless he is allowed to rail and rant about the state of his world. Bing gets his opportunity to express his contempt for his dystopian society. However, instead of being punished, he is given his own television show, which provides him with a sanctioned space to articulate his grievances.
Of course, this episode of Black Mirror works as satire because it’s an extended metaphor for our current predicament. We live in a world dominated by biopolitics. That is, a world that monitors our bodies, prescribes health regimes in order to make us more productive cogs in the capitalist machine. We need to accumulate ‘merits’ and consume mindless images to keep the whole stinking edifice in play. We live in the era of the quantified self, an era of big data, an era capable of taking, what Sadie Plant called, ‘the most radical gesture’ and turning it into just another commodity. Writing more than half a century ago, Roland Barthes drew our attention to what he called ‘the inoculation effect’ — in simple terms, his argument goes something like this: if a society wants to blunt political resistance and the desire for revolutionary change the most effective strategy for maintaining the status quo is permit people to express their grievances. By allowing taken protest, society inoculates itself from the greater threat to its existence. Packaged rebellion serves a dual function: it acts as a safety valve that allows people to let off steam, while simultaneously reinforcing the perception of freedom of speech. Bing wins, but he loses — the machine takes his situationist gesture and turns him into just another version of Sisyphus, one that accumulates even more ‘merits’ for the dystopian state.