Comment on collective autonomy

Nathan Benedetto Proença added the following comment to the video of my presentation on Moral lessons from free software and GNU Emacs (2021-04-16). I think this is worth sharing, so I asked for permission to do so:

Great talk, Prot!

I do have a question. When you talked about “geeks vs normies”, you seemed to be talking more about emacs than autonomy in general.

But talking about the general case, do you think it is normal to give up autonomy? I believe that autonomy is the exception, precisely for its cost.

Although I am autonomous with my computer, I am not with a car: I have no proper idea of it’s inner workings and could not fix one without help. For another example, I am not autonomously when I eat, as I live in the shadows of who grows the food.

I have even read that democracy is about giving up autonomy, and even though I feel uncomfortable with this claim, I do not believe I have strong arguments to refute it.

Sure, I agree and understand your point about “it’s not binary”, and that small steps matter more. But when I contemplate all the manifestations of my heteronomy, I am forced to accept that they are the norm, and that I should choose wisely where to pay the cost for autonomy.

My reply is copied below. For a more abstract approach, consider my Notes on Rules (2020-07-01) as well as On individuality and partiality (2021-03-14):

Hello Nathan and thanks for taking the time to write this! I will pin your comment if you do not mind, so that others may read this as well.

With regard to “geeks vs normies” I was indeed referring to the narrower sense within the computer world. Perhaps I should have generalised it, though I felt it would have taken the talk in another tangent.

As for giving up autonomy or not having autonomy in particular cases, I think we need to go a bit further than what I discussed here, namely, to think of autonomy not just in terms of the individual person but of groups of people at-large. Furthermore, we need to disambiguate this collective freedom from private omniscience, in the sense that you are free only if you yourself have expertise in everything that affects your life.

If we generalise autonomy to the interpersonal level, which applies to free software as well, then we realise that it does not matter if each of us is an expert in everything (which is impossible), but whether someone within the community can be an expert in one thing and share that knowledge with the rest of us, and so on for each person to do their part. So we apply division of labour.

“Division of labour” should not be mistaken as the exclusivity of a specific economic ideology. It occurs naturally. Even a particular program like Emacs requires a group of people to bring together their particular domains of expertise to continue its development. One person cannot do it, so if we were to adopt a strictly individualistic conception of autonomy then no one would be free when using Emacs because no one could claim to be an absolute expert in every single part of it. Extend that to everything in life and you get the notion that autonomy would be outright impossible.

Whereas by working within a framework that incentivises or enables cooperation, such as copyleft free software licenses, we can benefit from each other’s contributions and together—jointly—partake in liberty.

Couched in those terms, what I discussed in this video about autonomy/heteronomy is only a very narrow aspect of those concepts to help us get started into thinking about them.

Now let’s consider the case of the car that you mention. Even as a community we are alienated from the internal workings of the car—we are rendered heteronomous—not because no one among us can understand how the thing works, but because the business interests that produce those items have an agenda in making it difficult or outright illegal to experiment with them and share our findings. This is the same with closed computer hardware (think about the calls for a “right to repair”), patented seeds, paywalled science, and so on. In those cases, the norm is heteronomy not because we cannot collectively exercise control over those means but because the institutional arrangements in place are designed to deny us our autonomy (again “autonomy” in the collective sense).

As for democracy, I would agree with the idea that democracy or indeed anything that has an intersubjective dimension is about giving up a part of one’s individuality. So if we think of individuality as individual autonomy then, yes, that would mean giving up some autonomy. Though once we factor in what I mentioned above, which basically is summarised as “individual freedom can be experienced consistently within an environment that facilitates and enables it”, then we have to think of this issue not as a loss of private autonomy but as a boost to it. And here we may re-use the notion of the division of labour and consider the simple case of the computer: if an individual does not want to give up any of their individuality, then the only way to use a computer is to produce it from scratch, which means to go around the world gathering all the raw materials, having the knowledge and machinery to develop each and every component and then to assemble them all together, develop an OS, and so on. That would not be possible. Plus, we could ask from where did such an individual gain all that knowledge and machinery from? They must have still benefited from a prior collective effort (prior science, for example). Thus we see that even for such a particular issue, giving up some aspect of self actually helps expand the horizons of what one can do on their own exactly because they are not absolutely “on their own”.

In conclusion, I wanted to present the notion of autonomy and relate it to some experiences which I think are familiar to a lot of people. To generalise those findings, we must go a step further and start thinking in terms of relations between people and then about the systemic or structural magnitudes within which those relations unfold (such as the institutional order).

Sorry if this is a long reply. I hope I have remained on topic.

By the way, can I publish this on my website? I can include your name and link to your personal page, or I can keep you anonymous. Whatever you prefer. I just think it would be nice to share this thread.

Thanks to Nathan for raising the question and agreeing to publish this piece!