“The Little Black Box was originally published in Worlds of Tomorrow in August 1964. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 19–39.
1 – Bogart Crofts—a State Department official—instructs Joan Hiashi to go to Cuba to work on spreading Zen Buddhism among the local Chinese population there. Although an Asian-American, she is chosen for her ethnic background and her specialty in East Asia. She later discusses her orders with her lover Ray Meritan. Meritan turns on the television just in time to watch Wilbur Mercer, the visible face to a new religion spreading across the United States, with the potential to replace Zen Buddhism. Meritan hold the handles of a black empathy box so he can experience Mercer’s suffering as he walks to the place of his death. He holds it for 45 seconds. None of the 20 million followers of Mercer will know what happens when he finally reaches the place of his death.
2 – Bogart Crofts is expressing his concern over the rise of Mercerism with Douglas Herrick, the Secretary of State. They know that Meritan is sympathetic to Mercerism and Herrick has concerns with Hiashi’s mission. Since both are telepaths they must know about each other’s loyalties. They are also trying to figure out where Mercer’s broadcasts are coming from. They meet a Chinese agent, Mr. Lee (also a telephath), who is going to work with Crofts to find out what Hiashi knows. He reports that the Communist Party thinks that Mercer may be non-Terran.
3 – Joan Hiashi meets Mr. Lee at a Chinese restaurant in Havanna. Lee is the head of the Havana Institute of Asian Studies, which is one of the few places that allows the study of Buddhism in the Chinese Communist world. After discussing a Zen paradox, Hiashi suggests that Lee is a telepath, but Lee denies this. Hiashi, knowing he is lying, goes on with the meal.
Ray Meritan is preparing to play his harp on the radio, but is quite shook up from a rock that struck Mercer during his last use of the empathy box. The jazz commentator at the station pries into Meritan’s beliefs. Meritan denies being a followed of Mercer. While playing the harp for a live broadcast, Mercer uses his psychic ability to collect news that the Mercer has been seriously injured, that the government is outlawing Mercerism, and they are also banning the use of empathy boxes. Instead of reporting this news after his performance, Meritan confesses to the public his support for Wilbur Mercer.
4 – Back in Havanna, Mr. Lee arrests Hiashi on behalf of the US government for her knowledge of Meritan’s participation in the Mercer movement and her own sympathies toward the cause. He explaisn that the Communists are working with the US government to suppress the Mercer movement. She announces to the people in the restaurant that she is being kidnapped for being a Mercerite. She sees an old Cuban with a black empathy box and uses it. She feels that she is in a desolate area and a man is standing before her. It is Wilbur Mercer. He tells her that she is not alone. When she releases the handles, Lee scorns her for her belief in such a dubious man.
Later Lee is reporting to Crofts and Herrick about the arrest of Hiashi, who Lee thinks converted to Mercerism in front of him. Croft volunteers to try to empathy box and reaches for the handles.
5 – Meritan is walking in the rain, knowing he cannot return to his apartment without being captures. He goes to a bar where he is known as a jazz musician. He desperately wants to use an empathy box since the news that Mercer was injured. He gets a hold of one from a woman and it allows him to listen into the conversations of Herrick.
Crofts releases the handles and announces that he did not Mercer, but did make contact with Meritan. He confirms that Meritan is not Mercer, and that he does not seem to know much about him. He tries to convince them that Meritan is not a threat or the center of the movement and resigns. Herrick realizes that the Mercer movement just gained another follower.
6 – Meritan and Hiashi (who was released as part of a scheme to trap Meritan) meet at the airport and purchase tickets to Los Angeles. They plan their escape, hoping to use their telepathy. They are given a sample of cereal from a vender. He looks strangely like Wilbur Mercer. In the box of dry cereal is the instructions on building an empathy box.
“The Black Box” is an important story both on its own and for its connection to Dick’s most famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Thematically, “The Black Box” and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are tied around an exploration of empathy as a means to challenge an unjust world. Empathy is institutionalized in the form of a new religious movement called Mercerism, but since it is a decentralized movement, made up of networks of solidarity, it can best be understood as a form of bottom-up resistance. Let me make my case for Mercer being a bottom-up religion first.
Wilbur Mercer is never seen in the story, except through the eyes of the major character Joan Hiashi. She seems him twice, first when she uses an empathy box, the major tool of the religion and second as a street vendor smuggling to her the instructions about how to build a new empathy box. Mercer is never seen, but he is recognized immediately when he is seen. The government debates where he can be found and wants to suppress the movement by crushing its head. This is a futile strategy because in practice Mercerism has no single head. It is a hydra or a web instead. I am not even sure that the empathy box is a technological device. It can be constructed with things found around the home. It may just be an aid to a collective delusion.
People are drawn to the religion for the feeling of solidarity it brings to people sharing an experience. In contrast, the ruling regimes is a highly individualist form of Zen Buddhism, which encourages solitary reflection and meditation. Even Hiashi admits that Zen Buddhism is a form of stupidity, extoling the virtues of being easily manipulated. The Chinese regime is communist, but also opposes Mercerism because it is a threat to their monopoly on collectivist through. It exposes the hypocrisy of state socialism. Mercerism provides a more authentic solidarity than anything that can be provided by the state. It is actually an unstoppable force. The ending scene, where a street vendor smuggles instructions on building an empathy box show that the web is alive and well despite government repression. As we learn when Meritan and Crofts use the empathy box simultaneously, the device seems to create unity among all the users, not simply between the user and Mercer. This also suggests the networked nature of the religion.
New religions movements in “The Black Box” (as well as elsewhere in Dick’s work) is a threat to the hegemony of the ruling regime. Dick sees ideological conformity as the key to social control. New religions are not the only, but still a significant, means to undermine that ideological superstructure. This does not necessarily mean we should sympathize with the values of each religious movement just because they promote diversity. Many are reactionary or authoritarian. Mercerism, however, seems to be a religion that emerges from Dick’s real values and his emphasis on the human need for empathy.
Through the empathy boxes, Mercerism creates a type of alternative media. Ray Meritan’s career as a live broadcast radio musician suggests the limits of traditional media. It can only carry one message at a time. He cannot announce the news about the suppression of Mercerism without interrupting his broadcast. It is also susceptible to government control. The truth of the message is not even very clear. Mercerism promises a more networked and diverse method of communicating across society. Not just a new religion, Mercerism is a form of Internet.
Philip K. Dick Fan Site review.