How Free is Your Free Will and How Can You Tell?

Space cadet!  Obviously, this is a massive, huge lifetime journey of a question.  Let us narrow the context of our gaze – I came across an article about design ethicist Tristan Harris and his essay, How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds, and started to think about my susceptibility to attention-hijacking and unease about the number of electronic displays in my daughter’s ambit compared to the number available in my childhood.  The topic mushroomed back out into an all-out panic over how many elements of daily life are instead subtle products of social engineering and propaganda.

My understanding of FREE WILL requires an individual’s affirmative intent to do or refrain from doing something.

The closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.

– Tristan Harris

My ME of NOW is a representation of accumulated ethics and moral values that enable me, through the use of Free Will, to respond and react consistently and approrpiately to external stimuli.

Where I think I am going is: My Me of Now is losing relevance in day-to-day life.  My Me of Now is being propelled along a narrow stream with powerful currents.

This post is sad.  I began drafting it well before the inauguration.  In the weeks following that event, I have seen propaganda erode Free Will.  We live in a climate where debate over the significance of provable falsehoods seemingly paralyzes the exertions of My Me of Now.  We care that a travel ban is abjectly immoral, but we save our true outrage until presented with a fabricated massacre to justify that ban.

This post will hopefully take on a happier tone once some affirmative proposals for overcoming this erosion of My Me of Now to the currents of attention-hijacking.

Attention Hijacking

Consider the “Hook Model” of Technology:

(from a scary book by Nir Eyal)

  1. Trigger – external trigger (email, link, app icon) about the user / Each successive hook causes users to form associations with internal triggers and to attach to existing behaviors and emotions / Users start to automatically cue their next behavior and the habit becomes part of everyday routine.
  2. Action – the behavior performed in anticipation of reward; Companies leverage (a) the ease of performing the action with (b) the psychological motivation to do it.
  3. Variable Reward – research shows that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine surge when the user is expecting a reward and the effect is multiplied if there is variability by creating a focused state that suppresses areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating parts associates with wanting and desire.
  4. Investment – occurs when the user puts something into the product like time, data, effort, social capital and money (The investment implies an action that improves the service for the next use); The commitments can be leveraged to trigger more engagement, make the action easier, make the reward more exciting with every pass through the cycle.

The hook model is loudly demonstrated in the sphere of retail.  Consumption and the pursuit of interesting shiny objects has long been hijacking other more productive uses of free time because social engineering by specialists in marketing, branding and experience has eroded consumer free will.  I labor to think of really good examples in the arts of where the consumer hook model is really thoroughly explored. [There are likely a plethora of examples to suggest and probably I am drawing a blank right now trying to recall titles handling this specific topic.  Feel free, please, to recommend in the comments below.]

Well, in the 90’s, we had Fight Club, which packed a heavy message that the illusion of consumer choice had become a kind of true opiate of the enmasculated masses.  People fretted about whether the color of their macbook truly reflected the best of their personalities as opposed to worrying about the kind of struggle portrayed in Fight Club or at the pre-99% Seattle WTO protests.  The attractively attainable goal of acquiring the living room and kitchen sets owned by the Edward Norton character seemingly plugged an emotional hole that would otherwise be filled with a proto-fascist bro-culture populated by the same souls who were recently unified by the campaign and election of our current president.

Today, the hole for about half the population is pretty much filled by proto-fascist bro-culture focusing its energy against an easily defined Other selected by race, religion or culture.  The illusion of consumer choice lulls people into buying things they do not need according to the reasons I brainstormed below, and the cost of acquiring *things* indentures them to pay those things off through the indentured servitude that is the credit and lending system in this country.  People isolate themselves in the pursuit and enjoyment of these personalized things and further isolate themselves with the work required to earn the money to pay for those things.

The Retail Hamster Wheel

Why do people want things they do not need?

  • The object is seen by the individual as something that will improve the quality of life by simplifying some process that requires an individual’s attention, time or energy;
  • The individual sees another individual enjoying the object and covets that engagement;
  • The individual is bored and views the object as a source of entertainment.

The factors boil down to use of leisure time or free time.


Social Media Machine

The best example of the hook model at work is social media.  When it started a decade ago, it seemed like a nice place to express your basic interests in the form of the profile, and facilitate communication among groups of friends and old acquaintances.  With the explosion in use of social media and the pervasiveness of it in everyday life, I believe social media has become more insidious than beneficial.  We slave away our leisure time generating a best version of ourselves online.  We piece together opinions and past events in order to form a curated, contextualized version of our real selves.  In the process, we have truly given big data everything about us.

We initially volunteered profile information.  Then marital status.  Then political affiliation.  Then we shared online personality tests.  Then we liked the tings that interested us.  Then we reposted news articles with titles slanted to reflect our hastily formed ideiologies.  Sheesh.  In 1994, I remember my Catholic School Old Testament teacher riffing on apocalyptic conspiracy theories.  He was an adorable old man, and I really liked him and for whatever reason a lot of the dicta not really central to his class stuck with me.  I specifically remember him telling me there were loose $20 printing presses all around the world flooding the world with counterfeit money.  Chillingly, he said that the devil would create a universal database of all the people in the world, and that the people would voluntarily feed satan all of their most intimate information.



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