Black Mirror is a series like no other. The show is a sci-fi anthology that deals with the dark side of technology as an overarching theme. The episodes are often set in a dystopian reality. In this episode, a young programmer wants to make a video game adaptation of his favorite choose-your-own-adventure novel: Bandersnatch. The episode tries to capture the immersive quality of technology through the image of the young programmer who loses his mind as he works on his game. Every episode of Black Mirror is a surprise, as they all have their own plot. However, Bandersnatch comes with an extra surprise: this episode is interactive.
The user chooses what happens next. This modern interactive feature brings about some interesting concepts that have their place in our post-digital society. The term “post-digital society” refers to a society that is characterized by the social, cultural, and technical conditions that followed the digital revolution. This paper will examine the ways in which Bandersnatch and in specific its interactive function is a response to our post-digital way of living. The paper argues that Bandersnatch in a way mimics how society makes use of technology in this day and age, although the episode does this while exaggerating this up until a point where most people would not even be able to recognize these behavioral patterns.
A distinguished characteristic of digital media is the presence of the phenomenon that is called click fetish by Everett (2004). The word “fetish” etymologically stems from the Latin word “factere” which means “to make” (Pietz, 1985). This emphasizes that a fetish revolves around the ability to enact change (Na, 2018). The phenomenon is described in combination with the lure of sensory plenitude. The TV remote is no longer the only apparatus that can provide click pleasure, as digital media has brought about newer apparatuses, like the personal digital assistant, that make click pleasure even more easily accessible.
The fuelling of click fetish can be easily seen in Bandersnatch by looking at the design of the episode. Every time that the viewer has the opportunity to make a choice, two clickable options appear on the screen. The options light up as soon as the cursor comes near them, as to invite the user to click. Meanwhile, a white line that gradually becomes smaller, symbolizes the time one has left to make a choice. As long as you have not clicked on any of the options yet, the episode does not allow you to pause either. In other words, whether a user wants to continue or discontinue watching, he must click.
Because a recipient of Bandersnatch is authorized to make decisions for the main character in the episode, the recipient would not feel controlled by the interface and click pleasure in the first instance. Rather the opposite feeling will be evoked; that of being in control of the episode and the character. Exactly this feeling of control will keep the recipient interacting with the interface. D’Aloia (2020) has worded this as “the illusion of controlling the interface is exactly what allows the interface to control me.”
It can be argued that this phenomenon mimics our behavior concerning social media and specifically the mindless scrolling on social networking sites (SNSs) like TikTok and Instagram. On these SNSs, there is another contributing factor alongside click pleasure that keeps users active on the platforms to which users are usually oblivious. These are called attention-capture dark patterns. Some of these include infinitely loading content, training compulsive usage behaviors, and using software algorithms (Janmohamed, 2021).
Clicking, swiping and scrolling may feel like voluntary actions, but these are actually actions controlled by the interface itself. This functions in the same way as click pleasure controls the recipients of Bandersnatch and manipulates them into spending more time interacting with the episode.
Agency in trends
To understand the level of control the interface has over the users, and in this case Bandersnatch in specific, we need to look one step further. As said before, it seems like the episode gives its recipients the freedom to use their agency to enact changes in the plot or to make decisions for the main character. But in fact, the recipient merely functions as a so-called lectoautor or reader-author. The term refers to the interaction of the user with the cultural product, always in a controlled manner by the author of it. The creator always marks the route (Peña-Acuña, 2020).
In the case of Bandersnatch, this means that the recipient only has limited power over the episode. When looking at the endless possibilities for the plot of Bandersnatch, it becomes visible that the author of the episode has decided intentionally on every possible choice and outcome. Bandersnatch has five possible endings to the story. There are a lot of different routes enabled by the choices that the recipient can make that eventually lead to one of those endings. These different routes imply freedom, but it is actually a very detailed master plan laid out by the author. As admitted by the protagonist in one of the five endings. Namely, during a therapy session with Dr. Haynes after Stefan gained a five-star review on his game: “I’ve been trying to give the player too much choice…Now they’ve only got the illusion of free will, but really, I decide the ending."
This relationship is reminiscent of the one we have with trends and specifically on the Internet. To understand this, we need to view the act of joining a trend as walking a route that leads to a certain destination. People are obsessed with trends because joining one means instantly becoming a part of a group. One becomes a so-called insider (Becker, 1963).
Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) plays a huge role in why people are so drawn toward trends. The phenomenon is defined as a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing (Przybylski et al., 2013). The phenomenon is not new at all. However, in this day and age characterized by the incredible speed at which trends circulate within digital media, the effects of FoMO are more noticeable than before.
FoMO is the cause of the excessive need to keep up with all the circulating trends. FoMO occurs when it comes to what is going on online, what is trendy, and what goes viral (Hein, 2022). Often, the following occurs. Individuals feel the urge to participate in the trends and imitate those going viral. This happens due to the fact that people want to experience the same positive consequences experienced by others participating in a trend. The goal is to become an insider and have rewarding experiences. In doing this, a little piece of one’s authentic self is sacrificed. The consequence is that eventually everyone participates in the same trends and imitates each other for the sake of calming down FoMO.
Trend participation is motivated by social belonging. However, it might not be experienced as such by individuals. Joining a trend feels more like a choice of preference, an action taken out of enjoyment. This means that by following the same trends, individuals take a path that has been laid out for them by the FoMO that dictates the way to behave on the Internet. Just as in Bandersnatch, users are driven in a direction without knowing it.
Taking or losing control
Control plays a role in the mechanisms of the interface and in the plot of Bandersnatch. This can be seen throughout multiple aspects of the episode. For starters, the story starts on July 8, 1984. There is an intertextual connection with George Orwell’s dystopian novel titled “Nineteen Eighty-four” which seems obvious. Orwell’s dystopia is about control and more specifically about being controlled. It might be a coincidence or a subtle hint, but the detail sets the tone for the episode.
The plot itself is about Stefan, a young programmer. He gets the chance of his life when he is hired to create an interactive videogame for the renowned company Tuckersoft. He decides to base this videogame on the choose-your-own-adventure novel called Bandersnatch. As picture-perfect as that may sound, it ends in a complete nightmare for Stefaan. He becomes more and more obsessed with his game up until the point where he completely loses his mind and even kills his father. At this point, technology controls him, instead of the other way around. It’s an exaggeration for sure, but it illustrates something that is very real; we can not live without technology anymore since we have built our life around it in so many aspects. We could really say that we suffer from technology addiction on a societal scale.
There is a specific part in the episode as well that points strongly towards control. Namely Colin's monologue to Stefan after they have taken LSD together which results in a hallucinogenic trip. In this monologue, some remarks could be traced back very easily to the postmodern reality that we live in as well as our postdigital relationship with technology and the internet. He compares real life to a computer game where free will is nothing more than an illusion. For instance:
“And what we do on one path affects what happens on the other paths.”
“When you make a decision, you think it's you doing it, but it's not. It's the spirit out there that's connected to our world that decides what we do and we just have to go along for the ride.”
“The whole thing's a metaphor, he thinks he's got free will but really he's trapped in a maze, in a system, all he can do is consume.”
“And what we do on one path affects what happens on the other paths” captures the interconnectedness of the postdigital world. As stated before in this paper, trends circulate at an incredible speed on the Internet.
Knowledge has never been this accessible before and news travels the world in a heartbeat. Local incidents can become global phenomena once spread via (social) media. This means that in a postdigital society, it is almost impossible to isolate information and prevent it from spreading. The various paths of the world are gradually becoming one, single path.
The quote: “When you make a decision, you think it’s you doing it, but it’s not. It’s the spirit out there that’s connected to our world that decides what we do and we just have to go along for the ride”, refers to the phenomenon of algorithms, one of the earlier mentioned attention-capture dark patterns. Even though spirits and algorithms aren’t exactly alike, they do have one thing in common: they are there even though you can’t see them.
Algorithms are defined as step-by-step procedure for performing some task in a finite amount of time (Goodrich & Tamassia, 2002). Nowadays, algorithms influence our daily lives by making recommendations on what a user might enjoy based on their previous choices and preferences (Head, 2020). These kinds of algorithms can help limit the amount of information users get on their timelines. They are excellent at finding relevant information for a user in today’s vast stream of information. Algorithmic recommendations make our life more convenient and pleasurable. However, these structures also limit user agency, taking automated decisions on what information to display and filter out. Such decisions are far from neutral (Swart, 2021). Thus with algorithms, a loss of control over your own decisions seems inevitable.
“The whole thing’s a metaphor, he thinks he’s got free will but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system, all he can do is consume” builds further on the algorithm concept, but also reveals a bit of the consequence thereof. Because algorithms are based on our preferences and distaste, social media sites know exactly what content will be a success in keeping us longer on the platform and engaging with the content. This is important to them because of the so-called attention economy. As we live in the age of information overload and knowledge excess, information is no longer a valuable nod to the digital economy. Instead, attention has become the new driver and has created a whole new type of economy. Data collected from platforms and ads are monetized, which leads to competition among platforms for their users’ attention (Bhargava & Velasquez, 2021). Platforms manipulate their users into spending more and more time online. This means that media consumers have lost control over the decision of where to spend attention. Even the Bandersnatch episode itself exists just to capture and hold attention.
Our interaction with technology
The interactive Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch is a cultural product that has been able to comment on the postdigital age in subtle ways. This has been achieved by features that mimic the same patterns and mechanisms that rule the internet. The cultural critique in Bandersnatch wasn’t limited to the interface design but was also implemented in the content of the episode. The level of “control” seemed to be the main theme that left its marks in various aspects of the episode and finds its reflection in the episode’s main commentary on the postdigital age.
In other words, the episode argues that the people living in the postdigital age believe in an illusion when it comes to technology. Users think we’re the ones in control and that technology only serves them by making our life more convenient. However, technology is full of mechanisms that actually control users and their behavior online as well as offline. As long as society is aware of these controlling and manipulative mechanisms, we are able to keep a critical attitude toward the use of technology and the Internet.
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