Psychological Freedom

Imagine you live in a society that has achieved economic freedom and informational freedom. Would you make good use of those freedoms? Or would your existing beliefs, fears, and emotional reactions hold you back from engaging in the Knowledge Loop? Or worse yet, would you have all your attention sucked into systems designed to capture it for their own benefit?

Would you feel free to pursue your interests for their own sake, or would your Industrial Age beliefs keep you trapped in the Job Loop? Would you have a strong sense of purpose, or would you feel adrift without a traditional job, without a boss telling you what to do, without a clear career path? Would you value experiences over property? Would you avidly seek out new knowledge, or would you simply confirm what you and those around you already believe? Or worse would you get upset by views that disagree with yours and shout at people online? Would you feel free to create, or would you hold yourself back, fearing that you're not “a creative person”? Would you share your knowledge freely with others, or would you refrain from doing so out of concern over embarrassment or harassment? Would you recognize when your attention is being manipulated for the benefit of others?

The two previous sections on economic and informational freedom dealt with changes that require collective action, such as changes in government regulation. This section on psychological freedom instead addresses individual action, in the form of self-regulation. We must free ourselves from our evolutionary maladaptation to a world awash in information and from our deeply engrained Industrial Age beliefs. Each and everyone of us can start on that path today by developing some form of mindfulness practice. Such a practice is essential to freely directing our attention in the Knowledge Age.

A good starting point is to acknowledge the profound psychological dimension of the transition out of the Industrial Age. Social and economic disruption makes life more stressful; many people are more afraid than ever of losing their jobs, and we're generally unsettled by what we perceive to be the heightened pace of change and the build-up of political and social tensions around the world. To make matters worse, we have yet to learn how to live in healthy ways with our new technology instead of obsessively checking our smart phones during meetings, while driving, before going to sleep. All of this is taking an immense psychological toll, as evidenced by recent increases in sleep disorders, suicide rates, drug overdose deaths, and antisocial activities such as bullying.

But then we need to go beyond that general insight and look at our own mind. Only we can know exactly what goes on in our head (at least so far) and even that requires practice because our brains are easily highjacked by emotions. Can we fundamentally change our mindsets and emotional attachments? Can we overcome the fears and anxieties that might prevent us from gaining, creating, and sharing knowledge? Can we put down our phones when they are designed to keep drawing us in with notifications? It seems a monumental task, but humankind is uniquely adaptable. We have in fact navigated two prior transitions that also required dramatic psychological change, first from the Forager Age to the Agrarian Age and then to the Industrial Age.

We now understand scientifically why humans can adapt so well. As neuroscientists have discovered, our brains remain quite plastic even as we age, and what we think and how we think can be changed. In fact, we ourselves can change it quite deliberately—not just with pharmaceuticals, but using techniques such as meditation, breathing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [117]. The brain consists of both lower-order systems that produce instincts and emotions and higher order systems that allow for rational thought. Techniques such as conscious breathing offer us a way to use our higher-order awareness and reasoning to shape our reaction to lower-order emotions, preventing them from taking control of us. Recently a Stanford study found the neural pathway by which slowing down our breathing lets us calm down our mid [NEED CITATION].

Modern scientific knowledge thus confirms what has been known to varying degrees since ancient times. In the Western tradition the Stoic Philosophers developed practices of thought to temper the effect of emotions. In the Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, meditation and breathing serve the role of achieving a similar detachment. Both history and science thus point us in the direction of psychological freedom. We will now examine in more detail what we need to free ourselves from, so that we can direct our attention to the Knowledge Loop.

Freedom from Wanting

With the extraordinary success of capitalism built on the Job Loop, we have become deeply confused about work and consumption, seeing them today as integral goals of our lives instead of as means to an end. Working harder and consuming more allows the economy to grow, so that we can work harder and consume more. Put this way it sounds crazy and yet that has become the default position. We in fact went so far as to rework religion to deeply ingrain this view by moving away from a great chain of being theology to a protestant ethic, which actively encourages earning more. [118]. Similar changes have taken place not just in the Western world but throughout Asia where Confucianism and other religions have undergone similar changes.

Worse yet, we frequently find ourselves trapped in so-called positional consumption. If our neighbor has bought a new car, we want to buy an even newer and more expensive model. Such positional consumption behavior has emerged not just with respect to goods but also to services—think of the $1,000 haircut [119] or the $595 per-person dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant in Manhattan [121]. Of course, much of this confusion was fueled by trillions of dollars of advertising spend aimed at convincing us to buy more and more and more by showing us images of how cool or happy we will be. Between economic policy, advertising and religion it is no wonder that many people are by now convinced that wanting ever more material things is simply part of human nature.

But that is not so. Instead our addiction to consumption is exactly that: an addiction that exploits a basic mechanism in the brain. When you desire something like a new car, your brain gets a hit of dopamine based on your anticipated happiness from having it, making you feel good. Yet once you actually get the car, you compare this to to your prior expectations. If the reward from having the car turns out to be less than what you expected, your dopamine levels will decrease and this can cause extreme disappointment. If your expectations are met, dopamine levels will stay basically constant. But only if your expectations are greatly exceeded will you get another big hit of dopamine. The unfortunate result of this is known as the “hedonic treadmill.” That is, when your brain gets accustomed to certain levels of dopamine (having a new car), you inadvertently boost the levels of dopamine required in the future to produce the same feeling of happiness. You'll have to raise your expectations for an even more expensive or faster car to get that initial kick of dopamine again [120].

That same mechanism though works for many other forms of anticipation or seeking that are aimed at creation or experience, instead of consumption. As an artist or scientist you can forever seek out new subjects. As a traveler you can forever seek out new destinations. As a surfer you can forever seek the perfect wave. And so on. Freedom from wanting is possible by recognizing that we can all point our brain away from consumption and towards other pursuits, many of which are part of the Knowledge Loop. Redirecting our reward mechanism does not mean giving up on all consumption. It simply re-establishes the lost difference between needs and wants: You need to eat; you may want to eat at a Michelin starred restaurant. You need to drink water; you may want to drink an expensive wine.

This is why Universal Basic Income (UBI) is focused on meeting needs, not wants. Once you are economically free to meet your needs and have psychologically freed yourself from wanting, you can direct your attention into the Knowledge Loop or other activities that allow for endless seeking.

Suppose your passion is skiing. You grew up with it, and as an adult you know that no activity helps you feel as alive as skiing. You want to keep seeking the perfect powder day. But skiing is expensive, is it not? How would a UBI ever let you focus your attention on it? On a UBI alone, without additional income, you definitely wouldn't be able to afford an annual ski trip to the Swiss alps, including a stay at a luxurious lodge. But ski equipment is actually not very expensive when you consider that it can last for twenty years or more and can be shared with others. And if you're willing to hike up a mountain, you can ski as much as you want without buying a lift ticket at an expensive resort.

Psychological freedom in this instance means freeing yourself of assumptions you might have about how to go skiing. In this it helps of course to remind yourself that many of these assumptions are formed by companies that have a commercial interest in portraying skiing that way. If you can learn to re-frame skiing as an outdoor adventure, a chance to be in nature, it isn't expensive at all and is very much accessible under a basic income. A similar logic holds for any number of other activities a person might both wish to pursue.

To free ourselves from wanting, we should frequently remind ourselves of the difference between needs and wants, learn how our brain works and point our seeking away from consumption to (creative) activities. For many of us, myself included, that also means letting go of existing attachments to wants that we have developed over a long life of consumption. In that regard it is encouraging to see the current popularity of Marie Kondo's critical examination of the stuff that we tend to accumulate. Finally, we should always cast a critical eye on the advertising and marketing we encounter, understanding how it often perpetuates illusions about needs and wants, keeping us trapped in the Job Loop.

Freedom to Learn

Young kids ask upwards of three hundred questions a day. [122] Humans are naturally curious, and it's precisely this curiosity that has driven so much of our progress. At the same time, our curiosity in some ways didn't match well with the Industrial Age. If you want to employ people in a factory job that has them performing the same action all day every day, then curiosity doesn't help; on the contrary, it hurts. The same goes for many service jobs today, such as say operating a cash register or delivering packages on time.

The present-day educational system was built to support the Job Loop of the industrial economy. No surprise then, that it generally tends to suppress rather than encourage curiosity. While educators hardly ever state “suppressing curiosity” as an overt goal, many of our educational practices do exactly that. For instance, forcing every eight year old to learn the same things in math discourages curiosity. Teaching to a test discourages curiosity. Inadequate funding resulting in cutbacks to music and art classes discourages curiosity.

A critical way that we undermine curiosity is by evaluating many domains of knowledge according to whether we think they will help kids get a “good job.” If your child expressed an interest in learning Swahili or wanting to play the mandolin, would you as a parent support that? Or would you say something like, “But how will you earn a living with that”? What about yourself? What were you excited to learn but did not because it does not pay? The latest iteration of this thinking is that everyone should learn how to code because there are high paying jobs in software. Instead of encouraging curiosity about coding, either for its own sake or as a tool in science or art, we force it into the Industrial Age logic of the Job Loop. This will not end well, as software development too is subject to automation.

We need to free ourselves from this instrumental view of knowledge and embrace learning for its own sake as part of the Knowledge Loop. Again, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) can go a long way to making more people overcome their fears that they won't be able to support themselves if they let their curiosity guide their learning. But will we have enough engineers and scientists in such a world? Historic evidence suggests so. For instance, we accomplished the Apollo program and moon landing at a time when Math was not mandatory in high school. If anything it is likely that we will have more engineers and scientists than under the current system. Forcing kids to study something is a surefire way to squelch their natural curiosity.

The digitally accelerated Knowledge Loop brings to the fore other limits to learning that we must also overcome. The first of these is confirmation bias. As humans we find it much easier to process and accept information that confirms what we already believe to be true. Today, we can access a huge amount of content online, confirming any of our pre-existing beliefs instead of learning something new. Collectively, we risk becoming ever more entrenched in these views, fracturing into groups that hold and perpetually reinforce strong beliefs. This phenomenon of the “Cyber Balkans” [123] becomes even more pronounced given the automatic personalization of many Internet systems, with people living inside a “filter bubble” that screens out conflicting information [124].

Another limit to learning is the human tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis of limited data, another well documented and understood cognitive bias. After a study came out suggesting that smaller schools tended to produce better student performance than larger schools, educators set about creating a lot of smaller schools. A subsequent study found that a lot of smaller schools were also doing exceptionally poorly. It turns out that this finding in part amounted to a statistical effect: The more students a school has, the more likely that school is to approximate the overall distribution of students. A small school is much more likely to have students who perform predominantly well or poorly.

Daniel Kahnemann in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” discusses the fundamental problem underlying these biases. We employ heuristics that result in confirmation bias and storytelling because many of the older systems in the human brain are optimized for speed and effortlessness. In a world with an analog Knowledge Loop, more time exists to correct for these biases. But in a high velocity, low cost digital Knowledge Loop, we must work far more deliberately to slow ourselves down. Otherwise, we run the risk of passing along incorrect stories without taking the time to verify them resulting in an information cascade. In fact, a recent study showed that at the moment rumors spread online at many times the speed of truths [125].

The bulk of the systems we currently interact with online are designed on purpose to appeal to our cognitive biases instead of helping us overcome them. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter become more valuable the more attention they capture, as they then resell some part of that attention in what is known as advertising. Capturing attention is easier through appealing to what Kahenmann calls System 1, the parts of our brain that require no effort and are responsible for our cognitive biases. You are much more likely to look at a sequence of cute animal pictures or status updates from your friends than to read through an in-depth analysis of a proposal for a carbon tax. Fake news and propaganda efforts have understood this inherent flaw in the existing systems, making large scale manipulation possible.

New systems can help here. We might imagine, for instance, an online reader that always gives you opposing viewpoints to a given story or perspective. For each topic, you could explore both “similar” and “opposing” views. Such a reader could be presented as a browser plug in, so that when you' ve already ventured beyond the confines of a social media platform and are perusing content you could still bring that exploration with you [126].

Fundamentally though, each and everyone of us has to actively work on engaging what Kahnemann calls System 2, which is the part of our brain that requires real effort but lets us think independently and rationally. Having some kind of mindfulness practice is a key enabler for overcoming biases and freeing ourselves to learn.

Freedom to Create

Picasso once said: “we all start out as artists, the challenge is to remain one.” He has a great point. I created many paintings as a young child (some thankfully kept by my mother) that I doubt I would be able to create today. As adults we self-censor, inhibiting the natural creativity we enjoyed as children. We've been told that we aren't creative or we've seen people reject or mock creative work we've done. The educational system, with its focus on preparing for standardized tests, further squelches our creative impulses. Eventually, we come to believe that creativity is something that other people do, not us.

Job loop thinking further solidifies and even institutionalizes these beliefs about creativity. Society affirms a categorization of people into amateurs and professionals based on whether or not someone gets paid. We venerate the professional guitar player, artist, or sculptor and denigrate the amateur, talking about the latter's work as “amateurish” or “amateur hour.” Of course the word “amateur” derives from the Latin root amator, which means “lover of.” When we start to measure creativity by how much money an artist or musician is making, rather than the passion they feel for a pursuit, there is no wonder that many people are afraid that they will never measure up.

Distractions also inhibit our impulses to create. We now live in an always on, interrupt driven world. There is always another video to watch on YouTube. Always another email message or chat to read. Always another game to play. Our brains are very poorly adapted to such an information overload environment. We evolved in a world where obtaining a bit of information—for instance, the sound of an approaching animal—was potentially a matter of life or death. It's still very easy to distract our brains with new information. In order to be able to create, we need to disconnect ourselves from many of those stimuli at least for some time period. That requires both practice and effort.

Freedom to Share

Even after we have created something, many of us are afraid to share it. We fear that someone will call our painting ugly, or our code incompetent, or our proposal naive. Given the state of much online commentary and “trolling” those fears are well founded. But at the same time, they need not fundamentally or permanently inhibit participation in the Knowledge Loop. Part of the answer is to work on the inner strength to continue sharing despite criticism and even despite personal attacks.

Another part of the answer is for each of us to cultivate empathy. Whenever we comment on the work of others online, we should keep in mind that they worked up the courage to create and to share. And we should remember that by contributing to the Knowledge Loop, they have engaged in the quintessential of human activities. Our empathy is central to others' freedom to create and share. Furthermore, those who operate online communities should provide the tools for flagging and, if needed, baning people who engage in verbal abuse or make threats aimed at shutting down sharing.

That will not be enough if you live in a country subject to dictatorship, censorship or mob rule. In these cases, sharing opinions or art or research can result in imprisonment, torture, or even death. And yet, even in these settings, we routinely find people who overcome their fears and freely share. We should take inspiration from those who do.

In the Knowledge Age, there still is such a thing as sharing too much. I'm not talking about sharing too much content, but rather mindlessly sharing harmful information without thinking about it. Needlessly hostile statements, rumors, and outright lies can take on lives of their own if we share them without first reflecting on their impact. We can wind up contributing to a so-called information cascade, in which an initial bit of information keeps picking up speed, becoming an avalanche.

We should feel free to share our opinions and ideas and information, but it's best for the sake of the Knowledge Loop if we slow ourselves down and control our emotional responses. Ask yourself: Will this information I'm sharing enhance the overall pursuit of knowledge, or will it hurt it? Am I short-circuiting the process by which ideas and works are evaluated and rationally judged? If so, then it's best not to share but to evaluate further.

Psychological Freedom, Education, and Humanism

Self-regulation, as we've seen, lies at the heart of psychological freedom. It allows us to separate wants from needs. It lets us take our initial reactions to content that we see and not immediately reply in anger. It lets us have empathy for others and their creations.

Still, there are the foundational needs for purpose and recognition that wind up making many people psychologically un-free. If you feel that your life lacks purpose or that nobody cares about your existence then you will experience a profound emptiness. This existential angst can express itself in many different forms, ranging from a paralysis to do anything to a manic desire to do everything (or own everything). The persistence of religion over millennia is in part explained by addressing these needs. Your purpose is to follow a divine set of rules and if you follow those rules the respective god or gods will recognize your existence.

Many formal religions intentionally interrupt the Knowledge Loop. They restrict the process of critical inquiry through which knowledge improves over time, through mechanisms such as censorship and divine “knowledge” which can only be provided by officials and is often permanently encoded in sacred texts. Adhering strongly to such a religion will prevent you from participating fully in the Knowledge Loop.

The same is true for many informal beliefs. There are anti rational memes, such as believing in a pre-ordained individual destiny, that can be used to answer one's need for purpose, but will prevent one from being psychologically free. Or people can belong to communities that meet their need for recognition but at the cost of conformity.

Humanism, based on the importance of knowledge, provides an alternative source of purpose and recognition that does not inhibit psychological freedom but rather enhances it. Participating in the Knowledge Loop is our purpose and how others will recognize us. Learning new things, being creative and innovative, sharing with others is explicitly encouraged. This doesn't mean everyone has to be a rocket scientist, instead there are a great many ways to participate in the Knowledge Loop, including caring for others.

We will need to substantially change the education system in most countries to help people be psychologically free. Today's system was developed to support the Industrial Age. Its goal is to mass produce people qualified for participating in the Job Loop. Jobs are seen as the ultimate goal and knowledge as important only to the extent that it provides a qualification for a job. We will need a new system instead that celebrates knowledge (as broadly defined here) for its own sake, allows students to discover their individual interests and deepen those into a purpose, and educates them about techniques for being psychologically free. Put differently, we need to put Humanism at the center of education and learning.

Humanism and the knowledge loop also have important implications beyond individual purpose for how we take responsibility for each other and the world around us. This will be the subject of Part Four.

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