PROFESSOR MARK WHITEHEAD

Re-Thinking Freedom in a Neuroliberal Age
MID-CAREER FELLOW: JANUARY 2019 – DECEMBER 2019

Mark Whitehead is a Professor of Human Geography at Aberystwyth University whose research interests span urban studies, sustainability, and the impacts of the psychological sciences on public policy. His is the Co-Director of the Aberystwyth Behavioural Insights Interdisciplinary Research Centre, which brings together researchers from across the social sciences with an interest in the connections between politics, psychology of human behaviour. Mark’s ISRF Fellowship project, Freedom in a Neuroliberal Age, explores the ways in which a series of prominent, and interconnected developments are challenging established conventions concerning what it is to be free within liberal societies.  In the context of developments within the behavioural sciences, new systems of psychologically inspired government, and the rise of big data and smart infrastructures, this project considers how science, politics, and technology are combining to disrupt the principles and experience of freedom in the 21st Century. These developments present fresh empirical problems to the extent that they: 1. could enable the provision of smarter systems of real-time government, which might enhance citizens’ individual and collective wellbeing; but 2. are associated with the curtailing of certain freedoms in relation to the editing of choice, the resetting defaults, and the deepening of personalised data surveillance. Following the Cambridge Analytica Scandal earlier this year it is hoped that this project will offer fresh perspectives on the impacts of smart technologies on democratic processes. It is also anticipated that the project will provide fresh critical insights into the ways in which new psychological insights into human motivation and behaviour can be used to enhance and undermine expressions of human freedom.

Abstract

This project explores the ways in which a series of prominent, and interconnected developments are challenging established conventions concerning what it is to be free within liberal societies.  In the context of developments within the behavioural sciences, new systems of psychologically inspired government, and the rise of big data and smart infrastructures, this project considers how science, politics, and technology are combining to disrupt the principles and experience of freedom in the 21st Century. These developments present fresh empirical problems to the extent that they: 1. could enable the provision of smarter systems of real-time government (from both the public and private sectors), which might enhance citizens’ individual and collective wellbeing; but 2. are associated with the curtailing of certain freedoms in relation to the editing of choice, the resetting defaults, and the deepening of personalised data surveillance.    

In light of the novelty of these interconnected empirical developments, this project seeks to break with existing explanatory frameworks and methodologies. Theoretically this project deploys the concepts of neuroliberalism, internalities and actually lived freedoms in order to challenge existing theories of liberal freedom. While existing accounts of government and freedom within liberal societies are based on the idea of harm-to-others and externalities, it is argued that the idea of internalities (those things that cause harm-to-self and others) provides critical context to rethink the relations between government and freedom. This project also challenges the often-abstract moral inquiries into liberal freedom, by focusing on actually lived freedoms (negotiated forms of freedom that emerge out of the complexities of everyday life). In order to explore changing forms of actually lived freedoms, this project deploys an innovative interdisciplinary methodology involving a ‘distributed ethnography’. This methodology will be applied to the study of the design and experience of emerging smart city and quantified self and community developments.

The Research Idea

This project explores changing understandings and practices of freedom in liberal societies. It is interested in the extent to which liberal norms of freedom are changing surreptitiously, and whether these changes have positive or pernicious effects on peoples’ lives. The research is framed by three developments. The first are the insights of the psychological and neurological sciences into the irrational nature of human conduct (Camerer, 2007). The second is the emergence of new behavioural public policies that exploit the unconscious and irrational drivers of human action in order to achieve governmental goals (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). The third is the rise of big data, smart infrastructure, and forms of algorithmic government. This project suggests that these developments can be collectively thought of through the notion of neuroliberalism: the application of psychological techniques to the governing of conduct in technologically advanced, free societies (Whitehead et al 2017). While research has explored the impacts of each of these developments for human freedom, no project has to date considered their combined implications. 

The core research questions this project explores are:

1. In what ways are those tasked with designing technologically-oriented systems of neuroliberal government aware of the implications of their work for liberal freedom?

2. In what ways do technologically-oriented systems of neuroliberalism government change the lived practices and experiences of freedom?

3. Can we learn from the insights of questions 1 and 2 in order to implement good practices in the delivery of neuroliberal government.

Background

There are three areas of academic inquiry that relate to the research outlined in this proposal. First are political and philosophical inquiries into the nature of freedom within liberal societies (Pettit, 2001). Related approaches emphasise the co-existence of different forms of freedom, often articulated as negative (freedom from interference) and positive (the capacity to act according to your will) forms, which often compete for ascendency in liberal society. Second, are analyses that consider the specific impacts of behavioural public policies on personal freedom (White, 2013). Work within political science on this theme has explored the extent to which the submerging of power within the unconscious strategies of government (such as nudging) subverts political freedom to the extent that it diminishes the opportunity to resist power (see Mertler, 2011). Legal scholarship has uncovered the ways in which behavioural public policies involve implicit trade-offs between the provision of human welfare (and the positive freedoms this can generate), and more liberal (negative) forms of human autonomy and self-government (Sunstein, 2016). A third, and final, area of inquiry that is pertinent to this proposed project are studies of the impacts of big data, algorithmic technologies, and smart infrastructure in shaping human conduct and associated regimes of freedom (Dormehl, 2014; Pasquale, 2015). Undergirding this research is a normative line of inquiry concerning the “black-boxing” effects of new behavioural technologies and their potential implications for established norms of personal freedom (Pasquale, 2015). Crucially, these perspective have not been combined to study emerging forms of neuroliberalism.

The Focus

This research project focuses on actually existing neuroliberal systems of government that exist at the interface of behavioural science, psychological governance, and big data/smart infrastructure. While the chosen case studies will be selected on the basis of the elite level interviews and policy reviews conducted in the early phases of the project (see Work Plan section below), it is anticipated that case studies will be drawn from particular smart city developments (such as Hudson Yards in New York, which is being designed to be the world’s first quantified community) and interconnected developments within the Quantified Self Movement. Within these case studies, analysis will consider the ways in which behavioural science, psychological governance, and big data/smart infrastructure can be used to address a range of social issues (including decreasing carbon footprints, improving personal health, and supporting civic engagement inter alia). But particular emphasis will be given to the impacts of these activities on personal and collective freedom. 

While academic attention has been given to the isolated impacts of behavioural science, psychological governance, and big data/smart infrastructure on personal freedom, there has been no sustained inquiry exploring the impacts that these regimes could have when acting in unison. In this context, work on the relations between smart technologies has not accounted for the emerging fusion of behavioural insights and big data technologies. At one and the same time, studies of behavioural public policies are only beginning to analyse the role that smart technology will play in upscaling these systems of behavioural government.

Theoretical Novelty

The conceptual innovation at the heart of this project is an attempt to develop a revised, and critical, theory of freedom within liberal societies. Established theories of freedom within liberal societies rest on the long-established harm-to-others principle. According to this principle, government interventions within the everyday life of citizens are only justified if the targeted actions of a citizen are causing harm to others. The political principle of harm-to-others is mirrored in neo-classical economics by the idea of an externality: the un-costed negative impacts of economic activity on parties who are not beneficiaries of the activity. The first dimension of theoretical novelty explored within this project is to analyse the idea of internalities. This project understands internalities as actions which cause harm-to-self, but also have indirect costs to wider society (such as the impact of unhealthy lifestyles on public health systems). Internalities are also defined in this project as personal actions that are amenable to forms of technological/behavioural government while still preserving certain norms of liberal freedom (particularly through the reframing of choice, social norming, emotive forms of persuasion, and/or the strategic resetting of defaults). The second dimension of theoretical novelty proposed within this project is to develop an approach to the study of actually lived freedom. Focusing on actually lived freedoms involves moving beyond specialist technical and philosophical accounts of freedom in order to explore the extent to which freedom is noticed, experienced, and changed in informal everyday contexts.

Methodology

There are two distinct methodological phases to this proposed research project (see Work Plan below). The first draws on the use of in-depth, semi-structured interviews that are commonly used within the social and political sciences. These interviews with policy-makers, entrepreneurs, behavioural start-ups, planners, and representatives from smart tech industries will focus on the extent to which these individuals are aware of the implications of their work for liberal norms of freedom. These interviews will also facilitate the selection of case studies for the project’s analysis of actually existing freedom in neuroliberal systems of government. The second methodological phase will involve studying the actions of those delivering and participating in specific applications of technologically-oriented systems of neuroliberal government. In order to facilitate the formal and informal understandings of actually lived freedom within these initiatives, this project will deploy a SenseMaker¿ inspired approach. Developed by David Snowden to operate at the interface of anthropological and psychological methods, and informed by complex system theory, SenseMaker¿ is best thought of as a form of ‘distributed ethnography’. SenseMaker¿ utilises smart phone technology to facilitate a participant-oriented journaling system that can be subject to qualitative and quantitative analysis. SenseMaker¿ has been designed to capture real-time reflections on daily life that are framed by the prioritises and experiences of participants and not researchers. This approach will be deployed to explore the emerging understandings and changing experiences of the lived freedom of those designing and subject to the neuroliberal interventions that this project focuses upon.

Work Plan

Project Timeline 

Project Commencement: January 2019

Literature Review: January-February

Elite Interviews: February-March

Selection of Case Studies: March-April

SenseMaker Data Gathering from Case Studies: May-August

SenseMarker Data Analysis: August-November 

Complete Policy Report: December

Media/Blog Writing January-December

Commence Writing Journal Articles: May-December

Commence Writing Book September-December (To  be completed in June 2020)

 

Outputs

This project will have a broad range of ambitious outputs. The range of these outputs has been designed to ensure that results reach a diverse and interdisciplinary set of academics and a broad spectrum of expert and public audiences. 

a. 2 journal papers in peer-reviewed publications across the social sciences (e.g. Economy and Society; The European Journal of Social Theory).

b. 1 book Rethinking Freedom in a Neuroliberal Age (Edward Elgar Publishers, who have been consulted and support this project idea). 

c. Policy Report – accessible report summarizing key findings of project for policy-makers, activists, and the public. 

d. Newspaper/Blog articles (e.g. Guardian Online; Psychology Today; New Statesman).

e. Project Blog/Twitter Feed – providing reflections on emerging issues of freedom in relation to new policy and technological developments.

Outcome

It is envisaged that this research project will have both academic and practical outcomes. Academically, it will involve proof of concept analysis of the ideas of neuroliberalism, internalities, and actually lived freedom, concerning the extent to which they provide effective frameworks for the analysis of the changing practices of liberal government and experiences of freedom. Practically, it will support the development of a set of policy recommendations that can support more ethical applications of neuroliberal styles of government. Through the outreach work associated with the project, it is also anticipated that the project will support broader public debate about the changing nature of freedom in liberal society.

On the basis of the data gathered, and the associated proof of concept work, it is also anticipated that this project will provide the basis for applying for funding to support a more geographically extensive study of the impacts of technologically-oriented neuroliberalism on freedom. This project will offer detailed and comparative empirical studies of smart cities and quantified communities around the world. To the extent that future research will involve longer-term studies of the impacts of neuroliberalism on actually lived freedom in particular geographical locations, it is also anticipated that it will contribute to novel place-based studies of the experience of neuroliberal freedom. The projected future outcomes of this project will be supported by the Aberystwyth (University) Behavioural Insights Interdisciplinary Research Centre (ABi), which was formed in 2017 and of which the applicant is a co-director.