Free Will and Determinism (in the Digital Age)

**I wanted to provide a specific background and foundation for this piece, hence its length. For those interested in the core of this piece and not wanting to waste time, skip down to the conclusion section.**

My wife and I just moved back north to the Keystone State. The reason I have to say moved back is that we are both originally from the Garden State, but lived for several years in the Sunshine State.

Our area of New Jersey was not doing particularly well at the time, so when we married and prepared to start a life together it seemed best that we seize the opportunity to move where we wanted. We did not yet have the money to buy a house, even though it would have been on the cheaper side in our home county. Taxes are high in New Jersey though, and the recent trajectory did not look good for employment options and with that there’s no telling what might happen to the housing market.

I mean, plenty of people were stuck in our home county despite wanting to move because they paid much more for their homes before the economy shifted. Then the area depressed a bit – nothing catastrophic, but a recession – and people moved away. The more people moved away, the worse the local economy did. More people moved. Soon, we had a bunch of cheap, foreclosed houses on the market and no one interested in buying. That made selling virtually impossible for others.

So we decided to avoid falling into that pit and take the opportunity to move before we got tied to the area financially.

Oh, and I had met my wife at work. It was a non-profit organisation that happened to need a data analyst. My wife was a case manager, like my younger brother who told my would-be supervisor, “Hey, if you need a data analyst, my brother is currently unemployed and looking.”

It was a massive pay cut for me over my previous job, but better than nothing and valuable experience. I had quit my previous job working in the casino industry because, well, they are predatory a**holes. I have no other way to put it. The employees are fine – I would work with many of them in any other industry. The industry itself though…damn.

They are experts in statistics and human psychology. Complex mathematics that guarantee a return for the casino by providing just enough return to players to keep them hooked. Intermittent rewards. The occasional big jackpot. They also keep up on stuff like depriving the casino floor of windows and clocks so players have no sense of time and designing the gaming floor like a labyrinth. They also know which potential customers to target. They sell addiction like any common street pusher under the guise of entertainment. It’s temporary pleasure that will become pain with enough time.

That’s not a theory – that’s the math of casino gaming.

I digress (no, I don’t – but we’ll get to that).

So I quit my casino related job and took the pay cut to work for the non-profit. When our relationship got serious, I knew I would need to earn more and found a  job in Florida where we wanted to move.

I guess what I’m saying is, I began college as a forensic accounting major working as the manager of a video rental store (find any older person to ask). Today, I’m a sort-of data analyst working in the pharmaceutical industry.

There’s no linear path there. If someone wanted to be a data analyst in the pharmaceutical industry, you would not advise them to major in forensic accounting and then look for work in the casino industry. Not even the worst guidance counselor on Earth would offer that advice. But it happened. Logically.

So now I’m sitting in an apartment in Philadelphia where I live with my wife and two corgis. I never had a dog as a child. Now I have two corgis. See, I have two corgis because I liked dogs (not so much as a child – they scared me) and a family friend had to give up their corgi. I said, half-joking when my wife asked if I knew anyone who could take him, “We could take him.”

She swooned. I warmed to the idea after I did the numbers on cost of ownership. We could manage that. Sure, let’s take the corgi.

And he is a brilliant dog. I’ve known some clever dogs in my life, but this one impressed me with his cleverness. Turned out it’s something of a hallmark with corgis – they are a very intelligent breed. That’s why when we decided we wanted to have more dogs (two being the max allowed by most apartments), it should be another corgi. The corgi shelter did not like us because we both worked full-time so no one would be home during the day (and corgis are in demand, so they can afford to be that picky). My wife found a highly reputable breeder. We got a corgi puppy. Now we have two running around.

If the family friend could have kept the dog, we might not have any. Maybe we would have one. Maybe still two – but maybe different breeds. I would not have met my wife if not for my attitude towards the casino industry…and the fact that my brother worked for the agency that hired me. And that my brother and I had the sort of relationship where he would feel compelled to do that for me. And that I had the credentials and personality to back up what he claimed.

At 900 words in, one is probably asking, “What the hell is the point of all this?” The point is that at no point previously in life could I predict I would be sitting in this chair, in this apartment, in this city, married to this woman, with these two corgis, working at my current job, and so many other details if not for all of the things that preceded it.

Change a detail and everything else shifts. What if I had held out with the casino industry until I found a new job instead of quitting? I would have missed out working for the non-profit. That means I likely do not meet my wife, at least not in a context where we get to know one another well enough to date. I don’t develop the skills that qualified me for me current job.

All of this background is meant to express a certain fatalistic attitude towards life.

Yes, I have choice. I chose to quit my job. I chose to ask my wife out on our first date. We chose to live in Florida and chose to move back to Pennsylvania.

Choice, choice, choice.

Do We Have Choice?

Sure, that’s one way to look at it.

What if we look at things in a slightly different way though? My wife wanted to move back north because she was not satisfied with the career opportunities she found and missed having her family nearby. Likewise, most of my extended family lives within two hours of our current location. I hated the heat and humidity – autumn and winter are my favourite seasons, and they do not really exist in Florida. I missed my sports. Florida fans are, generally speaking, uninformed and unenthusiastic. Depending on the opponent, and thanks to relocations, opposing fans outnumbered the home supporters at many events.

I missed being in the city with my teams and their fans. I did not miss being directly with them because they can be a raucous crowd, and if there’s one thing I cannot stand it’s boorishness. Still, I miss the energy and the history.

With certain sports. Basketball kind of bores me and I don’t watch the NBA or WNBA much. I love ice hockey and soccer. Baseball and American football are fun, too, but to a lesser extent.

Why do I mention this? Exactly. Why? I have friends who are massive basketball fans and understand the game. I never got to know it that well and then never developed a desire to know it. Some of my fellow Americans may view soccer with the same sort of languor. I know the game. While one might be watching the one attacker with the ball and one defender guarding, I’m watching everyone in frame. I’m watching the striker peel off on a run to the left that draws defenders away and opens space. I watch the attacker with the ball anticipate or see that and strike.

Ice hockey and soccer satisfy an intellectual need of mine as well as a physical and aesthetic. I love the athleticism, but I also adore the chess match – the symphony of strategy that I see unfolding. I love things like the click and swish of metal blades scraping the ice or the smell of the grass. Other sports do not satisfy those needs, so I derive less satisfaction from them.

We start to see something building though. One of several factors in the decision to move back to Pennsylvania was wanting to be around my favourite teams again. They were my favourite because I loved the sport and, growing up in New Jersey, they were the most local team. That’s what made it less satisfying to be in Florida around those teams and fans. Same sport, but not the same history or familiarity. The fans, as I said, were different.

I wanted to be around family and someplace I saw an abundance of job opportunity – the Northeast Metropolis. Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh are day trips from here with a huge concentration of employers, museums, parks, so on, so on, and so on.

Oh, you live in Texas and don’t agree with that assessment? Perhaps you think, “I live in Dallas and we have tons to do here. I hate that coastal elite attitude about their stuff.”

I don’t begrudge you that. I did not grow up in Dallas though. I grew up in New Jersey at the heart of all that. I know it. It’s familiar. Florida was culture shock. Trips to the Midwest? Culture shock. California? Culture shock. I could not see myself living in those places even though millions of people live there quite happily.

Does that mean that people will be comfortable wherever they matured? Of course not. Some people cannot wait to relocate to another area. Some people do fine in multiple areas. I do not. I am infinitely more comfortable back home in the Northeast than anywhere else in the United States.

I do not believe we even have to debate nature versus nurture here – irrelevant. What matters is that my personal experience, my genetic makeup, my psychology, my biology, my everything determines who I am at any given moment.

I could, for example, pretend to be comfortable living in Texas, but I would not be. That discomfort comes as natural to me as liking soccer. Does it point to one particular thing? I doubt it. I don’t like heat and Texas is obviously prone. Depending on the region of Texas I also think tornadoes, hurricanes, flash floods, and other dangerous storms. I think of snakes and scorpions. I, frankly, think of the politics of the Lone Star State and the prospect of being a blue dot in a sea of red.

Here, too, one may be reversing this on me. “Pennsylvania gets flash floods and nor’easters. Hell, you folks can get blizzards up there. Enjoy the snow. Oh, and wildlife? You also have snakes and let’s not forget things like bears to go along with the liberal, coastal elite nonsense.”

I grew up with the snow though, and the wildlife common to this part of the country is exactly that – common. I knew about bears as a child. This is how one manages not to get mauled by a bear. Straightforward.

The first time I went kayaking on the river in Florida? I could not shake the thought of stumbling across some aggressive alligator. The locals did not care. They knew gators and how they behaved. Floridians can walk right by a gator on a golf course. To many of them, they are big, skittish lizards. To me, they are living dinosaurs who see me as an easy meal.


So, do I have a choice? Yes, but also no. Any time a human comes across a decision point, which is immeasurable even over the course of a day, we are “free” to make range of choices.

What I’m suggesting here though is that if one understands enough of the variables, the “choice” is not a choice at all. We will feel compelled down a particular avenue.

I quit working for the casinos with no replacement position ready. I had never and have never since done that. I could have quit sooner or held out longer. From any particular point in time, I faced infinite possibilities moving forward. However, taking it in retrospect, I had one path forward. My work ethic, my personality, my mental state, my experience – myriad variables – would not let me make the decision to quit sooner than I did. The thought had occurred to me and I overrode it. I could have held on longer, but at the time I quit my mind felt comfortable with the decision.

Let’s consider this even more simply than major life decisions. Scratch where it itches.

The primary reason, or motivation, an individual scratches is that something itches. Person A may have to scratch the moment they feel the slightest itch. Person B, believing that scratching spreads infection or worsens the condition, may resist the idea of scratching even amidst a severe itch. Perhaps it’s more situational. Person C refuses to scratch, no matter how bad the itch, if results from an insect bite but will scratch the slightest itch if it results from a minor irritant, like a piece of fabric tickling the skin.

We might invoke additional variables. Perhaps Person D normally does not scratch, but if they are feeling tired or ill may be susceptible to scratching because their tolerance drops significantly. Person E used to scratch but had a bad experience, and now refuses to do it. Person F scratches compulsively, even if no real itch exists.

The point is, if I knew which variables to collect and did it for the individual, I could theoretically predict with 100% accuracy when said person would scratch. We are that reflexive in nature. We have only the illusion of free will because it exceeds the capacity for anyone even to know all of the relevant variables in the situation, let alone know the values for those variables and how they relate to the individual.

This is not a sinister theory – the basis comes from nature. We are, after all, a collection of elements. Those elements are a collection of atoms. Those atoms are a collection of….precisely the same as the makeup of the universe itself. All this idea posits is that humans react to choice the way a penny reacts to water or the way a ball reacts in a Newton’s cradle when the ball at the opposite end strikes the others. Humans react to choice the way a tornado is the natural response to atmospheric changes or earthquakes are to tectonic changes. It’s as natural as breathing or pumping blood.

Because while we may want to believe that we’re special, what with our ability to reason and all, thought is essentially electrical activity. We think of it as Us, but it’s atoms and electrical activity. A thing cannot move from B to C if the thing did not first move from A to B though.

We are here, wherever we are, because of everything that came before. Nothing that comes next could occur without that because we otherwise would not be in the current place for it to happen.

Shifting Back to Free Will

This is not meant to excuse anyone’s behaviour. The social contract, for example, is by definition a social construct and we hold one another accountable to that (or we should). When something awful happens between people, such as an assault to take the more extreme, we have a clear victim, but we must also treat the perpetrator as a victim to some extent. We do not have to do this to forgive necessarily, but for the purpose of understanding why the thing happened so that 1) we can work to prevent that person doing it again and 2) we can work to prevent others doing it.

You know, the way we work to understand how tornadoes and hurricanes work for preparedness, early warning systems, and rapid response.

Some people likely lack the capacity for introspection to evaluate why they do, think, or believe things. That would be part of it – introspecting would be a decision like any other, and a person’s background would have to allow them to be the introspective type. Some people may have things that prevent them from introspecting the way an itch might stop someone from doing anything apart from scratching.

Furthermore, any person can develop the skill, but they must first navigate from their current place to one where introspection is possible. That is precisely why recovery, such as from substance abuse or mental illness, is easier for some than others. Recovery requires work and the makeup of the individual may have a specific case too far off course for the work to begin immediately. Helping that person to that course is the first step, and that requires the person coming to the decision point where they, and no one else, concedes that working toward that course is necessary.

We do have free will then, in the sense that longer-term anything might be possible provided that we begin to make decisions now that take us toward that course.

Let’s go back to an earlier example. In my current circumstances, I could never see myself living in Texas. If someone offered me a job opportunity tomorrow, even a lucrative one, I would likely turn down the offer. Does that mean I will always be that way?

No. Any series of events could unfold between today and whenever that takes what seems like an impossible conclusion and makes it the only logical one – kind of the way a forensic accounting student working at a video store transformed into a data analyst in pharmaceuticals in the space of a few years. There’s nothing linear about describing those end points, but the post hoc analysis suggests it’s the only way things could have gone.


The reason I felt compelled to share what some of you probably regard as “stoner logic” (even though I have never been a stoner – the idea of being high scares me) is ultimately two concerns.

First, the truth of this fatalistic theory and some of the psychological research associated with it spells bad news on a personal level in our current climate. Liberals and Conservatives. Democrats and Republicans. Flat-Earthers…Round-Earthers? Those who believe the science of man-made climate change and climate change deniers. Dodgers fans and Giants fans.

We live in a world of “fake news” and trolls and sea lions. We live in a world of “alternative facts.” In short, we live in a world of dichotomous realities where people on one side think, “How could anyone possibly believe what the folks on the other side think?” while those people think the same.

Logic and facts ought to win out over all of that, so why don’t they? Because we aren’t as free-willed as we think. When a human believes something to be true, for whatever reason, they embrace it as part of their identity. When contradictory information appears, the brain interprets that as an attack and the emotional response occurs well before the rational part has a chance.

Attack someone with a knife or attack them with the irrefutable evidence that what they believe is wrong and their mind will react in a similar fashion.

A person has to be in a position to accept the new information before someone presents them with it or it will not take. Yes, some people are much more open to assimilating new information than others. That is the individuality of it. It depends on the topic, the timing, their nature, and countless other variables. Scratch or don’t scratch.

It does not, much as it pains me to say, depend on the civil discussion of facts. It should. It doesn’t. Add to that a climate of vitriol and violence – it’s a recipe for people to entrench in their current fatalistic positions. The common ground is now “no man’s land” between miles of meticulously dug trenches.

The second concern relates to this – in fact, the second concern played a significant role in creating the first one. Concern two is the quantification and mining of personal data.

The intent behind this phenomenon is not inherently malicious. As with most technology, I suspect it began with the best of intentions in the mind of some digital innovator who saw a way to improve the world. Then someone saw a way to profit and modified it into a machine beyond the control of any one individual.

I am referring, in the simplest sense, to things like social media profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, Tumblr, eHarmony, Google….on and on and on. They capture data that allows them to tailor the user experience. On paper, to an optimist, that is brilliant. “We are going to take this generic experience and make it more fun for you individually based on your actual input.”

A few things start to happen.

First, the most innocuous. Consider the fatalistic theory put forth through much of this piece. One is at any given time the summation of everything that came before that time. If we take a snapshot of the universe – click – and had the computational power to dissect it, we could theoretically take one’s current status all the way back to the start of the universe – the natural conclusion to a series of electrical firings.

What happens when one tailors an experience based on user input? One reinforces the present. When a user interacts with social media, it’s as their present self. Like this, Follow that – it begins to create a profile based on now. However, it also alters what will occur in the future. We refer to this phenomenon as the echo chamber.

An alternate way to look at it is as the reverse of Plato’s cave allegory. Instead of starting with shadows on the wall of a cave and venturing into the outside world, we start in the outside world and venture into a cave, simplifying things through our digital footprint to shadows on the wall. The formula behind our experience is designed by confirmation bias – it’s nature is to reveal what we already know and believe.

Interjecting alternatives is not an antidote because it’s just as inorganic. The alternative view is not there as an alternative view, it’s present as a combative view, the antithesis of what the user believes. It frames the alternative views in an antagonist light and serves, like the main content, to entrench the individual in views already held.

Second, companies learned that they could earn profit through the sale of information. This results in a world where information mined about a person through Facebook is not contained to Facebook. It reaches out to other platforms and infects more and more of our lives. The relatively innocuous (relatively – I am using this lightly here) phenomenon of the echo chamber becomes, ahem, amplified by this. Now the echo chamber created on one platform spreads to others and becomes reinforced by data collected elsewhere.

What a tangled web we weave – the only one deceived is the self though.

Third, and the most malicious phenomenon, is the revelation that some parties might use the collected data explicitly to manipulate individuals.

Okay – stay with me here. I know it sounds like conspiracy theory nonsense. Let’s put aside the extreme idea of a shadow government using Twitter to create Manchurian candidates. That is not what I mean.

Consider the earlier reference to the casinos though. Statistically, the longer a person plays at a casino, the more they will lose. I do not mean that in a broad, collective sense that most people will lose and the rare person will win. I mean in the individual sense, the longer a person plays, the more they will lose. The mathematical formulas used to program and design the games dictates that. It’s as certain as one plus one equals two.

This is why we see various strategies employed on casino floors. The layout is like a labyrinth. No windows to the outside and no clocks easily visible. Many places offer complimentary drink service. Keep them on the gaming floor and they will lose money. Even if they win, if the casino can keep them playing they will hand it all back.

Look at where casinos appear. Utah, for example, with its massive Mormon population, contains no casinos. One can tell when they have left Utah though, because casinos litter the border. They appear often in economically depressed areas where the promise of a sudden, easy win appeals to those who have little (one casino, which I shall not name, cashed FEMA disaster relief checks at their main cage), much like the lottery. It’s an addictive product that preys on addictive personalities like drugs or alcohol.

Now that we have this nice, neat little echo chamber created by the individual and for the individual, what if we could use that to suggest behaviours that benefit us? Perhaps a person does not need a particular service, but we know they possess beliefs A, B, and C. We could use those beliefs to suggest that the service is beneficial or even imply its necessity, especially if we know that person is susceptible to ads.

This isn’t a new thing. They place impulse purchases by the registers in stores. Things a person would not even have thought to purchase if the store had not placed them directly in front of the person’s eyes. Now imagine if instead of stand of magazines and candy one could erect an impulse purchase stand, tailored to a person’s interests conveniently on the screen while the person goes about their day?

Furthermore, what if we knew certain behaviour or certain times of day made you even more susceptible to it? “James is online later at night than usual, and he’s Liking a lot of posts – when he’s up late and browsing aimlessly through the feed he is 87% more likely to buy from us.”

It’s not a purchase I need to make, but it feels right. It has a satisfaction I do not understand. Normally I would ignore it but…right now, in this moment? The itch is too intense.

Of course, it’s possible they programmed me like on of Pavlov’s dogs to feel an itch that only this purchase can scratch. Did they do it by forcing anything down my throat? No, they did it by monitoring and reinforcing my natural behaviour.

I could, for example, monitor all of your data and then present you with an ad for a particular political candidate, an ad tailored to you and all of the fears and insecurities that I derived from your “confession.”

“Normally I’m a Republican, but how can I not support this Democratic candidate who is going to address this issue?” More easily, how can I entrench someone along their already existing party line? Voter turnout is low and we can drive that apathy moving forward among undecideds. If we then target those firmly in the echo chamber and motivate them to vote…

Making a profit, winning the election becomes as easy as one plus one. It’s maths. Once one understands the patterns and has the data, a statistical application will yield the desired results.

My biggest fear in this world is my own psychology, this idea that for all my deftness of conscious thought I have an entire untapped world of subconscious electrical activity that others can access via technology.

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