You have just made the decision to read this review. That decision came independently, do you think, through a rational thought process. Or not? Perhaps you feel unconsciously obligated by your surroundings to read the book section of de Volkskrant to read, to be able to speak. Or maybe you read this piece online and it has come to you via the guiding algorithms in Google’s databases. So why self-employed?
Philosopher Miriam Rasch tells in his book Autonomy – A self-help guide looking for answers to the question of the extent to which we can still be autonomous in 2022 (from the Greek cars/ self and nomos/ law, ie. regulated by its own laws). The subtitle ‘A Self-Help Guide’ is, of course, an ironic joke. The background for her search is the data-hungry tech companies that (as the often heard cliché sounds) know more about us than our own partners do. And that’s how they decide what music we’re listening to, what series we’re watching, and what products we’re tempted to buy. ‘What is personal autonomy worth in relation to the algorithms that are after her?’, Rasch wonders.
That is a valid and urgent question. The starting point for Rasch’s search is the philosopher Immanuel Kant, from whom she also recorded a long excerpt of the work. What is enlightenment?† Its famous opening sentence reads: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from the immaturity of which he himself is guilty.” Have the courage to use your own mind, Kant exclaims to his readers. In other words: do not let yourself be led by any external body. More than two hundred years ago, of course, the outside world was not Google or Facebook, but church and state, which from the outside placed restrictions on freedom of thought. Kant contrasts this with his own, autonomous responsibility.
A very ideal
Rasch calls this a ‘beautiful and moving’ passage, despite the objections she has at the same time: ‘I was not allowed, I could not participate in it as a woman, more than anyone who happened to have no fair skin.’ Touching or not, Kant’s rather caricatured understanding of autonomy as a purely reasonable affair has over time become problematic for several reasons. Rasch points out, among other things, ‘an excessive idea of personal responsibility’, which hardens society to the bone. After all, with Kant’s glasses on, everyone is guilty of their miserable existence.
But there are more that undermined Kant’s ideal, thanks to Newton, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, among others, after which the behaviorists, neurologists, and computationalists (the philosophical movement that sees man as an information processing system) completed the work. Man, we now know, is the toy and the result of all kinds of forces beyond his control, such as genes, education, culture, brain, hormones, evolution, and society. And lately also by algorithms that make us (in the words of author and historian Yuval Noah Harari) hackable animals. Rasch notes that the autonomous subject, along with free will, has been referred to the scrap heap of history. We respond to stimuli and push ‘like a vending machine that may think it is acting consciously but actually performing an old script’.
End of human autonomy, then? Well no, although it often seems that way in everyday language. We’re talking about autonomous cars and about computers making autonomous decisions. We conveniently forget that the same cars and computers make their decisions based on the recipes that have been introduced by people. Apparently we set the autonomy bar for machines much lower than for ourselves. But that’s not the way Rasch is going. Like her previous books friction and Swimming in the sea can also Autonomy read as an answer to the question of what it means to be human in a computer-controlled world.
Rasch digs up the concept of autonomy from the scrap heap. She does this using a concept that has been around for about forty years: relational autonomy. Kant’s ideal has thus been replaced by ‘the possibility of maintaining a meaningful relationship with the world’. The beauty of this work is that Rasch does not allow himself to be tempted to a smear campaign against technology or Kant. Instead, she tries to interpret the concept of autonomy in such a way that it makes sense again.
Or rather: the search for the meaning of autonomy is the first step in her interpretation. “You will not survive on your own against the mass attack of autonomous or algorithmic techniques,” she concludes. Autonomy means entering into a relationship with the world and the other: ‘Autonomy that dances with heteronomy.’ So still a kind of self-help guide.
Miriam Rasch: Autonomy – A Self-Help Guide. Prometheus; 118 pages; € 17.