by Julius WiedemannFeb 23, 2021
Many psychologists in the post Second World War era, financed by intelligence agencies, researched deep into how minds can be controlled. A lot of that paranoia was driven by the cold war. The story goes that the Duga antenna in Ukraine, the largest in the world, and designed to detect anti-ballistic missiles from the west, and working with low frequency, could interfere with the minds of Americans on the other side of the world. A lot of the stories of this time roam around the idea that one side needed to understand what and how the enemy was doing things so that they could predict and eventually set off a pre-emptive attack. Very quickly, also through psychology, they started to think about how they could reverse engineer the idea of control. Little they knew that the internet wouldn’t unleash probably its biggest power. Designing control.
Another interesting story is the case of Nick Bostrom, a contemporary philosopher from Oxford, who launched the theory that we might be living in a simulated world. You only have to assume that in a sort of Matrix structure, as in the film, a super computer would be able to simulate in detail many different worlds, and would create characters that are playing in them. In that case for example, all types of beliefs would be real, and not really mutually exclusive. This model already assumes that we are living in a completely digitized way, and that supercomputers not only play a major role, but they are the very centre of what we consider life to be.
The real dilemma of the documentary film, The Social Dilemma, is if Tristan Harris, the main driver, is fighting a lost battle. And also, if privacy is the war or the battle, and if freedom is the real war. The example given by Tristan Harris, that just half a dozen people in a company could design the influence on billions of people is a hell of a story. But it also happens everywhere on a much smaller scale every day, from designing the packaging of ice cream to deciding which headlines are going to be on the first page of the newspaper or a website. It is what people usually say that trust is good, but control is better.
Every profession carries a code of conduct. And we know that when this code is broken, and is not punished, the consequences can be devastating overtime, and when every exception is made in the system it creates a moral loophole that encourages people to do either the same or to abuse the system entirely. Every time we create a rule, we need to create the enforcement of that rule so that once in a while people are reminded what the codes are, when they see people punished for not complying. We already have technologies, for example, to inhibit people from speeding, but we want to have the freedom to drive beyond the speed limit so that we give people the sensation of freedom. Freedom can be a tricky psychological game.
Equality for me is not really about us fighting for being somehow equal economically or socially. A more sophisticated idea of equality is about equal opportunity, but even so it remains a psychological game. Equality for me exists when everyone can dream the same dreams. We want to be the thinker of our thoughts and the doers of our actions, but we have to be aware that we are prone to be influenced at any point in time by millions of factors and consequently designed pieces that want to change your mind, from politics to consumer products.
Then comes the digital age, not only with incredible processing power, but with maybe the most radical experiment ever done: giving tools to people to exercise their creativity, controlling other people in a scale never imagined before. If you are sitting in the desk playing Second Life, you want to see the actions of people around you. But better than that is to be able to anticipate what others' moves will be. Machine learning in artificial intelligence is going to be the backbone of businesses, but also behavioural psychology. They will make less mistakes and will be able to control much more. The only decision we need to make is how far we will give them control, or how far we will be able to control them.
The ultimate question is, really if there is free will. Christopher Hitchens, known for his sarcastic comments, was once asked if free will existed. He replied saying, “Of course, because I have no other option”. What seems to anger and create a lot of anxiety is not about control, but rather, in which hands control will be. Edward Snowden already knew about that. The tools employed to fight terrorists and create a more peaceful world could be exactly the same tools to create chaos and put people into power. At the end, it all depends on the human being leading the process. We have been designing control for a long time. As Henry Kissinger once said there is no better aphrodisiac than power.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.