Let me tell you a story. A story about you and me and probably everyone you know. But we don’t have time to think in those broad terms, so we’re going to think about someone who is a whole lot like you and me: her name is Lydia. Lydia is in her 40s; she’s lived a world where computers were the size of a room and a world where they are the size of your finger tip. If you asked her, she was equally comfortable in both worlds. She saw the rise of affluence and big business in the 1980s and early 1990s, remembers her favorite local clothing shop being pushed out by Walmart. She doesn’t shop at Walmart anymore because most of what she needs can be found at Amazon, where she doesn’t have to deal with lines, salespeople or parking lots.
Every major cultural shift and innovation in Lydia’s life has offered her the promise of greater freedom, more time and increased control in her life. In reality, she is more distracted, more overwhelmed and more likely to self-describe as depressed than her parents or grandparents. She is over-run by endless options of where to travel, what to buy, what school to send her kids to, how to invest for her future, and ways to change the world for the better.
Simultaneously, Lydia has done what most of her peers have done—liberated herself from the distraction of human influence. She hasn’t talked to a salesperson in years. (Why be bothered when I can use star-rankings?) Concerned about the editorial bias in traditional news media, she prefers to read whatever surfaces to the top of her news app on her phone. She and her husband used to attend synagogue as a way to stay connected to her faith community but found the politics distasteful and now prefers to listen to podcasts.
What Lydia doesn’t realize is that over a process of years, she has discarded not just the bondage of allegiance and the risk of groupthink, but also the exact network of belonging and meaning which could lighten the load of her already over-weighted shoulders. Today, more than any other time, Lydia’s personal self-confidence and self-worth must carry the weight of her every decision. It must be enough to compel her through a thousand quandaries of priority while simultaneously honing her social media voice and perspective. She has been trained by her every existence to “be her own person,” with little to no regard as to what such unprecedented independence would cost her.
Along the way, unbeknownst to her, she has needed help, a support system to make decision-making easier, less complicated and—most-importantly—faster. Thankfully, the world is in sync with her needs. She is surrounded by social platforms and digital tools which will alleviate her need to make decisions. Amazon surfaces recommendations for her purchasing, Spotify tells her what to listen to next, Facebook brings her not only the right news that fits her political views, but also an ever-increasing field of opinion (“thought leadership”) which speaks to her indecision. Google keeps a regimented view of her day, filled with timers, reminders and cues for what to do next, ensuring she doesn’t forget any of her ever-expanding to-do list.
Despite her best intentions, she finds herself tripped up regularly by impulse purchases, an inability to stick to her personal goals, and a thoroughly unwanted trend of lashing out at her kids at the end of the day. A part of her wonders if there isn’t an app for that, something to hold her accountable for being the person she wants to be.
She would never willfully say that she depends on these algorithms and machines to make it through, but an honest reflection shows it is true. Somedays she wonders, how did I get here? And how do I get out? But strangely, surrounded by a Jetson-like network of support and services, she simply doesn’t have the energy to think about it.
We, Like Lydia, Are Tired
In the early 2000s, Dr. Roy Baumeister of Princeton introduced the world to the concept of decision fatigue. Through a series of controlled experiments, Dr. Baumeister was able to show how the requirement to make decision after decision in sequence reduces some of our most important healthy brain functions: our ability to self-regulate, stamina in the face of complexity, even our ability to negotiate with ourselves or others when faced with two good (but not great) options.
When we don’t have relationships, communities and systems in place to help limit our decisions or even limit our choices, we wear out of the ability to do what’s best for ourselves and for others. Our intentions (as good as they may be) become immaterial and our brains turn into decision-goo (a technical term) overwhelmed by the freedom of choice we have so aggressively sought out.
Societies of the past had built-in solutions for this. Maybe you, like me, grew up in one of those “don’t drink, don’t dance and don’t date girls who do” kind of churches. Your grandparents likely lived near many of their relatives, so the argument “that’s not how we handle things in our family,” had a much greater sway on them then it likely does on you. As restricting as the ethical cultures of some religions and families may be, they also shrink down the pool of decisions you must make, and thus make it more possible for you to act in your own best interest. By shrinking the number of options, it makes it more possible for me to make a choice that aligns with my personal beliefs and values.
Over time, we have grown exhausted and overstretched from all the optionality we’ve acquired. As openness to anything becomes the highest social good, we can now pick from anything, anywhere. The internet and its bodyguards have shrunk the world, and so distances ideological, geographic, social and cultural are bridged with the click of a button. We get the feeling we can do it all (say nothing of the various motivational cat posters you grew up reading) and then the pressure is on us to pick the thing (or things) which will earn the worth of our one and only life.
The drum beat of this demand to make the most of our endless modern freedoms rings in our ears every waking minute. It’s subtlety so often unrecognizable that its drain our emotional and mental resources goes unrecognized.
We go through life inspired and tired, not able to figure out why we seem so far from the Instagram life we know is supposed to be possible. In this way, we are all Lydia, living in a self-made world full of choices, and every day less able to choose.
Enter the Robots (and Cambridge Analytica)
“I’m trying to make the world a more open place.” – Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook
“Facebook can target and trigger us through terror. The network’s techniques don’t appeal to our logic or empathy, but to our deepest-held fears.” – Douglas Ruchkoff, Professor of Media Studies, CUNY Queens College
As we trade our human allies for digital gatekeepers, as we exchange coffee with a friend (and all its inconvenient driving and parking and scheduling) for an hour scanning social media, we start to need help. It should come as no surprise that the exact platforms which liberate us from the constraints of human interaction, also offer us an encoded alternative: AI. As Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and the other weaker players catalog your every decision, every like, every connection; as they place their microphones in your home, interpreting your every request, and as they use that massive pool of data to sell “you” to advertisers, they now set themselves up to solve the exact problem they helped create: decision fatigue.
By limiting what shows up in your news feed, pushing into prominence adverts that fit your preferences, and surrounding you with social impact messages which match your demo, they are willing to take the role of mother, father, priest and psychologist, if we will let them. While Cambridge Analytica makes headlines for its incredible role in a presidential election, it should also garner its share of attention for proving Facebook’s ability to manage your decisions. By doing what’s called “micro-targeting” Cambridge used the sea of Facebook data to slice and dice you and me, find our decision vulnerabilities, and expose our ability to be nudged socially and politically.
For better or worse, we were already teed up to be easily influenced. We were likely scanning our social feeds late at night, deeply into the negative territory of decision fatigue, our psychological guard down, our neurons begging for someone to tell us what to do.
It is not the presence of Cambridge Analytica (or its more left-leaning counterparts) that raises alarm for me. It is the milieu, the cultural soup, into which they land. We, all us Lydias, are primed for subversive coercing. Our passionate hunt for freedom so broad and deep now that we cannot sustain even the most basic guards against outside actors who wish to influence us. We have abandoned personal connections with people who give seemingly impersonal advice (Your dad always telling you that a professional should tuck in their shirt) and exchanged them for incredibly IMpersonal connections who give remarkably personal advice (Five reasons why you have the wrong religion from Buzzfeed).
Sure, people aren’t objective. We know that. We know that they are likely to look at you with assumptions, judgments and even downright biases. But they also can feel your pain, raise your serotonin with a warm smile, hold your hand in a time of crisis, ask you the question which only life experience could produce, remind you of your deepest purpose. All this humanness, this intimacy, will feel like a loss of freedom at times. We may feel caged-in by the powerful presence of another person’s wants, needs, desires and imperfections. BUT, we will also have the chance for such critical hopes as contentment, peacefulness, rest and resilience.
The Freedom of Fewer Options
As the corporate robots insert themselves deeper and deeper into our lives and psyche, we have the opportunity to ask better questions. Are there places where AI’s belief that coercion is connection ought to be completely out-of-bounds? Should the massive reduction in cost of robotic services be justification for our exposure to their manipulative capabilities? Where is the line? Are we better of with apps in exchange for our therapists, financial advisors, pastors, life coaches, yoga instructors, professors… friends? Is an algorithm of curated comments from people who you may barely know a substitute for long conversations with a new acquaintance?
There is no visible limit to AI’s ability to impersonate reality. The digital world will continue its sophisticated march to help you trade your personal privacy for the illusion of options. If there is a place where all of this reaches its limits, it will be in your, my and Lydia’s hands to put up the boundary. Each one of us will have to decide for ourselves when the appearance of options is no longer worth the very real entrapment of our subconscious. For some, Cambridge Analytica’s remarkable ability to segment Facebook and deliver stunningly accurate influences to bend voter behavior is the last straw. For others, they consider such things the price of admission to a platform which allows them to stay in perennial view of their 2nd grade teacher, high school ex-boyfriend, favorite boss and next-door neighbor all at the same time. For one business leader I know, the last straw was realizing that her phone could (and would) listen in to her intimate conversations and follow-up with ads targeted to solve the challenges she disclosed.
I cannot say what the line is (if one exists). What I can say, is that freedom is not free. Of course, I mean this in the traditional sense that the freedoms you and I experience were paid for by the sacrifices of others. But in today’s world, I mean something more. As long as we equate freedom with increased options, we will always pay a high personal price for those options. The freedom to be anyone, choose anything and any time wages deep war against our evolutionary psyches, hard-wired for community, intimacy, geographic constancy and the safety of the familiar. It is my hope that over time we realize that fewer is more. A world where we accept a poverty of options in exchange for the richness of the moment we are already in, the life we are already living, the people we have already found. We have the freedom to exchange wanderlust for presentness, purchasing for investing, likes for love. And that—perhaps—is the most important freedom of all.