Okutan: Let’s Talk ‘Bandersnatch’

The latest Black Mirror episode raises major questions about fate.

by Ezgi Okutan | 1/24/19 2:04am

Since it first dropped on Dec. 28, it seems like everybody has been talking about “Bandersnatch,” the interactive “Black Mirror” episode that allows the audience to control the main character Stefan’s actions through mouse controls, which may in turn lead to many possible endings. One of the film’s most alluring allusions is the concept of free will and fate, as Stefan starts to question whether his actions are controlled by some upper force other than himself. In fact, in one of the endings, Stefan, who himself creates a multiple-choice interactive video game, refers to his audience with a similar parallelism: “Now they get the illusion that they have free will, but really, I decide the end.” Producer Russel Mclean underscores, “That’s the clever thing that Charlie’s [the co-creator of Black Mirror] done with this in the theme — what is free will? What is control? Who is in control? It’s all there to be looked at and figured out.” 

Today, amidst our busy lives as students, days seem to pass in between countless tasks and assignments. I’ve heard the same phrase from many of my friends: “I don’t feel like I’m in control of my life.” Sure, maybe they weren’t referring to the presence of an almighty being like in the case of “Bandersnatch,” but what they stressed was the importance of societal norms and status quo responsibilities in shaping their choices. Sometimes, especially if I’m wrestling with the work that is put on me, I feel as if I’m drifting apart while everything is already chosen for me: my education, the path I’m expected to take, the challenges ahead of me, the person I will marry and the legacy I will try to create — all of them already bound by societal limits. I acknowledge that there are bounds being enforced on my generation by many forces such as family, educational institutions, social media companies and governments, but ultimately I also believe in the power of free will. History has shown again and again that free will exists, and bounds are bound to be broken. 

Let’s explore some of the greatest recent examples of free will. In 2016, Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace treaty to end an over 50-year-old conflict with the guerilla rebel group FARC. Because of the decades-long conflict, more than 260,000 people died, and many others either fled the country or were internally displaced. However, despite the toll, the Colombian public remained polarized on the issue and rejected the peace deal with a referendum. Though this may seem counterintuitive to my aim of proving that free will exists, it actually stresses the importance of the actions of the collective. The 50.2 percent who wanted to rule out the agreement exercised their free will by refusing terms that they found to be too forgiving, and directed the president toward efforts to establish a more feasible peace treaty. On the other hand, Santos’ peace agreement still resulted in a ceasefire, bringing some stability to the region. Amidst all the conflicting forces that affected the conflict, both the president and the public were able to exercise their free will to shape the course of the conflict. It’s also noteworthy that Santos was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Another example would be Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who advocates for women’s educational rights and whose voice only grew louder when the Taliban shot her in the head. Her war against inequality started with BBC blog posts and a public talk titled “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” When outer forces, namely the Taliban, tried to put her in her place, her free will prevailed. Now, she owns the Malala Fund, which invests in girls’ education worldwide and supports local activists. Furthermore, the organization not only focuses on Pakistan, but it extends to India, Brazil, Nigeria, Syria and Afghanistan. Now, Malala impacts the lives of many other girls, including Huma, who dropped out of school when she was 12 as there weren’t any middle schools for girls to go to. However, the Malala Fund funded the construction of a new school in Huma’s village and allowed 1,000 girls to continue their education. So while the opponents of the free will theory state that individuals don’t really have much control over today’s world, Malala asserts, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” 

The “Bandersnatch” episode raises great questions about the many powers greater than ourselves that shape our destiny, but these two examples demonstrate just how much our actions still matter. They matter enough to change the course of world events. However, are these the only two examples that show the marvels of free will? On the contrary, if people look around themselves, they’ll see how others have been shaping their realities, at least to a local degree. Dartmouth students can volunteer to help eliminate educational inequalities, tackle global warming, repair homes and fight hunger. In brief, free will is an empowering, as well as a startling, idea — that we are powerful enough to change what we don’t like about the reality we’re in. Stefan might be chained to the controls of your mousepad, but you have your own will — so why not take action and create the change you want?