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