Law in the Internet Society

My Compulsion

-- By MariahGenis - 03 Nov 2017


A compulsion is an insistent impulse to behave in a certain way, contrary to one's conscious intentions or standards (Oxford English Dictionary). It is an uncontrollable impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational ( My compulsion goes beyond checking my phone every 3-5 minutes and scrolling through Instagram. My impulses to use my Apple computer and IPhone, to order things on Amazon, and to rely on Gmail for my email services are no longer justifiable or rational and yet they are insistent and uncontrollable. These impulses are no longer justifiable or rational because I have become aware of the problem that these platforms have caused and of how insignificant the benefit I derive from these platforms is in relation to the scope of the problem.

The Problem

The problem I am referring to is that citizens of the US, some without knowing the consequences and most without even considering the consequences, have allowed the platforms we use to gather a level of information about our behavior that makes a new, hyper-efficient mode of despotism not only possible but inevitable (Times of India). And for now we can still pretend that our privacy has not been stripped away and that despotism is not inevitable because we live in a democracy and the government is not concerned with what "normal people" (law-abiding citizens who support at least some faction of the current regime) are doing.

I am the grandchild of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors. I know exactly what happens when a government decides to eliminate masses of formerly "normal people" for the benefit of the nation. I know that governments can, and do, weed out dissidents for the sake of the nation. And I know that the platforms they handed us for our benefit, our amusement, social connection, and convenience, are really mechanisms for behavior collection beyond what Hitler and Stalin could have dreamed up. The right to privacy granted to us by the US Constitution is irrelevant to the oligarchs who have risen to power in the 21st Century. They are not members of government or law enforcement trying to peer through our blinds or listen to our calls. They don't need to a judge to issue a warrant to search our homes; they already know everything they could ever want to know about us.

Behavior Collection

Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Uber know more about my life than anyone else. They know what time I wake up, they know what I eat for breakfast, they know how I get to class and how long it takes me. They know exactly which bus I am on and which stop I get off at and where I walk. They know when and where I exercise and they know how many calories I burn. They know what I eat for lunch and they know what I will be eating for lunch three months from now because I will order it on my phone from the seasonal selections they provide for me. They know which books I read for school and for pleasure, which TV shows I watch and music I listen to. They don't need my neighbors to report me for reading Mao's Little Red Book or We by Zamyatin because they know when I bought those books, when I read them, and how long it took me.

In countries like China this information is already being used to "clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints" (NY Times). Our government may not be leading the behavior collection but they are allowing it, taking the information, and storing it for future use. The platforms have taken over our nation with the consent of our government leaders, who view information-gathering as an asset. But it is clear where we are heading. And when they decide that things would be easier without Jewish liberals from NY who read and think and question what they are doing and why they are doing it, they will know exactly where to find me. I won't be able to run or hide, I am already in shackles.

What Should I Do?

But it isn't too late for me, or for the rest of us. I can (and should) deactivate my Facebook, my Instagram, my Amazon Prime, and all five of my Gmail accounts. I can (and should) stop allowing location services on my phone, stop I-Messaging my family and friends. I can (and should) stop syncing my Kindle to my IPhone, stop using my Kindle, stop downloading my books directly from Amazon. I can (and should) request a physical card for my gym instead of checking in on my phone. I can (and definitely should) stop using Uber.

As much as I would like to say I will do those things and free myself from their grip before it is too late, I know that I won't. I have placed their hands around my throat and will not remove them. I know that although their hands are a mere annoyance now, they will inevitably choke me later. And yet I will not remove them.

Why I Won't Break Free

In part I won't break free because I like what they have given me. They gave me the ability to communicate with my family and friends from almost anywhere in the world. They gave me a sense of security when traveling alone throughout the world. They gave me the convenience and ease of ordering everything I need online and eliminated the hassle of making time for errands and carrying groceries home. I like the ease of planning social events with friends and my extracurricular organizations. I love my shiny, sleek, modern MacBook? Pro and IPhone 6 and that amusement and distraction are always just a touch of my finger away. I like that I can present myself to the world as a (mostly) put-together happy young-adult with a high level of education and a luxurious lifestyle. I like that there is a version of me, without all of my grief, sadness, fear, and anxiety, that can meet and communicate with others and that she can do so without forcing me into two things I have no desire to wear: pants and a smile.

Mainly I will not give up these platforms because I do not have the strength to overcome my compulsion. And when I think of the parties I won't be invited to, the friends I won't hear from and the pictures I won't see if I de-activate my Facebook it feels like a much larger sacrifice than it is. I do not have the strength to overcome my insistent impulse to check my Facebook, five Gmail accounts, and two Instagram accounts. I do not have the drive to stop ordering my food, books, and useless crap on Amazon. I know it is irrational to cling to these platforms when they will ultimately and inevitably destroy the society I love, that doing so is contrary to my conscious intention to exercise my freedom and liberty, I will continue to cling to these instruments of destruction.

It's not clear whether the language of compulsion gets your analysis very far. We might begin by asking whether to distinguish "habit" from "compulsion." On this view, perhaps you have habits: how you communicate with others, how you inform yourself about events in the wider world, how you purchase both staple commodities and occasional acquisitions. Psychologists would not define those habits as "compulsions": they are too complex and large-scale to be---like repetitive hand-washing, doorway rituals, or other behavioral tics---the active counterparts of obsessive thoughts.

So, arguendo, you have habits; by the essay's end it is clear that you can consider changing them, and can decide for various reasons either to change or not change. Those reasons are given in sequential, logical form. Your ultimate decisions may be right or wrong relative to the objectives you believe you have, but there isn't any doubt that they are decisions.

Thus, the language of "compulsion" seems in the end really to be about removing responsibility: these would be your decisions to make, if you weren't obsessive, therefore acting compulsively, therefore not responsible. But, like the imagined genocide, this isn't real to you. If you actually thought your habits were going to get your loved ones and neighbors killed, you would change them. But you don't. So setting up a false antagonism between the compulsions you have and the genocide they might enable is like watching a horror movie: it mobilizes your fears and creates a cathartic, but unreal, context in which to experience and overcome them, in the interest of returning to normal after it's over.

You can have email without Gmail, thus not sharing all your personal correspondence and the act of reading it with a platform company. You can have a website on which you post your photos without allowing someone in the middle to watch everything you see and to surveil everyone you share your pictures with. You can use a few simple tricks to hide your browsing trail from all the middlethings. Having done all that, you might consider yourself willing to use Amazon to buy things you would be willing to see your purchase of published in the New York Times, and to buy for cash, face to face, those things whose immediate disclosure to the entire world might bother you. In other words, you could come to think of your behaviors not as automatic but as chosen, which would mean using your mind not as a post-traumatic machine with grooves seared into its surface, but as a growing, changing, thinking entity in which decisions are made, experience accumulated, judgments reconsidered, habits changed.

If you did have compulsions, and if those behaviors were limiting your life or endangering you, that's the way at least one or two kinds of psychologists might help you overcome them. Why not here as well?

So for me, the best route to improvement in the essay is to take your premise seriously, not frivolously, and to ask how such habits, which feel like compulsions, might be made less automatic and more chosen, not to ask how it would feel not to have them anymore, but rather to ask how it would feel to address them as choices, which can be incrementally adjusted instead of either surrendered to or exiled. What else would you need to change, what else would you need to learn, in order to be able to decide what habits to have, instead of acquiring ones which appear unbidden and then are so attached to structures of pre-existing anxiety that they seem unchangeably essential to life itself?

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r2 - 03 Dec 2017 - 18:59:10 - EbenMoglen
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