Personal Autonomy Is Evaporating. Should We Care?

Illustration: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?” Left, the all-knowing computer HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey; Right, a Nest thermostat. From the Facebook page “Nest Thermostat vs Hal 9000.”
Once upon a time, a car was an industrial machine you climbed in and drove around.

Today, it’s also a tracking and nudging machine that second-guesses you for your own good. It reminds you to fasten your seat belt and makes sure you don’t lock yourself out, and it contains a “black box,” much like a jetliner’s, that records direction, speed, seatbelt position and other details. Soon, cars will go beyond giving advice, and drive themselves (already legal in three states). Eventually they will be so good at driving that (as Gary Marcus has noted) it will be illegal and immoral for you to take the wheel. Meanwhile the “Internet of Things” will have knitted that future car into a network of other devices and apps—the retailers that sell you stuff, the house whose thermostats, smoke detectors and appliances know you inside and out. (That’s the “conscious home” that Nest is working toward, as its founder wrote Monday in a post on the startup’s acquisition by Google.)

Personal tech is just the shiny edge of a broader change. We are heading quickly toward an “Other Knows Best” world, in which everything and everybody second-guesses you for your own good. That may be a world of easier shopping and friction-free government, better health and safer lives (thank you, surveillance cameras). It will certainly be a world of sharply reduced personal autonomy.

Autonomy is often described as personal self-government, or “the condition of being self-directed,” as the philosopher Marina Oshana has put it. But after your car drives itself, your refrigerator tracks the milk and egg supply, City Hall imperceptibly nudges you towards the “right choice,” your favorite stores tell you what you want to buy, and you have outsourced your willpower to apps and wearable gadgets that tell you to eat salad and go to the gym—what is left for you to direct? The scope of self-government is shrinking, and that is going to alter people’s relationship with the state, with business, and with each other.

Already, businesses, with more knowledge about you on their servers than could ever fit in your own head, are using that data to figure out what you might buy before you think about it. And those businesses also have a bead on your innate biases and predilections—those habits of thought and action that you can’t help—which they’ll use, again, to get you to spend (as a consumer) and to cooperate (as an employee). Because we’re greatly influenced by other people in our social networks, for example, Facebook may make sure you know that a pal of yours likes a restaurant’s FB page, oruse your photo in an ad displayed to one of your friends. Because we can be motivated by reactions we aren’t aware of, Campbell’s soup included biometric measurements of consumers in its research for a label re-design.

And the “Other Knows Best” world is also, of course, a place where government uses the same techniques as business to get you to save water, recycle, pay your taxes on time and engage in other “pro-social” behaviors with less pain to you and less cost to the authorities. That’s the promise (or peril, if you prefer) of the boom in “nudge”- type regulations.

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