Of Single Mind: Choice, Freedom, and the Future

“To be free at last, at once, in mind and body, and in soul.”

Imagine, for a moment, if the minds of every person in the world were combined into one gargantuan hive-mind. Every nation would be a different region of the brain, responsible for different body functions responsible for keeping a massive human organism alive and functioning. The streets of each city forming the synapses that together superclusters of function, the rural roads weave an intricate system of blood vessels carrying freight-loads of nutrients from the Earth down from processing centers in factories to distribution centers in the form of supermarkets, ending in the individual packets of ATP shaped like steak and eggs in a diner or a quick glucose boost from an ice cream shop.

It’s a loose metaphor, but you can see it if you squint hard enough and tilt your head a bit to the side.

I like to use a much looser version of this metaphor when I’m thinking about how a philosophy, religion, or ideology works in the world at scale. For example, you can consider that, in a human, we generally assume that the brain runs the show and that the rest of the body takes orders from the volitional consciousness of the person running the show. The reality isn’t exactly so clear cut. Other than right now, when I remind you that you’re now breathing consciously (so take a deep diaphragmatic breath into your abdomen and exhale slowly up the spine,) many of the body’s processes run perfectly well without much input from your conscious attention.

The vast majority of the body runs with very few decisions from you, unless you happen to be one of those monks that can stop their heart, it seems. You didn’t have much say in how your body was formed or grew- DNA did that. You don’t have a say in whether your heart beats or your mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell, thanks public school!) performs critical functions to generate ATP. Barring a decision to consume large amounts of radium or other similarly toxic substances, the body will keep the show running for a good long time with barely any attention paid to your consciousness and desires.

However, that begs the question- if most of the body runs itself, what amount of control do we have, and how is it exercised in practice?

While many modern intellectuals love to dedicate their precious time on this Earth to disproving the existence of consciousness and volition, in practice, we all act as if free will exists and matters. You can try telling your boss that you’re late for work the fifth time this month because reality is a simulation constructed by a malevolent, demiurgic computer programmer and as a result, your consciousness is actually just a hologram designed to trick you into thinking you have free will, but that’s a lame excuse and you can try it again on the very patient people in the unemployment line if you haven’t learned your lesson. Your mileage may vary, choose your own adventure.

Death by Decision

In the land of the living, we exist in a strange place between pure volition and a very large but still functionally finite set of decisions that are provided for us to choose between. Consider the dynamics of television in the 80’s versus the modern Netflix experience. Back in the day, television stations signed off at night, so programming only ran for specific hours during the day. There was a substantially smaller amount of content being produced, and a significantly smaller number of channels and shows to choose from. As a result, most people watched the same shows, and a show like MASH could have the most viewed episode in TV history much more easily, the finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” It still holds this record to this day at 105.97 million viewers

Contrast this with the total viewership of Netflix, which currently sits around 214 million, not counting the (presumably many) people who (allegedly) share their login information. According to Netflix, at least 142 million viewers watched Squid Game for at least two minutes. Personally, I didn’t care to watch it, but my girlfriend did, so I guess that counts for a bit. However, contrast the measurements and you’ll realize how staggering the number is for that single episode of MASH.

The show is about 8 hours in length spread across 9 episodes, and Netflix reports a total of 1.65 billion hours watched. Dividing the total length of the show by 8 hours gives us roughly 206M full-length views of the series, and dividing that number by 9 episodes gives us just 22M people who viewed each episode. MASH still pulled in almost five times the views-per-episode of Netflix’s most popular show, ever, than for one episode of a show in the 80’s.

To date, Netflix has roughly 17,000 titles on its streaming service. If those titles were all 90-minute movies, it would take almost three years of non-stop watching to cover them all. If they were all shows with one 10-hour season, it would take you almost 20 years to do so. In reality, it’s a mixture of shorter pieces and some very long, multi-season shows. The average person will spend about 9 years of their life watching TV, so it’s safe to say that even if you dedicated yourself to watching exclusively Netflix content for the rest of your life, you would not likely be able to watch it all.

Why does this matter?

The Paradox of Choice

With the unimaginably large volume of content and products being produced today, the difficulty in making decisions faced by a normal person on any given day approaches infinity with the number of choices we have to make. The average person makes over 35,000 decisions a day, and in the case of Netflix, you could be choosing between a theoretical cap of 17,000 titles.

The paradox of choice is a concept that describes the fact that while we consider the ability to choose a good thing, the more we have to choose from, the less happy we are.

We tend to think that the more choice we have in our lives, the better. However, the opposite is true. One of my perennial examples of this is the toothpaste section at any supermarket- on Walmart’s website, there are 25 pages of types of toothpaste, with 50 items per page. That’s over 1200 types of toothpaste, and other than fluoride-free options (which are the minority,) most have the same active ingredient, fluoride, in the same quantity, which is about .1%. They’re all branded differently and marketed as better for different things, but they’re almost functionally identical. Does the average person have the time, scientific knowledge, or interest to make an informed decision here? What even is an informed decision in this case?

Now, let’s return to our metaphor. The vast majority of your body runs with very little input from you, outside of what you put in it and what you do with it. You can feed yourself  a juicy, delicious, and nutritious prime rib, or you can shoot it up with fentanyl. You can decide to run an ultramarathon, or you can play a VR game for 12 hours a day. You can’t decide how your stomach digests the steak or how your body metabolizes opiates, and you have no control over how your muscles react to lactic acid while running or whether your ocular muscles get strained while playing in the metaverse.

We have choice in the moment, but we have basically no choice with regards to the consequences that result from our decisions. Most people understand this intuitively.

However, there’s a more pernicious concept I want to explore. In the world we live in, you actually don’t have a great deal of choice with regards to the things that are presented to you in the first place. With the exception of the Amish (tied with billionaires for being the happiest group of people, go figure,) you’re likely going to have to own a car (which model will you buy?) and use it to drive to work (where will you work?) past billboards (what will you buy?) and fast food restaurants (what will you eat?) on the way. You’ll likely shop at a supermarket filled predominantly with very manufactured options that cater to the many strange diets in the culture, from low-fat to low-carb, no-meat to high-meat, low sodium, no lactose, no grain, whole grain; on and on, ad infinitum.

Chosen for You: The Illusion of Freedom

There is effectively no way, by participating in the modern world, to avoid being presented with these choices in the first place. There is effectively no way to avoid the products of modern marketing psychology designed to get you to buy sodas which food science engineers design to contain the maximum amount of sugar you can consume without getting sick. There is effectively no way to avoid deciding which identity you want to adopt while wearing clothes, as every store is engineered to sell you not just clothes, but a new way to be, whether it’s the rocker at Hot Topic, the safe professional at Jos. A Bank, or the refined southern gentleman at Brooks Brothers.

You cannot function in the world without being subject to this crushing overwhelm of decisions about anything and everything imaginable. Even your technology is a personality- are you a Mac or a PC? Your car says a lot about you according to the marketers, you wouldn’t want to be a Ford guy, you should buy a Prius because you want people to know you care about the planet, you need to take care of your kids so buy this minivan.

Your identity is for sale, and you’re going to be forced to face so many decisions that you’ll be unable to make a meaningful one. None of the decisions are particularly meaningful, anyway, because you cannot buy meaning in a store.

Imagine if the cells in your body had to choose whether they wanted to be a tongue cell or a lung cell on any given day? Imagine if your cells could decide whether to process healthy nutrients or toxins?  Imagine if there were entire industries of marketing cells dedicated to getting your cells to change into different forms or metabolize toxins instead of healthy food for their own benefit?

We’d call those cells pathogens.

Demopathy: A Profoundly Sick Society

If we can imagine humanity working like a giant body, then humanity is currently very, very sick. Not sick like sick-and-twisted, sick like your grandpa who worked in the coal mines and got black lung. We’re suffering from an illness of society- demopathy, from the Greek words demos and pathos, meaning people and suffering, respectively.

People want to be free to live their lives, love and provide for their families, and have work that isn’t soul crushing or meaningless. Living in a world where you’re surrounded by loaded choices between different flavors of poison isn’t freedom at all.

We have a sickness in our society because we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what health looks like. It doesn’t look like every cell in the body being forced to act like a brain cell, it looks like tongue cells being allowed to be tongue cells and lung cells being allowed to be lung cells. No, everyone doesn’t need to go to college, no, everyone does not need to have the same education, no, everyone does not need to fit into the uniform mold of what one organ of society thinks the others should be.

In the body, our DNA makes us who we are, from every strand of hair to every single inch of skin. It has the instructions to build our entire being inside each and every cell. What we do with our body and what we feed it only determines if we live up to the potential of our DNA or we cripple it with low-quality nutrients and inputs.

In our society, our culture is our DNA. When society has a clear, healthy culture with a shared vision, that DNA lives in every individual and we’re able to go about the work of being what we’re meant to be, whether that’s a carpenter, a fisherman, a doctor, or a leader, because we’re all working from one blueprint to build something beautiful together. When we’re being attacked by pathogens, that blueprint is corrupted, and instead we’re tricked into building a life that isn’t the one we were meant to build. We give up the bonds to our family, to our friends, and instead trade it for the false set of infinite choices that leave us exposed to the manipulations of those who dedicate their lives to exploiting the most vulnerable.

We are all the vulnerable, we’re all being manipulated and exploited by people in our society whether we realize it or not, and even the people doing the manipulating are victims, too. The marketing and this false culture is so pervasive, so ubiquitous that it’s everywhere and yet somehow invisible, like air.

We’ve fractured into factions, we fight ourselves because we don’t realize we’re all part of something larger than ourselves, we’re all part of one family, one culture, one great being called humanity that is meant to build one beautiful vision together, a shared blueprint of a better world.

Metasystem Transition: The Pivotal Moment of History

We’re standing at the forefront of a great change in the way society is structured. This is called a metasystem transition, which means the change that happens when society moves from one way of being into another. It’s a turning point in history, like the move from kings to presidents after the Enlightenment, or the move from the country to the cities of the industrial revolution. However, this one is particularly important, because for better or for worse, we have a choice to make this time.

Right now, the way things are going, it looks like we’re going to move from the nation state model of representative democracies into some kind of corporate oligarchical global system. Currently, there are companies that exert an enormous amount of influence over our system by deciding who gets funded, what products get made, and how they are marketed to the vulnerable people of the world. One of these companies, Blackrock, an investment management firm, manages so many assets that if they were a country, they would be the third largest by GDP after the US and China.

Blackrock has a stake in almost 5,000 companies, and it uses this investment to get access to those companies’ boards, where they have the ability to influence how those companies operate. They hijack the boards and suggest company actions, and through this process they’re able to change the way the world works, day by day.

If we keep going in this direction, we end up in some sort of global consumerist state, a sort of neo-feudalism. This is a state where people like Bill Gates (the largest private owner of farmland in the US) control where your food is produced and companies like Blackrock and other institutional investors buy up private housing, then rent it back to you. In the words of Ida Aucken, writing for the World Economic Forum, “you'll own nothing and you'll be happy.”

What does the alternative look like?

Right now, we’re suffering from the tyranny that comes with too much choice. We idealize a perfectly democratic system where everyone can vote on everything, but in reality, as long as there are predatory, manipulative people who can gain power by coercion and marketing, democracy leads us exactly where we are right now. We get a body in which the tongue and lung cells are asked to be brain cells, and instead of being free to live their lives, they’re made to be the targets in a system that incentivizes their manipulation as a means by which the manipulators can acquire power, status, and wealth.

In a system where every person votes and the electees gain power, then the person most likely to be elected is the one will do, say, or become whatever they have to to get elected. Most reasonable people don’t trust politicians, and why should you? What’s worse, even though we know they’re not trustworthy, we continue to elect them. We fight passionately over which wolf should run the henhouse and wonder why nothing gets better.

You would not let an unethical salesman into the house of your grandmother, but they get in every day on television and the internet, streaming speeches that a team of people wrote with practiced hand-gestures and tone designed to convince you that they’re different, that they deserve your vote, and that they care about you. That’s their job, they get power when they’re good enough to trick you into voting for them. 

“Of course, all politicians are corrupt, I’m not naive. My politician is different, though, they’re not like those cronies in DC…”

What does a healthy body look like? Contrary to what advertising would sell you, it doesn’t look like a Calvin Klein ad. It looks like a body that digests your food, gets you sleep at night, carries you through a day of work, and has the ability to provide for and love your family. It’s a body that lets you relax when the day is done, enjoy the sunlight on a warm spring day, or keep you warm on a cold autumn night.

What does a healthy society look like? A healthy society looks like one in which it’s easy for people to be healthy, have healthy families and friends, and to live in a way that’s authentic to them. It’s a society where individuals aren’t asked to be something other than what they are, or where they’re shamed for being the kind of people they were born to be. Whether that means you’re an artist who likes the city life or a farmer in the country, you should have the freedom to be what you are, and be free from the influence of those who want to sell you an identity, a lifestyle, and the guilt that comes along with their sales tactics. It looks like freedom from being asked to make synthetic choices between different kinds of poison, whether that’s fake politicians, fake food, or fake identities.

A Vision of Tomorrow

I want you to really imagine what the world would look like if you were really free from so many of the oppressive, sometimes invisible bad choices we have forced on us. 

Imagine not having to wonder if your food was good for you? Imagine never having to worry whether your clothes were made in a sweatshop by slaves, or if your technology broke because it’s designed to fall apart after a certain amount of time? Imagine freedom from a convoluted tax code that’s designed to protect the rich, or freedom from lobbyists influencing the nutritional guidelines to convince you that poison is healthy when it’s branded correctly.

Imagine freedom from the despair of worrying about a broken system and the sweeping sense of powerlessness that so many of us feel. Imagine freedom from being told what to do with your life by strangers who couldn't care less about you unless it benefits them. Imagine freedom from the ultra-wealthy and corporations who want you to own nothing and rent everything so you stay in debt and beholden to them until you die.

I want you to imagine a world where the best person for the job is actually in charge, a world where our leaders are competent instead of being the butt of jokes, a world where you feel a deep connection to your community, your society, and the world.

It might be hard to imagine, but somewhere inside of you I hope there’s still a part that believes that, crazy as it may seem, it’s possible for life to be good, for the world to make sense, and for you to be free, truly free. It’s not the world we live in right now, but it could be if we could decide to be who we really are instead of what the worst of us want us to be. A culture united, not divided. One body, working together to be healthy, happy and free.

“Believe, believe,
That life can change,
That you're not stuck in vain.

Believe, believe,
In the resolute urgency of now.”
-Tonight, Tonight by The Smashing Pumpkins

What we are doing now is not working, we can continue to try it until it kills us but there’s no other way to move forward without changing it that doesn’t lead to the subordination and servitude of every man, woman, and child to corporate entities, politicians, activists, and the rich in a system designed to crush you with the illusion of freedom.

We have to return to what we really are at our core. We have to return to genuine individualism, not personalities you can buy at the mall. We have to return to genuine communities, not the political tribes of a dying nation. Return to a true love for life and freedom, for humanity, and for the future of life itself.

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists… it is real… it is possible… it's yours.”
― Ayn Rand

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