Consumption, Motivation, and Problem Solving in a Free Society

You explained the value of creativity in your comment, and I agree that passing on acquired characteristics is the fundamental human activity and that curiosity is necessary for this. However, for this curiosity to be a powerful force for promoting positive social change, people must be willing and able to absorb information that will prepare them to take the types of action necessary for creating positive change. As we discussed in class, the information-sharing technologies developed over the course of the past century have the capacity to greatly increase access. What makes me question the efficacy of these technologies for facilitating positive social change is the type of information deemed worthy of passing on in the past, when capacity was lower. Because unrestrained and un-surveilled access to the net would make users the only limiters of the information they can consume, the social productivity of universal access would be qualified by people’s consumption preferences. The world would be better with unfettered access because people would be free to think whatever they wanted. However, I have doubts about the idea that most people would use this access to solve material natural and social problems that could improve quality of life for people not close with them.

We spent a significant portion of this course discussing how limiting access to information, whether through censorship, copyright law, or the imposition of surveillance technologies, is harmful. Decreasing public access to information through any of the means we discussed inhibits freedom of thought by parameterizing the inputs people receive. In other words, the systems which limit the flow of information can allow certain types of information to reach the public, but not others. Those in power of the limiting system can tailor the flow of information to their needs. In a society with complete informational transparency and no surveillance, however, the limiting factor dictating the types of information a person receives would be a person’s own preferences. In a society like this, how likely is it that people would exert significant effort trying to solve those problems which still existed? On one hand, people are curious, and love solving problems. On the other, people also seek pleasure and comfort, and we are able to construct minor, easily solvable problems to satisfy the desire for improvement in lieu of tackling major, global issues that are outside most individuals’ comfort zones. This leads me to believe that unfettered digital access might not result in a widespread shift toward consumption of information which could help people solve diffuse, uncomfortable, global problems.

The information we have about consumption practices in our restrained and surveilled digital environment cannot be extrapolated to make definitive statements about what people would do if they had unfettered access. People raised in a world without surveillance or restraints upon the types of information they view might have completely different curiosities and impulses. Perhaps, for example, without the anxiety of living under surveillance or capitalism, people might be less likely to seek out self-soothing behaviors or “fluff” media that serves as an escape from reality. I believe there would be less desire for such consumption in a world with freedom of thought. I do not, however, believe that the biological impulse to seek pleasure and comfort is frequently outweighed by the curiosity that leads to solving difficult problems. This might be particularly true in a society where inadequate access to information was no longer a major problem to be solved.

This could pose a problem because even in a society with total freedom of thought, there would still be problems that need solving. Although social problems like tyranny, censorship, and grossly inequitable distribution of wealth might be solved by freedom of thought, not all problems are social or arise from a lack of information. Global warming, natural disasters, overpopulation, and the individual tragedies of sickness and death would persist. I have strong hope that the global interconnectedness which would come from unfettered digital access would increase empathy for others and inspire curious people to solve these problems. However, I also think that completely equitable access could lead to a collective action problem where nobody would feel that they need to learn anything difficult or too far out of their emotional comfort zone – particularly if people are constantly exposed each person’s best ideas, emphasizing nearly everybody’s relative averageness.

I do not mean to imply that people would necessarily not be interested in solving complex global problems in a society with unrestrained digital access. The impulse to help and improve despite discomfort is strong, and probably stronger, than the impulse to seek comfort and pleasure. This gives me quite a bit of hope. My doubts instead come from the fact that we have no idea how human psychology would behave and change in a society like this. I believe that working toward uncensored and un-surveilled internet access is a worthy goal because it would almost certainly result in a better society than the one in which we live today. However, when so much of the current human experience centers around avoiding problems and seeking pleasure unless issues are so personal and proximal that they get in the way of an individual’s comfort and necessitate action, I simply cannot be sure.

From the standpoint of execution, ts draft again repeats the new argument often, so that this one too can be boiled down effectively. You say that most people will make rather poor use of the opportunities presented by the democratization of knowledge, so far as their contributions to social problem-solving or activism for "positive" change are concerned. Let's grant the premise. As I have pointed out in the course of the conversation, Einsteins may be rare, but we throw away at least thousands each generation, with billions of children on Earth, unless every one of them can learn physics. Your argument repeats more than once this (to my mind) insensitivity to the numbers involved, Humanity has always starved almost all its minds to death. Only a tiny fraction of its available intelligence has therefore ever been applied to any of its needs. This was the first generation in which we had the ability to eliminate ignorance. Even assuming that only 1% of the human race will benefit powerfully from the universalization of access to knowledge, that would so immeasurably increase the available quantity oh human intelligence as to transform in one bound the prospects of humanity.

Given the simple clarity of the math, are you at all interested in the psychological roots of your skepticism about it?

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