Controlled through Inflicting Pleasure. The Entertainment Concentration Camp
“Through the predictable entertainment of television and movies by which the world’s growing number of consumers feel they are in touch with themselves and with one another, and by the fashions in everything from clothing to buildings […] consumers are encouraged to suppress their inherent differences and conform. This serves well enough those who thrive on consumers’ dependencies, but reduces consumers themselves to a type of passivity that is historically new. It is the passivity foreseen by Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” (1932), when he wrote that the way to control people is not with pain but with pleasure. What was once a privilege to be won has become a right to be demanded and received. The consumer waits to be pleased and in this way is continually pacified.” (Lebbeus Woods, Radical Reconstruction)
SPOILER ALERT: Black Mirror s01e02, “Fifteen Million Merits” – See Trailer So Dr. Strangelove’s dream comes true. The world is destroyed by nuclear war; the survivors find refuge in underground shelters, safe from the harmful radiations, but also deprived from sunlight. Electricity becomes the most valuable element, the new universal currency (“merits”). Since the traditional ways of producing electric current are no longer available in the underground, dynamos become the universal solution; millions of people are riding ‘exercise bikes’ to keep the world running. Mass media and augmented reality are the means of rewarding the working individuals. The concentration camps are full of interactive screens; the sleeping rooms’ walls are covered with screens that generate virtual environments; the exercise bikes come with interactive screens that offer TV programs during working hours; even bathrooms are packed with the very same screens.
The camp’s leading class offers a limited number of TV channels which are mandatory for each individual, featuring interviews with stars, erotic shows, reality shows, retarded comedies and talent shows. As Lebbeus Woods put it, one of the most effective ways of controlling people through pleasure is to provide them with artificial dreams and hopes. In our story, the leading class offers each individual the democratic chance of becoming a star through “Hot Shot” – a talent show similar to “Britain’s Got Talent”. All he needs to do is buy a 15 million merits’ worth ticket, the price of 6 months’ work. The ticket gives him the right to participate in the competition and impress the jury with his talent. The winners are offered slots on TV channels, thus escaping the pedaling routine. The hope of winning the show is systematically instilled into the workers’ minds through TV shows; the ‘legends’ are constantly featured in mandatory adverts (skipping them incurs loss of merits), while becoming a part of the entertainment industry is regarded as the highest conceivable achievement in one’s life.
The absurdity of this myth is fully revealed when two individuals, Aby and Bing, buy participation tickets for the show and meet the other contestants in the waiting hall. Hundreds of alienated individuals, each practicing his act, singing and dancing, waiting to enter the talent show at any moment. The judges’ criteria for talent consist of standardised skills and fixed ways of behaving, as if selected through computer-generated processes . There is a successful way of singing, a successful way of dancing, of promoting yourself, of featuring your body, of speaking and gazing. The featured legend, Selma Telse, considered the best singer in the world, does nothing but cover Abba’s “I Have a Dream” with an ordinary pop-music voice. However, the judges consider her performance “beyond incredible”. Symptomatic for today’s pop culture; I went to Westfield the other day, to discover that their amazing Christmas singer was a guy playing predictable chords on the piano and singing with an autotune-like voice. That’s right! The bloody tool that destroyed music has become worthy of imitation! The physical look of the candidates is also mechanically analised according to the infallible standard and carefully placed into a category or another: “hot and innocent, thus suitable to be mixed with eroticism”, “stylish and beautiful, thus suitable for fashion and reality shows”, “virile and rebel, thus suitable for a hip-hop performance”, “funny and entertaining, thus suitable for a comedy show”; the predictable computer-generated categories that would meet the expectations of consumers. A closed-circuit mechanism that tends to constantly suppress differences between performers in order to please consumers, and in the same time suppressing differences between consumers themselves in order to control them through pleasure.
A displeased consumer and a maverick performer are the biggest threats to the political hierarchy; this is why these dangerous individuals need to be reduced to one of the classic categories or crushed. When the innocent and joyful Aby Khan sings about an authentic love that thrives beyond commercial cliches, she becomes a maverick, a potential threat to the consumer society, threatening to jeopardise the established categories. The jury members diligently camouflage the crisis and try to solve it through forcefully placing her in one of the commercial categories: “the hot and innocent girl, suitable for erotic shows”. In fact, she is carefully approached from the beginning; before stepping on the stage, she is put in front of a camera and asked if she wanted to be as big as Selma one day, then she is asked to say that as a self-contained sentence. “What did you dream? It’s alright, we told you what to dream” (Pink Floyd). Inhibitions and authentic emotions are also regarded as potential threats in a performance, so they are cured through an energising mind-altering drink.
The three Judges are a troubling representation of the leading class in the world of entertainment. Everything they do, their words, their facial expressions, their voice, speech and pauses – are carefully calculated to maximise their impact on screen and impress all categories of consumers. Their reactions strike you as a deja vu from other movies; judge Hope is a mixture of Simon Cowell, James Bond and the average 90s action figure; judge Charity is the average female star, a more daring Amanda Holden who cries during performances but also joins men in their indecent jokes. Finally, judge Wraith is the afro-american movie star, a mix between Martin Lawrence, Will Smith and the classic hip-hop figure. When confronted with authentic, heartfelt productions, it is as if the judges suddenly realise the whole artificiality of the system and seem to be “born again” – in fact, a calculated process of winning a maverick’s sympathy, allowing him to feel content and proud of his impact, so that he might be bought into the system and fall into one of the standard categories of producers: “You will never have to pedal again, not one minute; we could really work with you. You would be a star on our stream. Your furniture’s the best. Forget about all that shame and all that… we medicate against that. You will have pleasure for ever.” (judge Wraith). If the maverick is still undecided, they present him their second argument: since his “stuff” is atypical, it would go unnoticed: “good though your voice is, I don’t think anyone’s really hearing it; certainly not the guys in the audience”. Or even more direct, as in the case of other unfortunate contestants: “I’m so sorry, love. You came across as fundamentally unlikable and really quite worthless!” When Aby, still not convinced, is about to refuse the proposal, the judges reveal their true concern: “Who do you think is powering that spotlight? Millions of people, that’s who. All of them looking at you right now, putting in an honest day on the bike, while you stand in the light they’re generating and ditter. You know what? They would give anything, do anything to be where you’re at now. […] And you’re standing there as though they’re nothing. And that makes me sick.” The status quo is invoked as the final argument against oddity; the maverick’s refusal to fall into one of the system’s categories is considered the biggest insult towards the millions of abiding individuals.
Bing Madson’s performance has the same results as Aby’s. His anarchic speech, his rage against the artificial system powered only to perpetuate illusions and to deprive people of their personality, is carefully examined by judge Hope and put into a paradoxical commercial category, “the virile and rebel anarchist”; the producer that successfully sells his own negation; James Cameron’s “Avatar” if you like. Every maverick is forced to become a producer or a consumer; it’s either the stage or the bike; as simple as that. The hierarchical system must continue feeding on consumers’ individuality and control them through pleasure.
“This culture is maintained at the expense of creativity that can emerge only from an imagination stirred by confrontation with every kind of experience and actuality. Crises arise from the confrontation of disparate realities, when things of different orders meet and contend. (Lebbeus Woods, Idem).”
You don’t have to get through Lebbeus’ analysis to realise we’re already being controlled with pleasure in a media-augmented concentration camp. Architects cannot avoid these realities either. Do you want to become a successful architect, work for a powerful corporation and earn £50000 a year? All you have to do is follow strict procedures, while maintaining the illusion that you’re progressing in a personalised, creative way. Build a strong Linkedin profile, ask for recommendations and endorsements from previous employers, learn how recruitment agencies really work, learn how to introduce dozens of search engines keywords, buzzwords and cliches into your profile, CV and cover letter in order to advance in the search hierarchies and get views from recruiters. Learn this specific software, design in that specific way, attend this meeting, constantly post on your profile, constantly call your recruiters, constantly apply for CV reviewing companies that will fill your profiles with even more buzzwords and help you sell yourself even better. Describe yourself as an innovative, highly motivated and creative architect, but nonetheless submissive, with high academic qualifications that look good in a CV and strong communication skills consisting of buzzwords and motivational stereotypes. Tell them about your desire to grow, to constantly project an image of success in order to be successful, to be part of an immersive environment and work on robust, contextual, innovative, bespoke, feature-rich projects and constantly increase operational efficiency, boost productivity and deliver high quality services. I recently received an email from Linkedin providing valuable advice for increasing my employability. One of the tips was as straightforward as this:
The most memorable cover letter I received was from a Purchasing Agent who started off with “Money, money, money. All I think about is how to save money”, and then went on to describe how saving money is part of her personality both at work and at home. We ended up hiring her because we believed she would not only thrive in the job, but actually enjoy it.
After you get the chance of becoming a producer, you will have to follow the same fixed routines, use the same design cliches required by the hierarchy and, if possible, maintain the illusion of creativity and helpfulness. Lebbeus’ reflections point to this troublesome reality:
“Architects are specialists in the formation of [abstract spatial] qualities. One of the cliches derived from this approach is that space is designed to be functional, which means, in the jargon of the architect, that each designed space has been shaped to follow a “program” for human use. This, of course, is nonsense. Architects usually design rectilinear volumes of space following Cartesian rules of geometry, and such spaces are no better suited to being used for office work than as a bedroom or a butcher shop. All designed space is in fact pure abstraction, truer to a mathematical system than to any human “function”. While architects speak of designing space that satisfied human needs, human needs are actually being shaped to satisfy designed space, and the abstract systems of thought and organization on which design is based. In the case of Cartesian space, these systems include not only Descartes’s mind-and-body duality, but also Newton’s cause-and-effect determinism, Aristotle’s laws of logic and other theoretical constructs that the prevailing political and social powers that be require. Design can be a means of controlling human behavior, and of maintaining this control into the future. The architect is a functionary in a chain of command whose most important task (from the standpoint of social institutions) is to label otherwise abstract and “meaningless” spaces with “functions” that are actually instructions to people as to how they must behave at a particular place and time. The network of designed spaces, the city, is an intricate behavioral plan prescribing social interactions of every kind, prescribing therefore the thoughts and, if possible, the feeling of individuals.” (Lebbeus Woods, Idem)
Just as in Black Mirror’s dystopian society, every creation of the Architect is destined to fall into the fixed, abstract categories dictated by consumer culture. You can either contribute to the production of ‘fodder” and earn a living, or embark on a heroic quest to change the world and end up selling your own negation. There is a third option in Lebbeus’ view, but it only makes sense in a post-apocalyptic scenario. For the time being, the mere contemplation of our dystopian concentration camp might suffice. Welcome to the Machine.