Do you ever feel like you’re not in control of your life? Do you ever feel like your life might have already been mapped out – by something or someone else? Do you believe in destiny? Are the choices we make, or seemingly make, our own – do they belong to us alone? Are we as responsible for our existence, the paths we take and the choices we make, as we seem to be? What exactly is free will – and do we have it?
These are some of the philosophical musings thrown up by watching/consuming/taking part in Bandersnatch – Charlie Brooker’s latest Black Mirror production for Netflix; a ground-breaking postmodern choose-your-own-adventure-style epic. It’s a film which is sort of like a game, and yet, arguably, an entirely new kind of story-telling medium in its own right. Or maybe not – choose-your-own-adventure tales have been around since as long ago as the 1970s. This is, however, the first time an internet-based streaming service (itself a fairly embryonic televisual medium) has attempted something quite so ambitious.
Netflix, having achieved considerable growth in recent years, has used some of their profits to produce an impressive range of new and original content, but the latest Black Mirror offering actually required a significant investment in new software. This allows the viewers the opportunity to make choices using their remote controls within a ten-second time limit – it’s our job to guide main character Stefan through his own narrative maze; he is making his own choose-your-own-adventure video game based on a fictional book called Bandersnatch (which is based on a fictional Lewis Carroll beastie from the Alice in Wonderland sequel Through the Looking-Glass).
Without wanting to spoil it for those of you reading this blog who haven’t seen it, Stefan basically meets a variety of pretty grim or miserable endings depending on which choices you make for him. By selecting different pathways, you give yourself the chance to experience the various narrative threads that have been woven into the collective story/stories. There are choices which effectively send you back in loops, and I know of people who grew frustrated with this element of the show, yet I can’t help feeling that a brilliant cynic like Brooker would’ve revelled in the knowledge that he was going to entertain, inspire and infuriate in equal measure.
Regardless, the show has created an almighty buzz on social media – with fans mapping out all the possible endings they’ve encountered in the same way the story’s game developer Stefan does when formulating his version of Bandersnatch. There is much speculation abounding on the web of secret endings (one such discovery involved some rather clued-up techy types running odd sounds – from a cassette Stefan listens to – through an emulator to create a QR code, which takes you to a website for the film’s fictional games developer Tuckersoft) and there are loads of articles online detailing all the Black Mirror Easter eggs which reference previous episodes in the dystopian series. For example, one of the games produced by Tuckersoft is called Nohzdyve – a reference to the Black Mirror episode Nosedive starring Bryce Dallas Howard, in which the characters give personal Trip Advisor-style ratings to each other based on their social ‘performance’.
All mixed up
The reviews actually seem to be quite mixed for Bandersnatch – some see it as innovative and inventive, others suggest the story itself could be stronger and that it pales in comparison to previous Black Mirror episodes. It’s been heralded as a landmark moment in the evolution of TV in certain quarters, and yet derided in others for offering up an interactive narrative in such a way which renders the story’s consequentiality redundant. This postmodern glut of endless choice and overwhelming possibility actually stifles the meaning and impact of what happens to the protagonist under your control in the fictional 1980s setting. We might not like the idea of someone telling us what to do – but we revel in the certainty of a concrete ending which ties up all the loose ends!
This last point alone could be used to explicate one of the biggest problems in fuelling the rudderlessness of our current mode of existence – the proliferation of choice; multiple choice endings do tend to dilute the meaning of the narrative that’s gone before, and perhaps render the story up to then rather meaningless. Spotify is great because it allows me to encounter a world of new music with just a few taps of my finger – but am I actually now experiencing lots of ‘new’ things or just listening to more bands playing the same type of music as I’ve always listened to?
Is my spectrum of appreciation any broader than the 80s kid who bought a few cassettes at random (or by recommendation/hearing a song on the radio) and suddenly discovered the joy of Motown, the power of punk or the beauty of Beethoven? Am I just doing Spotify wrong, or Netflix wrong, or Big Macs wrong, or are some things in life actually hampered by having a dizzying array of options? Is our time too limited to have the whole world at our fingertips? Is it in fact easier to navigate existence when our pathways are clearer and more defined – or am I being closed-minded, lazy or cowardly? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I really enjoyed Bandersnatch, and I would suggest that it’s well worth a watch – or rather, well worth experiencing. For me, as a philosophy enthusiast, the show throws up lots of interesting questions about the nature of human existence, and I’d like to discuss a few of those with you now.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
So, do we have free will? Are we in charge of ourselves? Are we in control of our actions? I guess it’s essentially impossible to offer a definite answer here – much like, say, the existence of a god. Until I meet this god, I can’t know for sure either way. But how do I know if I’m in control of my actions? I simply cannot live my life waiting to potentially meet my personal puppeteer, especially as they almost certainly don’t exist. In this sense, willpower appears to be subjective. It’s almost an act of faith in itself – my perception is that I am the master of my life. And seeing as that is all I know, that is my truth. But just because I’ve never met a god, doesn’t mean one might not exist. And just because I don’t feel like someone, or something, else is controlling my life, doesn’t mean for absolute certain that they aren’t. I feel like I am in complete control. I have never once in my life felt, or even assumed, that a choice I made was not my own.
But just because I haven’t felt out of control, doesn’t make the premise of my being influenced by an exterior entity infallible. And yet, as stated, this is my truth. (We’re going round in circles here, Joe – oh yeah, sorry, Lord Controller Bot!) And seeing as I have no other truth other than my subjectivity and perception with which to navigate my existence, I almost have no choice but to trust my self. And to believe in my sense of self. To take charge. As I see fit. To be who I am. And not worry about whether I am what I think I am. But just to be me – and assume my freedom is genuine. Because the alternative is surely too directionless, irresponsible and, well, terrifying to fathom. So why should I assume my freedom?
The choice is yours
Existentialism, the mode of philosophical inquiry which began with the great Dane Soren Kierkegaard and blossomed further notably through the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, is a strand of thinking that appears a lot in my blogs – often due to its significance in relation to our will and the importance of recognising our sense of self. Existentialism is all about putting the human being first – it’s about placing the emphasis on the individual to take responsibility for their lives. If we perhaps just park, for now, the elements which deal with the absurd, contingent nature of a world without meaning, and the dread and anxiety which stem from this realisation, there is actually much in an existentialist approach to combat any uneasy feelings one might have in relation to their possible lack of free will.
Because the existentialist approach is all about realising our freedom – by accepting that we are responsible for the choices we make; that we can only live authentically if we are honest with ourselves and others. And that we assume our freedom as individuals – not by passing off that freedom, and the decisions we might struggle to make, to another body – such as the church or the State. So the message here is – stop worrying about your free will. And, instead, assume your freedom. There’s no need to question whether or not you have free will – you do have it. And it’s up to you to be responsible for how you choose to use it. Sartre famously coined the phrase ‘existence precedes essence’ – which puts man/person first – we determine nature through our choices; as conscious beings we realise our own meaning in life; we are the makers of our own values.
Masters of our own morality
To be the master of one’s own values was one of the key goals in Nietzsche’s great philosophy – and his work still resonates vividly in the minds of his readers today. It is up to us alone and no-one else to determine our own moral decisions. Too often morality, and the behaviours expected of us, have been set and determined by those with a vested interest in maintaining positions of authority and hierarchical dominance. Without wanting to sound like some kind of conspiracy theorist, there are undoubtedly forces at work which attempt to control us to some extent in everyday life. Those previously mentioned, the State and the church, are probably the two best examples of bodies with power who have sought to maintain control of their citizens/believers/followers by trying to direct their will in manner which suits their needs; by ceding our will to the dominant groups, we do things on their terms.
It is a means to retaining power, usually for a relatively small group, with a relatively massive share of financial wealth. Nietzsche didn’t appreciate the way that religion in particular had been used to subjugate large numbers of people using baseless promises – ‘if you do what we say, you will one day be rewarded for your co-operation in heaven’. Instead, the existentialist might suggest that one ignores the unlikely potential chance of entering another world which cannot be proved and instead act in a manner they believe is correct according to who they are as a free-thinking human being in this realm – which we know with certainty to be true through our human instincts.
By the way, I’m not anti-religion at all – I just believe it needs to be practised in the right manner – and adopted for the right reasons; to care for each other, support each other, act with kindness and give strength to its followers through faith and love.
The great cop out
There is one further key point related existentialism and Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre’s work that is illuminated by one of the narrative set-pieces in Bandersnatch – if one refuses to assume their own freedom, free will and sense of responsibility, then they can pretty much do anything they like. Some might suggest this also aligns with Nietzsche’s Superman premise in Thus Spake Zarathustra – in that by making our own morals, one could essentially do whatever they think is right for them.
But for now, let’s just consider how essential it is for us to assume our existential freedom, and to act in (Sartrean) Good Faith/live authentically, because otherwise we can pass the buck of responsibility onto whomever we deem fit. This is how one absolves themselves of any potential guilt for a crime or misdemeanour they may commit – ‘I did it for God/my country/I’m not in control’. To deny one’s freedom/free will is a cop out – it’s an excuse to place the blame onto someone or something else; it’s a chance to relinquish oneself of the anxiety, dread and pain of hard decisions that are just a part of human life. With free will comes great responsibility – but denying one’s access to a free will is anti-life and riddled with dangers.
Limitless or limited?
So, Bandersnatch is an interactive film which plays with the concept of free will. One of the ways it does this rather deliciously is by sending the viewer/participant on a series of narrative loops if they don’t make the ‘correct’ choice to take them on to a path which progresses the story in some way. After watching Bandersnatch, I spoke to a colleague about it. He’s a smart guy and I respect his opinion but, whilesharing many things in common with me, is also a very different person with different tastes.
I told him I loved Bandersnatch and he told me he hated it. “Talk about free will – it keeps sending me back to the same bit! Your choices are supposed to matter but, really, you aren’t in control at all!” His biggest bugbear was the constant looping – and he’s not the only person who’s said this to me. And while I understand the frustrations of these apparent limitations, I think it’s safe to assume that it was part of Brooker’s plan to a) reinforce the potential illusion of free will by denying it not only to Stefan, but to the viewers themselves and b) to piss a bunch of people off. Because let’s face it, the latter definitely seems like something that would’ve had Brooker chortling to himself as he came up with the looping idea.
If you haven’t watched Bandersnatch yet, but decide to do so after reading this blog, I suggest you go into it with an open mind (I promise I’m not telling you what to do!) There are many different ways and mindsets with which to consume it, but for me, as a philosophy fan, I believe that you’ll get more out of it if you try less to connect emotionally with the story or appreciate the novelty of the medium, and instead just allow it to make you think about your free will, sense of self and what it means to be an autonomous individual being. Are you in control of your life as much as you think you are/should be? Are you being what you want to be? And if not, what can you do to fully restore your sense of you-ness?
My Boring Life – The Game
One of my favourite bits in Bandersnatch sees Stefan’s therapist try to reason with her increasingly paranoid patient, who now fully believes he has no control over his actions, by applying an argument for free will that I have long adopted myself – without ever really considering how ridiculous it is:
Why would someone, or something, else want to control my life when it’s so boring?
Sure, I can understand taking charge of Ryan Gosling, Lewis Hamilton or Lionel Messi’s lives – or any member of BTS. Or Ariana Grande, Serena Williams or Queen Elizabeth II. With any of those people mentioned, you get to see the world – you have money, fame and power. You have achieved great things – and you have the scope to do so many more things with your life. Why would anyone even want to control my life – and if they are, are they doing a good job or a bad one?
Well, I’m pretty happy – so I guess they’re not doing too badly. But, in all seriousness, does the mundanity argument actually stack up? Because just in the way that the existence we are all experiencing has supposed ‘winners and losers’ (awful terms in the instance, I know), surely these players of My Boring Life – The Game would suffer the same issue; mainly, that not all of them can be controlling comparative ‘successes’ like David Beckham or Beyoncé – rather than Sandra the hard-working cleaner or Bill the humble baker. Some of these controllers, unfortunately or not depending on your taste/what you value in life as important, have to be a Joe Shackley – while others have to be Tom Cruise. So I’m not sure the boring life thing stacks up any more (in my opinion, anyway) to refute the possibility that our will isn’t our own. Just because you’re not rich, or a celebrity, or happy, or whatever, doesn’t mean someone isn’t controlling you. But it also doesn’t mean they are, either – so perhaps the best way forward is to be the player and try to enjoy the game as much as you can.
While we’re on the subject of life being some kind of grandiose yet terrible video game/virtual world, this is probably a perfect time to briefly address the nature of reality and the various illusions of contemporary life in our current technological age. Much like with every philosophical topic I’ve raised here, one could write a book on this theme, but I’ve already bored you enough (and by you I obviously mean the guy playing My Shit Life – The Game) so I’ll try to keep this fairly breezy. The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard examined the growing superficiality of contemporary culture in his work on the media, signs and symbols, and their lack of substance, in our postmodern landscape. And his ideas are brought to life again by the Bandersnatch project – notably the states of hyperreality which crop up again and again in our contemporaneous existence.
The lines between what is real and what is not have become increasingly blurred in our advanced technological age. Baudrillard famously explored the hyperreal nature of Disneyland, with its fake streets, houses and settings attempting to create a feeling of something genuine – a desirable illusion. Of course, we know it’s not the genuine article – but the more our daily lives become saturated with these baseless copies, the more inclined we are to accept and participate in this vacuous landscape. This hyperreal tendency, these simulacra (copies of things that either had no original or have since lost their original meaning) are everywhere. It is no wonder we have films/games/other media like Bandersnatch which seem to suggest that reality is not what it seems – we are living that dystopian dream already.
There is a brilliant illumination of the simulacra at work in an article on pumpkin-spiced lattes by Eugene Wolters for Critical Theory. The idea is that the pumpkin spice is synonymous with ideas of the season – the late autumn/early winter connotations of thanksgiving and Christmas. And yet the pumpkins are clearly now grown, and thus available, all year round. So the seasonal links are long severed. What’s more, the pumpkin spice doesn’t even contain any pumpkin – it’s a blend of other spices to create the illusion of pumpkin! It’s a meaning is baseless – the simulation is feeding us a desirable illusion and we’re drinking it down in blissful ignorance.
Another good example I like to consider from reading Baudrillard concerns my going to festivals, like Glastonbury. Or even Premier League football matches.
When I watch an artist perform at Glastonbury, I end up spending most of my time looking at the big screen to make sure I’m not missing anything. Well, actually, I’m really watching the big screen because I’ve been so conditioned into doing so that I can’t stop myself. When I go to a football game, I constantly find myself checking the giant TV in the stadium to validate what I’ve just seen with my eyes. Some fans even head inside the stands to watch the little TVs in there at times to get a ‘better’ scope of what is happening – or because they can’t bear to watch what they’ve paid a lot of money to actually witness live. Now, I’m not saying we all do this and that you must be as bad as me, but I do believe that we have developed a need to have our reality confirmed by the big TV – by the ‘screen of truth’; we’re often ignoring what’s happening right in front of our very eyes and instead holding a phone aloft to capture reality, rather than just experience and enjoy it firsthand.
Projects like Bandersnatch are the result of an age where our links to the real world are becoming more and more muddied. And so another big thing I would suggest we take from it is that the real world still exists out there for all of us – let’s ignore Twitter and Facebook, Skype and Whatsapp, email and even phone calls, every once in a while, and go have a beer or a coffee or whatever – face to face. Take back your reality.
All that talk of simulacra and copies also got me thinking about my very own bundle of narcissistic joy – because with every passing day, my one-year-old son Sammy seems to resemble me more and more. We already look very similar – as I believe the pictures below demonstrate, but our personalities also seem to mirror one another a lot.
Now, I am his father and have raised him from birth, so I accept the fact that my nurturing of him is obviously going to have a profound influence on who he grows up to be. The way I behave around him and others, and the way I interact with him, is naturally going to inform much of the way he develops as a person. But there are traits in his character which almost seem to belong to us, as if it an essence of our Shackley-ness. I can’t really explain it too clearly, and the likes of Sartre would’ve dismissed such talk of essence, but I cannot shake the feeling that, if I hadn’t been on the scene throughout these formative stages, there are still things about Sammy that would’ve appeared in his character without my ‘passing them on to’ him through our interactions.
He’s already rather mischievous – and he’s really inquisitive. I realise these are quite common traits, but he really does remind me a lot of my dad. And this essence – of being a bit silly and playful, yet always intrigued – is something which I think binds my father and I strongly. And Sammy is also really sensitive – like me (not my dad! More like my mum). And I believe he’s showing signs of having a kind heart – he now plays a game where he runs between me and his mother and gives us hugs with a big smile on his face. My mother often points out the multitude of ways he is “just like you were” as a baby. We both had bad colic, we both love chocolates and sweet stuff (eating, generally), we’re both pretty determined, we both love getting up to mischief and we’re unable to concentrate properly for more than two minutes.
I appreciate that these examples are weak (it’s difficult to actually put into words the many ways we are so alike) – but I hope you understand the point I am trying to make. I’m a huge admirer of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan and their work in psychoanalysis. I plan to write a blog piece solely on determinism at some point this year, but for now I’ll just quickly state that I believe the influence of our parents/guardians/carers/those who raise us has a profound impact on determining the people we grow up to become. And I believe that profound influence continues to shape the way we behave long after we’ve flown the nest. It rears its head in the partners we choose – in the similarities they share with our parents. It shows up in the choices we make – in our tastes, in our beliefs, in our values. How often do you do something and think to yourself, ‘I’m becoming my mother/father!’ In my case, a lot.
Do I believe I have free will? Yes. I stand with the existentialists on that one. But do I also believe that our parents and our infantile development has a major impact on who we are? Also yes. Do I feel like my superego – my conscience – and the decisions I make, is influenced by what my mother or father would think about them sometimes – yes. Do I almost feel like they, or others, are watching me sometimes and I amend my behaviour accordingly, so as not to ‘disappoint’ them. Yes. I am who I am. But I am also who I’ve known. I am my dad. I am my mum. I am my son. And I am little piece of everyone who’s influenced me – in both good and bad ways. I am an essence of Shackley-ness. But I am also in control of my decisions. I am a patchwork of me, my family, my experiences and the world.
Will to Niceness
So this is it then, the final stage of my own little adventure into the murky world of willpower. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you might have come across one of the key tenets in my work – my concept of Genuinity. You can read more about it here, but I’ll quickly sum it up for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:
Genuinity – a positive, life-affirming quality, sprinkled with feminine energy, led by the voice of one’s inner child. As the definitions suggest – Genuine: of a person = sincere. Truly what it is said to be. And Entity: being. Existence. A thing with distinct and independent existence. Genuinity is your true self in its truest, most stripped-back form. Prior to the symbolic realm, reason, knowledge, understanding. Beyond language, transcendent – even mystical, perhaps. Certainly of-itself and impossible to understand completely or properly define. But evident in love, compassion, trust, support, protection, nurturing instincts and our desire to live and keep on living.
I have no desire to tell anyone how to live or how to be. I don’t wish to bend the will of any reader with my words and ideas. But it is part of my philosophical project with Being & Niceness to champion Genuinity; to promote kindness. So I must end this blog by insisting that the reader at least consider their will to Niceness. There is strength in compassion, there is courage in love and there is contentment in kindness. Of all the things Bandersnatch has made me think about it, it is that I want to be in control of my actions. I want to accept responsibility, take charge of my life and assume my freedom. And I want do so in a way in which my Genuinity is strong; I want a will to Niceness to prevail, so that the world may be a better place for everyone. Look after each other. And be nice.