We’re being led by the nose about what to think, buy, do next, or remember about what we’ve already seen or done. Oh, and how we’re supposed to be happy, what we like and don’t like, what’s wrong with our generation, why we work. We’re being led to conclusions about a thousand different things and don’t even know it.
The image that captures the erosion of our free thinking by influence peddlers is the frog in the saucepan. The heat is on, the water’s getting warmer, and by the time it’s boiling it’s too late for her to climb back out. Boiled frog, preceded by pleasantly warm and oblivious frog, captures the critical path pretty well. But instead of slow cooking, it’s shorter and shorter attention spans, the slow retreat of perspective and critical thought, and the final loss of freedom.
We’ve been letting the control booths behind the technology reduce the free exercise of our lives and work and we’re barely aware of it. The problem, of course, is that the grounding for good work and a good life is having the autonomy to decide what is good for us.
This kind of tech-enabled domination is hardly a new concern, but we’re wrong in thinking that it remains in the realm of science fiction.
An authority’s struggle to control our feelings, thoughts and decisions was the theme of George Orwell’s 1984, which was written 55 years before the fateful year that he envisioned. “Power,” said Orwell, “is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” Power persuades you to buy something when you don’t want or need it. It convinces you about this candidate’s, that party’s or some country’s evil motivations. It tricks you into accepting someone else’s motivations as your own. In 1984, free wills were weakened and constrained until they were no longer free. “If you want a picture of the future,” Orwell wrote, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
Maybe this reflection of the present seems too extreme to you.
After all, Orwell’s jackbooted fascists and communists were defeated by our Enlightenment values. Didn’t the first President Bush, whom we buried this week, preside over some of it? The authoritarians were down and seemed out in the last decade of the last century—Freedom Finally Won!—which just happened to be the very same span of years when new technologies and communication platforms began to enable the next generation of dominators.
(There is no true victory over one man’s will to deprive another of his freedom, only a truce until the next assault begins.)
20 years later, in his book Who Owns the Future (2013), Jaron Lanier argued that a new battle for freedom must be fought against powerful corporations fueled by advertisers and other “influencers” who are obsessed with directing our thoughts today.
In exchange for “free” information from Google, “free” networking from Facebook, and “free” deliveries from Amazon, we open our minds to what Lanier calls “siren servers,” the cloud computing networks that drive much of the internet’s traffic. Machine-driven algorithms collect data about who we are to convince us to buy products, judge candidates for public office, or determine how the majority in a country like Myanmar should deal with a minority like the Rohingya.
Companies, governments, groups with good and bad motivations use our data to influence our future buying and other decisions on technology platforms that didn’t even exist when the first George Bush was president but now, only a few years later, seem indispensible to nearly all of our commerce and communication. Says Lanier:
When you are wearing sensors on your body all the time, such as the GPS and camera on your smartphone and constantly piping data to a megacomputer owned by a corporation that is paid by ‘advertisers” to subtly manipulate you…you are gradually becoming less free.
And all the while we were blissfully unaware that this was happening because the bath was so convenient and the water inside it seemed so warm. Franklin Foer, who addresses tech issues in The Atlantic and wrote 2017’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, talks about this calculated seduction in an interview he gave this week:
Facebook and Google [and Amazon] are constantly organizing things in ways in which we’re not really cognizant, and we’re not even taught to be cognizant, and most people aren’t… Our data is this cartography of the inside of our psyche. They know our weaknesses, and they know the things that give us pleasure and the things that cause us anxiety and anger. They use that information in order to keep us addicted. That makes [these] companies the enemies of independent thought.
The poor frog never understood that accepting all these “free” invitations to the saucepan meant that her freedom to climb back out was gradually being taken away from her.
Of course, we know that nothing is truly free of charge, with no strings attached. But appreciating the danger in these data driven exchanges—and being alert to the persuasive tools that are being arrayed against us—are not the only wake-up calls that seem necessary today. We also can (and should) confront two other tendencies that undermine our autonomy while we’re bombarded with too much information from too many different directions. They are our confirmation bias and what’s been called our illusion of explanatory depth.
Confirmation bias leads us to stop gathering information when the evidence we’ve gathered so far confirms the views (or biases) that we would like to be true. In other words, we ignore or reject new information, maintaining an echo chamber of sorts around what we’d prefer to believe. This kind of mindset is the opposite of self-confidence, because all we’re truly interested in doing outside ourselves is searching for evidence to shore up our egos.
Of course, the thought controllers know about our propensity for confirmation bias and seek to exploit it, particularly when we’re overwhelmed by too many opposing facts, have too little time to process the information, and long for simple black and white truths. Manipulators and other influencers have also learned from social science that our reduced attention spans are easily tricked by the illusion of explanatory depth, or our belief that we understand things far better than we actually do.
The illusion that we know more than we think we do extends to anything that we can misunderstand. It comes about because we consume knowledge widely but not deeply, and since that is rarely enough for understanding, our same egos claim that we know more than we actually do. For example, we all know that ignorant people are the most over-confident in their knowledge, but how easily we delude ourselves about the majesty of our own ignorance. For example, I regularly ask people questions about all sorts of things that they might know about. It’s almost the end of the year as I write this and I can count on one hand the number of them who have responded to my questions by saying “I don’t know” over the past twelve months. Most have no idea how little understanding they bring to whatever they’re talking about. It’s simply more comforting to pretend that we have all of this confusing information fully processed and under control.
Luckily, for confirmation bias or the illusion of explanatory depth, the cure is as simple as finding a skeptic and putting him on the other side of the conversation so he will hear us out and respond to or challenge whatever it is that we’re saying. When our egos are strong enough for that kind of exchange, we have an opportunity to explain our understanding of the subject at hand. If, as often happens, the effort of explaining reveals how little we actually know, we are almost forced to become more modest about our knowledge and less confirming of the biases that have taken hold of us. A true conversation like this can migrate from a polarizing battle of certainties into an opportunity to discover what we might learn from one another.
The more that we admit to ourselves and to others what we don’t know, the more likely we are to want to fill in the blanks. Instead of false certainties and bravado, curiosity takes over—and it feels liberating precisely because becoming well-rounded in our understanding is a well-spring of autonomy.
When we open ourselves like this instead of remaining closed, we’re less receptive to, and far better able to resist, the “siren servers” that would manipulate our thoughts and emotions by playing to our biases and illusions. When we engage in conversation, we also realize that devices like our cell phones and platforms like our social networks are, in Foer’s words, actually “enemies of contemplation” which are” preventing us from thinking.”
Lanier describes the shift from this shallow tech-driven stimulus/response to a deeper assertion of personal freedom in a profile that was written about him in the New Yorker a few years back. Before he started speaking at a South-by-Southwest Interactive conference, Lanier asked his audience not to blog, text or tweet while he spoke. He later wrote that his message to the crowd had been:
If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?
Lanier makes two essential points about autonomy in this remark. Instead of processing on the fly, where the dangers of bias and illusions of understanding are rampant, allow what is happening “to filter through your brain,” because when it does, there is a far better chance that whoever you really are, whatever you truly understand, will be “in” what you ultimately have to say.
His other point is about what you risk becoming if you fail to claim a space for your freedom to assert itself in your lives and work. When you’re reduced to “a reflector of information,” are you there at all anymore or merely reflecting the reality that somebody else wants you to have?
We all have a better chance of being contented and sustained in our lives and work when we’re expressing our freedom, but it’s gotten a lot more difficult to exercise it given the dominant platforms that we’re relying upon for our information and communications today.
This post was adapted from my December 9, 2018 newsletter.