Personal Autonomy Is Evaporating. Should We Care?

The defining trait of «other knows best» techniques is that they workoutside awareness. They go around the conscious mind. For example: Old-school analysis of consumers worked with data those consumers decided to provide (would you please fill out this attitude survey? check the box for race and gender). New school «Big Data» analytics works with information people don’t even know they’re sending—patterns in their Facebook «likes» and tweets, habitual paths tracked by cell phone towers. Old-school government mandates offered a tax credit, or threatened a fine, for particular behaviors. New-school «choice architecture» aims to get you to do the right thing, whether or not you think about it.

To notice all this is not to subscribe to the right-wing fantasy that a «nanny state» is conspiring to take away your autonomy. First, there is no black-hatted or helicoptered villain out there with designs on people’s freedom. The justification for the tax nudge is the same as that of the Facebook marketing and the self-driving car. It works, it helps people, it accomplishes goals that older tools achieve less well. It’s not a conspiracy.

Second, the advent of autonomy-reducing technologies isn’t confined to governments and giant corporations. Individuals use these techniques and technologies, too. Who wouldn’t want to know if a potential hire had been arrested, or said bizarre things on Twitter? Even as we are monitored by those who seek to predict our behavior, we also monitor others (with apps, with nanny cams). For example, Verizon now offers its customers a «new tool to help parents set boundaries for children,» called FamilyBase. For $5 a month, it gives parents a complete a report on all activity on their children’s phones—calls, texts, apps downloaded, time spent talking and the times of conversations. Few are the parents who high-mindedly say they don’t want, and shouldn’t have, such information.

We who resent being spied upon by the state also endorse the state spying on other people. (The rule seems to be: I, in my glorious individuality, am unpredictable, but please do use Big Data analytics on those other people to predict who will try to blow up a plane next year.)

Then, too, we use these autonomy-limiting techniques on ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of people have tacitly accepted that they aren’t nearly as thoughtful or hardheaded as they’d like to think. They are gladly outsourcing their self-control and decision-making to gadgets and applications that nudge them to eat «right,» get exercise, save money and so on.

All of these developments undermine «the principle that in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences,» as the economist John Harsanyi defined autonomy. Big Data predictions and psychological nudging undermine the idea that your consciously declared desires are paramount. Outsourcing choices to apps and gadgets gives the lie to the notion that your wants and preferences are consistent over time (if they were, why do you need an app to make you take the stairs?). And so all these developments mean the scope of personal autonomy—the range of choices you are expected to make for yourself—is shrinking and will continue to shrink. The car that won’t let you drive is a great emblem of the world to come.

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