“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” David Foster Wallace
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.” Soren Kierkegaard
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” Noam Chomsky
“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey.” Paul of Tarsus
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest know what you ate for breakfast. They will work hard to suggest to you a better brand. Prior to these giants, advertisers have long been working with the disciples of Skinner and Pavlov, the behaviorists who cracked the code of human behavior and used it to sell us crap.
David Foster Wallace dealt with this theme a lot. Modern advertising in our consumerist culture has overwhelmed our so-called self control. We are defenseless consumers. We are drifting in an ocean of our desires: currents trained by what we chose to like; what we chose to grow addicted to.
Movies, alcohol, shopping, sex, righteous indignation, cars, houses, vacations, bohemian experiences, good old fashioned drugs, clothes, stable-measured-lives-in-the suburbs: they’ve all been packaged and sold to us. We no longer debate whether we need the things, only which things we are okay with needing and how often we give in to them.
As pointed out in the previous post, the internet has perpetuated the illusion that we are more free than before, because we have more information. This optimism brings our defenses down and makes the persuasion of consumerism more effective. But in the information age, it is information ‘on’ us, not ‘for’ us that is most prevalent and that the internet is set up to extract and maintain.
You have all experienced it. You talk to a friend, maybe on Facebook, maybe on Skype or text or even on the phone. Sometimes just in person. Lo and behold, an ad comes through your Facebook feed, pops up in your inbox. They are listening and offering you the goods and services you pine for. This is nothing new. It is just far more elegant and the tools to ensnare us, to persuade us, are yet more powerful than our so called will. Is this free will?
Consumerism is not a new phenomenon. Christians understood the fleshly desires as the snares of the Devil or the World or…well the Flesh. For historically minded Christians, the consumerist trap of modern society isn’t a Capitalist conspiracy. It isn’t a Dystopian realization of technology overwhelming human will. It’s the age old slavery to sin: albeit normalized, industrialized and boiled down to brilliant, irresistible algorithms. We’ve had a solution to this problem for millennia. The task of the modern Christian is to put this solution into action and lead, as a community to implementing that solution: like slaves escaping an evil master.
What do you want? What do you want to want? What does it matter that you can decide between ‘thing A’ or ‘thing B’ or how often you get them or where you get them. How free are you to stop wanting them?
If “free will” is simply defined as “the freedom to choose the thing you want or a different thing you want” then you are still determined by what you want: the ‘choice’ is incidental to the greater issue. What do you want? Whom do you choose to serve? If it is yourself, then you serve the desires implanted and conditioned by your society, the chemicals under your skin, the propagandizers who run your world. If you choose to serve another, all of your subordinate decisions will only be as magnificent or pathetic as the quality of the one you serve.
The internet–the great information age–does not negate this issue. You just have more information with which to decide between things that you want, between the things laid out by the master that you serve. You will serve a master. I suggest the choosing of a good master would be a more valuable use of your time and probably the only act of ‘free will’ that matters.