Law in the Internet Society

The Over-sanctification of Free Thought?

(Un)free Thought

Tat tvam asi is a Sanskrit doctrine which asserts that everything you think you are, and everything you think you perceive are undivided; this principle establishes the non-duality of man and the universe. One possible extension of this principle is that any attempts to undermine the sovereignty of one’s thought processes should be regarded as existential threats. Humans—Americans especially—fancy themselves free thinkers. They pride themselves on individuality and the insulation of their consciences from foreign influence, while viscerally opposing at attempts at “thought-control” (just consider the latest uproar over liberal school curriculums “brainwashing” peoples’ children).

A common refrain today is that technological innovations present a particularly insidious form of interference with conscious thought. Many argue that artificial intelligence will one day supersede human consciousness, or at the very least cause free will to atrophy into obsolescence. Paul Lewis, a technology reporter for The Guardian, warns that our minds can be “hijacked” by smartphones; that they can trick people to develop certain habits, cravings, or triggers. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, bemoans that technology companies are steering the thoughts of billions of people each day. Harris claims the influence of Big Tech is changing our ability to have conservations and relationships with others.

"Everything they think, you are"

Still, there is no reason to think such impacts are limited to the world of tech. Societal structures have sought to challenge the ability for humans to think freely since the state of nature was reorganized into governments. Implicit in the terms of any social contract is the notion that you give up your freedom, and hence, your ability to think freely.

Big Tech is not the cause, but rather a symptom of a larger reality. It is now the hallmark of American capitalism to alter the way people think about their needs. Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds added addictive ingredients into cigarettes and then deceived the public about its dangers, while a handful of scientists with extensive political backing ran campaigns to refute evidence about tobacco’s dangers. Addressing climate change was a bipartisan consensus until a massive public-relations campaign backed by Exxon and the Koch brothers created enough doubt to split the nation’s conscience half. For the last two decades, drug manufacturers—largely, Purdue—publicly denied the addictive qualities of opioids, lied to doctors about addiction risks, and trained sales representatives to target vulnerable populations, like the elderly, veterans, and first-time users. The recent revelations that Facebook knew about its product’s deleterious impact on the mental health of young adults is not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention.

The reality of external thought-control is broader than commercial forces. Religion was one of the earliest offenders. Sunday schools and Jesuit schools were founded to raise children with a core set of established values, but the goal was never to facilitate tat tvam asi or any similar pursuit of harmony; it was to serve a God by inculcating entire generations with preconceived notions. Now consider contemporary discussions about teaching liberal arts in schools. American history, for example, is hardly objective; all teaching is a form of storytelling, and the morals of the stories will change depending on the educator. The result is that any given classroom is a different indoctrination chamber, with each student receiving a new framework through which to filter information in the future. The more one zooms out, the more one realizes that any given decision is the result of a virtually infinite number of external influences.

The Paradox of Free Thought

The question now is how to address the issue of thought-control, when it is entirely intrinsic to capitalist dynamics. I know it sounds defeatist, but influencing peoples’ thoughts is an inevitable condition of human life. If we seek to ban Big Tech from our cognitive data, we are simply plugging one of the infinite leaky holes in our awareness. Perhaps free will and free thought are unjustifiably idolized and fetishized. Consider Robert Pirsig’s hypothetical from Z_en and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_: a child is born devoid of all senses. There’s no way whatsoever for him to receive any sensations from the outside world. And suppose this child is fed intravenously and otherwise attended to and kept alive for eighteen years in this state of existence. Does this eighteen-year-old person have a thought in his head? If so, where does it come from? How does he get it? Pirsig’s “sense-less child” illustrates the point that we are all products of our environment; that there is no such thing as thought until an external force exerts influences on us. There never was, nor will there ever be, free will and free thought.

What do you think?

Thus, is it worth all this effort to reign in data-hoarding tendencies of Big Tech companies? Well surely there has to be a limit to thought-control. But we have to be honest with the reality that free thought should not—nay, _cannot_—be the sought-after end. Deifying free thought as an essential component of human dignity is simply not reasonable.

Currently, the lines are drawn in the sand by Congress and government branches like the FCC, FDA, CDC. These bureaus have made certain judgment calls, like that pharmaceutical companies may advertise prescription drugs to the public, and that certain data-collection on children is forbidden. While much of this oversight has failed at protecting American consumers, one has to wonder: what exactly are we hoping to gain from measures designed to protect our ability to make decisions for ourselves, when such a privilege doesn’t really exist in the first place?

I think this is a definitional game. In order to be in dialogue with the draft, one has to accept a definition of freedom of thought as absence of social influence on opinion and behavior. The discovery that this bad definition is unworkable is then presented as a form of superior wisdom, de haut en bas, to the unrealistic believer.

I don't think I am alone in rejecting the definition. Like Thomas Emerson's "system of free expression" one could define "freedom of thought" as a system of rights: to read, speak and listen, to discuss publicly, without state prior restraint or punishment for opinion of any kind. One can define it technically—as I did in the course—in terms of secrecy, anonymity and autonomy. (This will explain how to differentiate forms of social influence that are based on breaches of secrecy or anonymity from all the other forms of social influence that are not.) Or one could describe it genetically, as a set of cultural practices and experiences gathered over the past thousand years by a group of human beings identified as participants in a common cause.

On any of those premises I think you could construct a sceptical response. That would be welcome, because—unlike in relation to the straw man created here—from that shared starting point, the dialogue that sustains learning would be possible.

You point out that there are other ways of conceiving of “freedom of thought.” I believe you argue that free thought is inextricably tied to free expression, which could (and should) then be protected by privacy or anonymity laws. Or freedom of thought could be conceived as rights to be protected from government censorship, as the First Amendment generally does.

But these other premises conflate thoughts with expressions. Expressions are far easier to protect from external intervention by application of law. The First Amendment promises that expressions will be free from prior restraints; in other words, thoughts are privileged to become expressions without government intervention; only after such expression is announced may the government impose its judgment. But thoughts are far more difficult to insulate from outside forces than expressions. And using the law in particular to protect thoughts from foreign influence is a daunting task. For example, laws designed to safeguard children from certain advertising in commercials (e.g., cigarettes) are leaky, since movies and songs and other humans can plant the thought in the children's brain that such advertising laws were designed to prevent (e.g., "cigarettes are cool"). To be clear, I do not claim that free-thinking is not worth protecting, or that laws could not potentially achieve that end.

I apologize if this essay had an otherwise condescending tone. It was not my intention to dismiss other arguments or assume the superiority of mine. I humbly accept any and all debate.



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r3 - 07 Jan 2022 - 14:26:15 - JasonL
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