A friend of mine recently took his teenage daughter on vacation to San Francisco, where he’d once lived but she’d never been. As they drove to the tourist mecca of Fisherman’s Wharf, he made a few detours, taking in some of the old sights to brighten his fading memories. Every time he departed from the route Google Maps offered, though, he noticed that his daughter grew anxious. He pondered her reactions and realized then that when they were driving in a strange place, she normally saw her parents dutifully following the directions offered up by the app. Disobeying it in what were to her unfamiliar surroundings clearly made her uncomfortable.
Eighty years ago, B.F. Skinner and other behavioral psychologists offered a vision of a world where people could be managed with a bit of negative reinforcement here to suppress an unwanted behavior or a nudge of positive reinforcement there to foster a desired one. At the time, this paradigm seemed both possible and—for anyone who had read Aldous Huxley’s then recently published novel Brave New World—terrifying. Would we really allow ourselves to be managed into the human equivalent of an ant colony?
Fortunately, the world proved more complex than anything the science of behavioral management could encompass. We would have to work it out for ourselves, incompletely and imperfectly, without the direction of an invisible hand. At least that was the case until 2007, when just such an invisible hand appeared: It took the form of the ubiquitous, and ubiquitously connected, smartphone.
We regularly hear about people getting lost in the wilderness because they believe their smartphone will show them the way back to civilization.
After more than a decade of using smartphones, we have been conditioned to expect that we will always know where we are. When we lose that information, we feel as though the floor has dropped away. The aversion to such discomfort keeps us on the straight and narrow, unthinkingly obeying directions offered up by machines.
This kind of de facto behavioral management applies pressure at so many points—the routes we are told to take, the videos we are led to watch, the books we’re advised to read, the friends who are automatically kept informed, and much else—that our entire culture now operates within a set of velvet restraints. We hardly notice the many systems that work tirelessly to keep us well managed and—to whatever ends the relevant service provider deems—well behaved.
But our brave new world doesn’t have to be one dictated to us by machines. Instead, we can take the road less traveled, veering from the path laid down by so many algorithms and seek out the universe that exists beyond them. There we can encounter the new and unknown—and recover the joy of surprise.