Commodity as a Political Pressure Valve in “Fifteen Million Merits”

Curator's Note

In “Fifteen Million Merits,” citizenship correlates to viewership: screens are ubiquitous. Those who bike to power the commune are forced to watch the screen and make purchases for their avatars. The monotony leaves protagonist Bing discontented with his surroundings, his anger culminating in a suicidal speech against the system. In response, the dominant structures ensure their perpetuation by maintaining an illusory ability for the population to dissent. The invisible governing bodies, present only in the three judges of the talent-seeking show Hot Shots, maintain strict political regulation by providing an outlet for rage. This requires a method for citizens to respond to their governing apparatus with a parallel passivity, apparent in Bing’s glass shard and its subsequent digital commodification for avatar use. Red-headed Kai’s purchase of the simulated shard does nothing but provide a meaningless representation, an object without content. The shard is more icon than instrument. Rage itself is displaced by the governing body through commodity. To purchase is to agree with Bing’s first broadcast: suicide is implicit in the shard. However, as Judge Hope suggests, “Authenticity is in woefully short supply.” The implication, then, is that truth itself is at stake here, that truth is something with economic value. Thus, we see a commodification of violence, but one without substance. Bing laments in his speech, “We buy shit that’s not even there.” So one can purchase rage against the governing body, but that very purchase reifies the same structure. Kai still bikes and watches the screen while purchasing the simulated shard. In offering assent to Bing, Kai’s imitation points to the domination of consumerism: to agree is to buy, which is inevitably (and ironically) to support the culture against which one dissents. The shard exists only virtually; it cannot provide release. The commodification of an ideology as a mainstream product thereby nullifies its true capacity to effect change, and dissent becomes an illusion maintained by the dominating powers to work as a release valve to prevent social pressures from boiling over.


Great post Michael! Do you see this idea of the commodfication of violence as something that characterises the rest of the Black Mirror series? I think this is also something we see examined in the season 2 episode 'White Bear'.

Thank you kindly, Sarah! If not a commodification of violence, a commodification of spectacle. I need to catch up to Season 2, but Season 1 seems to have a common thread throughout in how the screen functions in relation to spectacle. The example above is certainly something that is predicated on viewership and audience rather than content.

Great read! You've done a really good job of summing up the key motif of interpassive disavowal in 15 Million Merits here. For me another key component of the episode is how the environment looks and perhaps in turn shapes the people in the commune, one could perhaps call it 'Applefied'. I just wondered if you had any thoughts on this? I don't wish to lead you to an answer but I can't help but think the smoothing out and managed nature of their physical reality also plays a role in reinforcing the status quo.

Thanks, Robert! There's something similar here to "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster - relationships are increasingly mediated through the technology that dictates the social parameters of the commune. This episode is very much about the positioning of body in relation to product: citizen as producer of energy, citizen as viewer, citizen as avatar. It seems the body itself is framed only in terms of one's relation to technology. Bing is the exception until he accepts the judges' offer. There is the possibility of genuine human connection we see with Bing, but the dominant trope here is human connectivity instead. It's a trend we're seeing now, the mediation of human interaction through technology: the positioning of conversation tends to be that of a person hunched over a screen, the Black Mirror. The episode amplifies this to the point of placing citizenship inside the screen (all walls are screens and interface, &c.). The dystopian commune is the only context known to its citizens, and the screen is a majority of their reality.

Firstly I must say thanks for reminding me about "The Machine Stops", must get round to reading it. For the most part you've pretty much echoed my interpretation of the episode. I think what I find interesting is the whole 'non-place' feel of the commune, it's a place where issues of time and space are flattened in order to reduce ruptures in the running of the society. I guess you could say the world is in some sense a projection of Facebook in which the environment is mostly standardised with some non-threatening tweaks available. It's a world in which one works (cycles) by giving up data for the privilege of using a platform which, as we have seen recently, actively tries to manipulate algorithmically how we think and feel.

Interesting post, Michael. I must admit, Fifteen Million Merits was one of my least favourite Black Mirror episodes, primarily as it often seemed an overly "on-the-nose" lampooning of televisual form, celebrity/stardom and the commodification of user-experiences within digitally mediated spaces. Then again, I am a miserable sod who will gleefully wallow in the emotional horror of "The Entire History of You" ad nauseam, so maybe my assessment may not mean a great deal! I am curious (mainly as I cannot recall - it's been a long time since I've seen the episode): are the inhabitants within the "commune" explicitly designated as citizenry? I notice that in your post and responses that characters are repeatedly positioned as such, although they seem more like convicts trapped in a limbo-like no-place, than empowered subjects with choices! When I observe them within the episode, I'm put more into mind of the "gamified" environments constructed online by broadcasters for youth users, or the tightly organised spaces of Xbox and Playstation systems, wherein the positioning of the user is explicitly as consumer, rather than citizen. I suppose that this raises wider questions concerning agency (both real and imagined) and the type/scale of change that can truly be enacted by individuals whilst within these systems operated by corporate (or governmental) interests - any user-agency (or indeed varying types of capital) that is on offer here is subsequently swiftly co-opted and exploited? Perhaps FMM also operates as a sly commentary on how "freely offered" user-generated labour/content is subsequently redeployed by media industries (particularly television) to both generate revenue and operate as a rebuttal against being monolithically undemocratic - users are getting a "voice"! To Robert: I had a similar reaction to the environments of which you speak - they ARE "Applefied" in the sense that each user in FMM is locked into a technological "walled garden" and thrown the occasional reward or incentive to distract from the hideousness of their servitude! Note: I am an Apple user. I know of this horror first hand.

Dr. O'Neill, Thank you for your response. I use the term "citizen" in so much as they are part of the commune. Perhaps "resident" would be a better term? It's never labeled as such, but I think that's more than valid to call them prisoners: they wear matching uniforms (more or less), they live in tiny apartments/cells, and their social operations are performed at designated times. In the least, we're seeing a panoptic society. Their choices are limited, so I would say they have an illusion of choice much like they have an illusion of the capacity to dissent. There is no true agency. Even Bing's initial speech is reduced to sheer celebrity. I agree with the gamer model you mention. It's odd to me that we see these implementations in culture and media today, particularly in commercialism. Shopping, especially online, is modeled in many cases on a reward model we see in games: press a button, receive reward. Purchase is treated to some extent as a form of play. Perhaps the consumer experiences a similar idea of finding a "voice" in this model? A sense of agency in the purchase that is really just simulated choice? Thoughts?

The gamification (or applefied) element is certainly a key part of the episode for me. I did nearly mention BF Skinner and his behavioural utopia Walden Two in relation to the episode because, to refer back Michael's comment directed at me, I don't think the majority of 'users' in FMM are aware of their servitude. To quote sociologist Lewis Mumford's criticism of this kind of managed utopia: “You make people do exactly what you want with some form of sugar-coated drug or candy which will make them think they are actually enjoying every moment of it. This is the most dangerous of all systems of compulsion. That’s why I regard Skinner’s utopia as another name for Hell. And it would be a worse hell because we wouldn’t realise we were there. We would imagine we were still in Heaven.”

This was my least favorite of the Black Mirror episodes. Partly do to it being - in my opinion at the time - unnecessarily longer than the other episodes. After reading your post and noticing that the length might be to accentuate the monotony of the biking task, I'm excited to re-watch this episode!

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