Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The loss of agency and the illusion of control

The opportunities the internet provides us with are potentially unlimited, or so we are usually told. Competitively priced flight tickets, free movies, ancient gnostic texts and hardcore rape porn are but 'a mouse-click away' - for those who know where to look, that is. The internet enables us to communicate with friends and family living in faraway countries as easily as with random strangers. We have access to a wealth of information, anywhere, anytime. The internet, in sum, has provided us with great new opportunities and information - and empowered us accordingly. That, at least, is the common assumption. But has it, really? Has this 'wealth of information' made us more independent and in control of our own lives? Or does the widespread illusion of control and freedom of choice, of which the internet is a core aspect, paradoxically convey a more sinister, contradictory reality - an actual loss of personal agency?

I downloaded a movie, yesterday. It was an illegal download, theft-light, which some of you might disapprove of. But don't worry: karmic retribution came fast. Today, my laptop was infected by some malicious software, pretending to be an anti-virus program. The software performed a fake system scan, warned me that my laptop was full of viruses, Trojan horses and other nasty things, and tried to block internet access. It looked very professional, as if it were part of Windows itself, but when I was asked to order their 'professional anti-virus software' and leave my credit card details I got suspicious. Fortunately, I still managed to get online. After some failed attempts I found a website which step-by-step explained me how to get rid of the rubbish. I followed the steps, without understanding why I took them. I created a strange file in Notepad and installed it as I was told - but I have no idea what I did and why I did it. I had little choice, though - without external help, I would have never got my computer clean.

I hope it is clean now - the software is nowhere to be found, so everything seems fine, but there is no way to be completely sure. The experience was unpleasant, and reminded me of an experience I had a couple of months ago, when my former laptop suddenly crashed and stopped working. These experiences have made me realise how completely dependent I am on the internet - for my research (i.e., work), for my financial situation, for making phone calls to my family and my family-in-law, for communicating with friends, for getting information about public transport and entertainment, for following the news and so on. Besides, I am dependent on my computer - for my personal archive, for music, for pictures and for writing. Nevertheless, I have no understanding whatsoever of the way it works. A laptop may be small, it is an extremely complicated device, and a layperson like me will never be able to really grasp the way it operates. Accordingly, when an unexpected problem occurs, we have great difficulty solving it, and cannot do so without external advice.

The internet, on the other hand, seems as big and endless as the universe - but equally incomprehensible. It works, we take for granted that it works, and as long as it works we don't ask any questions. Meanwhile, however, we make ourselves completely dependent on systems and devices we do not understand, and don't really control. As soon as something unexpected happens, our certainties are challenged and we are reminded of this dependence - only to happily forget it as soon as the malicious software has been removed. By doing so we silently accept the fact that we don't truly control the devices we have become completely dependent on - naively believing that there are others 'out there' who do understand how it works and can solve possible problems for us. But we are not the only ones who are dependent on the skills and knowledge of a few anonymous IT specialists: so are our government agencies, airline companies and banks. For instance, your financial savings are but bits and bytes, immaterial computer data, whose very existence depends on the system's functioning - but you accept it without giving it much thought, as you have no choice.

As the 'progress' of communication technologies and digitalisation ruthlessly continues, we are becoming more and more dependent on things we understand less and less. It is today's Faustian pact: as we have embraced the amenities of ever-evolving electronic appliances, we have willingly lost control over central aspects of our own life. Internet-banking and e-tickets are obvious examples, but there are many others. Newspapers, books, chronicles and other paper documents - those centuries-old devices for storing, sharing and preserving information - are gradually losing their physicality, only to be reduced to digital files that can be read on iPads and e-readers, whose preservation depends on the existence of a few backups. Few young people today are able to adequately plan and make appointments in advance, as they have grown up with mobile phones and are used to being able to change plans last-minute - no structural planning or commitment is necessary anymore. Drivers have become unable to read maps, as their navigation system tells them where to go - as soon as it makes a mistake or stops working, they are lost. Or worse: increasing amounts of walkers and hikers - those archetypal 'nature-lovers' of the past - have thrown away their maps and compasses, and walk with GPS devices instead. The more we listen to machines that tell us what to do, the more we forget to follow our senses and make our own independent judgments.

I am not saying that all technological progress has negative effects. Medical technology has greatly improved, saving many people's lives. The internet has given us wonderful opportunities for communicating with family and friends. Technological progress has contributed a lot to environmental destruction, but it can (and should) also play an important part in tackling environmental problems in the near future - further developing sustainable energy, cleaner engines and so on. So I am by no means a reactionary romanticist who is opposed to technological progress per se. The issue I am addressing here, however, is the paradox that while recent developments in communication technologies may have given us the feeling that we have more control and more choice, in reality our choices are limited, and we have actually lost control over our own lives. By increasing our dependence on external agencies (electronic devices, internet forums and phone helpdesks, 'experts') for our daily lives, we have in fact lost much control. In other words: in most contemporary societies, despite the widespread rhetoric of freedom and independence, personal agency and independence have decreased.

This development extends far beyond the realm of technology. One example is the bureaucratisation of society: digitalisation may have made it easier to, say, submit your tax statement (has it, really?), but it has also given birth to a variety of new procedures and regulations. The more information there is, the more authorities seem to feel the urge to control it - as exemplified by the international deterioration of privacy legislation, and governments' wishes to store private phone calls and emails for many years. In countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, every tiny thing is now regulated, in government agencies as well as in universities or private companies, leaving little or no space for negotiation and flexibility. Thus, personal requests turn into official applications, individual exceptions turn into dangerous precedents, and small-scale conflicts turn into court cases. The more interpersonal relations are regulated and bureaucratised, the less people are able to solve small problems independently and informally. And the more authorities try to control information, the more procedures and obligations they produce, and the less power individuals have to negotiate. Thus personal agency and freedom are challenged further.

One might object by saying that there has never been as much choice as today; that contemporary society offers its members a personal freedom unprecedented in history. 'Are we not completely free to choose and design our own lives?' you might ask. This is of course one the great myths of liberal capitalism - that in 'enlightened Western civilisation' people can do as they wish; that anybody can become a millionaire, if only they work hard enough. Alas, in reality social background, financial means, education level, ethnicity and interpersonal networks are highly influential in determining the extent of one's success. Structural economic and power inequalities within wealthy societies are discursively veiled by floating signifiers such as 'integration', 'citizenship', 'participation', 'free choice', 'free market' and, last but not least, 'democracy'. But despite the egalitarian rhetoric, independence and individual agency are valuable commodities, not equally available to all members of society. A well-educated fiscal lawyer or diplomat has access to personal and economic resources (and, hence, can make choices) that the average catering employee or truck driver could not possibly dream of. More tragically, hundreds of thousands of people living in affluent European countries are systematically denied any agency, any official social position and hardly any legal rights. They are labelled 'illegal', and criminalised for the simple fact that they have not been able to meet with all bureaucratic requirements the authorities posed them. No matter how determined they are, they have very little control over their own lives, and can never 'become a millionaire'.

But even in the daily life of a well-educated, average citizen choice is more limited than it may seem. Of course, dominant ideology has made us believe that we are powerful consumers, who can choose almost everything in their lives. Thus we can choose from twenty different brands of olive oil in any given supermarket, choose which insurance company we want to get our health insurance from and choose which company to pay for our electricity. But the question is whether these choices make us free and independent, or, on the contrary, restrict us - for instance, by taking up unnecessary time and energy. Is it really empowering to be able to choose between a huge number of bottles of olive oil, most of which are probably very similar, and to be able to choose between a number of different insurance companies offering the same services? On the contrary, one could argue that these arbitrary choices between products, which we are continuously forced to make, in fact contribute to a sense of guilt and uncertainty ('have I made the right choice? If only I had...'), undermining individual agency rather than enforcing it.

Besides: how free are we really, when we buy product C in stead of product B? To what extent are we influenced and conditioned to buy a given product? Do all those people who feel they 'need' or 'want' the new iPhone really need it and want it - in other words, do they base the decision to buy an expensive new mobile phone on their own free will, or are they merely effectively manipulated into believing this? (Why, incidentally, would anyone want to spend hundreds of euros on an over-hyped device with an unpractically tiny screen and an annoying, user-unfriendly touchpad?) In sum, how much space is left within consumer capitalist ideology for individual judgments, alternative choices, and rejection of dominant myths? How many people are really capable of resisting the fata morganas, and choose independently?

A final example of the loss of agency and control in contemporary society is food. Despite the fact that food is one of our basic daily necessities, very few people have any knowledge of the origins of the food products they consume, let alone control. Don't get me wrong: I am happy I have the opportunity to eat and cook a wide variety of dishes from all over the planet, a luxury my parents did not have when they were young. But I do feel anxious about my total lack of knowledge about the way my food has been produced. The supermarket provides me with ten different kinds of prefab soup - all one has to do is put it in the microwave - but the origins of the various ingredients are not revealed, nor is the production progress. I usually make my own soup, rather than buying the prefab stuff, but even then I don't know much about the science, economics and logistics involved in growing the vegetables I use. Factory-farmed meat and imported fish are even more problematic, of course, involving a range of complicated ethical, political and health dilemmas. I simply do not possess the knowledge necessary for making adequate judgments every time I consider buying a given food product - nor does, I assume, the vast majority of the population.

In other words: I am totally dependent on the morality of unknown others, or the control mechanisms designed by the state to reassure my food is healthy. There is no guarantee that my food has been produced in an environmentally sustainable way, or that it does not contain any dangerous bacterias or chemicals. But as long as I can't afford to be self-sufficient and produce my own food (which very few people can), I have no choice but to accept and try to stick to fresh and local ingredients as much as possible (easier said than done, when most vegetables and fruit in your country of residence are imported). My point is not that food nowadays is of an inferior quality compared to, say, fifty years ago - probably the contrary - but that we have become completely alienated from its production process. Food is commodified to the extreme: to the extent that we are no longer able to see where it comes from. We go to the supermarket and wonder which one of those twenty bottles of olive oil we should choose, but we have no clue as to their respective origins and contents. We finally base our choice on rather arbitrary things, such as the price and the attractiveness of the label. Thus, without background knowledge, freedom of choice is meaningless.

I have no solution. This essay is a diagnosis, but offers no obvious cure. I don't really believe in easy solutions anyway. The social condition I have tried to describe is complicated and multi-faceted, involving politics, economics and science, and there are many more things that can be said about it. My essay is exploratory rather than explanatory, raising questions rather than answering them. The argument is somewhat tentative and anecdotal, and needs to be developed further. I welcome any suggestions and contributions.

But I do think I have a point. Despite widespread optimistic rhetoric on individual choice and personal freedom, in contemporary society individual freedom is paradoxically restrained as a result of the constant fragmentation of knowledge. Crucial aspects of life, such as personal finances, communication with loved ones, individual mobility and food production are outsourced to external agents. Technological progress, digitalisation and globalisation have brought many positive changes, but they have also increased our fundamental dependency on unknown others, thus contributing to a loss of personal agency. The Nietzschean ideal of the 'free spirit' - living and thinking completely independently of others - is further out of reach than ever. We may still believe in the illusion of individual freedom, but as soon as our iPhone has a virus, we are lost.


  1. Je essay heeft weinig reacties opgeleverd, maar dat betekend niet dat het niet gelezen is. Je snijdt een paar hele essentiele dingen aan. Zoals je weet ben ik het met je eens; de afhankelijkheid van allerlei apparaten is gigantisch en daarmee vooaral de afhankelijkheid van electriciteit, olie en gas, en kernenergie.
    Aan de andere kant, nagenoeg hetzelfde werd gezegd tijdens de industriele revolutie in de 2e helft van de 19e eeuw en verder de eerste helft van de 20e eeuw. Is het niet zo dat het vooruitgangsdenken/inafhankelijksdenken vooral van de 2e helft 20e eeuw is?

  2. 'Is het niet zo dat het vooruitgangsdenken / onafhankelijksdenken vooral van de 2e helft 20e eeuw is?' vraag je. Niet echt. Vooruitgangsdenken gaat terug tot de filosofie van Hegel, en lag ten grondslag aan het sociaal-darwinisme dat onder meer gebruikt werd als legitimatie voor imperialisme. Negentiende-eeuws dus. Ideeën over individuele autonomie en vrijheid gaan terug tot de Romantiek: naar Rousseau, die negentiende-eeuwse filosofen als Schopenhauer en Nietzsche beïnvloedde. Zo nieuw zijn die idealen dus niet.

    Ook niet nieuw, natuurlijk, is de opvatting dat vooruitgang negatieve gevolgen heeft, en afhankelijkheid creëert. Volledige autonomie is altijd een illusie geweest. Industrialisering en 'vooruitgang' leiden al twee eeuwen tot een toenemende afhankelijkheid van complexe technologie. Maar de recente digitale- en communicatierevolutie is zo snel gegaan dat de maatschappelijke gevolgen enorm zijn. De afname van controle en autonomie gaat paradoxaal genoeg juist samen met een ideologie van 'vrije keus' en consumentisme - maar dat is een mythe, want we zijn nu voor ons dagelijks leven afhankelijker van externe actoren dan ooit tevoren.