The most satisfying and memorable kind of conversation is like a great catch. The thought you throw to the other person is held for a moment and tossed back, with an interesting additional idea, and it comes directly into your hand, for a moment of consideration, before you toss it back. There is a rhythm to this kind of chat, and no rush to talk.
What you just said reminds me of something eerily similar that happened to me years ago. I mention it. You raise your eyebrows, nod, yes, it’s very similar, but there is one big difference. You elaborate. I hadn’t thought about that, but, sure, that’s a very big difference, all the difference in the world, really.
You can learn something important when a distinction is illuminated like that. This kind of conversation is a way of thinking back and forth, of collaboratively considering things and shedding light on some of the mysteries of this mysterious life.
Most talks between us are not so much this way, they are quick, many unrelated things come and go, threads pop up and disappear, shorthand is substituted for consideration, we move on, time is fleeting, we gossip, we vent, we don’t linger to converse in the more thoughtful mode every day.
We can all remember specific conversations that were on a deeper level, that moved us, changed us even. I recall one, during a bike ride with an old friend, when she told me something obvious and profound that I’d never thought of. She put it succinctly, in a phrase, and it changed the way I saw things. I had one, and only one, wonderfully deep, personal conversation with my otherwise fussy, distracted Aunt Barbara. In the living room of my parents house, after everyone else had gone to sleep, the moments with her I value the most.
The desire for this kind of conversation is a big reason people love to read. We have a dialogue, of a sort, with another mind, a mind who was driven to set things on paper, after combing them into the readable form we have in front of us. I am reading a book like that now, a novel. Full of what Zora Neale Hurston called “that oldest human longing”, the desire to reveal ourselves to another, to speak our deepest personal truths and be seen and heard as we really are. Speaking is great, writing is a more refined version of speech.
This dialogue with the author is a big reason we read. I knew nothing about Shoshana Zuboff except that she recently gave a few very interesting interviews about her mind-blowing book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I didn’t pick up the book because I wanted a dialogue with her specifically, the subject she wrote about was compelling to me. It turns out she is not only a very perceptive and extremely well-read woman, she’s fucking brilliant, creative and extremely engaging.
She reminded me of Hannah Arendt in the way her book was loaded with thought-provoking insights seemingly peripheral to her central idea. Of course, no insight is peripheral to anything, in the hands of a creative thinker and skilled writer.
Take this seemingly random peripheral insight from her book. We in the West have long valued the idea of our own autonomy. The principle that we alone, as individual moral actors, have the final say in what we think and do. This idea, Shoshana Zuboff points out, is under great pressure now, in an age when systematically modifying our behavior, our choices, how we think and interact, is increasingly monetized by people who become billionaires by tracking our every impulse, particularly things like the desire to be accepted by others, and directing these impulses toward personally targeted commerce.
The ideal consumer is one who is not autonomous, driven by deeply held beliefs and a strong internal need to feel independent, but heteronomous.
Heteronomous? What the fuck?
Shoshana Zuboff provides this great term as the opposite of autonomous. Heteronomy is the external force, based on an overarching concept, that drives mass conformity. This indispensable word is apparently a coinage of Immanuel Kant’s .
Note: the digital technology that allows us to instantly search for and pull up information, opinion and historical (and ahistorical) details is a sharp double-edged sword, of course. We are all very smart, in our information age, and capable, if we wish, of effortlessly fact-checking and quoting very accurately, when we have instant access to the world’s collected information. We are not nearly as impressive when we have no cell reception and only memory and wit to rely on. In this age anyone can tap in a quick search and come up with:
Heteronomy refers to action that is influenced by a force outside the individual, in other words the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another, as in a military occupation.
Immanuel Kant, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered such an action nonmoral.
It is the counter/opposite of autonomy.
Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis contrasted heteronomy with autonomy by noting that while all societies create their own institutions (laws, traditions and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies (hetero = others) attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (e.g., God, the state, ancestors, historical necessity, etc.).
The actions of a heteronomous person are driven not by an internal imperative to act based on a personal, individualized belief system, but by an external force. The masters of the force that moves masses can make themselves all-powerful and wealthy beyond the dreams of the most wanton slaveholder who ever enjoyed the involuntary company of an endless parade of beautiful servant girls.
You get a notification and look into your cellphone screen to read a come on that a third party has sent to you. Your smartphone, of course, has a camera with a sharp lens and you have, by clicking “accept” when downloading the app, already given permission for the app and any associated third parties to have access to that camera. As you look at the come on, the camera captures your reactions. A few revealing micro-expressions are taken and filtered through algorithms that tell the third party exactly what you are receptive to receiving as a follow-up. Disgusted by the ad? We are too! We’ll send you the antidote!
In our surveillance age, privacy is sacrificed to “security” and convenience. The genius of the world’s smartest man, Jeff Bezos, was implementing a system to exploit his keen understanding that by monetizing the laziness and poor impulse control of the average American consumer he could become the richest individual in human history.
Shop, in the privacy of your home, in your underwear, for the specific things that will make you elegant, popular, the envy of your friends and enemies alike. Pay an annual fee and become a preferred customer, you can receive this great stuff almost instantly. They’re working on a way to have robots and drones get this stuff to you in virtual real time. What a world!
As we enjoy the convenience of this cyber world we give up certain crucial thing. Human interaction has been changed by the always-on social media machine that converts the world into a data-driven high school popularity contest. The need for face-to-face play, improvisation just for fun, one of the great joys of human life, has been largely replaced by virtual human contact. Virtual human contact that allows third parties to monetize and profit from our need to connect.
Just as the female calf on the industrial diary farm never experiences the play that all young mammals have always enjoy as they master a host of social skills, including the flirting that will lead to reproduction (these industrially raised young cows don’t need to learn anything, they’ll be artificially inseminated and give more milk than any naturally raised cow)  today’s teenagers are growing up in a less playful, far more precarious, world few of us could have imagined. Except perhaps on our worst day in junior high school.
A world where everyone has a camera on them at all times, for better or worse. Where, on a dare, or being flirtatious, at an age when people are searching for the acceptance of their peers, racy nude photos are taken, exchanged, live forever on servers in virtual clouds. At the worst possible time in the life of a fifteen year-old girl a formerly trusted best friend reveals a vicious side, posts that photo of you with the dick against your dumbly grinning face. Of all the things that goad adolescent suicide, a good public humiliation is high up there. Another person’s shame can now be uploaded, instantly, on to the internet everybody carries in their pocket. This is a new, devastating weapon everyone is aware of.
Shoshana Zuboff discusses the wariness that must be imparted to children in this world of eternal invasive, largely commercial, surveillance. Be paranoid, they are collecting every private insight that can be gleaned, in order to “serve you more efficiently”. They are modifying your behavior in real time, and the reach of their prying apps, in continually more refined ways. You are a sucker if you trust anyone. Do not make eye contact, hit “like” and LOL.
I saw an ad for what seems to be a wonderful project. A search engine that spends its profits planting trees, they’ve already planted millions of trees in formerly denuded, lifeless landscapes. We can read all the devilish details of what amoral motherfuckers Google’s executives are. They also built the greatest internet mousetrap in history, you have to give them credit. The proof of Google’s value, as they say, is in the pudding, they are richer than fuck, among the most successful companies in history. That’s really all you need to know. Hate success? You hate freedom! (talk about heteronomous logic)
The alternative search engine I saw the ad for, Ecosia, has a series of wonderful ads. They plant trees to restore destroyed rain forests, reclaim arid new deserts, provide habitat to preserve some of the thousand of species that are becoming extinct every day. You can download their free app. Sounds like a total win-win. Fuck google. Let me support a company that is doing something proactive to save our planet from the rapacious extractionists who are, to put it crudely, raping our biosphere to death.
Then I think: this is exactly what they want, isn’t it? Talk about building the ultimate mousetrap.
Download the free app, along with every other idealist in the radius of Ecosia’s advertising, and they are on your computer, on your phone, in your home, in your head. They now have your name, and your every preference, on a worldwide list of everybody who fancies herself an idealist, everyone who wants a better world. Who do they have to wipe out first, if they are to finally have everything just before the earth breathes its last? Me and you, baby, the people who are determined to fight the grim, determined, heteronomous armies of death.
Another bracing thing Shoshana Zuboff details is how this justified paranoia has decreased human to human trust among Americans. We also have less and less trust for institutions, norms, the fairness of justice. We are right to be paranoid, as we are screwed left and right, in the name of abstract principles that serve only the monetizers at the top of the societal food chain. Distrust has become a kind of default setting as we learn more and more about the details of how we are being systematically fucked and lied to about the nature of this nonconsensual arrangement.
One final thought about thinking. We tend to think in words (feelings come in many tastes, smells, sounds, colors, etc.) and so a word like anodyne, or heteronomy, is essential in forming certain thoughts. Without the word neatly expressing and encompassing the larger concept, we’d have nothing to chew on, at least not in a way we can express. Something to masticate.
 Kant, a world-changing philosopher, is reputed never to have traveled more that a short distance from where he was born. Forty miles is the distance I recall hearing from a chatty professor in a philosophy class at City College around 40 years ago. I did a search for what that distance actually was, using the newfangled internet. That he never travelled more than 16 km. (9.9 miles) from his birthplace is apparently a crock:
A common myth is that Kant never traveled more than 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Königsberg his whole life. In fact, between 1750 and 1754 he worked as a tutor (Hauslehrer) in Judtschen (now Veselovka, Russia, approximately 20 km) and in Groß-Arnsdorf (now Jarnołtowo near Morąg (German: Mohrungen), Poland, approximately 145 km). source
Ninety miles, bitches. Don’t believe the hype.
 Thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for the description of this animal right to play and socialize, unsentimentally sacrificed without a second thought by the industry that brings Americans their dairy and meat.