[Note: link to author's reading of the article appears at the bottom of the article]
Technology and Choice is a great name for a podcast, don’t you think? A lot of people seem to find the title compelling, all by itself. I know I do. There’s so much implied, yet so formlessly. Even I only have a vague idea of where we’re going with this--just a thread to start pulling, really. So, why is the name so engaging?
Choice is one of those weird strings the universe leaves hanging out. Pull on it and secrets that have been hidden in plain sight start to fall and hit the ground with a resounding “Duh!”
Whereas choices are things you have or you do, choice at its highest level is something that you are; it’s of your nature. We won't dwell on this too much here, other than to say that as individuals, we are inseparable from Choice. Can't dodge it, can't choose not to choose. But while I feel that contemplating this fact is both interesting and efficacious, I don’t plan to beat folks over the head with it too much. We’ll get down to more mundane matters in a moment. However . . .
Deep Water Alert!
I am really not sure how deep this goes but I suspect that it goes to the very nature of all human experience, and perhaps even to the core of the whole universe. I am sure that these are not new thoughts or avenues of examination. I just haven't seen them approached in this way, and I think it will be an adventure to just poke around for ourselves without asking permission. I only mention my suspicion about how deep it goes as an aside to inform you of my depth of interest, and perhaps audacity. The ultimate nature and character of Who or What does the choosing can be set aside for the moment. But the bottom line is that if you have a sense of self, you DO choose, so you have a direct stake in what we’re talking about, and a full share of responsibility, as well. Beyond that, let's see if we can use what we do know and experience to pull apart the rest, shall we?
When launching the Technology and Choice podcast, the initial definition of technology being worked with was something like “the formalized application of knowledge and information to do things.” That’s a fairly inclusive definition, but the more we worked with this pair of ideas, the clearer things have become, and a better definition presents itself:
Technology is a patterned system of choices—”if this, then that”—put into action to accomplish things in various circumstances.
This is a much tidier definition because it relates it to something that each of us has undeniable experience with and thus responsibility for (i.e., choice), but also it encompasses the whole scope of technology from stone axes to home economics to computers and the rest of the high tech marvels from here on out.
Well, that wraps it up, then, right? We can all go home now! Yeah, sure. If life were that simple, it would be boring.
No. Because technologies build on other technologies (choice patterns incorporate other, already established, choice patterns) the origins of the choices and the intentions of the technologies involved become quite an interesting tangle. This tangle tends to displace responsibility further and further from the individual choices made in the moment to choices made in the past by indefinite “others.” Thus does the question “Who moved my cheese?” become an interesting but often unsolvable problem. Or might it be the wrong question? What fun!
We could still be very hard-nosed and say, “You choose, so no excuses! Fess up, take responsibility and take your lumps!” While there’s probably a lot more truth in such an attitude than we might wish to admit, there’s no subtlety there. Isn’t it, maybe, a bit more complicated than that? I mean, if I’m going to confess to something, I really prefer to have a decent idea of what’s going on, you know? Good! That gives us a good reason to explore.
So let’s examine choice and choices a bit deeper, on a bit more practical, everyday-experience level and see if it sheds some light.
Types and Facets of Choice
The Decentralization Itch is an article I published last year on safecrossroads.net and the Let’s Talk Bitcoin network. In it I show pretty irrefutably how choice is something that only Self can do, because that’s where you look to find free will, volition, etc. While that logic is rock solid, I think, the patterns and packages of choices, and the complexities of life can make the truth of that logic hard to track and thus easy to doubt.
I’m not trying to make any sweeping conclusions here. We’re just tinkering with the stuff of life itself, after all. But we can take a closer look at some of the different forms choice takes in day-to-day life and see how it affects our view of things.
Starting with the simpler, more straightforward types:
Analytical choice – There are various tools one can apply to refine the process of making an analytical choice, but it is basically a matter of applying evaluation of data and reason to arrive at the best solution in a given situation, and then choosing that course. This is the type of choice from which we structure our more rational, considered modes of behavior. It is also the type of choice a programmer uses to encode choice patterns in software, or an engineer uses to build choice patterns into a machine.
Gut, instinctive or intuitive choices – While much could probably be said about each of these separately, we can group them together as choices which result from factors outside conscious analysis, such as subconscious perception, bred-in response to stimuli, etc., whether accurate or false.
Emotional/reactive choices – Such choices may or may not be rational or appropriate to the situation in which they arise. They may be in-the-moment, or come out of current response to prior experience, or even past trauma.
Habit pattern choices – These are preprogrammed choice patterns that go into effect in certain circumstances. Sometimes these are desirable and effective (good habits), and sometimes they are undesirable and inappropriate (bad habits). Habits result from conscious choices which are adopted into patterns of behavior, both on an individual level, and interactively in groups of individuals. Habits are also trained in by upbringing. Others are enforced by schooling (which is different than education).
Now let’s consider some more involved choice patterns that really start to complicate and obscure responsibility:
More involved sets of “if this, then that” agreements or operations -- This is a very broad category encompassing pretty much anything from rule books, to computer programs, to operating instructions, to contracts.
User Agreements, explicit or implied – I sometimes think that we live in the world or worlds that conform to the user agreements we’ve tacitly accepted, with just about the same amount of consideration for what those user agreements say as when we blithely say that we have read and understand the user agreements on any particular website today. What more could there be to say on this one?
Social-contract/social-proof choices – These are choices individuals make to be in agreement with a group, perhaps considering that there is some wisdom or a not-understood system at work, or simply not wishing to stand out. In the case of social contract, such choices may arise from the concept that one owes a duty of subservience to an authority in exchange for just rulership. Such choices may or may not be rational, depending upon the scene, but there is a strong tendency to assume the imperative of group behavior.
Definition: Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation. – Wikipedia
A pledge of allegiance fits pretty well here. Who even really considers what it actually means, especially when you start being required to chant it as a child with no idea what it means?
And, speaking of children and choice, we learn a huge portion of our lifetime lessons when we’re children, through social-proof-type circumstances. Seems to me that it would be a responsible thing to do to take up such things very purposefully and decide carefully whether those patterns of decision are really valid or not. If they are, then we can subscribe to them anew, with the full weight of our considered adult responsibility. If they are not valid, we’d best revoke them and try to take responsibility for any errors we’ve made while believing they were valid.
At an early age, I showed that I wasn’t too prone to conform to social proof. For example, when I was about 11, in a Boy Scout meeting one evening, we were doing drills. The order was “left face” and I turned to what I was certain was the left. Everyone else turned the opposite direction. I was surprised that everyone else could be so mistaken and stayed with my choice. Well, after a few seconds I grudging turned to “their” left and got back in sync. I did have to admit that I had gotten it wrong, but I never lost the pride of having continued to turn to the direction I thought was correct, despite the rest doing otherwise. I’ve always been a bit cheeky that way.
I’m sure we could lay out plenty of other flavors of choice which have interesting aspects and twists, but that gives us enough to get the idea.
Technology and the Everything Else
Computer programming is one of the best examples of prepackaging choices in a pattern. “If this circumstance exists, apply that algorithm, etc.” This concept of patterned choices applies at a very basic level. It’s a package of choices and we invoke it to accomplish certain things. We don’t like it if the program also does things (behind the curtain so to speak) that we don’t approve of. Thus the great appeal and security advantages of the open source software movement, and the up and coming open hardware movement, as well. The choices are all out there in the open where people can see them. Maybe I won’t have the foggiest idea how to read code, or know the implications even if I could read it, but I know that others can read and understand. I can see what a bunch of independent people say, and then make a reasonably informed choice as to what will happen when I use the software.
Another great example is the engineering design and construction of a complex machine or set of machines. “If this, then that” built right into physical forms.
We tend to think of these sorts of things with a capital “T”. Technology is those choice packages we have enshrined in physical machines, devices and systems, or a least put down as discrete systems of instruction in books and manuals.
The more chaotic patterns of choice we see operating in life and society and random human interaction don’t really rise to the level of Technology. Or do they? The thing is, I’m not so sure there is a clear line separating one from the other, in anything but a very arbitrary way.
Maybe our understanding of the more codified patterns of choice which we think of as Technology can help us better understand and refine the more uncharted, but very real and persistent, patterns in our social and economic interactions.
And, from the other end, maybe examination of the anarcho-factual [see below] choices and choice patterns of individuals, in the wild and untidy world at large, can help us better appreciate and more appropriately use the tidier end of the scale which we call Technology.
After all, it’s all of a piece . . . isn’t it?
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anarcho-factual: (term coined by the author) anarcho = “no ruler,” factual = “in truth.” I don’t pretend to know with certainty all about the best form which society should take, and I would not seek to force such on others. “Anarchy” is a political philosophy which holds that society is best formed by voluntary association rather than using political force. By contrast, my perspective is that society IS formed by the choices of individuals. There factually are no rulers superior to individual choice, except as individuals assign or accept them. I think that when enough people take responsibility for the truth of this fact, and pattern their choices accordingly, a better society will emerge, whatever form it takes.
by John Ferguson 18 April 2016