In China Mieville’s science fantasy novel Perdido Street Station , there’s a race of bird-people whose justice system is based on the concept of choice theft . The Garuda are sentient humanoids the head, wings and legs of hawks, and a major plot point centers around the punishment of a Garuda who committed choice theft. Incidentally, Mr. Mieville also looks like a bird mutant:

china mieville is a buff, shaven-headed Brit with like a million piercings and a hawk-like face ###### (if this dude isn’t a closet furry, i don’t know who is)

I don’t want to spoil the novel for you – read it, it has lots of cogsec secrets – but here’s the essential bit:

“It is the only crime we have , Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices .”

– (from the summary and analysis at The Orbit [SPOILERS] )

This system of justice is alien to the 21C global citizen, of course. Our societies enshrine and institutionalize crimes against choice. Warlords, feudal nobility, corporate executives: the most powerful humans are always those who have the most contempt for the freedom of others. It is by subjugating the will of another, by abstracting them, by controlling their choices, that dark wizards grow strong.

What is a human life but a series of choices? Some choices we repeat: habits, traditions, rituals. Some choices we commit but once, perhaps: marriage, suicide, deliberately planting morning glories.

Then there are choices which, made once, tend to repeat themselves. They can be good: a routine of  exercise and meditation can be self-reinforcing, leading to a healthier body and mind, leading to more choices and ability to choose clearly. But not all feedback loops are good.

Some choices you make can destroy you. If a choice, once made, leads right back to the same choice, it creates a death spiral with no obvious exit. You abdicate the power to choose. You are swept up in the whirlpool of a single decision, ramifying upon itself endlessly. These are the cognitive traps, the addictions, the self-defeating anti-choices. And these are the basis of modern society.

The tangle of mind-fucking monsters we call “civilization” tries to steal your choice at every turn. Say, for instance, that you want to live somewhere. I know, this is another spoiled Millennial demand, back in the day we lived out of our covered wagons and we liked it, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you as a human being for some reason want a bed and a shower and a roof and a door all in the same place.

“You’ll live where you can afford to live,” say the monsters in their multifarious screams and gurgles. So you must get a job, to afford to live somewhere. But when you go to get a job, you need to prove that you live somewhere and can responsibly show up every day for the next five million years. So you get whatever job will take you, and you live wherever you can afford to live.

But what if you want to eat, too? Or if you need some kind of textile sheaths to cover your filthy human legs when you go to your job? Or maybe you need a car for your commute, because walking five miles each way every day would increase your food costs so much that you’d have to give up your apartment and live in the bushes behind the dumpster behind your work?

“Well, kid, have some debt! Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’re safe. It just means that you can spend your future choices, today! Here’s a credit card, a car loan, a medical bill, a student loan and a mortgage to get you started. That should take up your time and decisions for the next thirty years or so, but let us know if you need an extension.”

“Oh, you’ve decided to live frugally, build your own pants and sleep in a tent in your cousin’s backyard? That’s great too! Have some free things. Here’s 95 million Instapix, 500 million Tweeps, and 600,000 hours of free Youtubs. And that’s just for today – there will be more tomorrow. You didn’t have anything else to do, right?”

“Wait, your computer programming hobby somehow turned into a well-paying job with benefits? That’s great, we’re so happy for you. Now that you’re nouveau riche , you’re going to need a bunch of status symbols and luxury items to keep you from having to look at the disgusting homeless people and their ‘struggle’ for ‘food’. Look at this Skymaul catalog. Buy this Tusla. You’ll get it sometime next year, probably, but until then you can enjoy the anticipation. And don’t forget to pick up a million-dollar brand-new townhouse that will fall apart right before your mortgage is up, and a membership to Interzone Prime so you can get your velvet toilet tissue delivered by drone and never have to see a plebian again. You matter. You’re important. Which video game console would you like to wire into your face for the rest of the weekend?”

Azathoth Holding Company, the howling void at the center of global finance

Poverty is choice theft, of course. The rich have more optionality, and they use it to keep their “subjects” from getting any choices of their own. But the consumer-capitalist machine also implements
choice burden
the proliferation of choices beyond the cognitive load capacity of humanity. When you’re burdened with choices, your conscious mind shuts down and your habitual reactions take over. Whether you’re shopping for burner cellphones at Valmart or startup companies on Anglefish, you will be overwhelmed with options. This isn’t just the nature of of global connectivity. It’s a deliberate design principle of capitalism: it invades all nooks and crannies of human life, offering the option to BUY BUY BUY. It’s a toxic pattern.

With constant surveillance and AI learning human proclivities, we’re closer than ever to building the ultimate selling machine. Corporations and governments can see what we’re doing, buying, saying, who we do it with, how we feel about it afterward. They can predict our movements and actions. With an accurate enough model of your behavior, the tiniest “nudge” from an app or an ad can tip the scales on your life-defining choices. We’re automating choice crimes.

If you really want to feel those tentacles sink in to your spine, watch the internal Goople video leaked last week to the Verge:

[Google’s Nick] Foster envisions a future where “the notion of a goal-driven ledger becomes more palatable” and “suggestions may be converted not by the user but by the ledger itself.” This is where the Black Mirror undertones come to the fore, with the ledger actively seeking to fill gaps in its knowledge and even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs. The video then takes a further turn toward anxiety-inducing sci-fi, imagining that the ledger may become so astute as to propose and 3D-print its own designs. Welcome home, Dave, I built you a scale .

– from The Verge, “Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering”

There’s a tinfoil lining to this black cloud: with cognitive security, we can defend ourselves against choice crime. Even simple things like adblockers and spam filters reduce the cognitive load that assaults us. By making conscious choices about how we engage with ads, apps, and AI, we increase our ability to decide our own lives. It’s a healthy feedback loop: the less you’re influenced by dark wizards, the more clear-headed and deliberate you can be about your choices. The more conscious choices you make, the less you’ll be influenced by dark wizards.

Right now, half the planet is infected with mind-fucking silicon parasites, and the other half is kept in such abject poverty that their choices are almost nil. If you have a cognitive security mindset, you’re basically a superhero. If you don’t believe me, leave your phone at home and spend an hour at the mall. Look around you. This is the sea that the average person swims in. This is the state of 21C humanity.

As China Mieville says in a different novel,

“A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.”

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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