Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2017/ Autonomy


Something clicked for me this December. I understood (maybe for the first time) just how important autonomy is to me. It may be the driving force in my life.

This should not have been a new insight. When I worked at the cult, my grandboss occasionally commented the degree to which I valued freedom. I saw her point (refusing to work full time, wanting flexible hours, resisting orders when I saw more important priorities) but the word "freedom" did not sit well with me. It conjured images of war ("Operating Enduring Freedom") and the Second Amendment and exploitative libertarianism ("you have the freedom to live under bridges") and even the Free Software movement ("you have the obligation to give away your work and not make a living", and please spare me your cherry-picked counterexamples). Even if I was obsessed with freedom, I did not want to be associated with these other things.

Two experiences this December made things click. The first came in the context of marking our final exam. The instructors agreed to pay for pizza for our hard-working TAs. Some instructors decided to do me a kindness by paying for my share, and I resisted vehemently. I may have been the poor cousin in that group (being the only instructor not on the Ontario Sunshine list) but it was incredibly important to me to pay for my share. I did not want to be a charity case. I had agreed to help pay for the pizza and I wanted to follow through. I was asked why I can't accept gifts graciously, and my answer was "obligation."

The second experience involved some ruminations on Christmas. This has been a difficult Christmas break for me, but on the whole I feel incredibly grateful not to be caught up in the Christmas grind. I thought about the obligation to buy presents for others and felt horrified. Then I thought about receiving presents and I felt more horrified. There is something about receiving gifts (or as I punctuate them, "gifts") that rubs me the wrong way.

Obligation. Coercion. Charity. I recoil from these things. I am no saint. I am a compulsive eater and a glutton. I crave material things. I am notorious for lusting after other people's discards. But something in me resists any and all interactions that might put me in debt to others. I want autonomy. I want to be free of obligation. And I go to great lengths to be autonomous, even when it costs me a lot to do so.

What clicked this month was the ridiculous degree to which this craving for autonomy (and associated aversion to obligation) rules my life.


I hate being in debt. All my adult life, I have avoided any situation in which I might be in debt to others financially.

I will never be able to afford a house. Occasionally I have daydreamed about owning property, but nowhere in my daydreams will you find a mortgage. The idea of paying hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to a bank every month for twenty years freaks me out in a way that paying hundreds of dollars in rent to a landlord does not. If I have to, I can walk away from a rental situation and exercise my libertarian freedom to live under a bridge. Having a mortgage makes that more difficult. So I will never own property, and I will remain poor.

Similarly, I will probably never drive a car. The only way I would consider owning a car is if I could purchase one outright.

If I had any illusions about being a tech startup millionnaire I should lay them to rest, because becoming a startup millionnaire almost always involves receiving seed funding, which must be paid back with interest.

During my last year of university I faced a choice. I did not have suffiicient money to both pay tuition and rent, and I was not about to forgo tuition. I had to decide whether to apply for financial aid or to accept the consequences of not paying rent. I opted to avoid paying rent, which ended up working out okay but was an incredibly dumb thing to do. The upside is that I graduated from university without debt, which gave me options later on. The downside is that I lived illegally for eight months.

If I have a credit rating, I don't have much of one. I don't have credit cards. I don't pay monthly bills in my own name. I have never taken out a loan. When donating money to causes I care about, I only make one-time donations, even though everybody hates this; they want the stability of monthly payments, but I refuse to take on any more monthly commitments than absolutely necessary. I doubt I will ever have a cellphone plan, which makes me unemployable. I ought to join a gym but I would only do so if I could have a year long contract that I could pay in a lump sum, because I don't want to be on the hook for monthly fees.

I feel a great aversion to being on social assistance. This is why I have obsessed over saving half my income for years. The way I see it, having savings buys me autonomy. It gives me the freedom to refuse jobs and situations that are bad for me. It gives me a financial cushion to shield me from my bad judgements and habits. My life would be much more stressful without this financial cushion, even if I was able to live paycheque-to-paycheque. When that financial cushion is gone I will be out of options for remaining alive.

Of course, I am a hypocrite about this. I skate at the ice rink without paying for it. When "free food" is available I scarf it down as if I have not eaten for a month. I make unnecessary trips to the doctor, which is paid for with other people's tax money. But in any situation where I might be held personally accountable for my profligate habits, I suddenly develop the ability to refuse any transaction that might put me in debt.


If I don't want the obligations of Christmas presents, how in the world would I deal with the multi-decade commitments of raising children? thank goodness I never had children.

What about intimate relationships? My ideal setup would consist of one or more people with whom I am on friendly terms, and with whom I am intimate exactly as long as it is mutually rewarding. This setup is so common that it has a name. Such people are called "fair-weather friends", and nobody wants them because they flit away as soon as things get tough. There is a reason that "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer" is included on wedding vows.

What about regular friends? There are some good reasons I don't have many. My refusal to budge on certain practices (not getting into cars, not eating out at restaurants) is a dealbreaker for most. Once in a while I will feel forced into situations I did not consent to. Then I get mad and I usually lose that friendship. In recent years I have been trying to be better about not imposing my will on others, but given how judgemental I am this has not worked out well.

I have cut off ties with my biological parents. The degree to which I was controlled, expected to act on command, and forced to do some unpleasant things scarred me. In later years I tried to re-initiate communications with my mother, but she could not respect my autonomy, so we are no longer in communication and will not be again.

Control vs Consent

The counterargument to being a fair-weather friend is that all too often I stick with situations and people longer than I should. Once I commit to something then I will tend to stick with that commitment even though I am no longer having fun.

Maybe the difference is that when I consent to something then I am the one who makes the decision. Unfortunately I then feel bound by that decision until everything blows up.

At Work

The problem with work is that coercion is part of the deal. If you want to get paid you follow the rules, regardless of whether those rules are just. All too often I find myself resisting rules I feel are stupid or unjust. It does not help that I have a deep mistrust of institutions and the ways institutions prioritize their own survival over everything else.

Usually my resistance takes the form of refusal. I just refrain from doing whatever unpleasant thing is expected of me. This has gotten me in trouble in the past and no doubt it will do so in the future.

Occasionally I will resist by attempting to change the system. Once in a while this works. But when it doesn't I feel even more frustrated.

The counterargument to this is that I am not entirely pigheaded, and I am capable of choosing my battles. When things are unasthetic but inconsequential I try to let them slide. When things are unjust but beyond my ability to change I make snarky comments and write angry blog posts. As always I am a hypocrite; all too often I let unjust things slide because I am borderline unemployable and do not want to be fired.

While we are on that topic: walking off the job feels much better to me than being fired does. If I am walking off the job then I am the one in control.

All of this presumes that I actually get work. As I discovered last year, this is difficult for me, and again autonomy is to blame. I keep finding companies and keep getting turned off because the things they do are either uninteresting or unethical. These days I feel that every job requires ethical compromises, although I do not understand why. When I sense the kinds of ethical compromises required to participate in the work force my inclination is to avoid even trying to apply for those jobs. On those few occasions when I do apply for jobs and get interviews I am unwilling to give employers the answers they want about ethical compromise. So it should come as no surprise that people don't want to hire me.

I also want autonomy over my work schedule. When I am tired I want to sleep, not trudge into work for 9am or 10am. When I am working then I don't want to be disturbed. I have a bad habit of being a night owl, which means that all too often I will be at work into the wee hours of the night and then unavailable the next day. All of these habits makes finding and maintaining work more difficult.

My tendency at work is to find something that needs to be done and then do it, regardless of what I am supposed to be doing. When my goals and the goals of the organization are in alignment then that works well. Otherwise it doesn't.

I am not willing to compromise my personal life for the sake of work. Stories about people being fired for their personal off-the-job actions make me very angry. In a similar vein, I am not willing to censor what I write on this blog for the sake of my employer, or for the sake of future employers. This entry alone is getting me in a lot of trouble.

I have not yet had to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) but they are par for the course. I think I would find this difficult, although in other situations I have kept secrets on behalf of my workplace.


Most of my dystopian fantasies have to do with loss of power and control.

I have often worried about getting into trouble with the law and ending up in jail. I guess being in jail would be worse than the process of getting arrested by the police, but both would be awful.

Look: police might be necessary in society. But that does not mean I like them. To me they represent the epitome of coercive force. When interacting with police you must do exactly what they want, as deferentially as possible. When dealing with the police you have no rights, regardless of what the lawyers want you to believe. If you try to assert your rights then the police will make your life hell in other ways.

This is not a problem of bad apples. It is embedded in police culture. Police are granted a monopoly on force by the state, and it corrupts them. Their founding mythologies of sheep and sheepdogs worsens the problem. They adopt models like "to serve and protect" and "people helping people" but they do not believe these things. No police officer I have ever interacted with has had the least interest in helping people like me. At best their interest is in "keeping the peace" (which means that those who suffer quietly are ignored and those who suffer loudly get apprehended under the Mental Health Act, are locked up for hours and get gossiped about within earshot). At worst? I think we know what happens at worst: the police engage in physical beatings and torture, using rubber hoses and phone books to reduce bruising. They infiltrate legal gatherings and entrap those people into committing violent acts, because any movement that challenges existing power is a threat. They engage in universal surveillance, and get neighbours to snitch on neighbours. So when the police demand increased surveillance powers to "catch the bad guys" I am instantly suspicious, because I am not interested in being arbitrarily classified as a "bad guy". Again: such abuses of power are not the result of a "few bad apples". They are inherent in police culture. The specific mechanisms of abuse may change as the legal system outlaws particular techniques, but the spirit of abuse will continue. As a person who values autonomy, living in a police state seems unbearable.

Then there is jail. Sometimes I romanticize jail as being a retreat centre; a quiet place where there is no Internet and I can spend my time alone. This is the opposite of jail, which is noisy and filled with hurt people hurting people. That is plenty bad; worse is the coercion. You have a rigid schedule of when you may be awake and when you may be asleep, what you are and not allowed to do and when. You are forced to participate in certain activities and not in others. I imagine you have to be as deferential to security guards as you would to police officers. And that is just the official coercion! Then there are the internal pecking orders you have to abide by in order to avoid getting beaten up or shanked. Maybe I would be able to get through the experience of a jail term, but it would be difficult.

The dystopia I worry about the most these days psychological profiling via surveillance. I suppose I ought to worry about other things like the Calamity more, but I don't. Maybe this is because I know I would not survive the Calamity, but I know we are building the surveillance future as we speak. We are all feeding machine learning algorithms all kinds of labelled training data about our psychological profiles, and those algorithms are understanding our psychologies better and better. Since the companies that operate these algorithms have as their explicit goals things that are not in my interests (monopolizing my attention, selling me stuff) I do not consent to the future they are building. But it is not as if I get any say in the matter. Instead our municipality decides to put sensors in its streetlamps, and I am prohibited from visiting webpages unless I agree to the draconian terms of service and "privacy policies". At some point these algorithms will be able to understand and manipulate me psychologically. I will be powerless to resist, but still blamed for not exercising "self-control" (a convenient excuse, given that the companies build their products to be as addictive as possible). If these algorithms are successful then my autonomy will not be diminished; it will be eliminated.

I know I write about this dystopia too frequently. None of you believe that it is real. You are in good company. Nobody in Silicon Valley believes it is real either. I see it as inevitable, and my only hesitation in predicting it with 100% confidence is that I don't understand why it is not here yet. Maybe our unending cravings for novelty protect us? Maybe our psychologies are not as depressingly predictable as I suspect? I don't know. What I do know is that we are moving closer towards a surveillance dystopia, not further away from one.

Maybe we are in the dystopia already. I am pretty caught up in actions and activities that work against my long-term self interest. Instead of getting work done or reading books or exercising, I surf webpages and read Twitter messages about video games I will never play. I hear advertisements for so-called socially-responsible investing and feel bad because I do not participate. I have never experienced the joy of watching a mattress spring out of a small box. I don't have a domain name. Already I feel as if I am missing out.

Power Trip

Is this all about power? Is all of this talk of autonomy really coded language for "I want my own way and have a hissy fit when I don't get it"? Yes.

I want to be left alone. I want to do what I feel like doing. I do not want to be beholden to others, and I want to make decisions that are in my own best interests. These are all expressions of power.

In an ideal world I would extend this philosophy to others. My right to autonomy would end where your nose begins, because you should have the right to your own autonomy. When we work together or interact together, it would be voluntary, because both of us were deciding to do so in ways that we would not regret later.

But we don't live in an ideal world. All too often I find myself imposing my will upon others. Sometimes I will frame this as autonomy: "I respect your autonomy in performing this action I don't like, but I don't wish to participate. Therefore I will take my toys and go home, which will happen to have the side effect of inhibiting you from doing what you want." Sometimes I will be more direct. Sometimes I will lose my temper. I hope I have been moderating these reactions as I have aged, but I doubt it.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the lens of autonomy explains both how I perceive and how I act. Maybe in a little while I will wake up with a different epiphany. Certainly, many consequences of this obsession with autonomy are not serving me well.