Free Will and Technology

Anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy will have thought about and/or discussed the notion of ‘free will’, i.e. the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion. This was explored recently in the Black Mirror film Bandersnatch on Netflix, which is presented to the viewer as an interactive ‘choose your own adventure‘ but really shows like the main character Stefan has no free will to make his decisions as we choose them for him that we actually have little choice in how the story will end from the numerous choices we have made. Much like another character’s speech, Colin, whilst on LSD says about PAC-man meaning “program and control”. This in many ways shows Stefan himself is being led about a maze by us, which we ourselves are doing in making our decisions on how he leads his life.

A magician can learn to look for blind spots, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perceptions as can influence what people do without them realising it. Once they know how to push people’s buttons they can play them like a piano (look at any episode of Derren Brown’s to see this in action). This is what happens again and again as designers of products from music to iPhones to by playing our psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against us at race to grab our attention. They can do this as Western Culture is built around the free will I mentioned above as we fight to defend the right to our ‘free’ choices but we do not realise we are already being manipulated like Stefan was by selections we didn’t even make. Magicians do this by making us feel we have made the choice ourselves but have really directed us down the path they want us to follow.

Take reality television we see an edited version of a far more complex story given to us with the contestants merely puppets in a theatre show with many of them being scripted and pre-determined so any voting we make is giving us an illusion we can make a difference and choose the winner when producers have already determined this weeks to months before. We are made to feel we know these contestants, ordinary people that have risen to fame but only a fraction of what we are told is true as lead us to their desired outcomes. Or celebrities that are trying to improve their fame by redemption or seeing them in new ways so will invest in future projects they undertake. The real winners are never the contestants but the television companies that make money from them and us.

Ask Alexa or Siri ‘what is the best bar in Edinburgh’ and they will pull up results from sites that have given the highest ratings. We fall into the trap sometimes in think these truly must be the best and do not look around to see for ourselves what is around us as could miss the next big thing in music playing at a small bar that may not get the best ratings online or see a pop-up gallery that is having its opening night party for free so not on their system.

Technology creates a ‘fear of missing out’ as convince us we need to subscribe to newsletters, friend people we may not have seen in twenty years and happily never see again, and turn on notifications so know the instant something has happened. However, we will always ‘miss out’ on somethings as we might be asleep as is natural at say 3am on a Tuesday, never meet our dream partner on Tinder as did not swipe on and on, or miss a phone call that could change our lives forever. We also see people together in activities that we were not invited to and made to feel bad that they made a decision to exclude us. We are meant to live in the moment, not in the fear that we will miss that moment forever if not attached to technology or have the notifications turned on.

Social media and technology make us want to be accepted and approved with our ‘friends’. As soon as we update our new profile photo we hope x number of people like it and leave us a comment on how good or beautiful we are. Are we really truly accepting of ourselves if have wait for a certain proportion of our friends agree with how we have chosen to represent ourselves? Where is our choice in being who and what we are without caring what others think? This ‘social approval’ we all respond to but vulnerable people are more likely to be drawn into the web of lies it spins.

Then there is a social reciprocity that if someone comments on something we agree with we click like or if they say ‘thank you’ we feel we have to say ‘you’re welcome‘ and if someone follows us it is almost rude not to follow back. We have no choice but to follow up as the unwritten rules of social etiquette have said we must not leave it dangling in cyberspace. However, if we disagree and say we are offended this triggers a massive up surge for daring to be offended. There are certain things we should be offended such as rape or murder by but taking what is posted to the extent we are feel outraged over the smallest of things are we not going too far?

Are we blindingly following what the designers of technology, with these apps and websites making us to do what they want us to as though we were PAC-man in the maze or Stefan in Bandersnatch? Have we lost the ability to step away and say no I don’t need that app or notifications for every little thing as do not care if miss out? Asking Siri or Alexa to do something for us are we letting a robot make a decision that we no longer have to think for ourselves what to how to do something from first principles? If we continue to accept them are we entering a world beyond that of Black Mirror that we are so dependent on the technology that it is part of us and cannot live without being constantly plugged in?

© Fi S. J. Brown

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Technology – 20.18.11

This is not a rant against technology but more thoughts after watching an old clip on YouTube and considering what was said then to what is true of today’s technology. Equally, is today’s technology an escapism and/or all bad news?

Everywhere we go today almost everyone has a mobile/cell phone. Some have them stuck to their hands and stare back at the black mirror to this world where a version of them exists. It is like almost like old computer game The Sims but with better graphics and have more control of the worlds we create. Others hold them aloft to an invisible god as take selfies and hope this god will ensure they get many likes on the assorted social media as they apply filters to portray themselves in the worlds just mentioned.

Mindfulness has become a big thing but yet many do not just stop and look to enjoy the moment as feel the need to have proof they were there at all. Our memories are like movie with only edited bits we remember but yet by taking videos or pictures are we trying to hold on to them for that bit longer? Do we have to document our lives and share them to these worlds…is anyone really that interested in our fiftieth meeting of a so called celebrity or posing drunkenly with our mates when we are over twice the legal age?

Are our lives so vacant or boring we need the justification, reassurance, acceptance or love that come with these worlds? Acts of random kindness feel cheapened too – how can they be so random when it is recorded then shown to others to showcase the deed in action? Do we need these black mirrors of vanity and worlds to justify our being in the 21st century? Looking back at these records of memories are they not more painful or do they cheapen the so called good times, making them seem like they lasted longer than they did?

The word technology comes from two Greek words, transliterated techne and logos. Techne means art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained. Logos means word, the utterance by which inward thought is expressed, a saying, or an expression. So perhaps technology in this case is a means to present our art and inward expressions of the way we see the world after all. As no two people see or experience life the same way perhaps we can use it to help humanity grow after all and not a step backwards.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Just talk…

We live at a time when it has never been easier to contact another. With the tap on a mobile/cell phone we can speak by voice, by video, and by text with someone five minutes away to five thousand miles away. We may have 1000s of friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, yet find in an evening we still have nobody to talk to or go to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster with us. We can send a message to say ‘hello’ but receive no replies, which makes us wonder are they ignoring us, scared of what we will say or ask of them, or perhaps their social media erroneously is showing their presence online. The light has gone green, but no traffic is flowing our way, as wonder who are true friends are, and who is truly there for us when we need it.

We have never been so connected with other people, but we have never been so disconnected. Meet up with a friend and they spend all the time staring blankly at the black mirror we keep in our bags, or take selfies to show off where they are and show off their latest look or plate of food, make others look at who they are with but mock that you are not, almost giving the middle finger to those they did not invite. Making permanent records of our lives, but only it may be far from real; creating a version that we curate as want to be seen a certain way by others, composing near fictional tales of just how great truly is for us (but may also want to create the opposite so that gain the sympathy and empathy of others). Making it near impossible to differentiate from the girl that needs help from the boy crying wolf for the tenth time, how do we know when to ask the question ‘are you okay’?

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day that should remind us that a conversation is two way traffic, listening does not mean gazing into our black mirrors and pretend that we have heard or even care what another has said, but being an active participant. It only takes a minute to change somebody’s life, be it a passing smile to a strange in the street to a random compliment on a tattoo they have as like the design, or like on a picture just to say we have seen it and acknowledge what its message is. No matter how dark life may seem, how hopeless and lost we feel, there will always be someone who can help, even if it is not the first person. We need to keep going and learn those that are there for us without judgement, and not tell all we tell them in whispers of gossip, but we must remember to be there for them too in return. So please reach out, tell someone that the rain has return, and tired of trying to learn to dance in the rain to our own beat as all too often it is dancing to another’s that causes the problem. Never feel alone, the darkness lies, and don’t give up.

© Fi S. J. Brown