Subjectivity – what it means for a “person” (whatever that is) to be the direct, immediate, or ultimate (or a combination of all three) cause of their actions – is something I have been studying in earnest since I was a very wet behind the ears Masters student a quarter (eek!) of a century ago. It’s a topic that can wrap your head in knots for a lifetime and is, probably, insoluble. Indeed, onc you start the knot-wrapping process, one of the early entanglements you find yourself in is whether the notion of “solving” and that of “problem” can exist.
And yet it’s a really important topic for actual lives. Because without answering it we can’t pretend to answer questions about responsibility, guilt, praise, deservingness, accountability, or privilege. And today’s most hotly debated questions can’t be approached without attempting an answer. We can’t begin to answer questions about free speech without understanding what freedom means. We can’t begin to ask whether problems are individual or structural without understanding where the boundary falls between them (if it exists at all). We can’t talk meaningfully about change without understanding how change happens and who or what causes it.
So why do we so casually approach these questions as if subjectivity were something that’s obvious?
The new Netflix docudrama “The Social Dilemma” offers a real insight. Not because of what it says but because of the way people talk. The topic is not a new one – how many of the architects of social media have broken away and are now calling for regulation. They do this because the dream they thought they were creating has turned sour thanks to the algorithmic manipulation, using dopamine as a reward, to which it is susceptible.
Two things about this interest me. First is that it is yet more evidence of what happens when you set convergent goals, or oversimplify systems. You get consequences. And just as measuring heart surgery success led to surgeons neglecting patients with complex conditions, so having a like button allows people to extract attention. Who could possibly have known?
Second, though, is the idea that the scale of manipulation is new, or unique, to this technology. “As humans we’ve almost lost control of these systems” a commentator says at one point. Which struck me as extraordinary. Because surely it’s clear to anyone that as individuals we have always been pitted in some ways against against systems whose “agenda” is different from our own. Not through overt and adversarial regulation, but through the manipulation of our ways of thinking so that we believe thoughts are coming from us that are actually products in part of the system.
Most obviously for many this happens with capitalism. Capitalism leads us to believe that justifying a project related to human flourishing through its productivity level or monetary value or even just “contribution” is a legitimate way of arguing. We have public thinkers like Piketty, Klein, Mazzucato, Raworth, who are making this realisation mainstream(ish). But as a neurodivergent human I also see it every day in social codes – things which are just accepted as “the way things are” like “eye contact and a firm handshake is good”, “saying please and thank you strengthens relationships” or “sitting down at family mealtimes shows a healthy home.” These are clearly products of a way of being whose functioning requires me to believe in its validity and change myself and my own way of being in order to flourish within it. It is brought home to me on a daily basis that I am not free within society because every time I interact with people, the condition of that interaction is to moderate what I would do naturally.
So perhaps one answer to why, despite this, people believe they are free, lies with friction. I have been interested in friction, motion, phenomenology and subjectivity ever since I started asking questions about what freedom means. And it’s really complex. But what’s simple to grasp is this.
We most believe we are free in systems where our default way of being encounters least friction. That is to say, the easier we find it to go with the flow of a society or a code of conduct, the more we will believe we are free within it. And that’s because we experience freedom as the lack of obstacles, and lack of freedom as the encountering of obstacles, rather than the more intellectually obvious but experientially difficult understanding – that we experience freedom by tackling obstacles.
This fits with what I have said elsewhere about failures of empathy. My hypothesis is that the easier it is for someone to do something, the greater the empathy gap they will have for people who cannot do that thing. The friction model of the experience of freedom explains this well. It says that the easier a person finds something, the more likely they are to believe they are able to do it as a result of an exercise of their own freedom. They will believe, therefore, that someone whose default way of being renders that thing hard is simply not trying as hard as them. What they will not see is that their own default has enabled them to do the thing by expending very little energy if any, because they have not had to change their overall direction of travel at all to accomplish it – there has been no friction between them and the system that requires the behaviour. The other person will experience high levels of friction, and even coming close to performing the action will require the expending of a high level of effort (as well as coming with the dissonance of not naturally understanding why).
(for further related thoughts you might find my post on how the limits we experience – internal/external and soft/hard – shape our paradigms interesting)