Illusory Agency

These days whenever we  wish to find out anything about anything, we go to Google da, who invariably obliges. We have taken it for granted that Google da knows everything, but somehow we also seem to assume that this “everything” does not include “us”. Thus when we discover that Google da knows everything about “us” also, we feel offended, betrayed, intruded upon and violated.

Our basic stance is that Google da should be able to fulfil all our needs for information/knowledge, but the flow of information from us to Google da should be restricted by our choice. Since Google da is faced by similar requirement, not just from us, but everyone else as well, it has no choice but to “dig deeper” into what ever information each one of us is willing to provide. This exercise in “data mining” enables Google da to meet the various demands being placed on it. However, in the process, we realise that Google da has come to know a lot more about “us” than what we intended. Moreover, we also discover to our horror that in a surreptitious manner Google da has been controlling and deciding for us, what we are exposed to and what remains hidden from us.

In our feelings of outrage, we overlook the basic principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We intended Google da to be our “slave” but in effect, it has become our “master”. By “outsourcing” our need for information and knowledge, we have given enormous power to Google da. It may therefore be worth asking as to what makes us outsource our need for information and knowledge. The obvious answer is that    we need a lot a more information and knowledge than what we can gather by our own efforts. Then the next logical question would be as to why do we need so much information and knowledge?

Perhaps, we believe that Knowledge helps us to enhance our Agency i.e. making informed choices, gaining control over our context, becoming masters of our destiny etc. Thus when we discover that the knowledge provided to us had a hidden agenda behind it, and was actually an attempt to manipulate us, we are left face to face with the illusory nature of our so called Agency. We cope with it by getting angry at the entities who we believe are responsible for it, but rarely recognise that it is only a logical corollary of the process we have set into motion, in our pursuit of ever expanding Agency.

In my younger days, one of my favourite definitions of Progress was “expansion of choice”. The more one progresses, the more choices one will have. For example, our ancestors had limited choices regarding where they lived, what work they did, who they married , how they commuted etc. etc. Isn’t it a sign of progress that today we enjoy many more choices in these area? Similarly, I would argue that a “mature” person would have many  “choices” in dealing with a situation than a less mature person who would react compulsively.

As I have grown older ( like many other people, I guess) I have begun to recognise that much of my so called Agency, was in fact an illusion. Many of these “choices” were in fact a product of forces (both internal and external) of which I was largely unaware. Like in the Google example given earlier, I believed that I was in control whereas in many ways ,I was a captive, who was only seeing what he was meant to see, whose interpretations followed a set pattern and whose choices had already been laid out for him. But most importantly, I have begun to realise that Progress can mean both “expansion of choice” and “living with limited choice”. In other words, not having a choice, has its own virtues.

Over the ages, philosophers have wrestled with the issue of “Free Will”, and no matter how the issue is approached, the final outcome is always the same- a simultaneous affirmation and negation. In other words, what we regard as our “choices” are really not our choices, and what we regard as our compulsions, are in some ways “our choices”. For example, is love a matter of one’s choice? A Ghalib will say ” hai ye woh  aatish Ghalib,  jo legaaye na lage or bujhyaye na bane” ( a spark which can neither be ignited nor extinguished by volition) Just as a Psychoanalyst will show how seemingly involuntary attractions, are in fact a product of complex motives and volitions.

The other day, a friend was narrating to me an exchange which took place between his 90 year old father and 30 year old son. The young man was trying to explain to his grandfather, some very interesting work that he is doing to unravel the mysteries of our universe. After listening to his grandson, the old man asked -Do you believe in God? The grandson responded by saying that he will provided he has sufficient evidence.

What struck me in this conversation was the two fundamentally different positions in respect of human volition and agency. For the young man, believing or not believing in God was a matter of choice which had to be exercised intelligently. For the grandfather, “choice” did not come into the picture at all– after all the only way one can “choose” to believe or not believe in God would be by placing oneself at an even higher plane than God.

Listening to this narrative, I was asking myself, which of the two stances do I resonate with, and I couldn’t find an answer. Earlier, it would have been easier for me to resonate with the grandson, but today I am not so sure. All I can say is that like all human beings, I have no  choice but to believe that I have choices and I must constantly endeavour to expand the range of possibilities. Simultaneously, I recognise that any “compulsion” (including that of expanding choices) can only mean  negation of  Agency.

This perhaps is the paradox which lurks behind all choice making. Nonetheless, To choose or not to choose, remains the basic question- and ironically we don’t seem to have a choice in the matter.

I wonder, how all this figures in your scheme of things.




5 thoughts on “Illusory Agency

  1. Nice Blog!

    The idea of Agency being as an illusion is terrifying. What lays behind this illusion is the role in demand of the human being – the discerning yet dumb customer!

    I would like to state that you have chosen to limit the notion of agency to the notion of ‘choice-making’ alone and demonstrate how our dependence of googlish knowledge can be a great resource as well as a tremendous liability.

    I feel that that agency includes the acting upon of one’s choice and owning up the consequences of these set of choices – intended and unintended… It is this process of owning the consequences of one’s choice making that few adhere to these days.

    Hence, for the sake of consumptive behavior (choose a particular phone out of many or a particular strain of coffee amongst many) – the agency as a notion gets suitably reduced…

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    1. I agree with you that Agency entails owning up of consequences of one’s choices, but the issue here is not whether one accepts responsibility or not. The larger issue is willingness to accept oneself as a medium through which things happen rather than ONLY as an autonomous Agent. For example, often we Indians are accused of evading personal responsibility through undermining Agency- we are more inclined to say ” the glass dropped out of my hand” rather than “I dropped the glass”. This can be rightly construed as evading personal responsibility. However, I think it is ALSO an acceptance of one’s role as a medium through which things happen. The simple point that I wish to make is that Agency and Medium-hood co-exist and a COMPULSION to enhance Agency ( even in the broader sense that you have referred to) is a denial of Agency itself and hence an illusion.


  2. along with my friend, i take a course on contemporary gandhi for engineering students, i remember two discussions we had recently, one on freedom and another on faith. Ability to do more or have more as freedom or ability to rely oneself as freedom. How our body is the foremost obstacle for “freedom of choices”. And recently we had discussion on faith. For most faith is a choice based on utility. What is the role of truth or even imagination when everything is a matter of choice…It was a interesting discussion.

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    1. Faith is often confused with non- rational belief and hence degenerates into dogma. In my understanding faith is essentially a “ state of being” which is an antidote to the anxiety arising out of human limitations and vulnerabilities. In this sense, there is an intimate link between faith and willingness to live with limited knowledge, control and choice. It is only when we do not have faith that we want complete control and endless choice


  3. good one! choice making is critical to feeling in control of self. it leads to better self worth, perhaps. however, choice making is so much based on everything we are, hence it is really a non-choice (pretty much what you say). in a book i read, the military commander studies his opponent well and keeps confronting him with various challenges/threats. the protagonist eventually makes a clear choice of a specific action….and the military commander is waiting there for him, having known that this is where he will eventually come. i wonder if life is like that – predictable.


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