Information, Corporations, and the Free Will Self-delusion – The Socjourn

Trout was surely among the first people in the whole wide world, and not just way-the-hell-and-gone up on West 155th Street, to realize that free will had kicked in. This was very interesting to him, as it certainly wasn’t to many others. Most other people, after the relentless reprise of their mistakes and bad luck and hollow victories during the past ten years, had, in Trout’s words, “stopped giving a shit what was going on, or what was liable to happen next.” This syndrome would eventually be given a name: Post-Timequake Apathy, or PTA.

Trout now performed an experiment that many of us had tried to perform at the start of the rerun. He said nonsensical things on purpose, and out loud, like, “Boop-boop-a-doop, dingledangle, artsy-fartsy, wah, wah,” and so on. We all tried to say things on that order back in the second 1991, hoping to prove we could still say or do whatever we liked, if we tried hard enough. We couldn’t, of course. But when Trout tried to say, “Blue mink bifocals,” or whatever, after the rerun, of course he could.

No problem!

-Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake[1]

Corporations and governments received heavy criticism for influencing the minds of the public in the 1950s and 60s: corporations for manipulating a potential purchase and governments for deliberately guiding people through the city. In 1955, Guy Debord criticized, “Present-day urbanism’s main problem is ensuring the smooth circulation of a rapidly increasing number of motor vehicles. A future urbanism may well apply itself to no less utilitarian projects…”[2]. He suggests the threat of control is timeless[3], only the practice changing method.

This new century has awoken to the dawn of Big Data. Big Data are “extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions”[4]. Companies gather data about their customers and build statistical models to pinpoint and drive consumer-producer interaction to increase revenue. For example, a person will browse the Internet and receive specialized advertisements, or might get a weekly email tailored to their interests. Customers see the advertisements and think I need that shirt, however before that moment they had no thoughts about needing to buy new clothes at all. Or, a company might use spatial data in order to pressure micromarkets into buying their product. This is not new, it is exactly what companies were doing 60 years ago and beyond, but this time they have computers loaded with data that customers have either willingly or unwillingly provided to specify desires a person might not knowingly have. These techniques do not breach the line of mind control, rather they wander somewhere around thought suggestion. And companies are not the only ones taking part in this practice.

A new municipal trend is implementing bike share programs. The systems of bike share are collectors of Big Data that city agencies can then employ to customize modification and expansion of these sharing systems. Bike share bikes either have or will have GPS locators constantly pinging their location. The GPS helps to track thieves, but it is also convenient to monitor where people go. From the millions of GPS data points, cities can then inform modification and expansion of the bike share system and overall infrastructure.

Cities will use the bike share data to create models of desired destinations and pathways to modify and expand stations and bicycle infrastructure. This could be considered what Debord was referring to as the “future urbanism;” cities are now focusing on bicycle volume and flow rather than cars. Using the GPS data, city agencies can derive two things: ideal locations for bike share stations and ideal pathways between stations. Why does this matter? Imagine you take a bicycle from the station nearest your home and you head to another neighborhood using the bicycle lanes provided by the city. The path you follow is based on a statistical model using the data bike share has collected to identify that route and neighborhood as significant. Now, you no longer have a choice in where to go, because the city has literally given you little choice in the route and no choice in the exact drop-off destination. This is a step closer to control, but nonetheless they have still not taken control to a new level. The city did not manipulate you to go to that neighborhood, they’ve only controlled what you will see on your route and at your destination; you are not yet mindlessly moving about the city. Before getting to the crux of this essay, I feel it is necessary to discuss station placement.

Placement of bike share stations can be quite complex. In some cities, they are based on a variety of factors, including suitability of location and business compliance. Stations are identified as suitable if they can physically fit into the architecture of the street; the measurements must work. Also, stations, in some cities, will not be placed in front of a business if that business does not want one (a reason for this might include stations take up parking spaces thus potential customers). Unfortunately, this means a business that has aligned themselves with the goals of the city result in the specific benefits of having a bike share station. One of these benefits is, users will be directed from their home to the business, without cost to that business. This is how cities work like the corporations and advertisements: they have put something in front of you based on your tastes (using bike share and following city routes) thus producing desires that were not at the forefront of your mind. The next stage would be to enter the subconscious to manipulate how people respond to environmental stimuli, thus controlling each step.

Researchers have developed a new model that predicts the way we, as pedestrians, respond to our environment subconsciously. The results look and feel real.  Before this model, pedestrians were thought of as “repulsively-interacting particles,”[5] which you could think of as one-sided magnets. People would not make contact with the obstacles around them because of an invisible force field; the force fields would bounce off each other as they came too close. New research based on Big Data shows something that is more intuitive. Ioannis Karamouzas, of University of Minnesota, Brian Skinner, of Argonne National Laboratory, and Stephen J. Guy, of University of Minnesota, released an article titled “A universal power law governing pedestrian interactions,” in which they present their findings on the predictability of pedestrian movement[6]. This new theory posits that while walking your subconscious mind calculates your speed, the approaching obstacle’s speed and your relative position, then you make the adjustments. In other words, people anticipate the time until a potential collision and then set their paths accordingly to avoid impact.

Imagine you are walking toward another person; you do not necessarily make large modifications to your speed or direction, just small ones until you are both safely out of each other’s path. These calculations occasionally result in a dance. If the approach starts from far away maybe you both swerve one way together, then the other, and it continues; each directional shift in the same direction results in a follow-up, more dramatic swerve until one of you consciously stops and you are finally clear of each other. Or maybe it begins closer because you have encountered each other suddenly. Shuffling and pivots make you awkwardly closer and closer until you both have to raise your hands up for balance without touching your dance partner and then you sidestep each other and laugh as you walk away. An almost collision, but not quite.

Though this model does not portray what I described explicitly, it portrays that happening smoothly, the way walking occurs more often than not: people adjusting just enough to be clear of the other person. It is a simple theory backed by a real feeling model. I have personally never felt like a “repulsively-interacting particle”, but I have definitely felt like I was making the adjustments in the way the model by Karamouzas, Skinner, and Guy. Not only does it implicitly sound correct, this isn’t the first time this model has been suggested.

I am reminded of a scene in William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1988)[7]. In the film, Whyte shows and describes a scene of pedestrians heading towards each other and, just before colliding, they move aside. Whyte says, “There’s a lot of skill here. We tracked people…and never do they collide. A tiny hand signal, a brief retard, a tenth of a second. The timing is absolutely superb. Think of the computers, the radar to make their equivalent.”[8] Whyte’s film and the article’s findings bear a striking resemblance, in the footage and also the results. Just as Whyte was attempting to improve the design of urban space, the authors and several architecture and city planning websites are already lauding the prospects this new model could have on the design of plazas and architecture.

This model presents new opportunities for anyone who might need to guide pedestrian movement, but more terrifyingly for those who want to control movement. It is true this model could improve the flow of a plaza or evacuation routes, but it isn’t difficult to imagine corporations and governments creating life-sized and life-interacting Rube Goldberg Machines. This could be done by placing objects, people, and vehicles along your commute to make you step left then right, turn a corner, speed up and slow down, until finally you have arrived. But you have not arrived at your destination, but rather at the predetermined Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, using a statistically modeled path derived from your specific subconscious calculator. Coupled with other environmental stimulators such as sound and smell[9] it is dangerously close to mind control.


[1] Vonnegut, K. (1998). Timequake. p. 113. New York: Berkley Books.

The book describes what might happen if we were all forced to consciously relive our lives for ten years and what might happen when the reliving ended.

[2] Debord, Guy. (n.d.). Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. (Critical Geographies: A Collection of Readings. Edited by Harald Bauder and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro. Published by Praxis (e)Press, Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.) p. 24. Praxis (e)Press.

Debord presents psychogeography and the need to create a new cartography of the city in order to separate ourselves from the habits the urban environment bolsters.

[3] In 1955 it was through the use of circulating vehicles.

[4] Big Data. (2008). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved March 8, 2015, from

[5] Ioannis Karamouzas, Brian Skinner, and Stephen J. Guy. Phys. Rev. Lett. 113, 238701. Published 2 December 2014. Retrieved March 8, 2012, from

[6] Ioannis Karamouzas, Brian Skinner, and Stephen J. Guy. Phys. Rev. Lett. 113, 238701. Published 2 December 2014. Retrieved March 8, 2012, from

[7] Whyte’s film also found something about pedestrian behavior: “people tend to sit where there are places to sit.”

[8] Whyte, W. H., Municipal Art Society of New York., Street Life Project., Direct Cinema Ltd., & Bainbridge Brass Quintet. (2005). The social life of small urban spaces. MinuteSanta Monica, CA: Direct Cinema Ltd.

[9] Dunkin’ currently sprays its donut and coffee scents on buses to draw in customers. Read more about it at the Huffington Post.