I thought of it myself

I ride my bicycle quite frequently, about an hour a day. You may think that this is a wonderful time to reflect on the world, or ponder on my latest algorithmic conquest, or dwell in deep thought; you’d be wrong. Street cycling, as I have lamented previously, is notoriously dangerous. One must forever be alert for spontaneously created mothers with baby carriages, instant-appearing children, or ninja-like old ladies, who always jump up when you least expect. However, all these are manageable, assuming they see you coming towards them. The worst kinds of human obstacles are those who talk on or mess around with their cellphone. It seems as if the studies are true, and indeed talking on the cellphone takes a huge amount of concentration; so much, that the users barely notice their surroundings at all. They always seem to glance skywards at awkward angles, and never in your direction. They also fail to hear all bells, whistles, and “get out of the way!!” hurled at them. Even when they walk directly towards you, they either look at the floor, the sky, or their phones, with you desperately trying to avoid impact.

All this got me thinking a bit about cellphones, and whether it’s bad that we have them because they cause more bicycle accidents (answer: no). Even if the number of aggravated cyclists increase, and there are a bit more injuries to handle, the benefit of an ever-present phone is enormous. Disregarding the obvious convenience, cellphones have actually saved lives, because someone in need of help is a button away from telling others of his situation. To take the most extreme cases, even if someone is kidnapped and the criminals confiscate his cellphone, he can be tracked with fair accuracy using just the local cellphone antennas.

And this got me thinking about a book I read recently, “The Social Animal”, by Elliot Aronson. The book is one of the main textbooks in social psychology, but unlike the main textbooks in theoretical quantum physics, anyone can read it, and its style is rather light. It describes many phenomena in human behaviour, many of which focus on how easy or hard it is to persuade someone to change his beliefs, or act as if he did. Basically, the lesson is this: it is rather difficult to change someone’s beliefs, especially when they are strongly opposed to yours. Sometimes, presenting arguments in your favour, if they are not successful in converting him, will just strengthen how he sees his own position.
How do you manage to influence other people, then? Not by forcing your own opinion on them, but by letting them reach the conclusions themselves, that your opinion is the right one. Easier said than done, of course. Creating states of “cognitive dissonance” is one such way. If you want someone to enjoy maths more, give him math problems to solve without offering a reward. After he solved them, he might be in internal conflict: on one hand, he doesn’t like maths problems; on the other, he just solved some, without any promised reward. A possible resolution of the conflict: “hugh, I guess math problems aren’t that bad after all”. This process isn’t necessarily conscious.
You might not accept the above argument, and indeed it is not perfectly rigorous, in which case I suggest you read “The Social Animal” all the more. In any case, it seems logically sound, that when people reach conclusions by themselves, those conclusions tend to influence them more profoundly, than when others dictate the conclusions.
Which brings me back to the cellphone. Cellphones are dangerous to privacy, in that they can track your location with high precision. Even before smartphone GPSs became prevalent, the provider could know your location within hundreds of meters inside cities by using antenna signals. But that doesn’t worry you so much, does it? It’s your choice, after all. If you don’t want to be tracked – don’t carry a cellphone with you. Simple.
For some reason, I have a hunch that if the government were to propose a new law, “all citizens must wear an RF tracking tag at all times”, there would be a massive uproar about freedom, liberty, civil rights, and privacy. Luckily, the government doesn’t propose such a law. In a way, it doesn’t need to; the people have, by themselves, chosen to carry around a tracking device. The vast majority of the western world holds a cellphone. Everyone is aware that they can be tracked. They might claim “the government promised not to track us”, and that may be true, at least locally, but certainly cannot be guaranteed. I think people disregard this threat partially because it was their own choice: they have weighed the options, and by themselves decided that they want to carry a phone. This is stronger than if anyone had forced the phone upon them.
Here is another similar case, a bit more controversial. Perhaps a tyrannical government would love to have a huge database, where each citizen would regularly (say, once a week) write down what he is currently doing, update his pictures, say who his friends are, what his political beliefs are, and the places he visited. The government has no chance of passing such a law; updating such a database cannot be mandatory. And again, it doesn’t quite have to – the majority of the population uses Facebook anyway.
A cognitive dissonance explanation might be as follows: “on one hand, I know that Facebook stores a lot of information about me, damaging my privacy. On the other hand, I choose to use Facebook willingly, and I like the services it provides. Hugh, I guess I don’t care so much about the details I’m revealing there / hugh, I guess Facebook is actually ok at keeping my privacy.”

I’m certainly not saying that cellphones and Facebook are evil, or that we should stop using them immediately. Certainly there are many benefits to all such services, and there are rules which regulate what different bodies can do with the information from them. My main point is that such products, if they had been forced upon the population, would not have been as popularly accepted. It is because we are given the right of choice, and consciously choose to use the products, that we are so firm in our opinion that they should be used.

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One comment

  1. Another factor is that if one were to design a government law-forced-journal website, it probably would be much less fun and addictive than facebook.

    Free economy is a great way to reach good solutions to problems, even when we’d rather leave those problems unsolved.

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