This past Christmas my wife, in her infinite love and wisdom, got me a pair of Peloton shoes to encourage me to exercise more. Working primarily from my home office, my lifestyle is what one could generously describe as “sedentary,” with my few outside excursions including either going to the store to run errands, going to hang out with friends or to the theater to catch a movie, or visiting the library to pick up a new book.
If you know me — or, in case you don’t: Hi, I’m Toussaint, it’s nice to meet you — you’ll know that I fucking hate surveillance capitalism. I hate Ring cameras, I hate Alexa smart speakers, and I especially fucking hate Elf on the Shelf. Naturally, the idea of willingly allowing my physical health and fitness to be monitored by a proprietary device with the implicit potential for (though apparent disinterest from) Peloton Interactive to change the terms of service of its devices on a whim and sell my data to god knows who to do god knows what skeeves me out to the extreme. That said, I finally relented and gave the damn bike a ride this past weekend, and what would you know: It’s kinda fun! Y’know, that kind of insidious brand of fun that belies a deeper strata of manipulation and surreptitious intent, but still, fun!
Adjusting the red knob designed to lower and raise resistance made me feel as though I was interacting with a daycare toy, and trying to pedal along within the ever-changing speed range on the video I was playing reminded me of the active reload system from Gears of War. But most of all, my brief initial Peloton experience reminded me of “Fifteen Million Merits,” the second episode of the first season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror, which premiered less than a month before the founding of Peloton Interactive on Jan. 3, 2012.
The episode, which stars Daniel Kaluuya (six years prior to his mainstream breakout performance in Jordan Peele’s 2017 psychological horror thriller Get Out), centers on Bingham “Bing” Madsen, a young man implied to be living in a dystopian subterranean society that divides its populace into roughly three castes: those who routinely ride stationary bikes in order to generate electricity, service workers who are tasked with the menial day-to-day duties of cleaning up after bike riders, and an elusive upper caste of entertainers who run the gamut from reality TV stars to sex workers.
Like most episodes of Black Mirror, it has big “We live in a society” energy combined with an incessant level of “It’s ’cause you be on that damn phone” scolding, in this case parodying everything from digital currencies, hypersexualized pop-up ads that penalize you for not watching, and Fahrenheit 451-like TV rooms to Xbox Live-like avatars, the gamification of low-wage manual labor, and really just the general banality of everyday evil.
At the risk of spoiling a 12-year-old episode of television for anyone who hasn’t already watched it, “Fifteen Million Merits” ends with Bingham delivering an impassioned speech decrying the callous inhumanity of the society in which he finds himself ensnared and, much like Network’s Howard Beale before him, that righteous fury and contempt is swiftly assimilated to buttress the very system it otherwise would aim to indict. As Disco Elysium’s Joyce Messier so aptly put it, “Capital has the ability to subsume all critiques into itself. Even those who would critique capital end up reinforcing it instead.” Wow, kind of like the article you’re reading right now!
Black Mirror’s lopsided hit-to-miss ratio is a matter of broadly accepted fact at this point, with a noticeable shift in tone and content between the series’ first two seasons (produced by the U.K.’s Channel 4) and subsequent seasons following Black Mirror’s acquisition by Netflix. For every “San Junipero” there’s like three “Shut Up and Dance” episodes, and maybe one or more that are about as intellectually stimulating as an average episode of Love, Death & Robots. It’s not fair to judge science fiction on its ability to accurately predict the future, as writers and artists who work within the genre are merely extrapolating their present-day fears, anxieties, and questions into semi-plausible scenarios for the sake of reflection, warning, and even catharsis from said fears. That said, while “Fifteen Million Merits” doesn’t necessarily predict the future — or at least [gulp] I hope not — it did inadvertently predict the vibe of riding a Peloton bike. That vibe being the act of ostensibly making progress but having very little at first to show for it, of literally pedaling in place while being coddled and told that you’re a good and healthy person for doing it.
Every morning I strap on my little shoes, lock the base of my shoes to the pedal mechanisms of the bike, choose a new video, and pedal away as I listen to the nice instructor tell me how good of a job I’m doing as I fixate on moving at the appropriate speed with the appropriate amount of resistance. A little number goes up at the top of screen, congratulating me on another successful session of biking — just like how Bingham and his fellow bikers earn “merits” for each ride that they can then spend on things like a shiny green apple to eat or toothpaste to brush their teeth or pornography to distract themselves from how alone they are. The key difference between Bingham and myself is that I have friends and family and connections that haven’t been overshadowed by my work; I can go outside, take a walk, grab a bite to eat, peruse a book store, or catch a movie, and at the moment only maybe two of those five things require that I have the appropriate amount of “merits” to afford such a luxury.
The irony of me writing this piece for a major profit-driven media organization is no more lost on me than the irony that the experience of participating in the upcoming Squid Game reality show was reportedly — surprise, surprise — an experience not unlike hell on Earth. To quote the song “The Dead Flag Blues” by Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death,” but at least we can soothe our aching consciences with some sweet, sweet content. Happy streaming, happy workouts, and remember — don’t think, keep pedaling!
Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix.