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When We Lose Autonomy—Whose Life Are You Living?

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  This article is part of the series: How to Talk About AI

Autonomy is important. Nobody wants to be enslaved or manipulated by other people1. In the context of AI ethics, ensuring one's autonomy by proper algorithm/interface design (e.g., transparency, fairness) is one of the biggest challenges researchers and practitioners are tackling these days.

But let's be honest: how much of our value, identity, and behaviors are truly determined by myself? Imagine the most valuable thing in your life. Isn't your definition of success something given by the capitalist society? Are we surely making an informed, conscious choice when we buy and consume?

In other words, is this a life YOU chose? Do YOU love it?

Autonomy brings meaning to life

I keep coming back to these questions since I entered my 20s, and thankfully, I can confidently say yes as of now. Yet I still find it difficult to openly talk about the point with friends, family members, or those who I admire because our lives are experiential and situational; even if I'm deeply worried about someone's machine-like life, my view doesn't necessarily represent your view of the world2. That's why autonomy is a sensitive topic, and there are endless philosophical and religious debates in the literature.

For instance, as I understand, Nietzsche's nihilistic philosophy challenged our passive attitude to our own life, and his existentialism asks individuals to be "activistic" against their life—what he called "superman"3. That is, we should live as if we are willing to repeat the same life infinitely—in "eternal recurrence." Under the condition, one can find the meaning of life even in suffering, like psychiatrist Dr. Viktor E. Frankl experienced in the Nazi concentration camps and later stated "Say yes to life, in spite of everything"4. We cannot change the surrounding environment, but we can change how to respond/react to what happened to us.

Finding the meaning of life in such an autonomous, proactive way is an essential task. However, in reality, living a passive life and following what the greatest majority agrees is much easier for most of us. Remember: it was Socrates who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living"5.

Autonomy in action

How can we seize autonomy and "examine" our life, then? A practical—and maybe the only feasible—approach that's commonly taken is to talk with one's inner self.

Mindfulness in Buddhist meditation, for example, tells us the importance of being in this very moment and focusing on one's inner movement. In a teaching novel When Nietzsche Wept, a fictional version of Nietzsche drew the point by introducing a Buddhist monk, who put an entire focus on a single apple he could only find on that day. It's about awareness in the present moment, and the power of digging into one's mind and mental phenomena is exactly what the fictional Nietzsche and Breuer each experienced in the novel.

Interestingly, mythologist Joseph Campbell is making a similar conclusion by stating "Follow your bliss." With this belief, he mentions that the key is to double-click ("examine") a moment when you felt deep happiness in the past. What's most valuable already exists in one's experience, but touching the deepest part of oneself simply needs an intention, which we often overlook. According to his The Power of Myth, various myths occurred in different places, times, and religions share a lot of similarities, and they all catalyze such essentials of life by surfacing the eternality of our relationships with others, including god(s), nature, and animals.

Relationship—it is a key concept we should never overlook. Talking to one's inner self and following your bliss doesn't mean being selfish. The balance is crucial as When Nietzsche Wept clearly distinguished between how existential psychotherapy will look like and what's not; when the fictional characters went extreme, what's remaining was the greatest despair. Notice that humans are fundamentally social creature that relates themselves to someone/something, gains knowledge experientially, internalizes the insights, and finally becomes able to live to the fullest.

To turn the classic pearls of wisdom into actions, I believe autonomy is a key concept. It is a proactive attitude based on one's psychological and intellectual freedom6.

The worst-case scenario

What happens when we lose autonomy? See the adults who appeared in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. As we age, our life tends to be occupied by the things we can instantly recognize (e.g., money, work, reputation) and lacks what we cannot physically touch.

"Your heart sees the important things in life, but your eyes don't see them."

The message is a fantastic reminder of how adults tend to bind themselves with a narrow view of the world.

Optimizing a function against an observable objective is easy. Just take a global average, and follow what the greatest majority agrees. On the other hand, no one, except yourself, can define a metric that measures your happiness. In fact, it is easier to make ourselves "busy," avoid a conversation with oneself, and list many reasons not to act, because everyone does so. This is when humans lost their autonomy. But busy for what? We already have (and can do) more than we think, and the key may have been right in front of us since a long time ago.

Speaking of adult life, understanding the nature of aging might help us to be autonomous agents. In From Strength to Strength, social scientist Arthur C. Brooks highlighted that our intellectual performance peaks out much earlier than we think, and life transitions to its second phase as early as in our 30s. In the later phase, people need to cultivate spiritual life and deep relationship with surrounding people, and the effectiveness is proven by social scientific studies7. Otherwise, we end up with workaholics and success addicts as many "successful" but unsatisfied people are. Be careful: our eyes don't see the most important things in life regardless of how hard we work.

Therefore, I strongly believe the lack of self-awareness hinders us from living to the fullest, particularly at a later stage of life, and the issue corresponds to autonomy in a broader sense.

Bottom line

After all, what's important is to live an activistic life, but today's weirdly unbalanced information-rich world makes it extremely hard. Playing a number game indefinitely, judging one's life in comparison with others, following algorithmic recommendations without questioning the details. To me, it's a systemic issue in a modern data-driven society.

The power dynamics of information, especially in the digital world, seem to be taking autonomy—psychological and intellectual freedom, that is—away from individuals and even manipulating our physical behaviors. It is simply sad to see despair, unhappiness, or struggles of surrounding people caused by a failure of self-awareness, especially those who are around my age or older. Even though humans have invested heavily in identifying a source of happiness for centuries from multidisciplinary (e.g., philosophical, religious, scientific) perspectives, I feel we as a society are getting more and more fragile and unhappy as information flows and grows.

Is this the kind of future we truly envisioned? Honestly, I dislike it.

1. But we are in fact living like a zombie, as I previously wrote in "Am I Zombie? Autonomy vs. Recommendations on the Internet." In a philosophical context, this leads us to skepticism; because we don't know anything, we must commit to something to begin with, which naturally demands one's autonomy in order to question and investigate various phenomena in the world.
2. Whenever I see someone who is working too hard, practicing an unhealthy lifestyle, and/or relying on toxic digital/physical content, I'm concerned not only about themselves but the health of our society at large. Maybe I should aggressively intervene in the situation, especially if the subjects are loved ones, but the effectiveness still depends very much on their willingness.
3. Nietzsche famously stated "God is dead", suggesting you are your own boss in your life.
4. Source: Man's Search for Meaning.
5. Source: Plato, Apology 38a.
6. Again, we cannot live without others regardless of how autonomous we are, and this is why we as a society have laws and social norms. In that sense, our life can be partially considered heteronomous, and this will raise a philosophical question about intellectual autonomy vs. intellectual solidarity. Reference: Solidarity in Social and Political Philosophy.
7. I previously dove deep into the discussion in "Loneliness Is Worse Than Smoking, Alcoholic, Obesity."
  This article is part of the series: How to Talk About AI



Life & Work

  See also

Runner's Search for Identity
Am I Zombie? Autonomy vs. Recommendations on the Internet
Loneliness Is Worse Than Smoking, Alcoholic, Obesity


Last updated: 2023-04-25

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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