New World Same Humans #37
We are building a Tyranny of Convenience. But there is still time to knock it down and reclaim our freedom.
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Jeff Bezos wants you to buy a little camera drone that will fly around your house. He promises not to spy on the footage. Okay?
Amazon hosted an online event last week, in which it launched a remarkable new range of services. That event got me thinking about a seeming paradox at the heart of our lives in 2020.
We say we care about privacy. We say we’re concerned about the incursions that Big Tech companies are making into our lives. And yet we continue to engage with those companies as enthusiastically as ever.
Many agree that we need to change course. And I think we can, via two key 20th-century ideas about the nature of freedom and our search for the Good Life. Taken together, the reveal a dark but important truth about how we can be truly free.
That’s all you need to know to begin this essay. It’s long, so a reminder to use Fast Download as the default read, and that you can listen to the full essay as a podcast, too.
Spanish-speaking readers, check the NWSH homepage on Tuesday for a translated version!
📥 Fast Download: The Tyranny of Convenience
🤝 Big Tech offered us a deal and we took it. Amazon just launched a range of new services, including an autonomous mini-drone for the home. At the heart of those services is a deal. We customers get convenience, Amazon gets unprecedented access to our private selves: homes, conversations, even heartbeats. That deal runs through much of what Silicon Valley has done to transform our lives across the last 20 years. There’s even a name for all this: surveillance capitalism.
🙊 We say one thing about freedom but do another. Liberal democracy is built on the idea that individual liberty is the supreme value. And we’ve always told ourselves that privacy is fundamental to ensuring that our freedoms are protected. Last year over 30 US civil rights groups complained about Amazon Ring’s partnerships with police departments; few people paid attention. It’s clear we we need to think afresh about our relationship to our own freedom. Two ideas from 20th-century political philosophy can help.
👑 Liberal democracy wasn’t built for this problem. The thinkers at the fountainhead of liberalism were haunted by the nightmare of tyranny; an unjust, malign king. If you live inside liberal democracy, your entire political inheritance is one designed to combat that threat. But in 2020 no mighty sovereign or all-powerful state is imposing its will on us. Instead, we’re choosing to act in ways that threaten our liberty. Our system has no meaningful reply to this problem. We can better understand what’s happening if we see it through the lens of an influential idea about freedom.
💊 Freedom comes in two flavours: positive and negative. In a famous lecture in 1958, the British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin outlined two concepts of liberty. Negative liberty is freedom from external impediment or coercion. Positive liberty is the ability to connect fully with our highest selves. Berlin was sceptical about positive liberty, because he feared it gave a license to tyrants to impose their particular view of human life on others. There is no single right way to live, said Berlin – he called this insight value pluralism – so the most important thing is that people are free to choose the life they want.
♾️ Our problem is we are tyrannising ourselves. Berlin’s ideas can help us make sense of what is happening now. But they draw us towards a conclusion he may not have endorsed. Berlin’s brilliant insight into value pluralism reveals a deep truth about human life: each of us is engaged in an ongoing battle with ourselves over the right way to live. That leaves us susceptible not only to external tyrants, but to tyranny from within. That is, from the unfreedom that follows when we fail to live up to our highest ideals. That is what is happening now. We are choosing ease over freedom. We are losing a battle against the Tyranny of Convenience.
😇 To find a new path we need to rehabilitate positive liberty. Berlin’s ideas can help us find a new path. But we must depart from his scepticism over positive liberty. Only when we accept that freedom is more than just the absence of external impediment can we make sense of what is happening now. That doesn’t have to mean handing ourselves over to others who want to impose their own version of the Good Life on us. Instead, it means reconnecting with ourselves. In time, we must come together and impose a political solution on Big Tech. But that process starts with a new commitment to freedom in its fullest sense; to our highest selves and the lives we want to live. In 2020, as ever, it is self-knowledge that will save us.
🤝 Big Tech offered us a deal and we took it
Every Autumn, Amazon holds an event intended to showcase its latest work. So last week, and via an invite-only livestream, the retail giant rolled out a host of new services.
There was Alexa Guard Plus, a paid service that turns Alexa into a listening device when you are away from home. Also Car Cam, which offers a live video feed from inside your car. And Care Hub, which allows you to keep tabs on elderly relatives.
The most eye-catching launch, though, was the Always Home Cam, an autonomous mini-drone that flies around your home and captures footage; the device will even launch automatically if it senses an intruder. Always Home will be a part of Amazon’s Ring ecosystem, which centres around smart doorbells and driveway lights that stream footage to phones. The brand also quietly flagged a huge expansion of its Sidewalk programme, which is intended to create ‘smart neighbourhoods’ by extending the operating range of Ring devices. From now on, people with those devices will be automatically drafted in to the programme unless they opt out.
Amid the firehouse of new products, then, it wasn’t hard to discern a theme: Amazon is watching you.
The world’s most successful retailer is relentlessly pushing the boundaries of tech-fuelled surveillance. It’s not just your home, car, and neighbourhood Amazon has designs on; last month it launched the new Halo wearable device, which will monitor biometric data to assess your wellbeing and mood, and use AI-fuelled voice analysis to provide feedback on how you sound to others.
These products all come accompanied by a now familiar Big Tech rhetorical playbook: one about individual empowerment, self-enhancement, and – most important for Amazon – convenience. Let us make your life easier! We all know, though, that this is only half the picture. Amazon isn’t giving all this for nothing, or even for the $5 per month fee you’ll need to pay for Alexa Guard Plus.
Rather, the other half of the deal is something far more important. It’s us. That is unprecedented, sometimes mind-bending access to aspects of our lives – the inside of our homes, our private conversations with family, our heartbeat– that were once unknowable to outsiders, including big corporations.
We all know, too, that this deal is nothing new, nor is it limited to Amazon. Indeed, the deal runs through much of what Silicon Valley has done to transform our lives across the last 20 years, from Google to Facebook and beyond. Via the Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff there’s even a name for all this now: surveillance capitalism. We know all this, but we don’t seem to care.
Let us make your life easier was supposed to be an irresistible offer. And so far, it has been.
🙊 We say one thing about freedom but do another
Something is happening. Watch Amazon’s event last week, and you can’t be in any doubt. We are sleepwalking towards a new kind of society: one in which the boundaries between public and private, between individual citizen and corporate power, are being redrawn.
What’s more, much about the new world we are building runs counter to the fundamental principle that we in liberal democracies say governs our collective lives. We’ve always told ourselves that individual liberty is our supreme value. And we’ve told ourselves that privacy is fundamental to ensuring that our liberty is protected.
And yet here we are, sharing our most private selves with huge corporations, and watching even as those corporations weave themselves ever deeper through the fabric of government. Amazon’s Ring ecosystem, for example, already has partnerships with over 500 US police departments. After 2021 the brand will also be free to sell facial recognition to police.
Plenty of people have sounded the alarm. Last year over 30 US civil rights groups complained about Ring partnerships with police. But so far no warning has sparked widespread interest, let alone widespread behaviour change. In the hundreds of millions, citizens inside liberal democracies continue to walk the path they’re on, saying wow, this looks terrible, this could be dangerous, we should really turn back. But we show no signs of turning back.
So what is going on? It’s clear we need to think afresh about our relationship to our own privacy. And about the individual liberty we say is so important to us.
In the service of that project I think we can draft two powerful ideas, both the creation of the same 20th-century British political philosopher. Taken together, those ideas reveal there is a dark truth about us that liberal democracy struggles to accommodate. That is, that each of us is at perpetual war with ourselves. And because of that, each of us has endless capacity to tyrannise ourselves.
👑 Liberal democracy wasn’t built for this problem
If you live inside a liberal democracy, your entire political inheritance is one designed to combat the threat of tyranny.
That is, the threat of an unjust, malign king. That is the nightmare that haunted the first truly modern political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, and his rebellious heir John Locke. Locke’s thinking on how to limit the power of the sovereign is the fountainhead of liberalism, and shaped the liberal project’s most significant political document, the US constitution.
And therein start our problems when it comes to what is happening now. Because what we’re talking about doesn’t have – at least on the face of it – much to do with tyrants. In 2020, no mighty sovereign or all-powerful state is forcing us to hand over the keys to our private lives. This isn’t about an imposition of power, but about an apparently free choice.
We’re choosing to act in ways that threaten our liberty. And the system we live inside has no meaningful reply. Indeed, it’s a system designed to protect our right to act as we choose.
What’s happening now, then, feels something of a system wide short circuit. It’s not hard to see that we might make progress by looking more closely at what we really mean by freedom, and indeed that turns out to be the case.
💊 Freedom comes in two flavours: positive and negative
In October 1958 the great British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin gave a lecture called ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’.
It turned out to be the 20th-century’s most influential statement on the nature of freedom. More than 60 years since Berlin spoke, it can help us make sense of Amazon’s creeping surveillance network and what it means.
At the heart of Berlin’s lecture was the idea that there are many types of human freedom. But two fundamental categories, argued Berlin, deserve special attention. He called them positive liberty and negative liberty.
Negative liberty is the simpler of the two. Berlin defined it as the absence of impediments or coercion imposed by an external agent on an individual; it’s often summarised as ‘freedom from’. Positive liberty, meanwhile, was more nebulous; Berlin defined it as the ability to fully inhabit our own autonomy, to overcome the irrational parts of our nature and act in accordance with our highest, or true, selves. It’s often called ‘freedom to’.
Both ways of looking at freedom, said Berlin, have their merits. But he devoted much of his lecture to his deep scepticism when it came to positive liberty. The idea that freedom is anything more than the absence of external impediments, said Berlin, is a short cut to tyranny. That’s because it all too often ends up being used by ideologues to impose their vision of the ideal collective life on others. These ideologues will subject people to all kinds of hardships in the name of empowering them to be all they can be, or, in other words, ‘forcing them to be free’. It had happened, said Berlin, with communism, and fascism. And we must never let it happen again.
Berlin, speaking just 13 years after the end of WWII, made a powerful case. To do so, he drew on another of his most famous ideas: value pluralism.
That is the idea that humans are motivated by a set of core values – security, freedom, happiness, creativity, and so on – and that, crucially, these values are often mutually incompatible. If you have a bit more of one, you must often have a bit less of another.
There’s no super-principle, said Berlin, that can tell us how to balance our values against one another; no single right answer when it comes to the question of how to live. Any form of human life, then, is only one among many possible legitimate ways to arrange our values. We find an accommodation we can live with; others may find a different one.
It’s for that reason that Berlin was so sure about the priority of negative liberty. Given that there is no single right way to arrange our lives, the most important thing was that people were left free to choose the life they wanted. That is, to ensure no one imposed their particular solution on anyone else. That, said Berlin, is the fundamental project of liberalism. And it is a project founded in the idea of negative liberty.
♾️ Our problem is we are tyrannising ourselves
Berlin’s ideas – two types of liberty and value pluralism – can help us make sense of what is happening now. As we’ll see, they do that by providing us with a more sophisticated language with which to talk about freedom.
But the conclusion we’re drawn towards – or, at least, that I’m drawn towards here – isn’t necessarily one Berlin would have endorsed. That is, that the new world we’re building calls on us to rethink, and rehabilitate, positive liberty.
But first: how do Berlin’s ideas help us?
The world has changed a great deal since 1958. Specifically, the threat to liberty we face today is fundamentally different to the one that preoccupied Berlin. No external tyrant seeks to impose his vision on us. Our negative liberty remains intact. Instead, the threat is posed by choices millions of us make freely each day, even in the face of our knowledge that they may be endangering our freedoms.
As we saw, Berlin’s scepticism over positive liberty derived from his value pluralism: the idea that there is no single right answer when it comes to how to live. Berlin was concerned to ensure that no group imposed their particular solution on anyone else. His thinking dwelt less on the ways in which we humans can impose unwanted ways of life on ourselves.
But that very possibility is made clear by Berlin’s brilliant insights on value pluralism, and what they tell us about our search for the Good Life. Because what value pluralism tells us is not only that different people can legitimately disagree on how to live, but that each of us must wage a constant battle with ourselves over that question. To be a person, says value pluralism, is to be engaged in an unceasing project of self-management, as we try to balance the part of ourselves that wants more security with the part that wants more freedom, with the part that wants more happiness, and on, and on. That battle can never end, because there is no final answer.
Whatever balance of values we decide we want to pursue, the war with ourselves continues. And try as we might to live by the arrangement of values we have decided upon, we may fail. Indeed, we often do fail.
And that, pretty much, is what is happening now. If asked, few of us would say that a little more convenience is worth more to us than our freedom as citizens. Few would say that they are happy to sell that freedom for frictionless purchase of washing powder, or a remote view of our doorstep. We have settled, most of us, on a balance of values that tells us freedom is more important than anything else. But we are failing to live by those priorities, because day to day, in the moment, the part of us that wants an easy life keeps winning.
No one is tyrannising us. Instead, we are losing a battle against the Tyranny of Convenience.
😇 To find a new path we need to rehabilitate positive liberty
Critics of my argument may point out that we are a long way from being tyrannised by anything right now. That Amazon has not become a malign Big Brother. That we are as free as we’ve ever been.
True enough. But the direction of travel is clear, and worrying. We are giving up ever more of our private selves to big corporations. The world’s largest retailer is sharing that data with agents of the state. And, most important, hundreds of millions of us are acting in ways that we find discomforting. That last part alone demands explanation, and a course correction.
I think Berlin’s ideas on freedom and value pluralism provide a framework via which we can find a new path. But, crucially, even as we use Berlin’s ideas, I think this moment demands that we depart from one of his key conclusions. Berlin was sceptical about positive liberty because he feared the external tyrant. But faced with the tyrant within – the tyranny of ourselves over ourselves – I think we must rehabilitate positive liberty.
Only when we accept that freedom is more than just the absence of external impediment can we make sense of what is happening now. That is, can we make sense of why we continue to choose convenience, when we want to choose privacy and liberty.
That’s because at the heart of what is happening is a failure to fully inhabit our own autonomy, and to live up to our highest ideals. A failure of positive liberty. We must make room, then, for a picture of freedom that allows us to reclaim that autonomy, and to be the people we want to be. Not only freedom from, but freedom to.
Making room for freedom to doesn’t mean handing ourselves over to an ideology that wants to impose its vision on us. Rather, it can mean finding new ways to reconnect with the parts of ourselves that represent our highest ideals – that speak of the kind of life we want to live, and the kind of society we want to live in. Berlin’s model of positive liberty reminds us that we are not free in the richest sense unless we free ourselves not only from external, but also from internal impediments.
In 2020, we need those lessons. I don’t mean to say that they are a solution to our problem, or anything close to one. Only that they set the conditions in which we might begin to find a solution. That’s because a rehabilitation of positive liberty will allow us access to a fundamental truth about surveillance capitalism, which is that any solution to it begins at a new reckoning with ourselves and the war of values that wages within us.
We have come to take our freedom for granted. For too long, we have let ease win out over pretty much everything else. In this way, we have not been truly free.
In time, we must come together and impose a political solution on Big Tech. But that process starts with an internal shift; a new commitment to freedom in its fullest sense, to our highest selves and the lives we want to live. In 2020, as ever, it is self-knowledge that will save us.
Thanks for reading this week.
Jeff Bezos wants us all to install a home mini-drone. But we in the New World Same Humans community are determined not to leave our future to the powers that be. Now, our community has grown to 12,000 and more curious souls on a mission to play their part in building the future we all deserve.
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