This is how technology corrodes human freedom
We humans are piratable animals. For now, pirates are limited to analyzing external signals.
Liberal democracy faces a double crisis. What most focuses attention is the well-known problem of authoritarian regimes.
But new scientific discoveries and technological developments represent a much deeper challenge to the basic liberal ideal: human freedom.
Liberalism has managed to survive, for centuries, many demagogues and autocrats who have tried to strangle freedom from outside. But so-called liberal democracy has had little experience, until now, with technologies capable of corroding human freedom from within.
To assimilate this new challenge, let’s begin by understanding what liberalism means. In Western political discourse, the term “liberal” is often used in a strictly partisan sense, as opposed to “conservative.”
But many of the so-called conservatives adopt the liberal vision of the world in general. The typical Trump voter would have been considered a radical liberal a century ago, when liberals were real.
Here are some aspects where the past is compared to the present:
- Do you think that people should elect their government instead of blindly obeying a monarch?
- Do you think that a person should choose his profession instead of belonging by birth to a caste?
- Do you think that a person should choose their spouse instead of marrying whom their parents have decided? If you answer yes to the three questions, congratulations, you are liberal.
Liberalism defends human freedom because it assumes that people are unique entities, different from all other animals. Unlike rats and monkeys, Homo sapiens, in theory, have free will. However, the new breed of “liberals” are exactly the opposite and defend government intervention, creation of unlimited laws that curb human freedom, and ratting on everyone who do not obey them.
Human feelings and decisions are the highest moral and political authority in the world. Unfortunately, free will is not a scientific reality.
It is a myth that liberalism was inherited from Christian theology. The theologians elaborated the idea of free will to explain why God does well when he punishes sinners for their bad decisions and rewards the saints for the right decisions.
If we do not make our decisions freely, why is God going to punish or reward us? According to the theologians, it is reasonable that they do so because our decisions are the reflection of the free will of our eternal souls, which are completely independent of any physical and biological limitations.
This myth has little relation to what science tells us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Human beings, without doubt, have a will, but it is not free. I cannot decide what desires I have.
I do not decide to be introverted or extroverted, calm or restless, gay or straight. Human beings make decisions, but they are never independent decisions. Each of them depends on the biological and social conditions that are beyond our control.
I can decide what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote with, but those decisions depend on my genes, my biochemistry, my sex, my family background, my national culture, etcetera; all of them, elements that I have not chosen.
This is not an abstract theory, but it is easy to observe. Look at the next idea that comes up in your brain. Where did it come from? Has it occurred to you freely? Of course not.
If you observe your mind carefully, you will realize that you have little control over what happens in it and that you do not freely decide what to think, what to feel, or what to want.
Now, however, having faith in free will is dangerous. If governments and companies manage to hack or pirate the human operating system, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.
Three things are needed to pirate human beings: solid knowledge of biology, a lot of data and great computing capacity.
Now, it is possible that both companies and governments soon have all three and, when they manage to pirate our brains, not only can they predict our decisions, but also manipulate our feelings.
Whoever believes in the traditional liberal story will be tempted to downplay this problem. “No, that’s never going to happen. Nobody can predict or manipulate my decisions because my decisions are the reflection of my free will. “
Unfortunately, ignoring the problem is not going to make it go away. It only serves to make us more vulnerable.
Naive faith in free will blinds us. When a person chooses something -a product, a career, a couple, a politician- he is said to be choosing him by his free will. And there is no more to talk about it.
Propaganda and manipulation are not new, of course. Before they acted by means of massive bombings; today, they are, increasingly, high precision ammunition against chosen targets.
Now it is possible to build a tailored message for each of the specific weaknesses of each brain.
An algorithm can tell if someone is already predisposed against immigrants, for example.
Some of the brightest minds in the world have spent years investigating how to hack the human brain to make us click on certain ads and sell things.
The best method is to press the buttons of fear, hatred or greed that we carry inside. And that method has started to be used now to sell us politicians and ideologies.
For now, pirates are limited to analyzing external signals: the products we buy, the places we visit, the words we search on the Internet.
A few years from now, biometric sensors will provide direct access to our inner reality and know what happens in our hearts. Not the much-loved metaphorical heart of liberal fantasies, but the muscle that pumps and regulates our blood pressure and much of our brain activity.
Then, the pirates will correlate the heart rate with the data of the credit card and the sanguineous pressure with the history of searches.
What would the Inquisition and the KGB have been capable of with biometric bracelets that constantly monitor our mood and our affections? Unfortunately, it gives the impression that we will soon know the answer.
Liberalism has developed an impressive arsenal of arguments and institutions to defend individual liberties against external attacks from repressive governments and intolerant religions but is not prepared for a situation in which individual freedom is undermined from within and in fact, the concepts “freedom” and “individual” no longer make much sense.
In order to survive and thrive in the 21st century, we need to leave behind the naive vision of human beings as free individuals – a conception inherited equally from Christian theology and the Enlightenment – and accept that, in reality, we humans are piratable animals.
We need to know ourselves better
While you read these lines, governments and companies are working to pirate you. If they get to know you better than you know yourself, they can sell everything you want, be it a product or a politician.
It is especially important to know our weak points because they are the main tools of those who try to pirate us. Computers are hacked through pre-existing defective code lines. Human beings, through preexisting fears, hatreds, prejudices, and desires.
Pirates cannot create fear or hate from nothing. But, when they discover what a person already fears and hates, they have easy to tighten the corresponding emotional nuts and provoke an even greater fury.
If we get to know ourselves through our own efforts, maybe the same technology that pirates use can serve to protect people.
Just as the computer has an antivirus that preserves it against malicious software, maybe we can use that knowledge about ourselves, like an antivirus for the brain.
That artificial helper will learn from experience what is the particular weakness of a person – the cat videos or the irritating news, and it will be able to block them to defend us.
For 300 years, liberal ideals inspired a political project that aimed to give the greatest possible number of people the ability to pursue their dreams and realize their desires.
We are getting closer and closer to reaching that goal, but also to realize that, in reality, it is a hoax. The same technologies that we have invented to help people pursue their dreams allow us to redesign them. So how can I trust any of my dreams?
It is possible that this discovery gives human beings a completely new kind of freedom. Until now, we identified firmly with our desires and sought the necessary freedom to fulfill them. When an idea came up in our head, we would hurry to obey it.
We spent the time running like crazy, spurred, climbed on a furious roller coaster of thoughts, feelings, and desires, which we have mistakenly believed represented our free will.
What will happen if we stop identifying with that roller coaster? What will happen when we carefully observe the next idea that comes up in our mind and ask ourselves where it came from?
Sometimes people think that, if we renounce free will, we will become completely apathetic, we will curl up in a corner and let ourselves die of hunger. The truth is that giving up this deception can arouse a deep curiosity.
As long as we identify firmly with any thought and desire that arises in our mind, we do not need to make great efforts to know ourselves.
Questioning free will and exploring the true nature of humanity is not new. Humans have maintained this debate thousands of times. Except that before we did not have the technology.
Technology changes everything
How does liberal democracy work in an era in which governments and companies can hack humans?
Where are affirmations such as “the voter knows what is convenient” and “the client is always right”?
How to live when we understand that we are piratable animals, that our heart can be an agent of the Government, that our amygdala may be working for Pelosi and the next idea that comes to mind perfectly may not be the result of free will but of an algorithm?
Do you know better than ourselves? These are the most interesting questions that humanity must face.
Unfortunately, these are not questions that most people tend to ask themselves. Instead of investigating what awaits us beyond the illusion of free will, people are retreating all over the world to take refuge in even more remote illusions.
Instead of facing the challenge of artificial intelligence and bioengineering, people resort to religious fantasies that are even further away than the liberalism of the scientific realities of our time. What is offered to us, instead of new political models, are re-packaged remains of the 20th century.