The Will To Will as Talisman Against the Vagaries of Life

Now for something entirely different except exactly the same.

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where I’m not even going to pretend today’s newsletter has to do with fringe culture or diving through it. This is pure, mainstream NYT shit today.

But it moved me to tears the first time I read it, and I’ve been unable to read any more of the book because I keep rereading the same couple pages. Surprise! It’s Surveillance Capitalism again, which is climbing up to be my favorite book of the year.

I could gush about it, but I’m just going to type a couple pages of it up because they’ve done a better job expressing this one thing than I knew was possible. It’s like reading that paragraph from Chapter 36 of Moby Dick: I have to read it again and again until I’ve really digested the fucker and tattooed it in my memory.

So, without any more chatter, here’s Shoshana Zuboff:

I Will to Will

I wake early. The day begins before I open my eyes. My mind is in motion. Words and sentences have streamed through my dreams, solving problems on yesterday’s pages. The first work of the day is to retrieve those words that lay open a puzzle. Only then am I ready to awaken my senses. I try to discern each birdcall in the symphony outside our windows: The phoebe, redwing, blue jay, mockingbird, woodpecker, finch, starling, and chickadee. Soaring above all their songs are the cries of geese over the lake. I splash warm water on my face, drink cool water to coax my body into alertness, and commune with our dog in the still-silent house. I make coffee and bring it into my study, where I settle into my desk, call up my screen, and begin. I think. I write these words, and I imagine you reading them. I do this every day of every week- as I have for several years- and it is likely that I will continue to do so for one or two years to come.

I watch the seasons from the windows above my desk: first green, then red and gold, then white, and then back to green again. When friends come to visit, they peek into my study. There are books and papers stacked on every surface and most of the floor. I know they feel overwhelmed at this sight and sometimes I sense how they silently pity me for my obligation to this work and how it circumscribes my days. I do not think that they realize how free I am. In fact, I have never felt more free. How is this possible?

I made a promise to complete this work. This promise is my flag planted in the future tense. It represents my commitment to construct a future that cannot come into being should I abandon my promise. This future will not exist without my capacity first to imagine its facts and then to will them into being. I am an inchworm moving with determination and purpose across the distance between now and later. Each tiny increment of territory that I traverse is annexed to the known world, as my effort transforms uncertainty into fact. Should I renege on my promise, the world would not collapse. my publisher would survive the abrogation of our contract. You would find many other books to read. I would move on to other projects.

To make a promise is to predict the future; to fulfill a promise through the exercise of will turns that prediction into fact. Our hearts pump our blood, our kidneys filter that blood, and our wills create the future in the patient discovery of each new sentence or step. This is how we claim our right to speak in the first person as the author of our futures. The philosopher Hannah Arendt devoted an entire volume to an examination of will as the “organ for the future” in the same way that memory is our mental organ for the past. The power of the will lies in its unique ability to deal with things, “visibles and invisibles that have never existed at all. Just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain.” When we refer to the past we see only objects, but the view to the future brings “projects,” things that are yet to be. With freedom of will we undertake action that is entirely contingent on our determination to see our project through. These are acts we could have “left undone” but for our commitment. “A will that is not free,” Arendt concludes, “is a contradiction in terms.”

Will is the organ with which we summon our futures into existence. Arendt’s metaphor of will as the “mental organ of the future” suggests that it is something built into us: organic, intrinsic, inalienable. Moral philosophers have called this “free will” because it is the human counterpoint to the fear of uncertainty that suffocates original action. Arendt describes promises as “islands of predictability”and “guideposts of reliability” in an “ocean of uncertainty”. They are, she argues, the only alternative to a different kind of “mastery” that relies on “domination of one’s self and rule over others.”

Centuries of debate have been levied on the notion of free will, but too often their effect has been to silence our own declarations of will, as if we are embarrassed to assert this most fundamental human fact. I recognize my direct experience of freedom as an inviolate truth that cannot be reduced to the behaviorist’ formulations of life as necessarily accidental and random, shaped by external stimuli beyond my knowledge or influence and haunted by irrational and untrustworthy mental processes that I can neither discern nor avoid.

She continues aways, but I think this is the part that really resonates with me.

Any typos I missed are provided as a complimentary service.

Some context for the, uh, 300 pages preceding this section: Zuboff makes a compelling case that the business model of Big Tech which involves the mass collection of data and selling behavioral predictions about the people whose data they collected to advertisers necessitates, in the name of better predictions, imposing a regime of behavior modification to slowly cultivate better customers. To remake humans over in the image Big Tech wants them to be: Atomized, comfortable, consumers happily going about their work toiling to produce the behavioral surplus they mine for data.

Never in the way, never challenging, without desires which contradict the logic of the system.

I, uh, of course, find this vision of the future disgusting.

I thought we were too docile by far in the old regime of broadcast propaganda, not the tailored skinner boxes we let into our world.

And yet, I too own a cell phone and it works me over. Shifts my behavior.

What I most appreciate about these pages is the way Zuboff starts from embodying her experience and then building the abstractions out of it. It’s good shit, and even as someone who decidedly falls on the “humans are very much shaped by external stimuli beyond our own knowledge, etc”, I find this a beautiful and refreshing reminder that we do have some will, constrained or not.

Much of developing is learning how to express that will and defend it from the many hazards both internal and external that might quash or redirect it.

So I leave you all today with a Moby Dick Quote along similar lines, spoken by the narrator at (but not to) a sailor who came ashore and almost immediately signed up for another voyage out. He stands at the helm during a storm, while the narrator watches and rambles.

  Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore? 

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

Be seeing you tomorrow.