The Illusion of Choice
Are those police boats?
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
Every week, I help 23,000+ humans understand and unfuck the rapidly changing world around us. It feels great, and we’d love for you to join us.
THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE
Skipping for juuuuust a moment over the entire “does free will exist” conversation, because, as Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian, “Peer over the precipice of the free will debate for a while, and you begin to appreciate how an already psychologically vulnerable person might be nudged into a breakdown.”
No thank you, not today. My Prozac has barely kicked in.
Not that some level of self-awareness isn’t great, obviously, but that’s 101 level stuff (I don’t keep cookies in our office for a reason), and so anyways, no, we’re not doing the Bereitschaftspotential right now.
But I do want to discuss how much more vulnerable you are than you think to the systems around us — and — plus! — on the other hand, how we have more power than we think to dismantle them to provide more choices for more people.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post called What Do You Need.
If you missed it, shame on you.
I’m kidding, though it’s worth reading the whole thing, and there’s a great WIRED post this week — by way of Google’s antitrust lawsuit they REALLY REALLY don’t you to know about — that expounds on my intro and thesis.
My original intro to What Do You Need, in February 2023:
Now from WIRED (3 minute read) just this week:
Now some of you might say, “What the fuck?”
But some of you might say, “Quinn there is a difference between disinformation at scale and advertising” and — I’d question that because they’re on trial for a reason. Is disinformation not “false information that is intended to mislead”? Are they not changing your searches without telling you to extract more money but still make you think they’re fulfilling your original query?
Update: after that WIRED post, and my original, Charlie Warzel of The Atlantic followed up with Google who said the allegation was “flat-out false.”
But the WIRED author, former FTC attorney and former VP at DuckDuckGo Megan Gray, stood by her story — even though WIRED eventually took it down.
Anyways, to round it out, here’s the intro to a recent Ezra Klein post, mostly about productivity, but I think you’ll get the point:
Again, the bulk of Ezra’s essay was about productivity, AI, and distraction, but point is: we were sold one thing, and we’re getting something entirely different.
It’s what always happens, because we’re programmed to keep doing this, and it’s what happens when we’re distracted.
It’s been this way since the beginning of time, really.
We often have the illusion of choice, when in reality we really don’t.
Our one harmless search of “nearly the sum of human knowledge and thought up to that point…searchable, sortable and portable” is an infinitesimal data point that wasn’t ever going to be answered the way we intended, before we ever searched for it.
This is actually just like the Bereitschaftspotential, so in reality (what is reality?), there’s no free will here (ok, sorry, I said I wasn’t going to do it).
Anyways, web search is one thing, but having an illusion of choice can, but not always, be much more dangerous offline.
On the other hand, the never-ending barrage of mis- or dis- or complete lack of information — or a Sisyphean stack of paperwork to keep you from getting answers or SNAP or citizenship, when it always seems so close.
Eventually, though, that whole process can really make you feel like “I don’t have a choice here.”
So which is it?
Do we think we have more choice than we actually do?
Or do we believe we have no choice, when there are in fact opportunities to see what’s behind door number three?
You’re told to eat healthy foods, but can’t access them or afford them. And we don’t really grow them anyways, and also we subsidize the unhealthy ones. The plants we do grow and subsidize use enormous amounts of water, and it all goes to cows, to be slaughtered for smash burgers, which impacts land-use and drives up methane and cardiovascular issues.
You’re told to ride your bike, but there’s no protected bike lanes in your town and trucks are only getting bigger.
You’re encouraged to vote, but every state has their own rules and the ones with the easiest ways to vote have the most civil rights, so there’s less of a desperate need to turn out, and they generally have better voting rights, too. In red states, they’ll do anything (anything) to make it harder for you to vote, so you don’t, or can’t.
You’re told that owning a house builds wealth, but four million houses don’t exist where they should, and the rest are unaffordable and uninsurable, or next to a fossil fuel refinery.
You’re told we have the best healthcare in the world, but it’s also unaffordable, and it’s actually not the best — not in the reactionary sense, and certainly not proactively, or around wellness.
If it was, our life expectancy wouldn’t be on a downward trend.
If it was, as famed urban planner Jeff Speck puts it, it wouldn’t be the case that “a lot of poor Americans who don't have cars, who are forced to walk and bike, are now living in the landscape that was designed with the presumption that no one would ever walk or bike.”
Meanwhile everyone who exclusively drives is on heart medication.
(more on both of these, below)
You’re told we need to have more babies, but they’re unaffordable, too, and sometimes you don’t want to or can’t have a baby for literally whatever reason — but in many states, you have to.
But, again, reminder ad nauseam — we have the illusion of choice because of other choices we’ve made in the past, or continue to make. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Often, our byzantine systems make us think we have no choice in the matter, when we actually do.
They just don’t want you to know that, much less take action on it. It’s not true for everyone and not in every situation, but the point remains — we can undo most of this bullshit and build something better.
Reputable sources of information and action — cough cough — can expand your horizons and unlock choices you didn’t know you had, and new ones for people who’ve never had any.
We can subsidize healthier foods (for us and the soil) and small, Black, Brown, and Indigenous farmers too.
We can make a standard for actually-protected bike lanes.
We can make Alabama — like actually make them — use voting maps that aren’t props from Watchmen.
We can educate, specifically train, and hire millions more rural blue-collar workers, so they can fix or build shit with their hands, improving their own incomes, health spans, and local economies. They shouldn’t have to go to the big city and/or college if they want to actually survive.
But that appears to be exactly the problem. From Dylan Matthews in Vox:
It turns out some combination of healthy food, trade schools, seatbelts, free community college, Medicaid Or Medicare or Literally-Anything-With-Annual-Screenings-And-Affordable-Medication-for-All, affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods can save a shit load of lives.
Doing all of this will, in turn, actually make college degrees less valuable, because good jobs and not-poverty won’t require one (and a lifetime of debt) anymore.
After that? Encourage them to unionize.
Increased support for and participation in organized labor — which as you may have heard is both at its lowest participation levels ever AND having quite the Hot Labor Summer/Fall — can level the playing field, like UPS and the WGA and autoworkers and teachers have fought for time and time again.
Now these unions need to grow — themselves, to actually recruit and grow their own ranks — and show other workers how to do it.
Because when more people, especially young white males in red states, can get at least a high school degree, and then get work in more industries that don’t require a college degree, and then can unionize, they take back and build some equity and equality, driving down education deficits, cardiovascular disease, and so-called “deaths of despair”, which is actually “just” overdoses.
We can pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and others to make voting easier, which makes electing people who give a shit easier, people who are genuinely trying to make people’s lives better.
We can pass mandatory parental leave and sick leave, we can pass the child tax credit again, we can raise the minimum wage, and pass Medicaid for children everywhere.
We can trash racist zoning standards to build far more affordable, electrified homes.
We can build on IRA and make more drug makers negotiate with Medicare to lower drug prices, drugs we’ll need less of when there’s less cheap shitty food and more houses people can walk and bike to.
We can attend en masse “exceptionally white” public utility commission meetings and tell them to stop using our fucking money to lobby against solar power and transmission lines.
As my friend David Roberts at Volts fumed:
He continues, and you should listen to the whole thing, it will enrage you:
Anyways we also don’t actually have to shut down nearly-perfectly safe nuclear plants that have been providing renewable power this entire time.
We can pop on over to our city council meeting and shake a stack of BioBot pamphlets at them, insisting we use what’s available to us to see the flu and COVID and other shit (literally) coming weeks before tests do.
You have choices.
Your kids/students/teachers/grandkids don’t actually have to get sick every fall. The federal government has thrown tens of billions of dollars at schools and offices to retrofit themselves for cleaner air. Hardly anyone’s used it.
But — and I can’t be clear enough about this — if you don’t show up at every school board meeting until they actually start doing the work, it’s not going to happen.
If you don’t show up at a city council meetings and public utility commission meetings and demand they use SolarAPP+, which is free, it’s going to continue to be extremely slow and expensive to get solar installed anywhere near you — on a house, on a school, in a field, whatever.
So maybe this is a lesson on control what you can control, and maybe it’s another screed about how gatekeeping between individual and systemic actions is bullshit. I empathize with either feeling — feeling helpless, or feeling like you’re always so close, but so far, like a toddler who cannot quite steer the spoon of pureed peas into their mouth.
Getting clarity on which is which is step number one. Figuring out what the hell you can do about it starts below. 👇
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