Are you in control?

Many will balk and kerfuffle at the suggestion they’re not in control. That there’s no individual control is a heinous notion in a Western, democratic society, where freedom and liberty are sweet tastes we keep on the tips of our tongues. We have the everyday option of turning left or right (albeit on mapped streets) and, with sufficient impetus, we could quit our perfunctory jobs and begin our search for a more meaningful vocation. Alas, as with freedom, control is relative to the structures we exist within – which for us is an advertisement and information economy.

A person may feel free even when confined or incarcerated, and likewise imprisoned when able to roam unrestricted, owing to and owned by no one. Freedom isn’t about space or the number of options we have in any given scenario, but the control we wield in choosing.

Actual control is very different to perceived control. Perceived control is the options that we recognise we have, that in any hypothetical scenario we may freely pick, say, between A, B and C. But if C has red notification signs and has been designed to initiate behaviour triggers, we’ll choose red. Likewise, if hitting B was known to initiate a pleasure response, based off a history of selecting B, then we’ll choose B. In each case, the other options are illusionary; they exist, but are doors opening onto brick walls. Actual choice is our capacity to make conscious decisions, undictated by our sub conscious triggers.

Advertising relies on the knowledge that in scenarios of choice, our brain reverts to its programming and makes decisions on our behalf. That’s why product placement is effective – when and how we make our choices is deliberately orchestrated so that we’re more likely the ‘right’ one. Similarly, though any of us can claim to be able to leave a job we do not enjoy, and often contemplate doing so, the availability of the choice doesn’t assume the ability to follow it. Indoctrination is powerful. From a young age, we’re instilled with the idea of need and scarcity, and recognise earnings as means of success.

Advertising’s mission is simple. To compel customers to make a purchase, using emotional hooks, subliminal messaging and implications of need. This is how capitalism works. Our goal is to attract more than the competition (when everything is money, everything is marketing). When we couple this with tech, however, the implications for how we live and the choices we make (or don’t make) are frightening.

We do not have control. Unless we’ve made deliberate choices to reduce our exposure to advertisements and information, through productivity software or out-of-bounds living, our everyday devices and applications become mini riptides, pulling our attentions apart in multiple magnetic vices. 

Our choices remain, but our capacity to choose does not. Through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and any program that produces dopamine-releasing notifications, we’re instilled with a fear of missing out. We imbibe the (toxic) belief that to detach ourselves from digital connectivity would lead to a loss – that pertinent, impactful information would pass us by if we, even for a moment, turn the other way.

It’s been shown that the most excessive mobile users touch their phones 2,617 times a day.  But those users haven’t made 2,617 choices. Can any of us pull ourselves from these ineluctable lures? We’re beyond kids in a toy store. We’re crack addicts in a crack-inspired rendition of Wonka’s Chocolate factory. 

And like any addict, our relationship with tech needs serious treatment. It’s too apparent now to ignore the effects of unmitigated tech exploration and use. We’re now, somewhat ironically, curbing tech’s infiltration with ‘gating’ software, in a battle to reclaim control. As the last generations to know a life before smartphones, when we still had the space to say no and make a choice, it’s on us to set a standard and reframe tech’s role. We don’t have control, but we do have the choice to reclaim it.