Home / Opinion / Columns /  We need to stop our minds from being hacked

Over the last four decades, we have found that human rationality is not what it was cranked up to be. For three centuries, it was generally held that humans employ their mind to the merits of the issue before them, weigh the pros and cons, and then decide accordingly. From this understanding followed the idea of the primacy of the individual, the importance of human rights, the morality of liberal democracy and of free markets. We also constructed the academic disciplines of economics, sociology, philosophy and politics based on the rationality of humans.

So if it were somehow to be proved that humans are not rational creatures, then a lot of things become shaky. How can irrational people, for example, be trusted to vote? How can they engage in voluntary transactions if they cannot reliably value what they are buying or selling? And if people are not rational, how indeed can they be empowered with freedom of speech? Mercifully, empirical evidence from cognitive neuroscience, psychology and behavioural sciences does not conclude that humans are irrational. Rather, it informs us that while we are all capable of employing reason, we do not always do so. In fact, it tells us that our deviation from the path of reason follows familiar and often predictable patterns.

For instance, except for the nerdiest among us, we usually do not make purchase decisions solely by comparing product or service specifications. You are likely to have bought your smartphone, car and vacuum cleaner based on what your friends, neighbours and colleagues said. Similarly—and here you might tend to disagree—your opinions on social and political issues are likelier to have been formed in your social circle than through an objective analysis. Indeed, as the work of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt shows, what you may think is your ‘objective’ analysis is likely to be just your mind justifying a conclusion you socially acquired. A lot of our opinions and decisions are mainly based on “social proof". This is the ‘hawa’ (direction of wind) that Indian political operators often invoke to predict how people will vote.

The problem is that in the Information Age, social proof can be manufactured and manipulated at scale. This can be done by anyone in theory, but in practice it is done by big companies and governments. There is now adequate evidence to show that search engines, social media companies and e-commerce platforms can use the data they have collected not only to predict what you might want next, but to shape your consumption in ways that suit them. There is a good chance that the headline you just clicked on, the video that you are about to see and the product that you are interested in buying were all pre-determined. You just have an illusion of having made a free choice.

Last year, in the course of my policy research into information warfare, I was struck by the need to protect our ability to think independently. And why our cognitive autonomy ought to be a fundamental right. Without this right, and without it being adequately protected, the constitutional order is at risk. If political and economic power in the early Information Age arises from the hacking of minds, it follows that minds must be secured against such invasion.

Susie Alegre’s Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate Our Minds contends that we already have such a right. Alegre, a human rights lawyer, argues that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already includes these rights, and the challenge of our generation is to ensure that they are respected and enforced. I presume India’s fundamental Right to Freedom also protects the freedom to think, although it is the related but distinct right to freedom of expression that gets most of our attention.

Alegre explains why the freedom of thought and expression are different: “There is a clear distinction between what goes on inside my head and the way my thoughts, beliefs and opinions are manifested in the outside world... Essentially you can think what you like without limits, but you can say what you like only up to a certain point." She enumerates three requirements for the freedom to think. First, we must be able to keep our thoughts private. Second, we should be able to prevent our thoughts from being manipulated. Third, we should not be penalized for our thoughts alone.

The public discourse in India, the US, UK and Europe is preoccupied with new questions of data privacy and protection and with the old issue of free speech and its limits. Important as these are, they do not address the bigger danger of governments, companies and other actors influencing our minds without our knowledge and consent.

It cannot come as any relief that freedom of thought is guaranteed by international law if the global balance of power shifts away from liberal democracies that might be inclined to defend it. So we need our courts and governments to make the right to cognitive autonomy a reality. Governments, as Alegre puts it, “must not do anything that interferes with our inner freedoms... and also have a duty to protect us from others, including private companies."

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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