Context-Collection and Freedom—Thinking with Kant and Jenny Odell

For a long time, I have been thinking about the in-between or alternative options in Yes-No and Like-Dislike, etc. Does every opinion or question on social media should be responded to with thumbs-up or thumbs-down? Isn’t there any room for silence, contemplation, and reflection? Or something close to Herman Melville’s story of Bartleby who would reply to every question with “I would prefer not to!

Even in serious academic discussions when somebody asks me whether I am secular or religious, pro-choice or pro-life, I wonder, where I can find an alternative response! Curiously, I do not know why the in-between besiege me, whenever I see a blog post, Facebook, or Twitter post.

Nevertheless, a few weeks ago I came across an amazing book written by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in San Francisco. The book’s name is “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”, and surprisingly, there was a discussion over this weird idea of ‘in-between’. Jenny writes on how we humans-animals think about the Spatio-temporal real and how we are always looking for ‘context’ in every social encounter.

One of the problems she highlights is that the current consumer culture and market-oriented self have been blinded from making nuanced, informed, and thoughtful decisions. Certainly, that is the case with the social media platform; a landscape hollowed by the lack of context. One may ask, what is the context and how its collapse creates a problem? To be specific, (and I think Jenny would agree with me) context is that ‘residential ground’ in a person’s mind about the thing he/she encounters. In other words, any social encounter needs to be based on the pre-existing conception of some thought-out plan—which can be characterized as ‘context’. It indicates that context is established through a process, which Jenny calls, context collection and its opposite context collapse.

This discussion on the context collection leads us to a further question and that is, how this process is carried out in our minds? The answer would be, it happens through the involvement of free decisions. But what makes a decision free? Here I would depart from Jenny to the enlightenment Philosopher Immanuel Kant. He would say, if I am thirsty and I go to the market to buy a drink, I take Coke or Sprite.

Kant would say that the decision of drinking Coke or Sprite was not based on freedom, rather based on obeying my thirst (need/desire), and this is what he calls autonomy. To properly understand the concept of freedom, Kant introduces another term, “heteronomy”, (opposite of autonomy) which means to act for some purpose that you gave yourself external to your desires/needs, i.e. based on reason. For him, we human beings are rational creatures, so our reason is the determiner of our will and purpose. And if I may, I would say that context collection (borrowing the phrase from Jenny) also involves the use of reason to act as it is demanded.

Though I do not want to go into the details of the Kantian notion of categorical imperative on how we should make our choices rationally and universally. And I may not agree with Kant on his moral philosophy, but one can hardly ignore that the current trends in social and electronic media have directly affected our (in Kantian terms) heteronomous decision making. We argue over our social, political, and even moral decisions without thinking about context and freedom. This is what Jenny asks in her book, is it necessary for me to give my opinion over some random piece of information? What should I make of something which I have never heard before? Am I attentive on my own will or am I being dragged to talk about something?

The reader should notice that I am not questioning the idea of ‘persuasion’ which is a knowledge-based claim to convince someone of something. Rather, I am concern with the ‘attentive economy’ constantly produced by thoughtless, obsessive, and compulsive opinions. To be more precise, one may look at the daily news coverage! I often think, why I am listening to the news? Who asked me to think about what happened in the Atlantic Ocean or who won the Wimbledon tennis? Why should I know which actor won this year’s Grammy?

One way of thinking about this context collapse is that probably we are immersed in this worldview of ‘possession’ of everything that we detect through our senses. It is a reflection of possessive individualism which compels us to own every bit and piece of information on this planet. To think back on the Yes-No and Like-Dislike options, it would be fair to assume that these binary choices are not only an expression of opinion but its ownership or dispossession in mind.

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