This blog is about how people make fewer and fewer decisions by and for themselves, and how that fact will change what it means to be human.
In a few years, here’s what middle-class life will look like: Your car will drive itself; your refrigerator will decide on its own when to order more milk; City Hall will imperceptibly nudge you to save money and avoid elevators; Amazon will tell you what you want to buy before you know you need it. At work you’ll be monitored and measured (with, for example, wearable cameras and keystroke counters) to prevent deviation from company norms, even as more of your moment-to-moment decisions will be “assisted” by algorithms. Meantime, your exercise, sleep, eating and other intimate details will be turned into data (thanks to gadgets you eagerly bought), to help you manage yourself in the same way that others are managing you. Moreover, you will face consequences for having “bad numbers” (no exercise? higher insurance rates for you!). And even intimate chores by which you express yourself—texting a friend, choosing which photo to swipe right in Tinder—will not be left to you, as apps and gadgets take up the work.
None of these changes is far off or theoretical. The policies and devices that will create them already exist.
Technological and economic change are alienating millions of people from a collection of assumptions that they once took for granted: that we can know ourselves, and act rationally with that knowledge, and that because of these facts we are entitled to autonomy, privacy and equal treatment from institutions and businesses. Autonomy is often described as personal self-government, or “the condition of being self-directed,” as the philosopher Marina Oshana has put it. But as these technologies and policies come online, it is reasonable to ask, what will be left to direct?
Many people will welcome at least some of these changes, for good reason. Who doesn’t want safer cars and fewer road deaths? Who is opposed to helping people stay healthy for more years? After a terrible crime, who doesn’t feel relief to know that a suspect was captured on a surveillance camera? I, for one, have come to think that I am not and cannot be the best judge of whether I am biased, or affected by racist or sexist ideology. I do not think police officers are always the best judges of the actions of other police officers either.
In sum, I, like (I think) most onlookers, tend to support monitoring, surreptitious control, predictive technology and reduced decision-making power when I think I might benefit, and when it limits the judgments of people whom I do not know, either personally or as a group. On the other hand, like most onlookers, I want to defend autonomy when I can imagine my own decision-making limited, denied or disrespected by others. After all, I don’t want to be spied on, or treated like a collection of data points.
This is why the changes I want to track and reflect on here are, I think, inevitable. They don’t appeal to all of the people all of the time, but each manifestation of the “other knows best” mentality appeals to enough of the people, enough of the time, to advance.
And that’s what this new blog is about: Self-directedness, self-awareness and self-control in the era of surveillance, personal-data crunching, predictive technology and the new tools they make available to governments, businesses and individuals. How do the moments of celebration (“surveillance cams and Twitter caught the bad guy!”) relate to moments of alarm (“I don’t want them to be able to spy on me!”)? We are moving from the 20th-century model (self-aware decision-makers responding to explicit attempts at persuasion) to a 21st century model (people whose choices are outside their awareness, coping with invisible attempts to influence them). How will we, should we, manage the transition?