Resistance is futile!

More technology = fewer choices

By Bart Braun

We are facing more and more rules that are embedded in our technology warns philosopher Bibi van den Berg. “We are being herded through all sorts of processes like sheep.”

[Het originele Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier]

“If I want people to drive slowly through a residential area, I can put up a traffic sign. People see it and then, by their own volition, slow down to the speed on the sign. I could also construct a speed bump, which is more effective: everyone knows that you’ll damage the bottom of your car if you race over a speed bump. We are not invited to follow the rules any more. Instead, disobedience becomes impossible.
“As a philosopher of technology, I think about questions dealing with the limits of society and how we set them. We make agreements about what’s appropriate or desirable and lay down the limits in legislation. However, many other sorts of regulation are becoming more common although we are not really aware of them. In the broadest meaning of the word, regulation means influencing behaviour. You can influence behaviour with legislation and rules, but also with social standards or market mechanisms. In addition, you can influence and control people’s behaviour with technology; which we call ‘techno-regulation’. In that last case, control is embedded in the technology in such a way that the user must follow the rules because there is no other option. Often, it’s done with the very best intentions – there’s nothing wrong with most speed bumps. Nonetheless, the laws that society makes are subject to all sorts of ‘checks and balances’, which is not the case with techno-regulation.
“That type of regulation is effective, foolproof and cheap, so it’s being applied on an increasingly broader scale. The DVD industry has divided the world into several regions so that you have to ‘jailbreak’ your DVD player if you want to watch a film you bought on holiday. Who exactly is the industry? Why do they set those limits? It’s a kind of regulation that 99 per cent of people don’t recognise as regulation and that’s what concerns me.
“The gates at the train station to prevent fare dodgers. ‘Pee-proof’ paint to prevent people urinating in public. Becoming ‘locked in’ by Apple: the more and longer you use Apple products, the more difficult it is to switch to Android. It might seem trivial, but websites that don’t allow you to access them if you don’t accept the cookies are not so trivial, really. They pretend you have a choice, but you don’t so you click ‘accept’.
“I’m not condemning cookies nor am I in favour of peeing in public out of principle: I can see the advantages of embedded regulation in each of those individual processes. I just have a problem with the fact that it’s all done without us noticing. Most people are not even aware that it happens. That means that nobody thinks about it, let alone has a critical opinion of the rules to which we are subjected. And it’s worrying, too, because this sort of thing is being done on a very large scale: I come across at least ten examples on my journey to work. It not only eliminates all resistance, we are not required to think about what the agreements are and why we should choose to follow them or not.
“We are being herded through all sorts of processes like sheep, without being challenged to make our own moral reflections anymore, because our environment and our gadgets are steering us onto the right path before we can make a choice. Of course, I know that it’s safer if a car won’t start before you fasten the safety belt. What I’m worried about is the whole process. If the supermarkets replace the sweets at the cash desks with superfoods, we call it ‘nudging’: a slight push towards healthier behaviour. We can still buy the sweets in the shops. Nudging is a compromise which assumes that people will do whatever’s easiest. Techno-regulation instead removes all the sweets from the shop, so to speak.
“Every time I get a speeding ticket, I can go to court. ‘Your Honour’, I could say, ‘I had a good excuse for speeding: my partner was in labour’ and the court might remit the fine. The gates at the station are simply locked and don’t care about the baby. However good your reasons are, techno-regulation does away with your ability to deviate or negotiate.
“When I mention this during my lectures, I’ve noticed that it sometimes shocks people. They’ll even say ‘I’ll never feel the same way about driving over a speed bump’. So that’s good news. Let me just stress that most speed bumps are fine the way they are. Nevertheless, you should be aware of the limits and how those limits are set. Then one day, when it is important, you can object to them. But first, you have to be aware that it’s happening, obviously.”

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Resistance is futile!

We are facing more and more rules that are embedded in our technology warns philosopher …