Thursday 17 September 2015

Choosing Not to Choose

Today Cass Sunstein (in the picture above) talks about his book Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice. Cass R. Sunstein is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. He is now working on group decision-making and various projects on the idea of liberty.

Choice is often an extraordinary benefit, but it can also be an immense burden. Time and attention are precious commodities, and we cannot focus on everything, even when our interests and our values are at stake. If we had to make choices about everything that affects us, we would be overwhelmed. We exercise our freedom, and we improve our welfare, by choosing not to choose. That choice opens up time and space for us, enabling us to focus on our real concerns. Establishing these claims, and identifying their limitations, are the purposes of this book.

When you use a GPS, you are effectively asking it to choose a route for you; it provides a default route, which you can ignore if you like. Or people may make a delegation implicitly; everyone may know that they don’t want to make certain choices. We often think, or even say (sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes with irritation), “You decide.” In some situations, that particular choice makes us a lot better off.

When websites ask you to check a box saying, “don’t ask me again,” a lot of people are happy to check that box. If public officials, or doctors, ask you to fill out numerous and duplicative forms, indicating choices of multiple kinds, you may get immensely frustrated, and wish that at least some of those choices had been made for you. And if a cab driver insists on asking you to choose which route you want to take in an unfamiliar city, you might wish he hadn’t asked, and just selected the route that he deems best.

There is a related point. Our lives are actually full of things that we have by default, and without necessarily exercising our power to choose. Deciding by default is an omnipresent (and often wonderful) feature of human life. You may have chosen a cell phone, but you didn’t choose all of its features, and it has a lot of default settings, many of which you can change if you wish. If you decide to work for a particular employer, you might well find yourself with a health insurance plan, a retirement plan, and a series of rights and obligations that you did not specifically select; you may be able to change them. Countless decisions are made by default, in the sense that some kind of presumption or default rule is in place, subject to override by those who are affected.

There is a more immediate point, and it is distinctive to our era. The world is now in the midst of a period of extraordinary technological change, in which the nature of default rules, and the relationship between choices and defaults, is very much in flux. More than at any time in human history, it is simple to ask people: What, exactly, do you want? Active choosing is feasible in countless areas, whether the question involves health care, travel preferences, investments, or computer settings. Where people used to have to rely on others, or to defer to some kind of default, they can now decide on their own.

There is a sharply contrasting development, and it is occurring simultaneously. More than at any point in human history, it is feasible to tailor defaults to people’s personal situations. If you are young or old, male or female, tall or small, fat or thin, rich or poor, well-educated or not, a default can be selected for you. Indeed, it is feasible to go much further. If you are John Smith or Mary Williams, a default can be chosen just for you – on the basis of what is known about you, and perhaps even on the basis of a comprehensive understanding, or profile, of your own previous choices. Once you have made a large number of choices, and perhaps once you have made just one or a few, you might find yourself with a series of personalized default rules, covering a lot of your life.

Is the rise of personalized default rules a blessing or a curse? Short answer: Blessing. Is it a utopian or dystopian vision? Short answer: Utopian. But no short answer is sufficient. The goal of this book is to offer a framework with which to answer these questions.

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