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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 technological determinism. The more fully we understand how our artifacts dictate social structures and behavior, the more we are in a position to alter the terms of the dictation. That is the fundamental fact.

    But it also needs saying that every act we undertake in the world, every reshaping of the stuff of the world, is a weight upon the future. Actions have consequences. The solvent dumped in my yard last year affects my gardening possibilities this year. Everything I do today constrains me tomorrow.

    It is true that no external or material constraint nullifies my freedom to take up the stance I choose -- to notice the constraint and begin responding to it. But all those actions yesterday did more than merely shift external circumstances. They were also inner gestures by which I shaped myself. And I am free to shape myself into an increasingly unaware agent, responding to external stimuli in an automatic fashion.

    I am free, finally, to abandon my freedom.

    This, in particular, is the intelligent machine's seductive proposition. By taking on certain unaware, automatic functions of human intelligence -- and by doing so with extraordinary efficiency -- the computer encourages us to commit more and more of our lives to this subhuman level of functioning.

    The temptation is one of inner passivity and inertia. If, as we have seen, the movement toward freedom is achieved by wrestling through to an ever greater clarity regarding the roots of our own actions, an opposite movement is suggested by every deference to the murky requirements of "the system." "The computer made me do it" is nearly always an excuse rather than the announcement of a revelation -- and no less so when a collective investment in the excuse finally makes every alternative unthinkable.

    Today there is widespread acceptance of whatever the self-driven, wildly careening course of technological development brings us, as if it were inevitable. One also notes a kind of utopian technological determinism that, for example, interprets networking facilities as a cradle of community and democracy; encryption facilities as a guarantor of respect for the private individual; and information storage and retrieval systems as sources of deepened understanding.

    In such symptoms we see a reversal of the movement toward awareness and freedom. Instead of recognizing around the boundaries of every technological determination new avenues of escape toward a fuller humanity, we numbly reconceive our humanity in the computer's image.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Future of Freedom :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/determine.html

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