On Halloween night, 2018, researchers at the MIT Media Lab released BeeMe, a platform that allowed internet users to collectively control a person in the physical space of the MIT campus. In December 2018, Netflix released Bandersnatch, the first television series that allowed the audience to choose their own story. This piece documents the differences and similarities of the two events and considers the implications for the future of the internet.
When John Perry Barlow wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” the internet was very different than it is today. The third paragraph of the manifesto reads:
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
The internet had been born, and it needed a constitution. And what better example could history provide than the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America? The United States and the Internet were created with similar ideals of freedom and individuality. “We the People” managed to stop the mighty British colonialists, the Empire, and gave ourselves a constitution to guide a country that rests upon the shoulders of free individuals.
Similarly, the early internet was seen as a space where ideas were freely allowed to flow among people, a space of complete unabridged freedom, speed, and self-determination. It was almost too natural to think that the first enemy that Internet would have to face would be the hyper-controlling governments of the world.
In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace.
But the internet of the early age was a very different place than we know today. It was weird, uncanny, difficult to use and to understand. The unpleasant noise of dial-up will be forever associated with that experience, together with the memory of family members yelling at each other across the house if someone inadvertently used the landline to make a call before your download finished.
The cyberspace itself was a weird jungle of badly formatted websites, bright primary colors, and text. A lot of text. In this jungle of words, early search engines were like a visual flight helicopter that always drops you and your parachute two or three hills away from where you intended to explore. It was up to you, the digital explorer, to reach your destination by cutting through the thick vegetation of spam and pop-ups, defending yourself from the rich wildlife of malware, wading the immense rivers of words by skim-reading each page. No machete nor compass — your mouse and keyboard were your only tools. Oftentimes, you did not have a destination, just a couple of hours to spend playing Captain Cook before dinner.
But even in that jungle — or perhaps exactly because of it; after all, every jungle is pure potentiality in the mind of an explorer — the promise of true democracy in cyberspace was lingering. The power of any state and any ruler lies in the delicate balance between two complementary principles: “Divide et Impera” (divide and conquer) and “Panem et Circenses” (bread and circuses). (Delivered here in Latin because it sounds authoritative, but also because ancient Romans mastered these principles almost perfectly.)
Let’s start with the first one: Divide people and you will rule for a thousand years. When the internet was born, this dream-like new technology appeared to stand in stark contrast with the divisions that governments often foster to stay in power. The collective and open nature of the early internet was thus a promise for freedom. If everyone can come online and freely speak, the thinking went, if people can discuss and deliberate, if ideas can clash, merge and agree, then true collective action must ensue. We cannot be conquered because we are not divided any more. That was the promise that the internet made. That was the promise that the internet broke.
The very players that were supposed to embody the spirit of freedom and self-determination of the early United States, namely private businesses, seem to have played a crucial role in this process. Corporations were very skeptical about the early internet. No business could be done where everything is free and anyone (honest or thief, rich or poor) could be on the other side of the transaction. The internet was perceived as just another overhyped trend, not something that would last. Yet, over the course of 20+ years, corporations flourished online. Today it is hard to think of a popular website that is not owned by a company or a purchase that cannot be made online. With the invasion of corporate players, the online jungle started to retreat. Yes, you can still explore the jungle, but please stop for a minute at the gift shop. Websites became prettier, more stylish, embellished by CSS and made more interactive by JS. A smoother experience emerged. Text gave way to pictures and videos. Entirely new categories of jobs — web developers, designers, etc. — came into existence. Search engines became eerily good at guessing what you are looking for. The helicopter has been transformed into teleporter of incredible precision and accuracy — though it may not always take you where you thought you were going. It assures you that there is no more need to explore, because the territory has been already mapped out for you. All your necessities can be satisfied by no more than 10 websites, from purchasing food and clothes, to watching videos and listening to music, navigation and transportation, reading the daily news, and of course, engaging with social media. No daylight is left between our necessities and their consumption. We’ve traded surprise for functionality.
How did we get here? Remember the second principle of Roman hegemony? Bread and Circuses. Give people the basic necessities and distract them with entertainment and you will rule for a million years. Let’s start with “bread.” There is a well-documented history of the ways economic processes changed the inner workings of digital environments. For the relevance of this piece, however, we will only discuss one aspect: The transition from mass consumption to mass customization. The early age of capitalism featured mass consumption, a concept pioneered by Henry Ford, in which the same affordable product is sold to a large mass of individuals. “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black.” With the reduction of costs in manufacturing, more products could be made for the same cost, meaning more choices for people and more competition for manufacturers. As brilliantly documented by Charlie Brooker’s early documentaries How TV ruined your life and Screenwipe, advertisement changed swiftly, too. Advertising moved from function (This toothpaste cleans your teeth) to experience (This toothpaste is the only one with a double helix of organic kale microfiber. And it will make you feel good.). A product stopped being just a thing you use and became the ideas and aspirations associated with its use. And its use became as much a part of you as your personality, height, and voice. You could choose among millions of different yous, on the shelves of a supermarket or in the semi-infinite possible permutations of a Subway sandwich. People could finally experiment with their individuality and creativity and reinvent themselves every time. A revolution of freedom (brought to you by E Corp in single-serving portions). Digital technologies accelerated this process by zooming in customization to a single individual with surgical precision. Corporations were quick to understand that the data trail that we leave behind when using any connected device can be used to uniquely describe us, our interests, our preferences, and our behavior to an unprecedented degree of precision and granularity. “We the Consumers” can now have the music we like, the clothes we want, and the news that best enrages us, while skipping the whole laborious process of browsing through a lot of music that we don’t like, clothes we wouldn’t buy, and news that may not enrage us.
You don’t need to reach for your destination. Your destination comes at you.
Although it is easy to see how these algorithms might be dangerous for democratic institutions when overfitted, this is what society is for. You don’t want to fish everytime you want to eat sushi. Division of labor is one of the driving principles governing our collective evolution. A perfectly oiled clockwork where each individual is necessary but not sufficient for the workings of the collective superorganism.
Let’s move on to “circuses.” The entertainment industry was no different than manufacturing and advertising, starting to target more and more precise populations, segmenting them by age, gender, race, and economic status. And then came Netflix. The company has for a long time personalized your content based on your interests and past preferences. It has invested millions in AI research for its recommendation algorithms. If you’ve ever had the experience of opening someone else’s Netflix homepage, you’ll understand the shock of realizing that it does not recommend Korean dramas and stand-up comedy shows to everyone, but only to you. Because it knows you. Because personalized content reduces attrition.
But now, here comes Bandersnatch, a whole new level of personalization. Bandersnatch is billed as the first-ever Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) film. (Although using this name is likely to cost Netflix money.) For our youngest readers, here is a quick recap — CYOA books are, simply put, like printed video games. First published in 1979, they invited readers (or players) to start an adventure, usually narrated from a second person perspective; every few pages, a choice arises between two alternative decisions that the main character is facing. Bandersnatch is exactly like a CYOA book, but in an audiovisual medium. The year is 1984, and the art of making video games is gathering steam. The story follows a young programmer, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), who is obsessed by turning a game book from his troubled youth into a video game. Every few scenes the protagonist is asked to make a decision (i.e., act on the individual preferences of the viewer). The audience has 10 seconds to click on one of two alternatives before the film seamlessly takes one of the two branches. As the number of branching points increases, so do the number of possible stories that Bandersnatch tells. (One of the main innovations of CYOA books was that the protagonist can die. Indeed they die in most of the narrative choices, and it’s a struggle to keep them alive. Bandersnatch honors this tradition by having most of its branches end tragically.) For the first time, Netflix users can personalize not only the content of their homepage, but the content of the film itself. Genius.
To be clear, involving the audience in the art piece is not a new concept, nor something that digital technologies enabled. It is a well-known artistic device in the performing arts. From the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte to modern immersive theatre, actors often use their audiences to support their act, making them part of the art piece. Breaking the fourth wall is a powerful narrative device that takes the audience by surprise and engages it in the story. Audience and artists become part of a unitary and unique experience, which can never be repeated. Performing artists like Marina Abramovich and Amir Mobed have put spectators at center stage in their performances. Audience suggestions are the cornerstone of improvisation theatre, one of the few surviving art forms that still manages to bring Netflix-glued eyes to outdated physical theatres (at least in the West).
The duality between artist and audience has also been explored in many other art forms. In literature, Michael Ende and J. L. Borges have used similar narrative devices. In Ende’s The Neverending Story, Bastian quite literally enters the book he is reading to save that world from “The Nothing”. As perhaps an even better example, the reader herself is asked to imbue with meaning the dream-like scenes narrated in Ende’s The Mirror in the Mirror. Experimental music composers have tried to use the audience as a source of sounds (e.g., the typical chit-chat taking place before a concerto) in their pieces; the Media Lab’s own Tod Machover has developed entire symphonies around the sounds of individual cities. In visual arts, Michelangelo’s Non-Finito-and even Adam and God’s almost-touch in The Creation of Adam -beg the viewer to complete the art piece with their own imagination. Blurring the line between subject and object, between art piece and art observer, remains as one of the most powerful innovations in the arts.
BeeMe: How does it feel to be the internet?
Allowing the audience to control the story they are watching was also central to a performance that the Scalable Cooperation group created on Halloween night 2018. One difference, though-our adventure was real. On the spookiest night of all, two people (one of the authors and one of his friends, Jaylor Molly) allowed an internet crowd of more than 1,000 people to control their every action through an interface custom-built for the event. Players navigated the human avatars (a human called Winter and an android named Neuro) through a sequence of progressively more difficult tasks, with the aim of stopping Zookd, an artificial general intelligence gone rogue. As users sent suggestions in, an algorithm aggregated them in real time into commands that were promptly executed by the avatars. The event attracted the attention of many media outlets and gave us our first proof that it might be possible to create a real-time scalable collective decision-making system.
When Bandersnatch came out two months later, some people who noticed its similarity to BeeMe asked us whether these two events were really different? The answer is: Well, yes and no. On a superficial level-yes, both are entertaining and innovative games you can play from the antisocial comfort of your bedroom, and yes, in both you are asked to input your preferences to decide what happens next. On a deeper look though-no. And all of the differences come down to three things: open endedness, attrition, and shared experience.
- Open-endedness. In both BeeMe and Bandersnatch, the users’ choices determine how the story unfolds. Of course, those choices are constrained by the design of the game, which creates what it is often called the “illusion of free will”b. Bandersnatch, however, is limited to the decision tree that Charlie Brooker designed, and director David Slade filmed. As Stefan himself realizes (“What is Netflix?” he asks), Netflix is the Matrix in which Stefan’s (and so our) experiences live, and escaping from it is just as impossible as escaping time in our physical universe. Similarly, BeeMe creates a narrative and a competitive structure that incentivizes users and actors to stick to pre-designed trails. However, the trail is only a suggestion, not a structural necessity. Many comments posted on Reddit in the days before the launch of BeeMe suggested pranks that would not be possible on Netflix. Some wanted the actor to get stuck in infinite loops (“I hope he makes coffee and nothing else”); some touched on the metaphysical paradox (“Let’s get him on a computer and make him watch and control himself”); others wanted to make him a candidate for the American presidency (democracy at its finest). This was, of course, all on top of the less creative suggestions for doxxing and violence. The fascinating (and scary) thing to watch in the hours before the event was that all of these possibilities were extremely real, though our game designers nudged players away from them. Overcoming the designer’s fate in BeeMe is still possible…if other users want to do it. Which brings us to our second difference, attrition.
- Attrition. In Bandersnatch, the viewer is the mighty god of Stefan’s universe (as Stefan himself wittily recognizes). One whimsical click in one direction or the other completely defines the events of Stefans life. In BeeMe, it is the crowd that collectively determines what Agents Neuro and Winter will do next. A single user in BeeMe has as much control of the whole as a senator in Congress or a teenager at the dinner table. Individual preferences must be arbitrated with others. In other words, BeeMe creates attrition between the user’s will and the story that the game produces. The limit in the BeeMe youniverse is not some structural impossibility, but the will and preferences of others. Yes, the story follows a stringent timeline, and yes, the commands keep raining from the Hive room in which the Dungeon Masters spit out commands and advance the narrative. But when you, single user, ask the Agent to make a cup of coffee infinitely many times, the real inescapable limit remains that other players wants something else. Perhaps they want the Agent to control themselves from a computer, or perhaps they want to the Agent to look in a mirror so as to doxx them. Whatever your preferences are, you will need to arbitrate them against other players’.
- Shared experience. This friction however, creates the possibility of a shared experience among BeeMe players-something that Bandersnatch cannot do in its present form. This is because in BeeMe, everyone experiences the same game, the same commands, the same video-streams, and shares the same mission. You “choose your own adventure,” yes, but with a plural you. The story branches in the same way for you and me, based on our choices. We do not experience different endings. All players experience the same universe and are challenged by the same obstacles. Yet together, they give life to a new game, every time that the game is played. Like the pianist in Alessandro Baricco’s Novecento, players come to realize that infinitely many permutations are possible from a finite number of options. And only together they can succeed. A refreshing relief, in a world of individually oriented hyper-customization.
In a time when the corporate internet is all that is left of the beautiful wilderness that once was the dream of Barlow and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, we find ourselves stripped away from the jungle and left with the gift shop. The .com era, with its beautifully designed and seamless web experiences, brought ease and comfort with it. All our needs, from information to goods and transportation, are no more than a click away. But where functionality comes in, imagination and freedom often go out. Today, it is almost impossible to buy something without finding a better cheaper version on Amazon, impossible to think of our social lives without Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter dictating the rules of our conversation. Impossible to think information without thinking Google. We are plugging ourselves in the Matrix, inadvertently swallowing a bitter blue pill, sweetened by a coating of comfort. These giants, slowly but steadily, erode the possibility of any other alternative, consume any other possible but unrealized internet, any other alternative universe collapses into this one. A youniverse that is infinitely folded on itself, on yourself, a neverending look in a mirror, a stare at your individual needs and necessities, at your emotions and volitions. The art piece disappears and only the observer remains. Without redemption, without friction, and surely enough, without anyone else around. When technology designs the matrix of our personal and social lives, some people try to take shelter in weird and non-functional things. Unappreciated randomness over careful design. The principles of biological and cultural evolution. Perhaps another pointless attempt at reconquering our lost jungle, and with it the dream of global collective action. BeeMe is only one of these attempts.
We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
—John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
[a]Sunstein, C. R. (2002). Republic. com. Princeton university press.
[b] Harrigan, P., & Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2010). Second person: Role-playing and story in games and playable media. The MIT Press.
Originally published at https://www.media.mit.edu.