Comedy often illuminates truths of which we are already half-aware. When describing his military-based game show Skirmish in his autobiography, Alan Partridge writes: ‘I hadn’t been so excited by a quiz show format since Noel Edmonds explained the winning formula for Deal or No Deal.’ The humour of Partridge’s comment is the blindingly obvious fact that Channel 4’s evergreen show has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with chance. Granted, there is a certain formula to the secondary task of weighing up the banker’s offer, but at its foundations, the task of picking one red box over another is one of sheer randomness. Assuming the boxes are not rigged, it makes no difference whether one picks in a “strategic” fashion or in simple numerical order. And yet Deal or No Deal’s contestants are probed repeatedly on their method; they are asked to explain the cosmic significance of their selections (“Well, my grandson has just turned 8 so I went for box 8) and applauded by the audience for making “good” choices.
On the surface this all seems easy to explain. The drawing out and inflation of the contestants’ role thickens the show’s substance, it adds drama, intrigue and the illusion of skill to a game whose fundamentals are no more challenging than Snakes and Ladders. There may be a deeper explanation however, of why the show’s contestants and millions of viewers so readily accept this blatant illusion. It’s all to do with randomness, or rather, our resistance to it.
In his study, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives,Leonard Mlodinow attempts to explain humanity’s predilection for finding patterns: `Sometimes those patterns are meaningful. Sometimes they are not. In either case, the fact that our perception of the patterns of life is both highly convincing and highly subjective has profound implications.’ We like to “uncover” patterns in randomness, to see meaning in meaninglessness and this structures our experience of the world in ways that are sometimes obvious, sometimes imperceptible. A notable example Mlodinow gives is Apple’s reprogramming of the iPod’s shuffle feature, which initially worked according to “true randomness”. The problem is that true randomness ‘sometimes produces repetition’ and when iPod users ‘heard the same song or songs by the same artist back-to-back, they believed the shuffling wasn’t random.’ According to Steve Jobs, Apple had to make the iPod’s shuffle “less random to make it feel more random.”
The effects of our resistance to randomness however, extend far beyond the qualia of the shuffle feature. While the assurances of a larger order might be useful on an individual level (in managing anxiety for example), on a wider societal scale, it can have catastrophic effects. Written in 2008, Mlodinow’s study considers society’s inflated perception of successful stock-brokers, arguing that we tend to retrospectively attribute skill and foresight to those who happen to achieve success in a system that is either completely or incredibly close to being random. This perception operates under the ‘hot-hand fallacy’, the ‘mistaken impression that a random streak is due to extraordinary performance’ and thus deserving extraordinary remuneration. Recent years have shown that then faced with the crises of capitalism we prefer to generate compensatory narratives of the reckless and the responsible, rather than consider capitalism’s inherent contradictions or the randomness of the market. To do so may be the first step in actually beating the banker.
Žižek argues that if we are to deal effectively with the ecological crises running parallel to the economic ones, we must relinquish both Enlightenment notions of nature’s domination by humanity and its perception as a realm of perpetual stability for humanity. Instead we must recognise the ‘contingency and unreliability’ of the world: ‘the only way to confront’ [the ecological crisis to its] ‘full extent is to assume fully the experience of radical contingency that it involves.’ We often interpret our experiences as unfolding according to some grander plan, design or order. This sheds light on our tendency to read our lives in terms of narrative and the attribution of fate to the opening of red boxes. But we also should see the toxic aura of resignation and irresponsibility that surrounds banalities like “everything happens for a reason” and “it just wasn’t meant to be”. We tend to ignore randomness and contingency because we prefer the feeling of control and assurances of ultimate meaning. Appreciating the radical contingency of our current situation – that ecology is not underwritten by a larger guarantee, that maybe everything won’t turn out ok – we may gain more authentic control of the future. The consequence of contingency is heightened responsibility: it’s a deal we should probably take.