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  • The Future of Freedom

    Technological Determinism Is an Ambiguous Affair

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Those with strongly mechanistic mindsets are inclined to propose various "determinations" of human behavior, ranging from the genetic pressures of evolution to the controlling influences of modern technology. There is almost always some truth in these proposals. But a delicious irony runs through every one of them: the more thoroughly we prove ourselves subject to alien, determining forces, the more thoroughly we escape subjection.

    The reason for this is not hard to understand. When it comes to human behavior, we cannot both see a pattern of causation and remain trapped in that pattern exactly as before. The seeing itself is a decisive new element in the pattern. Putting it differently: we cannot recognize X as a pattern except by stepping out of X and delimiting it against a non-X background; but this stepping out is already an escape into a new freedom.

    So if evolution has conspired, as some sociobiologists argue, to incline males toward wife-abuse, then -- however great its temporary success -- it committed a fatal error. For it also enabled the sociobiologist to stand far enough outside the "controlling" tendency to recognize it, and thereby to take up a conscious stance toward it.

    Statistics offer no counterargument here. The essential fact is that we cannot point to any individual as a product of evolution and say with perfect confidence, "He will never recognize in himself the evolutionary patterns of abuse now coming to light, nor will he find in this recognition a power of self-transformation."

    This dynamic between internal transformation and the investigation of controlling influence extends to many areas. On Wall Street, for example, it is well known that every successful effort to gain a marginal leg up on chance by predicting the public's trading behavior quickly cancels itself when the formula becomes common knowledge. For the knowledge itself affects future behavior, and so destroys the formula.

    Similarly, it seems we have no sooner learned about the remarkably "predictable" voting pattern of some obscure constituency, when the pattern begins to fall apart. The constituency, in "waking up" to itself and its behavior, also wakens to a larger universe of options.

    Advertisers, relying on the most sophisticated tools of collective manipulation known to man, can sometimes forecast with reasonable accuracy the statistical effect of a particular advertising ploy. "Add the following (meaningless) phrase to the label on the box, and you'll increase sales by X percent" -- but only until we, the intended victims, become fully aware of the ploy, after which its effectiveness plummets.

    Pity the economists and political scientists, who are forever discovering statistical rules of thumb only to find them compromised by the very fact of discovery!

    The strict determinist's only hope for truth is the hope that the truth has wholly eluded us -- that we stand subject to determination by powers we can never penetrate with understanding. In other words, it is the paradoxical hope that we can never know ourselves to be determined.

    The same considerations apply to the discussion of technologi