Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Shakespeare, "Black Mirror," and Free Will

I recently saw an episode of the British series Black Mirror in which a slightly-on-the-edge 1980s game-designer finds himself controlled by the series' twenty-first-century audience. An interactive function enabled me to select the musical cassette tape the character "chose" to play (the Thompson Twins!), an answer he gave in a job interview, and various other of his minor and major "decisions." At one point, using my remote, I was able to inform him via his clunky 80s computer screen that I was watching him on Netflix, a media-streaming Internet-based entertainment platform. Of course, he found my message incomprehensible, and it increased his frustration and despair. (Sorry, character.)

The idea that all our choices are predetermined, and thus not really choices at all, has acquired currency from recent psychological experiments demonstrating that the conscious experience of the choice to move one of one's body parts follows the neurological reaction that initiates the motion (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuraptitude/201608/illusion-choice-the-myth-free-will). In other words, scientists found that before their subjects were aware of having decided to move, something in the subjects' brains had begun preparing for the movement. This is creepy, suggesting that we are robots controlled by somebody or even by nobody (although the experiment doesn't actually prove we are robots. More on this below). Video games have given us, and Netflix, a lively and novel metaphor to express the vision of a reality in which, feeling free, we are actually mysteriously monitored PAC-men and Ms. PAC-men, with the PAC standing (as that Black Mirror episode suggests) for "Program-and-Control." This techy way of thinking is newish.