I’ve recently become a frequent listener to the podcast “Waking Up”, created by the American author/philosopher/neuroscientist/atheist-at-large Sam Harris, and had the opportunity to hear a particularly good episode last week. Recorded in July of this year, Harris conducts a conversation with David Krakauer, currently the president and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute, that addresses information, complexity and “the future of humanity”. One particular segment of the almost two-hour discussion caught my attention related to topics we’ve been talking about in the 4010 class and issues that Douglas Rushkoff addresses in his “Program or Be Programmed” book. I’ve created an MP3 of this particular 11-minute excerpt that can be downloaded/listened to here. Krakauer begins by stating his concern over the growing “systematic erosion of human free will”, and cites examples of our (potential) surrender of freedom of choice to online utilities that we commonly interact with – Netflix suggesting things for us to watch or Amazon presenting books we should read, based on an amalgamation of our previous data and algorithms comparing our tastes to “others like us”. We can always say “no thank you”, but it gets harder and harder when a convenient curated selected is featured front and center for us. Krakauer is concerned that this curation process ends up contracting the “volume” of one’s free choice. After some discussion with Harris exploring the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, compared to the previous methods of discovering various writings or music (finding books by happenstance while browsing in a bookshop, or simply choosing albums based on their cool covers), Harris emphasizes (around 8 min. 30 sec.) that he is not calling for a return to the “ghettos of the past”, but argues that “the tools we have now that are so incredible should be allowing us to have freedoms that are unprecedented.” The selection available on Amazon is fantastic, but what comes along with it is “this all-seeing eye that wants to impose, out of largely economic considerations, constraints on what you do. It’s our job to maintain the freedom of the technology.” “Let’s fight the instinct of the technology to treat us as a nuisance in a machine-learning algorithm that would want to be able to predict us perfectly…let’s surprise it.”
I’ve been turned on to some great movies, documentaries, books and music based on automated recommendations…”people who like this have watched…”, “others have purchased…” But it’s reasonable to doubt that these collections of suggestions are truly presented with my interests at heart. What other factors and influences are behind the selections (e.g. especially if Netflix has just poured millions into the production of an original show that they are pushing to be successful)? Who are the creators that get shut out in this process (along with their works)? And, if it’s super convenient to simply check out the small lineup of something similar, where is the encouragement to explore something that challenges one’s taste further or that presents something radically different altogether? Hearing the Harris & Krakauer discussion made me think of a piece of music that I hadn’t heard in awhile – one that encompasses the message in a 3-and-a-half-minute new wave song: Devo’s “Freedom of Choice”.
Lyrics are here…the final chorus is:
“Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want”
(the original video is an amusing artifact of the early 80s as well, with a growing crowd of people becoming assimilated clones at the end…)